Horatio Gates Spafford was one of the more prominent citizens of Chicago back in the 1860’s. He had become quite wealthy as a lawyer and a real estate investor. He was a very close friend and supporter of D. L. Moody. Life couldn’t be any better for Mr. Spafford. He had a beautiful home, he was very successful in his profession and he and his wife, Anna, were parents to four lovely children.
But, things began to go badly for the Spaffords around 1870. Their only son died of scarlet fever at the age of four. The Great Chicago fire of 1871 wiped out all of Mr. Spaffords real estate holdings along the shore of Lake Michigan. The family was devastated.
Mr. Spafford was aware of the great toll the tragedies had taken upon his family so he planned a trip to Europe in search of rest and an opportunity to revive their spirits. While in Europe he would assist his evangelist friend, D. L. Moody, who was holding meetings there at the time.
The Spaffords traveled to New York and from there they would board the French steamer 'Ville de Havre'. Mr. Spafford was greatly disappointed when he was called back to Chicago on business. He and his wife agreed that she would go on with their three daughters and he would join them later. Nine days later Horatio Spafford received a telegram from his wife, it read: “Saved alone.”
In November of 1873, the ‘Ville de Havre’ collided with an English vessel, 'The Lochearn'. It only took 12 minutes for the ‘Ville de Havre’ to sink. Among the 226 people who lost their lives were three young girls named Maggie, Bessie and Tanetta. Ann Spafford clung to her daughters as long as she could until the rising waves ripped them from her arms. Ann surfaced from the deep waters unconscious. She was saved by a piece of wood that had floated under her and kept her afloat.
Ann would later declare she had heard a voice that said, “You were saved for a purpose” and then she recalled something a friend had once told her, “"It's easy to be grateful and good when you have so much, but take care that you are not a fair-weather friend to God."
Mr. Spafford took the next ship out of New York to be with his grieving wife. As the ship crossed the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Spafford was called to the Captain’s hold. The captain informed him that they were presently crossing the very spot where his daughters had perished. Somewhere below them the ‘Ville de Havre’ lie three miles deep.
It seemed his heart was being torn from his breast. Mr. Spafford returned to his room and took up a pen and wrote one of the greatest hymns of the church. His inspiration came from the response of the Shunammite woman whose story was told thousands of years earlier in 2 Kings 4:26. She had lost her only son and her “soul was vexed within her.” But, in spite of her tremendous grief, she has a hope and a joy that surpasses all understanding and “it is well”.
These are the words Mr. Spafford wrote that day:
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.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul!
Mr. Spafford’s strength is admired and envied by many. But, he also indicates in his hymn how we might also have such strength:
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!
When Christ forgives sin we become partakers of his strength. When the whole of sin is nailed to the cross old things pass away and all things become new. We are partakers of his nature, we are on a journey toward Christ-likeness.