It is Well …

A great hymn came from the pen of a troubled—and troublesome—man.

His own ship, breached by disaster, was sinking. Rather than confess his failures and start repaying his debts, Spafford abandoned his faithful church and embraced the fervent millenarianism and spiritualism of his day. Jesus must be coming soon, and His sinful, broken, yet obedient servant must be on hand to meet Him. With Anna beside him, Spafford gathered a band of followers in their Chicago home, preached a message of purity and self-sacrifice, and launched a pilgrimage to Palestine, where they would celebrate the Lord’s return. No one else would die.


The luxury liner was steaming through a calm, star-studded night when it happened. Fast asleep after days of rough weather and turbid fog, passengers were thrown from their beds by a violent shuddering and noise like an explosion. The prow of an iron-hulled sailing vessel had rammed them amidships and split the hull. Passengers who were not killed in the crash crowded the deck and swarmed the lifeboats. Many were crushed under the collapsing mainmast.

A young mother from Chicago clutched her 2-year-old daughter and tried to keep her other three girls close. “Don’t be afraid,” little Annie told her. “The sea is His and He made it.” Within minutes the ship rolled over, spilling the family into the sea. The mother clutched frantically as her baby was torn out of her arms.

A few days later, she telegraphed her husband from Wales: “Saved alone. What shall I do.”

Upon receiving the news, Horatio Spafford—successful lawyer, Presbyterian elder, and confidant of Dwight L. Moody—paced the floor all night in agonizing grief. Just before dawn he finally spoke: “I am glad to trust the Lord when it will cost me something.” A week later he was crossing the Atlantic to rejoin his wife Anna when the captain called his attention to the very spot where the wreck occurred. That night, in his cabin, Spafford wrote the poem beginning “When peace like a river attendeth my way. …”

That part of the story is well-known in church circles. But there’s more. The Ville du Havre disaster in November 1873 was only the Spaffords’ latest and greatest misfortune. Two years before, the Chicago fire had wiped out Horatio’s liquid assets. The collapse of Jay Cooke’s investment firm shortly after sank him further into debt. He was already putting off creditors and mismanaging funds entrusted to him. Sending his family on an excursion he couldn’t afford was another irresponsible decision; guilt as much as grief wracked him when the telegram arrived.

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