In 1873 Horatio Spafford and his wife Anna planned a family trip to Europe. They had tickets to sail from Chicago on the SS Ville du Harve. Horatio was detained on business at the last minute and so his wife and 4 daughter sailed alone with a plan that he would follow.
Part way across the Atlantic ocean the SS Ville du Harve was in a collision with an iron hulled ship and it sunk in fifteen short minutes. Two hundred and twenty six lives were lost including the lives of Spafford’s 4 daughters; eleven-year-old Tanetta, nine-year-old Elizabeth “Bessie”, five-year-old Margaret Lee, and two-year-old Anna “Annie”.
When the survivors reached Europe Anna Spafford telegraphed her husband, “Saved alone. What shall I do? “
Spafford left Chicago and sailed to Europe to meet her. The story is that as his ship passed close to the place where the girls had died Spafford wrote the words of a hymn, “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 know,a
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
I wear a little piece of this wonderful hymn on a chain around my neck because I have come to know that it really is possible in every circumstance of life to find a quiet and certain place within, where it is possible to say it is well. Despite outward circumstances and enemies, troubling thoughts or chaotic emotions there is a still place in the turning world and an inner certainty that God is love and all will be well.
By the time he wrote the hymn Spafford had already known troubles. A wealthy business man and well known Christian philanthropist he supported the mission work of the great revivalist preacher Dwight Moody. Spafford had lost all his property and investments in the Great Chicago fire of 1870. Prior to this he and his wife had lost a dearly loved small son to scarlet fever. Spafford was to experience further trials when Christian brothers and sisters from his own church denomination pressured him that his suffering and losses were punishment for some sin in his own life.
Eventually Spafford and his family left America to do pioneering work in the Middle East amongst communities from opposing faith backgrounds. They lived with other Christians in community in Jerusalem and provided food, shelter and education for the poor regardless of their religious background. Their work was famously fictionalised by Nobel prize winning writer Selma Langerlof and the continues today through the outreach projects run by the Spafford Children’s Centre.