By 1871 the forty-three year old Horatio Gates Spafford had become a successful lawyer in Chicago. He had been married to Anna Larsen - a Norwegian - for a decade, and they were now surrounded by four daughters. Earlier that year he had invested in real estate in the fast growing city, and his friendship with the great evangelist D L Moody meant he had also invested in the winning of souls.
The next two years saw great tragedy. Between the 8th and 10th October 1871, a great fire devoured over three square miles of Chicago. Three hundred died, more than one hundred thousand were left homeless and Spaffords investments were wiped out.
In 1873, the Spaffords decided to holiday in England where Moody would be preaching. At the last minute Horatio was delayed by urgent business matters arising from the fire, so Anna went on ahead with their daughters.
On November 22nd, their ship - the steamship Ville du Havre - was struck by another vessel and sank in a matter of minutes. 226 people perished, including all four of the Spafford girls. Anna herself was picked up as she lay unconscious on part of the wreckage. Nine days later she arrived in Cardiff and sent a telegram to her husband which began “Saved alone. What shall I do…?”.
On receiving this dread news, Horatio immediately set out to bring Anna back home. As the ship followed the usual shipping route, it soon enough came to the location of the disaster. Horatio was called to the captain’s quarters where he was told that they were now passing over the site of the sinking. He later wrote to his wife’s half-sister: “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she 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.”
It was as he was passing the site, that Spafford wrote this hymn:
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.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
And Lord haste the day, when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.