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“It Is Well with My Soul”: A Tale of Family Tragedy, Courage, and Victory

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Life is such an opportunity. If you participate with open eyes and ears, you never know when you’ll come upon a save-worthy moment. I had one several weeks ago, and I’d like to share. By the way, don’t you think it’s good for us to push-away from the psychobabble table every now and then?

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.

Walked into church and strolled-by one of the pastors. I stopped, shook his hand, and asked him how he was doing.

He looked me square in the eyes and said, “It is well with my soul.” And his facial expression bore witness to his truth.

I was deeply touched by the pastor’s reply. Sure, it beat the heck out of “Fine, how are you?” But it went well beyond that. This guy had something, and I wanted to possess more than my current supply of it.

So I rolled-up my sleeves and learned all I could about the origin of “It is well with my soul.”

What I found was fascinating, heartbreaking, and inspiring.

“It Is Well with My Soul”: The Tragedy and Courage

Fact is, growing-up in the United Methodist Church, I’m familiar with the pastor’s words. I’ve probably sung the hymn “It is Well with My Soul” dozens of times.

Here’s the first verse…

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.

The lyrics of the hymn were written by Horatio Spafford, the music composed by Philip Bliss. It was first published in 1876.

So let me tell the tale…

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Anna Spafford

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Horatio Spafford

Horatio Spafford was a successful lawyer who’d significantly invested in Chicago property. Unfortunately, most of his properties were in the area of the city that was horribly damaged by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The losses financially ruined him.

If that wasn’t enough, what remained of his business portfolio was decimated by the financial Panic of 1873.

It was time to get away for a while. So Spafford and his wife Anna planned a family trip to Europe on the SS Ville du Havre. However, due to ongoing business challenges, a decision was made that Anna and their four daughters would make the trip, Spafford joining them later.

On November 22, 1873, as seen in our lead image, the Ville du Havre (on the right) collided with the Loch Earn and sank in 12 minutes. All four of their daughters were among the 226 lives lost.

Somehow, Anna survived, floating unconscious on a plank of wood. Later, a fellow survivor recalled her saying, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.”

Nine days later, Anna landed in Wales and cabled her husband, “Saved alone. What shall I do…”

Horatio made the trip to Europe to meet the grieving Anna and accompany her home. During his passage, the ship’s captain called him to his cabin to tell him they were passing over the spot where the Ville du Havre sunk.

Horatio wrote to Anna’s half-sister: “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.”

Not long after, Horatio wrote what became the words to the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.” When Philip Bliss put the words to music, he named it “Ville du Havre.”

On to the Victory

Back in the States, the Spaffords had three more children. Sadly, one of them died at age four of scarlet fever.

Given the Presbyterian Church considered their tragedies divine punishment, the Spaffords formed a Christian utopian society. And in 1881, the Spafford family, with a small number of society members, left for Jerusalem – setting-up what they called the American Colony.

The Colony provided aid to the Christians, Jews, and Muslims of Jerusalem – without proselytizing motives. Their soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages, and other charitable ventures were critical during and immediately following Word War I.

Interestingly enough, the American Colony became world renowned after being featured in the novel Jerusalem, written by Nobel Prize winning author Selma Lagerlöf.

The Tale Has Been Told

What a tale of family tragedy, courage, and inspiration. And “It is well with my soul” – such a peacefully powerful self-observation and declaration.

It touches me so, even as I write it now.

Yes, life is such an opportunity. I had no idea the pastor would greet me as he did those several weeks ago. And though I was familiar with his words, I never could have imagined the tale behind them.

You just never know when that save-worthy moment is around the bend. That is if you’re participating in life with open eyes and ears…

all images en.wikipedia.org

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  • Lovely, Bill. Happy Easter.

    • Happy Easter to you, as well, Nancy. I’m glad you enjoyed the tale. Good to have you back…


  • Mike

    Thanks Bill, it really was good to step away from the psycho babble table. I’m instantly more thankful for the blessings I’ve been given. Id knew about the 4 daughters and the song, but not the financial ruin, and death of a 5th child. And then to put their own personal tragedy aside to selflessly help so many in Jerusalem.

    • Yeah, good for sure to push-away from the clinical mumbo-jumbo once in a while. It all gets so intense. I’m impressed you knew as much of the story as you did, Mike. I just had no idea – and I’ve been singing it prob for decades. Amazing tale, isn’t it? How brave and giving they were.

      Appreciate your visit and participation, Mike. All good…

      • Now living 4 minutes from a historic Christian church, where we prayed for all of Nature. And I walked “home” to my new loving family…

      • Sounds very comfortable, Nancy…