Horatio Spafford was a successful Chicago attorney, real estate magnate, husband, father, and Presbyterian when his life took a horrific Job-like turn.
Spafford (1882-1888) and his wife, Anna, had four daughters and one son that were the focus of their lives. The Spaffords and their family friends, the Dwight L. Moody family and the family of Ira Sankey, had built a close-knit, thriving Christian community in and around Chicago.
Tragedy first befell Horatio and Anna when in 1872 their young son succumbed to pneumonia at the age of two. Shortly thereafter, the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871 destroyed nearly all of Horatio’s valuable real estate holdings along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Believing the family needed a respite from despair, Horatio scheduled a much needed vacation to England for himself, Anna, and their four daughters. While in England, Spafford had intended to join Moody and Sankey on an evangelic crusade.
Anna and the Spafford girls were sent ahead while Horatio tended to some last-minute business dealings. Four days into the transatlantic voyage the ship carrying the Spaffords, the SS Ville du Havre, collided with an iron-hulled Scottish ship, the Loch Earn. Anna hurried the four girls to the deck to stay as elevated as possible as the ship lowered into the dark Atlantic night. Within twelve minutes the four Spafford girls – Annie, Margaret, Bessie, and Tanetta – had drowned beneath the cold, deep billows of the sea.
Anna, partially submerged, frantically huddled against a broken piece of floating wreckage, clinging to the ship that had just taken her four remaining children and 222 of the 308 other passengers. She was rescued by a sailor passing by and arrived in Wales days later.
Anna immediately sent a telegram to Horatio that sadly read, “Saved alone. What shall I do?” Broken and panicked by the news that had reached him, Horatio immediately boarded a ship to Wales to join his wife. Four days beyond American shores, the captain called Horatio to the deck. He told Horatio that they were near the site of the tragedy that took his daughters. Five children had died in two years.
Horatio, seeking solace and understanding from his immense grief, soon thereafter wrote these words:
“When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll…whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’”
Composer Philip Bliss soon heard Spafford’s story and read his words. Bliss, who also wrote the music to Let the Lower Lights Be Burning, put Horatio Spafford’s words of strength to music and it has become one of the most beloved hymns ever written. Shortly after publishing the song, Bliss and his wife were killed as their train fell from a trestle into a ravine below. Bliss perished while trying to save his wife who was trapped beneath the debris as the fire engulfed both the remains of the wreckage and their bodies.