This is one of my favorite hymns. It has been for many years. When I discovered the story behind the song – somewhere during my high school years – the song gained an even greate emotional impact for me.
Horatio G. Spafford, his wife Anna, and their five children lived in Chicago. Horatio was a successful lawyer and businessman. In 1871, their young son died from pneumonia and much of Spafford’s business property was lost in the Chicago fire. Spafford would rebuild his business and gave all the credit for this recovery to the grace and kindness of God.
In 1873, Horatio and Anna made plans to travel, via an ocean liner called Ville du Havre, to Europe. A last minute business problem kept Horation in Chicago while Anna and the kids boarded the ship. Horatio made arrangement to take another boat a few days later and meet his family in Europe.
Four days into the trip, the Ville du Havre collided with an iron hulled ship our of Scotland called the Loch Earn. Anna gathered her four girls and they hurried to the deck of the ship where they prayed for deliverance or for the endurance to face what was coming. 12 minutes later, the ship sank, taking more than 200 passengers as she went down. Among the victims were the Spafford’s four children.
A sailor, moving through the wreckage, saw a woman clinging to a piece of debris. It was Anna Spafford.
The sailor pulled Mrs. Spafford into the boat and the two of them were picked up by a larger vessel. Nine days later, she was put ashore in Cardiff, Wales. She sent her husband a heartbreaking telegram – “Save alone. What shall I do?” She would later tell another survivor of the wreck, Pastor Weiss, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.”
A Father’s Grief
After receiving the telegram from his wife, Spafford booked passage on the next available ship. At his request, the Captain notified Spafford when they were over the place where the Ville du Havre went down. According to Bertha Spafford Vester – a daughter born after in later years – it was while on this journey that Spafford penned the words to his famous hymn.
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
Life After Tragedy
The Spaffords would go on to have three more children, one of whom would die of pneumonia at the age of 4. The family moved to Jerusalem in 1881. Spafford would live there until his death and is buried there.