Horatio Spafford’s Sorrow
In 1871, an American lawyer named Horatio Spafford lost much of wealth in the Great Chicago Fire. Two years later, Spafford decided to vacation in Europe with his family knowing that his friend D.L. Moody, the great evangelist, would be preaching there. He was unfortunately delayed by business and sent his wife along with their four children on the transatlantic voyage, promising to join them as soon as he could.
Tragically, he would never be able to join them. His family’s ship was struck by an iron vessel and 226 people lost their lives, including all four of Spafford’s daughters. Eleven-year-old Tanetta, nine- year-old Bessie, five-year-old Margaret Lee, and two-year-old Annie. Horatio’s wife Anna miraculously survived and after arriving in England sent a telegram with two devastating words, “Saved alone”.
Horatio would eventually take the trip across the Atlantic to join his wife and have to pass over the final resting place of his four beautiful girls.
When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll
It was on that journey across the sea that Horatio penned the original manuscript for one of the most famous hymns of all time, 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 know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
How does a man who had endured such tragedy, suffering and sorrow pen such lyrics?
These words by my friend Stephen Crawford, reflecting on this very story, gives us some valuable insight:
How Spafford faced his pain and what his now famous words point us to is that regardless of what we are going through, Jesus teaches us to anchor our souls in something deeper. It is when we hope in the unchanging grace of Christ, His gospel, and the glory that awaits us that we can actually sing and believe it is well with our souls.
Spafford’s joy was not rooted in his circumstances, but was anchored in the sacrificial love of Christ. He embraced this glorious truth: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Col. 2:13-14). That’s why he could write:
My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin, not in part, but the whole
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord oh my soul
A Future Hope & Joy
However, Spafford wasn’t just looking back at the cross, but looking forward to a future hope. The future hope, promised to all who have confessed faith in Christ, found in Revelation 21. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight
The cloud be rolled back as a scroll
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend
Even so, it is well with my soul
No matter what we are going through, or sorrow we are currently experiencing, Advent reminds us of the deep joy that we can find in Christ. Not only can we find joy in him, but he sympathizes as the Savior who was known as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).
These words might not help today and your sorrow might be as wave crashing down upon you, but we have an understanding Savior, born unto us, who will make good on his promise to turn our sorrow into joy (John 16:20). This is the reason Spafford and believers for all time can sing, “It Is Well”.