Today’s hymn was written after a series of personal tragedies experienced by its author, Horatio Gates Spafford II. Although borne out of tragedy, the words he penned have touched many lives over the years, giving hope for those facing the bleakest of circumstances.
Horatio Gates Spafford II
Horatio Gates Spafford II was born on October 20, 1828 to parents Horatio and Elizabeth Spafford. His father, from a prominent Vermont military family, had decided to pursue a career in science and literature. Afer teaching school for a time, Horatio, Sr. turned to science, becoming an inventor. At one point he contacted both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson for their advice as to how to protect his invention. He later became an agriculturalist and published a newspaper. Suffice it to say that Horatio Gates Spafford II came from a prominent and well-to-do family.
Young Horatio was no doubt educated in the best schools at the time and later became a successful Chicago attorney, a senior partner of Spafford, McDaid & Wilson. According to the Library of Congress, Horatio met Anna Larsen, a Norwegian immigrant, in the Sunday School class he taught — she was fourteen years younger than he, however. He was attracted to her but rather than seriously court her, given her young age, he paid for three years of tuition at a boarding school before marrying her on September 5, 1861.
Horatio was a successful attorney and he and Anna were personal friends and supporters of famed Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody. They began their family with the birth of their daughter Anna on June 11, 1862, followed by:
Margaret Lee – May 31, 1864
Elizabeth “Bessie” – June 19, 1868
Tanetta – July 21, 1871
With his success as an attorney, Horatio was able to begin invest in Chicago real estate in the spring of 1871. He was a devout Christian with a growing family, living prosperously in growing Chicago – all must have seemed quite well. On October 8, 1871 a fire started in a small barn off DeKoven Street and spread throughout drought-stricken Chicago. At that time over two-thirds of all buildings in Chicago (not to mention sidewalks) were made entirely of wood. Strong southwest winds whipped up and the fire soon spread. The fire wasn’t contained until early on the morning of October 10. The area of the city where Horatio had made his recent investment was devastated.
Two years later Horatio decided he and his family would travel to England for a vacation and to attend one of Moody’s crusades. However, at the last minute he was detained by some business and sent Anna and his four young daughters ahead. On November 22, 1873 their ship, Ville du Havre, was struck by the Lockhearn in the middle of the Atlantic. Within minutes the ship sank, his wife clinging to a piece of wreckage while his four daughters drowned.
Anna was rescued by the crew of the Lockhearn, although that vessel was in danger of sinking. Another ship, the Trimountain, arrived to rescue the survivors. When the ship reached Cardiff, Wales, Anna cabled Horatio: “Saved alone. What shall I do?”
After receiving her cable, Horatio rushed to England to bring her home. While crossing the Atlantic, the captain summoned Horatio and told him they were passing over the area where his daughters had drowned. As the ship passed over their watery grave, Horatio penned the words (a couple of words changed later):
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.
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!
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!
He later wrote his sister-in-law Rachel: “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.”
A few years later Philip Paul Bliss (see last week’s Hymnspiration article) composed the music for Spafford’s hymn. The song was first publicly performed in November of 1876, just a month before the untimely death of Philip Bliss and his wife in a tragic train accident.
Horatio and Anna’s only son Horatio was born in 1875 or 1876, followed by another daughter, Bertha, in 1879. Tragedy again struck the Spaffords when their son died of scarlet fever in 1880. The Presbyterian church they attended believed the family tragedies were the result of divine punishment, which led the Spaffords to withdraw their membership and move to Jerusalem to establish the “American Colony” with sixteen other members from their church. Their last child, Grace was born in early 1881 and in August they began their journey.
Their work in Jerusalem centered around offering aid to those in need, regardless of race or religion. Almost a year after they arrived in Jerusalem, an entry in Horatio’s diary indicates that he was relying “exclusively on the power and grace of God in Christ.” He continued:
Lord, I have always up to this day been holding on to something of the flesh. I crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts. Henceforward I live a eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake. I rely exclusively, exclusively on the power and grace of God in Christ. I am a miracle of grace! Blessed God how patient thou hast been with me!
Just four days before his sixtieth birthday, Horatio Spafford died of malaria on October 16, 1888. He was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in Jerusalem.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.