Their story began quite happily. Anna Larson was young, lovely and intelligent. Horatio Spafford was a businessman and senior partner in a successful law firm. They married in 1861 when Anna was 19 and Horatio was 33, and had a beautiful home in Chicago. They were devout and active Christians, Ira Sankey and Dwight Moody among their friends. Horatio was active in the abolitionist crusade and their home was a frequent gathering place for many of the reform movements of the day. Life was good.
The Spafford’s circumstances then began to change. Scarlet Fever took the life of their 4-year-old son in 1870. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 took almost every real estate investment they owned. After the fire, they put their faith into action, devoting many hours to the survivors.
In 1873, Spafford arranged for his family to go on vacation to rest and have time to recover from the tragedies. Since their friend Dwight Moody would be preaching in England, they decided to join him there. Last minute business delayed Horatio’s travel, but Anna and their four daughters, Tanetta (11), Elizabeth “Bessie” (9), Margaret Lee (5), and Anna “Annie” (2) set sail aboard the S.S. Ville du Havre.
Nine days later, Spafford received news that the S.S. Ville du Havre was in a collision at sea. The ocean liner sank in just 12 minutes, and 273 perished. Anna, found unconscious and clinging to a piece of wreckage, was among the 47 survivors. All four daughters drowned. Anna sent a cable to Horatio saying, “Saved alone. What shall I do?”
As quickly as could be arranged, Horatio left for Europe to join Anna. As he passed by the spot believed to be the final resting place of the Ville du Havre, he wrote, “It is well; the will of God be done.” He wrote “It Is Well with My Soul” based on those words. Spafford did not dwell on the tragedy. He fully realized the comfort that only God can give, the peace that truly passes all understanding. Horatio and Anna later had three more children, and moved to Jerusalem for mission work.
Composer Philip Bliss was moved by Spafford’s witness and powerful words. He wrote a lovely melody specifically to go with the lyrics, and the song was first published by Bliss and Sankey in 1876. Bliss named his tune VILLE DU HARVE, the name of the sunken ship. Philip Bliss wrote many hymns and tunes, including “Wonderful Words of Life,” “Almost Persuaded,” and “(I Will Sing of) My Redeemer.”
Philip Bliss and his wife died in 1876, shortly after he composed the melody. A bridge collapse caused a train wreck. Bliss survived the accident but went into the flames in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his wife.
These stories are tragic yet true. Our lives are made up of joys and tragedies, too. My prayer is for each of you to know the peace and hope Horatio Spafford knew.