When Peace Like a River

The story behind the hymn

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is well (it is well),
With my soul (with my soul),
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!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pain shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

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.

Horatio Gates Spafford 1828 - 1888

Horatio Gates Spafford was born in New York on 20th October 1828 but it was in Chicago that he became well known for his clear Christian testimony. He and his wife Anna were active in their Church and their home was always open to visitors. They counted the world famous evangelist, Dwight L Moody, among their close friends. They were blest with five children and considerable wealth. Horatio was a lawyer and owned a great deal of property in his home city.

Not unlike Job in the Old Testament of the Bible, tragedy came in great measure to this happy home. Their four year old son, Horatio Jnr, died suddenly of scarlet fever. Then only a year later in October 1871 a massive fire swept through down town Chicago, devastating the city and many properties owned by Horatio. That day, almost 300 people lost their lives and around 100,000 were made homeless. Despite their own substantial financial loss, the Spaffords sought to demonstrate the love of Christ by assisting those who were grief-stricken and in great need.

Two years later, in 1873, Spafford decided his family should take a holiday in England, knowing that his friend, D L Moody would be preaching there in the autumn. He was delayed because of business, so he sent his family ahead: his wife and their four remaining children, all daughters, 11 year old Anna, 9 year old Margaret Lee, 5 year old Elizabeth, & 2 year old Tanetta.

On 22nd November 1873, while crossing the Atlantic on the steamship, Ville du Havre, their vessel was struck by an iron sailing ship and 226 people lost their lives as the ship sank within only twelve minutes!

All four of Spafford's daughters perished but remarkably Anna Spafford survived the tragedy. Upon arriving in Cardiff she sent a telegram to her husband beginning "Saved alone…”

Horatio immediately set off to join his wife. During his voyage, the captain summoned him one day to the bridge. Pointing to his charts, he explained that they were passing the very spot where his daughters had died. It is said that Spafford returned to his cabin and wrote the hymn, “When peace like a river” there and then. Other accounts say that it was written at a later date but obviously that voyage was one of deep pathos and is the clear inspiration of the moving words of this well loved hymn. Horatio's faith in God never faltered. He later wrote to Anna'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… the dear lambs."

After Anna was rescued, Pastor Nathaniel Weiss, one of the ministers travelling with the surviving group, remembered hearing Anna say, "God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Some day I will understand why."

Naturally Anna was utterly devastated but she testified that in her grief and despair, she had been conscious of a soft voice speaking to her, "You were saved for a purpose!" She remembered something a friend had once said, "It's easy to be grateful and good when you have so much, but take care that you are not a fair-weather friend to God."

Following this deep tragedy, Anna gave birth to three more children but the family was not spared even more sadness as on February 11, 1880, their only son, Horatio (named after his older brother as well as his father) died at the age of four.

In August 1881 the Spaffords left America with a number of other likeminded Christians and settled in Jerusalem. There they served the needy, helped the poor, cared for the sick and took in homeless children. Their desire was to show those living about them the love of Jesus.

The original manuscript of Spafford’s hymn has only four verses, but later another verse was added. The music which was written by Philip Bliss was named after the ship on which Spafford's daughters died - Ville du Havre.

Horatio died of malaria on 16th October 1888. Anna Spafford continued to work in the surrounding areas of Jerusalem until her death in 1923. The Spaffords were laid to rest in Jerusalem. It can be said in the words that Spafford penned that, "It is well with their souls."

The question remains, is it so with ours?