“Whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.” Horatio Spafford
November 24, 1873 – Chicago, Illinois: A telegram from Cardiff, Wales, arrived mid-day at Horatio Spafford’s law office in north Chicago. Puzzled, he had not expected to receive news of his family’s voyage to Paris for another week. The short telegram was from his 31-year-old wife, Anna. It read, “Saved, alone. What shall I do…” Spafford fell to his knees. He was a shattered and broken man.
Later that day, he read the details of the mid-Atlantic tragedy in a Chicago newspaper. During a storm at 2 a.m. on November 22, the French luxury steamship SS Ville du Havre sailing from New York to Paris with 313 passengers and crew, had been rammed broadside by the Scottish ironclad sailing ship Loch Earn.
The most luxurious steamship in the world sunk in 12 minutes. 226 passengers drowned, including Spafford’s four daughters, Annie (11), Maggie (9), Bessie (5) and Tanetta (2). Spafford later learned Anna had been found unconscious, floating on a wood plank. After her terrifying experience, she was utterly distraught in Wales.
Horatio Spafford had grown up in a prominent family in New York. His father was a successful inventor, entrepreneur and author who was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. At 28, young Spafford moved to Chicago to attend law school. Five years later, the 33-year-old attorney married 16-year-old Anna Larson from Norway.
Spafford became a Sunday school teacher, a respected elder at the Fullerton Avenue Presbyterian Church and a close friend of the great evangelist D.L. Moody. During the 1860s, in addition to being a devoted husband and father, Spafford distinguished himself as an attorney, becoming the senior partner at Spafford, McDaid, and Wilson, which he founded.
With real estate booming in Chicago, Spafford invested heavily in properties along Lake Michigan. However, he lost most of his investment in the Great Chicago Fire in October 1871, which killed 300 and left 100,000 homeless. Dwight Moody and several close friends helped Spafford get through the challenging period.
Two years later, when Moody was scheduled to preach a series of revivals in England, Spafford decided to take his family to Paris for a much-needed vacation, after which they planned to travel to England to hear Moody preach. Spafford purchased first-class tickets for himself and his family on the Ville du Havre. Upon arriving in New York, he discovered he needed to return to Chicago to finalize a business deal. Spafford promised to join the family a month later. Anna proceeded as scheduled with the girls.
After receiving Anna’s shocking telegram, Spafford took a train to New York and boarded the next ship to England to bring her home. While on the Atlantic crossing, the ship’s captain, as requested by Spafford, summoned him to the bridge when they were passing the location where the tragedy had occurred.
Spafford stood at the ship’s railing and stared for a long while into the ocean waves, then he returned to his cabin. From the depths of his soul, he wrote the words: “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 words are found in 2 Kings 4:26. They echo the response of the Shunammite woman to the sudden death of her only child. When questioned by the prophet Elisha about her heartbreaking loss, she maintained, “It is well.”
Three years after the tragedy, American gospel singer and songwriter Philip Bliss wrote the lyrics to accompany Spafford’s words and created the great hymn It Is Well with My Soul. These words have brought peace and comfort to millions during grief for generations.
God used the tragedy to transform Horatio and Anna Spafford’s lives. In 1881, they sold the law practice. They moved to Israel, where they established the American Colony, a philanthropic ministry to serve Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Today the Spafford Children’s Center still serves disadvantaged children in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
In November 2023, the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the Ville du Havre, services are planned worldwide to commemorate Horatio Spafford’s iconic hymn It is Well.