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It is well ...

A great hymn came from the pen of a troubled—and troublesome—man

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The luxury liner was steaming through a calm, star-studded night when it happened. Fast asleep after days of rough weather and turbid fog, passengers were thrown from their beds by a violent shuddering and noise like an explosion. The prow of an iron-hulled sailing vessel had rammed them amidships and split the hull. Passengers who were not killed in the crash crowded the deck and swarmed the lifeboats. Many were crushed under the collapsing mainmast.

A young mother from Chicago clutched her 2-year-old daughter and tried to keep her other three girls close. “Don’t be afraid,” little Annie told her. “The sea is His and He made it.” Within minutes the ship rolled over, spilling the family into the sea. The mother clutched frantically as her baby was torn out of her arms.

A few days later, she telegraphed her husband from Wales: “Saved alone. What shall I do.”

Upon receiving the news, Horatio Spafford—successful lawyer, Presbyterian elder, and confidant of Dwight L. Moody—paced the floor all night in agonizing grief. Just before dawn he finally spoke: “I am glad to trust the Lord when it will cost me something.” A week later he was crossing the Atlantic to rejoin his wife Anna when the captain called his attention to the very spot where the wreck occurred. That night, in his cabin, Spafford wrote the poem beginning “When peace like a river attendeth my way. …”

We can’t know for certain the final state of Horatio Spafford’s soul, but we can know the effect of his words.

That part of the story is well-known in church circles. But there’s more. The Ville du Havre disaster in November 1873 was only the Spaffords’ latest and greatest misfortune. Two years before, the Chicago fire had wiped out Horatio’s liquid assets. The collapse of Jay Cooke’s investment firm shortly after sank him further into debt. He was already putting off creditors and mismanaging funds entrusted to him. Sending his family on an excursion he couldn’t afford was another irresponsible decision; guilt as much as grief wracked him when the telegram arrived.

He could only bear it if deliverance were at hand. “Lord, haste the day. …”

His own ship, breached by disaster, was sinking. Rather than confess his failures and start repaying his debts, Spafford abandoned his faithful church and embraced the fervent millenarianism and spiritualism of his day. Jesus must be coming soon, and His sinful, broken, yet obedient servant must be on hand to meet Him. With Anna beside him, Spafford gathered a band of followers in their Chicago home, preached a message of purity and self-sacrifice, and launched a pilgrimage to Palestine, where they would celebrate the Lord’s return. No one else would die.

Jesus failed to appear. Nonetheless, the “Overcomers” established themselves in Jerusalem as the American Colony, an authoritarian cult. After Horatio died in 1888, Anna carried on as “Mother,” handing down draconian revelations (forbidding marriage at one point) and confiscating all the money her followers earned. The Colony scraped by for years until an infusion of hard-working Swedish converts made it prosper. Gradually it gained favor with Muslims and Jews and became a bulwark of stability during the terrible privations of World War I. That stability, though, did not survive Anna’s death.

As far as we know, the Spaffords died as heretics, denying hell and preaching Universalism while demanding the utmost in works-righteousness. “A bad tree brings forth bad fruit,” Jesus said. Does that make the hymn that has comforted thousands “bad fruit”? Put another way, were you ever blessed by the work of someone who turned out to be a false prophet?

God sometimes ordains praise from unconverted lips, like Balaam’s and Nebuchadnezzar’s. And all of us, even the truly converted, are of unclean lips, crooked pencils writing straight by grace alone. We can’t know for certain the final state of Horatio Spafford’s soul, but we can know the effect of his words. Like any work of art, they became a tool in God’s hand, to confirm truth or deny it. His sheep hear His voice, however it reaches them. For that, “Praise the Lord, O my soul.”

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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