“It is Well with my Soul” and the Anna Spafford side of the Story

Recently I wrote a post about thinking. As I spent some time thinking about the song, my thoughts rabbit trailed off to how Mrs. Spafford accepted the loss of four daughters to the shipwreck disaster in the Atlantic Ocean on November 22, 1873. The ship, French owned, the Ville du Havre, sank in a short 12 minutes after striking another ship in the darkness of 2:00 A.M. There was little time for rescue to take place and only 81 of the 307 passengers survived. The British ship that was struck, the Lockhearn, suffered such extreme damages that is also eventually sank too. The disaster was discovered by the Trimountain, took the survivors on to Whales. Anna Spafford cabled her husband, Horatio, “Saved alone. What shall I do?”

Anna Spafford was 19 years old when she married 33-year old Horatio in a Chicago nuptial in the busy city of Chicago. It was 1861. From 1861 to 1871 she gave birth to five children during the tumult of the American Civil War. Their little boy, Horatio, died of scarlet fever when he was four. Horatio was a lawyer and had acquired wealth in real estate; then, came the Chicago Fire in 1873. After the family suffered such losses, Horatio felt it would help them all if they could take a European vacation. With that in view, he put his wife and four daughters, on a ship bound for France. The daughters Annie, 11; Maggie, 9; Bessie, 5; and Tannetta, 2, waved to their Daddy who would follow them after a last-minute real estate project was complete. Then those daughters drown in the ship collision.

When the ship carrying Horatio to his wife in Whales neared the place of the sinking, the ship’s captain called Horatio from his cabin to the deck. There was no way to see even a little debris for the ocean depth at that point is three miles deep. Reflecting on the spot where his daughter’s left earth for eternity Spafford retired back to his cabin and penned the words to the song, “It is Well With my Soul” into his journal. Three years later, Phillip P. Bliss set the words to the music we know today.

But what about Anna?

Anna Spafford often entertained D.L. Moody, Ira Sanky (Moody’s song leader) and the Bliss family in her home. She was no stranger to the elements of Biblical faith. Her trust in God allowed her to bear three more children after the disastrous loss of her first five children. She quoted the words of counsel given by a friend: “It’s easy to be grateful and good when you have so much, but take care that you are not a faith-weather friend to God.” Her losses were not yet complete. Again she bore a son whom she named after her first son, Horatio. He died when he was four years old also. Of the eight children she bore, only two survived: Bertha and Grace. Bertha wrote admirably of her parents in later life in a biography, “Jerusalem,” which is also an account of the Spaffords ministry developments in Jerusalem to orphans and displaced persons. Both Anna and Horatio moved to Jerusalem in 1881 and spent the rest of their days in ministry. Horatio died in 1888 of malaria. Anna lived on until 1923 and also died in and is buried in Jerusalem.

From her steadfast testimony, I believe that she, like her husband, accepted both peaceful and stormy times and lived in accordance to the words Spafford wrote upon seeing the watery grave of his daughters, “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.”

I have had the opportunity to tell this story now this spring to three different groups, and now to you, my readers. If you can use these words for storytelling, please do. It is a “rest of the story” (as Paul Harvey would say) that needs to be told. It may make a mother who is in despair find some hope as well.

Happy Mother’s Day to my readers. I love you all. I really do!

A link to my reading notes: http://voices.yahoo.com/horatio-g-spafford-story-behind-hymn-is-1620793.html#



  1. Glenda

    My morning devotions include a Scripture from the New Testament and two from the Old, and I’ve been going through the Book of Job for a few weeks now. This story reminds me of all that he endured because of his unwavering faith in God. As you know, his wealth was restored and he had other children, a great testament to the rewards of a steadfast faith! Thank you for sharing this touching story with us. Oh, that my faith would be as strong as the Spaffords’ was!

  2. Every time I read this story, I learn something new. Certainly true here. Anna was an amazing woman. Thanks for shedding some light on her story.

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