In The Face of Tragedy – 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.


Horatio G. Spafford (1828-1888) was a devout Presbyterian church Elder who had established a very successful legal practice as a young businessman in Chicago.  He was married to Anna, and had a son and four daughters.  His peaceful life was rudely interrupted when death and tragedy struck when he lost his son to pneumonia in 1871. Shortly after that he lost all his fortunes, and all his investments in real estate, in the wake of the great Chicago fire.  Through these experiences he found God’s sustenance and by His grace, Spafford gradually rebuilt his business.  But the worst was yet to come.


In November 1873, he planned to join and assist evangelist Dwight L. Moody in his campaign in Great Britain.  He also thought it was a good idea to bring along his family for a vacation in Europe.  However, due to some unexpected issues that came up at work, he sent his wife and his four daughters ahead, and he planned to join them later.  He bid them farewell as they boarded the French transatlantic ship, S.S. Ville du Havre with 313 other passengers, enroute to Paris.


About a week into the journey across the Atlantic ocean, disaster struck when the Ville du Havre collided with a powerful, iron-hulled Scottish ship, the Loch Earn, at 2 a.m. on Saturday, 22 November.  The damage was so severe that the Ville du Havre broke into two and sank in 12 minutes taking with her 226 passengers and crew despite the desperate attempts of the captain and his team to save as many as possible.  Among those who perished were Spafford’s four daughters, Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta.  His wife, Anna, survived and was found unconscious on a floating spar by a rescue boat.


Nine days after the shipwreck, Anna landed in Cardiff, Wales, and cabled Spafford, “Saved alone.  What shall I do…”  Spafford dropped everything and left Chicago to meet with his wife.  On the Atlantic crossing, the captain of his ship called Spafford to his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where his four daughters had perished.  He wrote to Rachel, 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”. According to one of his children, Bertha Spafford Vester, who was born after the tragedy, Spafford wrote the beautiful lyrics of “It Is Well With My Soul” while on this journey.  Philip Bliss, who later composed the music for the hymn, called his tune Ville du Havre, after the name of the stricken vessel.


Putting ourselves in the shoes of Spafford, I’m not sure how many of us would even think of writing a hymn.  But I think Spafford did not have this ability innate in him – I think this was honed over years of learning how to trust God through years of experience through the ups and downs of his life. I see an ordinary man but who lived life with an open palm, and like Job in the face of a series of terrible tragedies, he could bow in worship and say, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21b).


As we reflect on today’s passage from 2 Corinthians 4:6-5:1, we are reminded of the frailty of our earthly bodies.  Indeed, we are merely “jars of clay” but God in His wisdom has chosen to use our fragile bodies to “carry the light of the knowledge of the glory of God displayed in the face of Christ” to show that this “all-surpassing power is from God and not from us”.  Though in this life we may be afflicted in many ways, and we face many trials, we know that ultimately we live for His glory and we are comforted that come what may, He will give us the faith and strength to go through it all.  In times of trouble, we can find great encouragement from God’s Word as we call upon verses such as Habakkuk 3:17-19:


Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails

    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen

    and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

    I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    He makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    He enables me to tread on the heights.


Brothers and Sisters, I think there are many here in our midst who are going through low periods of our lives – loss of a loved one, suffering from illness, facing retrenchment, facing difficulties in family relationships, facing an uncertain future – or perhaps being persecuted for our faith.  I pray that we can find faith in God and trust in His care so that we can press on in joyful perseverance, and sing the lyrics with Horatio Spafford:


And, Lord, haste the day when my 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.


May the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace this day and always.



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