Spafford and Bliss: Extended Tragedy, Eternal Hope

Spafford and Bliss: Extended Tragedy, Eternal Hope

In 1871, Horatio Spafford (1828-1888), a devout Presbyterian church elder and prosperous businessman, was living comfortably in Chicago with his wife Anna, and their four young daughters. At their home in a north side suburb, the Spaffords hosted and financially supported many guests. Horatio had been active in the abolitionist crusade and their cottage was a meeting place for activists in the reform movements of the time, such as Frances E. Willard, president of the National Women's Christian Temperance Union, and evangelical leaders like Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey, whose gospel preaching and music sparked a spiritual awakening in America and Europe.
Spafford, a senior partner in a thriving law firm, invested in real estate north of an expanding Chicago in the spring of 1871. A few months later, when the Great Fire reduced the a four-mile swath of the city to ashes in October of the same year, it almost destroyed Spafford's fortune. Two years later, while still struggling to recover from this loss, and now facing the financial Panic of 1873, Anna’s health became poor. Horatio was advised to move his wife to a warmer climate for a few months, so Horatio booked tickets for the family to sail to England. They would spend time recuperating and would also join their friend, Dwight L. Moody, who was preaching revivals there.

As they were packing their trunks, however, pressing zoning issues caused Horatio to be delayed. He sent his wife and four daughters on ahead, promising to join them in a few days. They embarked on 15 November aboard the French iron-clad steamship, Ville du Havre, outbound for Liverpool.

About a week into their transatlantic voyage, just after midnight, the Ville du Havre collided with a three-masted British iron clipper, the Loch Earn, and sank within twelve minutes. The perished souls numbered 226, including the four daughters of Horatio and Anna – little Annie, Maggie, Elizabeth, and Tanetta. Anna was found unconscious, floating on a timber, and was rescued along with sixty-one passengers and twenty-six crewmen. They were picked up by the Loch Earn and later transferred to a passing American cargo vessel, the Trimountain. Nine days later, Anna landed in Cardiff, Wales, and cabled to Horatio, “Saved alone. What shall I do…”

Immediately, Horatio left Chicago to bring his wife home. On the Atlantic crossing, the captain of his ship called Horatio 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, enfolded, the dear lambs.” When Dwight L. Moody heard of the tragedy, he left his speaking engagements in Edinburgh, Scotland, and rushed to Liverpool to meet and comfort his dear friends. As they sat together and mourned, Moody was amazed to see that God brought His peace to them both.

Three years later, in 1875, the Spaffords had a son, Horatio. The next year, Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey stayed in Chicago for several weeks as guests of the Spaffords. It was here, in 1876, that Horatio penned the famous hymn-text, “It Is Well With My Soul,” expressing both his grief and hope in verse. Ira Sankey took the hymn-text to his friend and fellow musician Philip Bliss (1838-76), who composed the tune. Philip sang it for the first time at an evangelistic meeting of pastors at Farwell Hall that November.

The rest of Horatio and Philip’s lives held yet more joy and sorrow. Just one month later, on 29 December, Philip and his wife Lucy left their two young sons with Lucy’s mother to join Moody and Sankey in a meeting in Chicago. In a blinding blizzard, their Pacific Express train was crossing a trestle bridge near Ashtabula, Ohio, when it gave way, sending the carriages crashing into the ravine below. Philip managed to escape through a window as the train caught fire. He soon found Lucy pinned beneath the wreckage. Philip tried to free her, choosing to stay by her side. They perished together with ninety others.

Meanwhile, Horatio and Anna had daughter Bertha in 1878, but their son died of scarlet fever when he was just four, about the time baby Grace was born. Bertha and Grace lived to be healthy and strong women, who both loved the Lord and brought joy to their parents.

In 1881, Horatio and Anna moved to Jerusalem to found a commune, called the American Colony of Jerusalem. They started schools, clinics, and orphanages for the Muslims, Jews, and others who called the slums around the ancient site of Herod’s Gate “home.” Horatio died of malaria and was buried in Jerusalem in 1888. Anna died in 1923, and their daughter Bertha carried on the charitable work begun by the Spaffords and their friends.

Today, that work continues in the original Colony house abutting the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Spafford Children’s Center still provides medical treatment and outreach programs for Arab children and their families there.

So often in Christian history, grief and lament have found voice in song. The psalms are examples. So is Horatio Spafford and Philip Bliss’s hymn. Sometimes we wail our deepest anguish and pain. Sometimes we raise our quivering voices in trust, clinging to the One who is our only hope. Sometimes, all we can do in the immediate aftermath of tragedy is to sit and wait for God. Sit and wait and hope, like Job did, in the ashes.

Yet, for all of Job's sorrows, he says "What? Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil too?" [Job 2:9-10] and "Though He slay me, I will hope in Him." [Job 13:15a]. Psalm 130 begins with a heart cry: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!”

As we look around our world, the Center joins humanity in pausing for this moment to express our empathy, lament with those who weep, comfort those who mourn, and sit with many who wait for God. Our arms stretch toward Him.
“I will wait for You, I will wait for You, through the storm, and through the night. I will wait for You, surely wait for You, till my soul is satisfied.”
Please click on this link to hear a wonderful song written by the Gettys from the text of Psalm 130, "I will wait for you."
-Karen O'Dell Bullock
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