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Honouring reality: Horatio Spafford’s blessing in sorrow

Image: Horatio Spafford

“May you, when you stand in the ashes of what could have been, find God standing with you, speaking your name.”

As a child, I was bought a copy of the book, ‘Christian Hymns’, by a friend in celebration of my baptism. I was 11 years old, and this hymn book was the one used at my church, Mount Road Baptist Chapel, in the small market town of Hinckley in Leicestershire. I was delighted to have my own my copy as there was nothing that I liked better than reading my way through the hundreds of hymns! They interested me as the words often seemed so very personal and vulnerable. I was always particularly interested in the names of the hymn writers, written in italics at the end of each hymn, and would often try and find out a little about them and the story behind the words that they had written. So many of the hymns seemed to speak of their own experience and I was keen to know something of their story.

One particular favourite was, ‘It is well with my Soul’ by Horatio Spafford. It begins,

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.

Born in New York City on 20th October 1828, Horatio Spafford grew up to be a successful lawyer and real estate investor. He and his wife Anna lived in Chicago and were well-known for their Christian faith, kindness and hospitality. The famous Evangelist, Dwight L. Moody was one of their friends and knew them and their children well.

Tragedy struck the family in 1870 when their son, Horatio Jnr, died suddenly of scarlet fever at just four-years of age. Then, just a year later, in October 1871, a massive fire swept through downtown Chicago, devastating the city, including many of the properties owned by the Spafford’s. That day, nearly 300 people lost their lives, and around 100,000 were made homeless. Despite their own substantial financial loss, stories are told of how Horatio and Anna supported many of those who had lost everything in the fire.

In 1873, the Spafford family planned a holiday to Europe, to help them rest after all they had been through and also to meet up with their friend D.L.Moody. At the last minute, business demands prevented Horatio from leaving on their intended date for the trip. Rather than cancel though, Anna took their four girls on the ship that they had booked tickets for, with the understanding that Horatio would join them as soon as he could.

On November 22nd, 1873, whilst crossing the Atlantic on the steamship Ville du Havre, the ship was involved in a terrible collision with a Scottish vessel, Loch Earn, and sank. 226 people lost their lives that day, including all four of Horatio and Anna’s daughters: Annie, age 12; Maggie, 7; Bessie, 4; and 18-month-old,Tanetta.

Anna survived the tragedy and nine days after the shipwreck landed in Cardiff, where she sent a telegram to her husband that began: “Saved alone. What should I do?”

Horatio immediately set sail for England to bring her home. It seems that during the voyage, the captain of the ship, aware of the tragedy that had struck the Spafford family, called Horatio to his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where the shipwreck had occurred.

Horatio later wrote, to Anna’s half-sister, Rachel, “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where they went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.”

The story goes, that after being confronted with the part of the ocean where his girls had drowned, Horatio wrote, out of his deepest heartache, “It is well with my Soul’.

The testimony of faith that Horatio penned in ‘It is well with my soul’, left a deep impression on me, as a child. On hearing his story, I can remember thinking of how his words, born out of such sorrow were words to hold on to. Words that I might one day need to recall when life maybe wasn’t quite as I might have planned. Words that reminded me of how God promises to never leaves us alone, and that even during devastating situations, he promises peace to our heart, minds and souls. A peace which allows the fiercest storm to be faced and the deepest sorrows to be born. “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

May you, in the storms, heartaches and realities of your life,

Know that you are never alone.

May an unexplainable peace,

surround you entirely,

hold you completely,

and may you,

sense so deeply,

that all is well,

with your soul.

Jenny Cornfield

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