Horatio Spafford was inspired to write the hymn It Is Well With My Soul as his heart ached with loss and despair. The depth of his sorrow is expressed in the hymn, but it also affirms his faith in God’s goodness, love, power and provision. The hymn has meant much to those who need reassurance during trouble they are experiencing. It is another way God makes Himself known in today’s world.
This hymn was written after several traumatic events in Spafford’s life. He and his wife, Anna, had five children, four girls and a son, Horatio, Jr. The family lived a charmed life in Chicago in the late 1860s. He was a successful lawyer and very active in reform movements and supported evangelical leaders like Dwight L. Moody. He was a dedicated Christian and served as a church elder in the Presbyterian Church. Spafford was a very wealthy man through wise investments made in real estate located on the shores of Lake Michigan. Then tragedy struck.
The first blow was the death in 1870 of his only son at age four from scarlet fever. Then came the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, which destroyed most of Stafford’s holdings. The Spafford home was not burned, and his family was safe, but they were in financial ruin. Even then they used what resources they had to help others who were homeless, hungry, sick and in even worse despair.
Anna’s health was not good, and in 1873 Spafford decided to take a trip to Europe to put the tragedies behind them. Spafford planned not only to visit Europe, but he was also invited to assist Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey in a revival they were leading in England.
The Spaffords booked passage on the Ville du Havre for a departure in November, 1873. At the last minute, Spafford had a business emergency and could not accompany his family and sent them on without him. He planned to join them later. During the voyage the Ville du Havre was struck by a British iron sailing ship in the middle of the Atlantic. The ship sank within twelve minutes. Only 81 of the 307 crew and passengers survived. Though Anna Spafford was spared, all four of the Spafford daughters drowned. Anna was taken to Cardiff, Wales, and her telegram to her husband said: “Saved alone. What shall I do…”
Horatio immediately booked passage to bring his wife home. During the voyage the captain called him to the bridge and said to Horatio, “A careful reckoning has been made and I believe we are now passing the place where the Ville du Havre was wrecked. The water is three miles deep.”
That night when he was alone in his cabin, Horatio G. Spafford wrote the words to the famous hymn, It Is Well With My Soul. Despite his grief and the tragedies, his faith in God had not faltered.
Horatio and his wife came back to Chicago to try to build a new life. They were blessed with three more children, a son and two daughters. This son was also named Horatio, Jr. in honor of their lost son. Then tragedy struck them again, when little four year old Horatio died of scarlet fever just like the brother before him!
The Spaffords decided to leave America and move to Jerusalem, which they did with a few of their friends in 1881. They started a mission work called The American Colony, which served the poor and needy, cared for those who were ill, and took in homeless children. They just wanted to show the love of God to others. Horatio G. Spafford died of malaria in Jerusalem at age sixty, October 16, 1888.
As a postscript to the story, during and immediately after World War I, the American Colony played a critical role in supporting communities that surrounded Jerusalem. The group helped relieve the great sufferings and deprivations caused by the war and ran soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages and other charitable ventures.
The words in Spafford’s hymn were based on 2 Kings 4:26. Few could come through so many senseless tragedies and still maintain their faith in God, praising His goodness with no resentment and blame. The hymn has comforted many who are in despair, yet assures them that God will sustain them through it all.
It Is Well With My Soul
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.
It is well, with my soul, It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
The tune for the hymn was composed by Philip Bliss. Bliss called it Ville du Havre, named after the sunken vessel that took so many lives.