This is the day that Horatio Gates Spafford was born in New York State, in 1828.
He was to become a well known Christian businessman in Chicago; professor of medical jurisprudence at Chicago Medical College; director of a Presbyterian theological seminary; and active in the YMCA. He was a close friend of Moody and Sankey.
The young lawyer moved to Chicago to start a legal business. In 1861 he married Anna Tuben Larssen and they established a prosperous home. Anna bore Spafford a son and four daughters. Horatio junior, however, died of scarlet fever in 1870, aged four. Apart from their business income Spafford had built up a sizable property portfolio.
The Great Chicago Fire swept through the city on 8-10 October 1871, killing 250 people and rendering 90,000 homeless, destroying about a third of the city. While the Spaffords sustained significant personal loss, Horatio and Anna worked tirelessly for two years to help the victims put their lives back together.
Evangelist Dwight L. Moody based his worldwide ministry in Chicago and the Spaffords were good friends of Moody and his ministry. In 1873 they decided to travel to England to participate in the Moody/Sankey revival meetings there, before touring continental Europe.
The family of six travelled to New York to board their ship. Horatio was called back to Chicago by last-minute business obligations, but he saw no reason for the entire family to delay their travel, so he sent his family on ahead, planning to join them as soon as he could.
Anna Spafford, the couple’s four daughters, the children’s governess and two others in their party boarded the French steamship Ville du Havre on 22 November 1873, along with 307 other passengers and crew. At about 2 am on 22 November 1873, in the eastern North Atlantic, the Ville du Havre collided with the British iron clipper Loch Earn, then sank in a mere 12 minutes. 226 people perished, including the four Spafford daughters. Survivors were taken to Cardiff, Wales, where Anna Spafford cabled her husband on 1 December 1873 with the following devastating message: “Saved alone. What shall I do.” Horatio Spafford took the next available ship to join his wife.
It was two years later that Horatio Spafford wrote one of our great gospel songs:
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.
The daughters had all been converted in Moody-Sankey meetings shortly before their deaths.
Ira Sankey, who incorporated this gospel song into his Sacred Songs and Solos, writes: “In 1876, when we (Moody and Sankey) returned to Chicago, I was entertained in the home of Mr and Mrs Spafford for a number of weeks. During that time Mr Spafford wrote the hymn ‘It is well with my soul’, in commemoration of the deaths of his children. P.P. Bliss composed the music and sang it for the first time at Farwell Hall” (My Life …, by I. Sankey, page 191).
Once reunited, Horatio and Anna Spafford returned to Chicago, and by 1880, they had another daughter, Bertha, and another son, also called Horatio. This son, too, died in infancy of scarlet fever.
The Spaffords also had another daughter, Grace, born in Chicago in January 1881. When Grace was just seven months old, the Spaffords moved to the Holy Land in August 1881. They helped to found a group called the American Colony in Jerusalem, with the mission to serve the poor.
Sometime during the 1880s, in Jerusalem, Horatio Spafford suffered a mental illness that caused him to believe that he was the second Messiah.
There he died of malaria on 16 October, 1888, at the age of 60. He is buried in Jerusalem.
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.
Tags: cardiff wales, dwight l moody, four daughters drowned, great chicago fire, horatio and anna spafford, horatio gates spafford, hymn, hymn writer, hymns, it is well with my soul, Jerusalem, lawyer, malaria, messiah, presbyterian theological seminary, sankey, sankeys sacred songs and solos, scarlet fever, shipping tragedy, when peace like a river