For three days in 1871, a fire raged through the great city of Chicago and turned large parts of the metropolis into ruble and ash. The destruction was tremendous; 300 lost their lives, 100,000 lost their homes, and Horatio Spafford, a wealthy attorney who had invested heavily into real estate, lost his fortune.
But the loss of his wealth paled in comparison to what he would lose soon thereafter.
When the inferno was ultimately extinguished by some much-needed rain, Spafford could finally focus his attention on his only son, a 4-year-old boy who lay in bed suffering with scarlet fever. The faithful and devout father of five prayed to God on his son’s behalf, but healing would not come. Horatio Spafford soon became a father of four.
Penniless – and now heartbroken, too – Horatio buried his son in the ground and his grief in long hours rebuilding the city. Two difficult years later, Spafford found himself in great need of rest, so he decided to take his family to Europe to visit his good friend D. L. Moody, the famous evangelist from Chicago, who was conducting revivals across the sea.
But on the brink of their family vacation, Spafford was detained in New York by an urgent business affair, so he sent his wife Anna on ahead with their four daughters, Maggie, Tanetta, Annie, and Bessie.
It would prove to be a fateful decision.
On the night of November 22, 1873, while the Ville du Havre silently cut through the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, the French cruiser slammed into another ship, fatally crippling the passenger vessel. The impact threw passengers from their beds and crew members from their posts. Water poured into the sinking ship, and it tilted violently in the pitch black night. The darkness was filled with screams and prayers as the icy waves began to rip loved ones apart.
In less than two hours, the great ship sank beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, sending 226 people to a watery grave. All four of Horatio Spafford’s children were among the dead.
Miraculously, Ms. Spafford survived the ordeal, and was found nearly unconscious, clinging to a piece of wreckage. When she and the other 46 survivors landed in Wales several days later, she telegraphed her husband the terrible news: saved alone.
Horatio made immediate plans to join his grieving wife, and secured passage on a ship headed for England. During the lonesome trip, his ship’s captain tenderly called Spafford aside and said, “I believe we are now passing over the place where the Ville du Havre went down.”
Overwhelmed by raw emotion, Spafford returned to his cabin, but found sleep unattainable. The Holy Spirit prompted him to put pen to paper, and out of his grief came these timeless words:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
God had done for Horatio Spafford what He’d done for King David three millennia earlier. In Psalm 34:15-19, David declares:
The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry; the face of the LORD is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth. The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. A righteous man may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all.
Then Sings My Soul by Robert J. Morgan. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003, Pages 184-185.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)