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[Watch below the video illustrating the story of Horatio Spafford and his hymn, “It is Well with My Soul.”]]

Horatio Gates Spafford (1828-1888) was a wealthy Chicago businessman and lawyer, married with five children, and living in Chicago in 1870.  when his son, Horatio Spafford Jr. contracted scarlet fever and died.  The next year, a massive fire devasted the city on October 8-10,1871. The fire killed almost 300 people and destroyed the homes of around 100,000. Spafford suffered great losses when his real estate holdings burned to the ground.  Despite their financial losses, the Spaffords offered generous assistance to others.

Two years after the fire, in 1873, Spafford decided to take his family to England to visit his friend, evangelist D. L. Moody, who was preaching there. Spafford was delayed by a business matter, so he sent his wife Anna (1842-1923), and their four daughters (11-year-old Anna, 9-year-old Margaret Lee, 5-year-old Elizabeth, and 2-year-old Tanetta) on ahead of him. They sailed on the steamship Ville du Havre.

More Tragedy

On November 22, 1873, the Ville du Havre was struck by an iron sailing ship and sank into the Atlantic Ocean in 12 minutes.  Rescuers found Spafford’s wife unconscious and floating on a plank of wood. But sadly, all four of the couple’s daughters perished. When Anna Spafford arrived in Cardiff, South Wales, she telegraphed her husband two words: “Saved alone….”

Spafford immediately booked passage on a ship and left to join his wife. As the ship crossed the Atlantic Ocean, in the area where the Ville du Havre had sunk and his daughters had perished, Spafford penned the words, “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.”

Watch this short video that tells the story.  Then listen to the song and watch the moving images of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

The Rest of the Story

The Spaffords’ lives changed in many ways after the death of their daughters. They returned to Chicago and “rebuilt” their lives with  Anna giving birth to four more children.  Sadly, their only son, Horatio (named for his deceased brother and his father) died at the age of four in 1880.  The Spaffords also left their Presbyterian church, after embracing unorthodox beliefs, including denying the reality of an eternal hell and accepting a doctrine of universalism (all people will go to heaven).  

The Spaffords created their own “church,” gathering a small group of believers that came to be known as “The Overcomers.”  In September 1881, with Horatio Spafford as their leader,, the group of 20 journeyed to Israel and established a commune, known as the American colony. They served the poor, the sick, and the homeless in the name of Jesus, yet many of the group’s practices and beliefs did not reflect the Lord’s teachings. The group built a luxury hotel in east Jerusalem called “The American Colony Hote.”  The hotel still stands today and is still owned by descendants of the Spaffords.  

Horatio Spafford died in 1888 and his wife Anna in 1923.

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