‘It Is Well with My Soul’: the Story of Horatio Spafford

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena tells the moving story of how Horatio Gates Spafford wrote the famous hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” after undergoing severe hardships and tragedy.

Like many songs, the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” was born out of personal experience.

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.

Its composer, Horatio Gates Spafford, was a Chicago lawyer who – although previously successful – had suffered setbacks when his considerable real estate investments were lost during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. His finances took another hit during the Panic of 1873 financial crisis. After two rough years, he decided to alleviate some of his family’s stress by giving them a change of scenery.

photo of Horatio Gates Spafford
Photo: Horatio Gates Spafford. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Spafford Family Vacation

Plans were made for the family (including Horatio, his wife Anna, and their four daughters) to journey to Europe in November 1873 via the French iron steamship Ville du Havre. Horatio accompanied them to New York, but at the last minute had to change his plans because of a business obligation. He sent his family on ahead, promising to join them in time. Wife Anna and daughters Annie (b. 1862), Margaret Lee (b. 1864), Elizabeth (b. 1868), and Tanetta (b. 1871) set sail on November 15th.

His family never reached their destination – and he never saw his four daughters again.

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Disaster at Sea

Ironically, the Ville du Havre’s captain – acting as confident as a familiar future captain on another “unsinkable” ship 39 years later – assured Anna Spafford and other passengers that his ship was very safe and the voyage would be an easy one. A week into the voyage, on 22 November 1873, the liner collided with the British clipper Loch Earn. Even as the ship was struck, sounding like an explosion according to passengers, the captain told everyone “it’s nothing, nothing.” As the ship began to take on water, the crew assured passengers that the ship was too safe to sink.*

But they were wrong; the Ville du Havre sank in just 12 minutes, killing an estimated 226 people – including all four of the Spafford daughters. Anna survived the shipwreck by clinging to a floating plank.

Illustration: “The Sinking of the Steamship Ville du Havre” by Currier & Ives, c.1873
Illustration: “The Sinking of the Steamship Ville du Havre” by Currier & Ives, c.1873. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

As anyone can imagine, the accounts of the Ville du Havre sinking are terrifying. Heartbreakingly, in the last moments of daughter Annie Spafford’s life she is recorded as proclaiming: “Don’t be afraid. The Sea is His and He made it.” As Anna was thrown into the sea, she felt her baby Tanetta pulled out of her arms by the rough waves.** All four daughters drowned. When Anna was finally rescued she was unconscious, floating on a piece of debris.

This New York newspaper reported the tragedy.

article about the shipwreck of the Ville du Havre, Daily Graphic newspaper article 1 December 1873
Daily Graphic (New York, New York), 1 December 1873, page 6

The old news article included an eyewitness account of the shipwreck.

eyewitness account of the shipwreck of the Ville du Havre, Daily Graphic newspaper article 1 December 1873
Daily Graphic (New York, New York), 1 December 1873, page 6

The historical newspaper article also reported the names of those saved, including Anna Spafford.

The rescue ship Tremountain took the survivors to Cardiff. During this voyage Anna said few words. A friend who had also survived the sinking, clergymen Thoeophile Lorriaux, was with her when she finally uttered the words: “God gave me four daughters. They have been taken. One day I shall understand why. I will understand why.”***

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Once Anna arrived in Cardiff she sent a telegram to her husband in Chicago that must have devastated him:

Saved, but saved alone. What shall I do?

Inspiration and Solace: the Hymn

Horatio left Chicago to meet Anna, who was staying with friends in France. At one point during the voyage, the ship’s captain summoned Horatio to his cabin and explained that he had determined the exact spot where the Ville du Havre had gone down. He let Horatio know that they were at that moment passing that very spot. Horatio then returned to his own cabin and, leaning for strength on his tremendous faith in God, wrote his famous hymn.

article about Horatio Spafford writing the hymn "It Is Well with My Soul," Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 6 November 1902
Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 6 November 1902, page 5

The article included this description.

article about Horatio Spafford writing the hymn "It Is Well with My Soul," Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 6 November 1902
Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 6 November 1902, page 5

The Aftermath

That tragedy for both Anna and Horatio changed their lives. It had a profound impact on their belief in what they were to do with their lives, and also impacted their theology. Understandably, it also had an impact on those who heard the hymn and the story behind it. The above news article concluded with a story of a gentleman, who had lost much in the Panic of 1893, hearing the background of Spafford’s hymn during a church service. Moved by both the story and the words of the hymn, the gentleman declared:

I will never again complain of my lot. If Spafford could write such a beautiful resignation hymn when he had lost all his children, and everything else save his wife and character, I ought surely to be thankful that my losses have been so light.

article about Horatio Spafford writing the hymn "It Is Well with My Soul," Worcester Daily Spy newspaper article 6 November 1902
Worcester Daily Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 6 November 1902, page 5

Horatio Gates Spafford died of malaria in 1888 in Jerusalem. His wife Anna followed his death in 1923, survived by the two daughters who were born after the shipwreck tragedy that changed their lives.

Related Articles:

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* Geniessee, Jane Fletcher. American Priestess. The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem. New York: Doubleday. p. 55.
** Ibid, p. 56.
*** Ibid, p. 60.

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7 thoughts on “‘It Is Well with My Soul’: the Story of Horatio Spafford

  1. Thank U so for posting and compiling and writing about this incredible family and all that they endured.. This happening so reminds me of all Job went through in the Old Testament.. I love this precious song.. There is even one other very sad thing that U forgot to enter in.. Soon after the Chicago fire.. The Spaffords also lost a son age two around the time of the Chicago fire that bankrupted them for a short time and after the death of their 4 daughters the Spafford then had three more children and had another one dye young at age 4 to Scarlett fever! so so their heart was even very heavy over that loss… I am thankful that he was strengthened spiritually from God above .. Without His strength and the peace that He can bring .. (and our Savior also and the comfort of the Holy Ghost) They both may have been done in .. I just cannot imagine enduring such if I lost all of my 5 children when younger.. oh .. my .. 🙁 tears… for all they both endured.. So thankful to hear that they had two more children as I know that would brighten their remaining days.. <3 <3 <3 .. Here are all of the verses:
    (Original lyrics)[1]
    When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
    When sorrows like sea billows roll;
    Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
    It is well, it is well, with my soul.

    Refrain:
    It is well, (it is well),
    With my soul, (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,
    A song in the night, oh my soul! b

    a "know" (at the end of the third line) was changed to "say".
    b "A song in the night, oh my soul" (last line)
    was changed to "Even so, it is well with my soul".

  2. While wondering through an artisan craft fair in Encinitas, California, came upon a piece of a beautifully carved piece of wood with this saying “It is well with my soul”. I was compelled to buy it and put it on my wall without knowing the story of where it came from.

    This morning I researched its meaning and found this profound story of unimaginable grief and undying faith. What a bittersweet blessing to know it’s origin. Thank you.

  3. LeAnne,

    Thanks for sharing the story of your find. I’m so glad that you were able to learn more about the meaning behind “It is well with my soul.”

    Thank you for reading the article and your comments.

    Gena

  4. What a story and what a wonderful family. It helps to explain why we must put our trust and confidence in the Lord. He gives and can take at a time of His choice. Horatio and Anna Spafford never blamed God for their loss, much the same way as Job. In any situation, we must give God tremendous thanks, regardless. Worst could have happened, who knows? What if Horatio had travelled with the family as planned, could he have survived? or, simply put, what if Anna had drowned too, the chances of their having other children after the tragedy at sea, could have been zero. Therefore, in everything, good, bad, ugly, give thanks to God for He owns us and everything we have.

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