My grandmother loved hymns. I remember watching her sing in the Methodist Church choir as a young boy. She sang when cleaning the house. She always had a song in her heart. I recently learned the history behind one of her favorites. The story both reminded me of a different time and provided a lot of meaning and hope.
In the 1870s, a prominent Chicago businessman and lawyer, Horatio Spafford, suffered the loss of some of his financial investments as a result of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and the economic Panic of 1873. The Spafford family, quite well to do, had supported many social and theological reformers of their day and had spoken out against slavery before the Civil War. Spafford was a good friend of the evangelist Dwight L. Moody and planned to travel to England in 1873 to support his tour there. While overseas, the family were going to spend some time vacationing too.
However, as the date for their departure neared, Mr. Spafford was delayed on business. Several of his properties faced zoning issues in the aftermath of the Great Fire. He sent his wife and four daughters on ahead by ship to France on the SS Ville du Havre. On November 21, 1873, The Loch Earn, another British ship, collided with the SS Ville du Havre, and the vessel sank in 12 minutes. All four of Spafford’s daughters drowned. His wife, Anna, was found unconscious but alive. Nine days later, upon arriving safely in Wales, she wired her husband. The cable said, “Saved alone. What Shall I do?’
Spafford sailed to reunite with his wife. As the story goes, he wrote the words to his famous hymn on stationary from a Chicago hotel while returning back to America with Anna. As the ship passed near the spot where the Ville du Havre sank and the four girls had perished, the captain called Spafford to his cabin to let him know. Supposedly, the hymn was written then; although, some scholars say it was penned a few years later.
The song was set to music in 1876 by composer Phillip Bliss with an assist from Dwight Moody. Bliss was the first to sing it under the original title, “Ville du Havre.” The first lines read, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrow like sea-billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to know, it is well, it is well, with my soul.”
The Spafford’s sufferings were not over. Eventually, they had three more children, but their son, Horatio, died from fever at age 4 in 1880. The following year, the family moved to Jerusalem. There, in an effort to escape creditors and await Christ’s return, they set up a fellowship to minister to people of all faiths. Spafford was later asked why he wanted to move to Jerusalem. He responded by saying, “Jerusalem is where my Lord lived, suffered, and conquered, and I wish to learn how to live, suffer, and especially, to conquer, there.”
Spafford was convinced God could save anyone. He died of Malaria in 1888. During and after World War I, the fellowship’s philanthropy and care saved a number of lives by running hospitals and orphanages for the dispossessed. Anna died in 1923.
Over the years, Horatio Spafford’s spiritual and economic beliefs have come under some intense scrutiny, but the words of his song, “When Peace like a River,” remain published in numerous hymnals as “It is Well with My Soul.”
It is true of all of us, we sometimes live difficult lives often filled with tragedy. People criticize us at every turn; yet, if we are fortunate and keep at it, we find a way to make the center hold. Trusting in faith helps to counter challenges in life.
There are many great lines in Spafford’s hymn. One is: “That Christ has regarded my helpless estate.” I can guess he felt a little helpless crossing over the sea where his daughters had drowned, but he remembered he was not alone. He wrote some timeless truths on the Chicago stationary.
In the darkest times of my grandmother’s life, when dementia and Alzheimer’s disease were stealing all her thought and memories, she could still be happy and find joy in song. We would sing together often until the melodies and harmonies brought her back to the present. We could sing until even the music became too painful. Then, she would stop singing and the tears would come. The memory sticks with me even now.
At her funeral, the congregation sang “It is Well with My Soul.” It was hard, but it was comforting. She was still giving us joy through the music she loved.
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies instructor at South Caldwell High School and at CCC&TI. He can be reached at email@example.com.