When peace like a river, attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.
The above stanza comes from a well known hymn written in 1873 titled, “It Is Well With My Soul.”
It, like other great works, wasn’t written from the comfort of an easy chair, or by the relaxed hand of one sitting underneath a soft light sipping tea as catchy words jumped into their head. No, words with such transparent depth are crafted from one that has experienced great lost, immense sorrow, and rifting pain.
In that place of pain, shattered dreams, and derailed hope, words such as, “whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul,” rises from the depths of a souls lament and finds the grace to express itself in such a way that commands the attention of those who occupy heaven.
These type of words are birthed from the core of brokenness and are yielded into the hands of God who spills them over to touch others who are in need of encouragement, comfort, and healing.
The author of this notable hymn came from such a place, the place I call the souls lament, but instead of losing himself in the depths of his despair, he exposed the maturity of his faith and turned his sorrow upward and offered it for praise and glorification.
Perhaps you know of him and the tragic event that caused his hand to penned the enduring hymn. But would you be surprised to learn that Horatio Spafford’s sorrowful journey began three years prior and did not end with the tragic event of 1873?
If not, please join me as I share the journey that forged the heart of a man who so graciously crafted the song, “It Is Well With My Soul.”
Horatio Spafford was a prominent American lawyer born on October 20, 1828 in Troy, New York. He was a devout Presbyterian church elder, an active abolitionist, and hosted crusades for reformed movements, such as the Temperance Union, as well as, religious revivals with evangelical leaders like Dwight L. Moody.
Due to his prominence as a successful lawyer, Horatio, along with his wife Anna, their son, and four daughters, lived a comfortable lifestyle in Chicago Illinois where he heavily invested his financial savings into Chicago’s real estate.
The Spafford’s enjoyed a good and prosperous life and everything seem to go their way until an epidemic of scarlet fever swept through Chicago in 1870, claiming the life of their four year old son. This no doubt devastated Horatio and little did he know that it would be the beginning of several sorrows that would be the testing of his faith.
“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, Let this blest assurance control, That Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and hath shed His own blood for my soul.”
A year later, on one October morning in 1871, a spark ignited and grew into a spreading inferno that consumed the city of Chicago (Great Chicago Fire). After the fire burned itself out almost everything that Horatio owned was destroyed and laid in ashes. This devastated his real estate investments and greatly crippled him financially.
Two years later after exerting much energy towards restoration and rebuilding, Horatio decided to take his family on vacation to Europe. While there they planned to visit his friend Dwight L. Moody who was to preach in England that fall. However, Horatio was detained by business, and sent Anna and the girls ahead on the ocean liner S. S. Ville de Havre.
On November 22, 1873, as the ocean liner crossed the Atlantic, it was struck by an iron sailing vessel and sank within minutes. 264 people lost their lives including all four of Horatio’s daughters.
“My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”
Anna survived the tragedy and was picked up unconscious on a floating spar. When she arrived in England, nine days later, she sent a telegram to Horatio which read, “Saved alone. What shall I do…” After receiving the telegram Horatio immediately left Chicago to bring Anna home.
As his ship was crossing the Atlantic towards England the captain called him to his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where his four daughters had died. So as the ship carried him over their watery grave, he pulled out a piece of stationary, brought from the Brevoort House Motel, and began to write, “It Is Well With My Soul.”
After the tragedy, Anna gave birth to three more children, two girls and a boy. Things seem to begin to resume normality until February 11, 1880 when Horatio’s second son died, also at the age of four, and from the same affliction as the first, scarlet fever.
“For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live; If Jordan above me shall roll, No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.”
In August of 1881, Horatio took his family and set out for Jerusalem in a party of thirteen adults and three children to launch the American Colony, a philanthropic work among the people of Jerusalem regardless of their religious affiliation and without proselytizing motives. This work gained the trust of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities and the Spafford’s soon found an avenue in which to share Christ.
During and immediately following World War 1, the American Colony, which Horatio played a critical role, supported these communities through the great suffering and deprivations of the eastern front, by running soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages, and other charitable ventures (Library of Congress Exhibition Overview).
Horatio Spafford died at the age of 60 on October 16, 1888 from malaria. He was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in Jerusalem, Israel.
“But Lord, tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, The sky, not the grave, is our goal; Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord! Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.”
Horatio Spafford was a man who was no stranger to sorrow, lost and grief, but was also a man of great endurance, grace, and deep faith.
He truly believed in the words he scrolled upon a simple piece of stationary in 1873. Words that turned his focus from his own lament and place it towards the only thing bigger than his pain, the salvation of his soul.
Those words he penned 138 years ago have stood the test of time, and to this day they continue to stand as a beacon of hope and encouragement to point the way on how to press on through the soul’s lament.
So when hardship seems too big to bear, may we follow Horatio’s example and turn our focus to Christ who will cause us to rise up from the ashes and bring a song of praise from our heart.
“And Lord haste the day, when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul.”