On November 15, 1873, Horatio Gates Spafford, Jr., waved good-bye to his wife Anna and four daughters as they sailed out of New York on the Ville du Havre. Seven days later, on a clear night, the ship inexplicably collided with the Loch Earn and sank in twelve minutes. Anna survived, but she informed her husband by telegraph that she was “saved alone”; all of their daughters had drowned. As Spafford traveled to meet his wife, he crossed over the spot where the shipwreck had occurred and, as the story goes, was moved to write a poem that became one of the most enduring hymns of the Christian faith: “It Is Well with My Soul.”
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.
Since their publication in 1876, these words have comforted millions. The hymn has become a timeless classic, recorded by artists ranging from Mahalia Jackson to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, even becoming part of mashups by contemporary worship artists such as Amy Grant and Matt Redman.
Intrigued by the shipwreck story, Wendy Bilen started researching Spafford: who he was, what really happened, and what made him write these words. The journey led her from the manuscript room at the Library of Congress to northern New York, across to Ohio and Michigan, through the streets of Chicago, and finally over to Jerusalem. Spafford's epic tale reveals a gifted and troubled man whose life proved extraordinary far beyond the words he penned or the vignettes often passed on, a life that illustrates the very real juxtaposition of sin and salvation, of the miracle of making something good and lasting out of bitter ruin.
Bilen is in the process of completing a biography about Spafford. If you are interested in receiving information on the book once it is published, please submit your request here.
From the American Colony in Jerusalem Collection at the Library of Congress
From Gospel Songs No. 2., edited by P. P. Bliss and Ira D. Sankey. Public Domain.