Philippians 4:7 says,
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus Christ.”
Almost 150 years ago, the words of that verse took on a new meaning for one man.
On November 21, 1873, the French ocean liner, Ville du Havre, collided with the Scottish ship, Loch Earn, while both were crossing the Atlantic. Among the 313 souls on board the Ville du Havre was the wife and children of Horatio G. Spafford, a successful attorney from Chicago.
Mr. Spafford, his wife and four daughters had planned a trip to Europe. His wife, Anna, and their four daughters boarded the Ville du Havre, but business matters held Horatio Spafford in Chicago. His plans were to join them in Europe a few days later.
Four days into the crossing the ships collided. About 12 minutes after the collision, the Ville du Havre sank into the cold waters of the Atlantic, carrying with it 226 of the 313 souls aboard her. Among those were Mr. Spafford’s wife, Anna, and their four young daughters, Annie, Margaret Lee, Bessie and Tanetta.
Some time later, a sailor in a rowboat navigated his small vessel over the spot where the large ship went down. He spotted a woman desperately clinging to floating debris from the collision. That woman was Horatio Spafford’s wife, Anna. She was pulled into the smaller boat alive, and around nine days later, she was eventually delivered safely to Cardiff, Wales. She wired her husband a message which began, “Saved alone, what shall I do?” Among some of the survivors was a clergyman whom we know as Pastor Weiss. He later recalled Anna Spafford saying, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand.”
Mr. Spafford quickly booked passage to join his grieving wife. Almost a week into the passage, the captain of his ship called for Mr. Spafford to join him in his office where he informed him that they were currently over the location where his children went down.
According to Bertha Spafford Lester, a daughter born after the tragedy, Horatio Spafford penned the powerful and poignant lyrics to “It Is Well With My Soul” while on this journey.
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, it is well with my soul
Horatio Spafford’s life was spent among horrific grief and loss. Before the tragedy at sea, Horatio Spafford lost a young son to pneumonia. The year was 1871. In that same year, the great Chicago fire would destroy the majority of his business.
Only two short years later in 1873, he would lose his four daughters to the tragedy at sea. And in the years following, he would lose a sixth child to pneumonia.
In August of 1881, the Spaffords moved to Jerusalem. He lived the rest of his life in that city, and he is buried there today.
Life can be hard. Tragedy and death will touch us all at some point, and the man-made fortresses that we erect out of our own strength will simply crumble and fall amidst the weight of pain and grief that only God can heal.
For those who know Christ, He is the only Comforter. It is Christ and Christ alone who can inspire a man who has experienced such great loss to pen the lyrics of a hymn, lyrics claiming peace, while floating above the very location where the ocean consumed his four young daughters.
I love hymns, and I love the stories behind them, for they are often powerful. Those stories give us insight into the minds and hearts of God’s people—people who are often molded into the image of Christ through great sorrow. We can find tremendous hope in the lyrics and songs they have left behind, for they are poetic evidence of God’s hand at work. That same hand is at work today.
I’m thankful for Horatio G. Spafford. His faith and trust were tested in ways that many of us will never experience, yet His love and trust in God enabled him to find peace in the very waters that brought him such a great sorrow.
“…Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” — Job 1:21
Keith Beatty is a Worship, Missions and Media Pastor living in North Alabama. He's excited and very humbled to be a follower of Jesus Christ!