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It is well with my soul

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Horatio Gates Spafford - The story behind the hymn "It is well with my soul"


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 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. When four years old, their son, Horatio Jnr, died suddenly of scarlet fever. Then only a year later, in October 1871, a massive fire swept through downtown Chicago, devastating the city, including 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, the evangelist D. L. Moody, would be preaching there in the autumn. Horatio 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, and 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. Two hundred and twenty-six people lost their lives, as the Ville du Havre sank within only twelve minutes.
All four of Horatio Spafford’s daughters perished, but remarkably Anna Spafford survived the tragedy. Those rescued, including Anna, who was found unconscious, floating on a plank of wood, subsequently arrived in Cardiff, South Wales. Upon arrival there, Anna immediately sent a telegram to her husband, which included the words “Saved alone….”
Receiving Anna’s message, he set off at once to be reunited with his wife. One particular day, during the voyage, the captain summoned him to the bridge of the vessel. Pointing to his charts, he explained that they were then passing over the very spot where the Ville du Havre had sunk, and where his daughters had died. It is said that Spafford returned to his cabin and wrote the hymn “It is well with my soul” there and then, the first line of which is, “When peace like a river, attendeth my way..” There are other accounts that say that it was written at a later date, but obviously, the voyage was one of deep suffering and is the clear inspiration of the moving and 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….. dear lambs”.
After Anna was rescued, Pastor Nathaniel Weiss, one of the ministers traveling with the surviving group, remembered hearing Anna say, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday 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 she and Horatio were not spared even more sadness, as on February 11th, 1880, their only son, Horatio (named after the brother who had died, and also after his father), he also died at the age of four.


In August 1881 the Spaffords left America with a number of other like-minded Christians and settled in Jerusalem. There they served the needy, helped the poor, and 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 Horatio and Anna’s daughters had died – Ville du Havre.
Horatio Spafford died of malaria on 16th October 1888. Anna Spafford continued to work in the surrounding areas of Jerusalem until her own death in 1923. Both Horatio and Anna were laid to rest in Jerusalem. It can truly be said, in the words that Spafford penned that, “It is well with their souls.”
Philippians 1:12–26 (CSB): ADVANCE OF THE GOSPEL
12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually advanced the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is because I am in Christ. 14 Most of the brothers have gained confidence in the Lord from my imprisonment and dare even more to speak the word, fearlessly. 15 To be sure, some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will. 16 These preach out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, thinking that they will cause me trouble in my imprisonment. 18 What does it matter? Only that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice 19 because I know this will lead to my salvation, through your prayers and help from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 20 My eager expectation and hope is that I will not be ashamed about anything, but that now as always, with all courage, Christ will be highly honored in my body, whether by life or by death.
21 For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 Now if I live on in the flesh, this means fruitful work for me; and I don’t know which one I should choose. 23 I am torn between the two. I long to depart and be with Christ—which is far better—24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. 25 Since I am persuaded of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that, because of my coming to you again, your boasting in Christ Jesus may abound.
Philippians 1:12–26 :
More than anything else, Paul’s desire as a missionary was to preach the Gospel in Rome.
The hub of the great Empire, Rome was the key city of its day.
If Paul could conquer it for Christ, it would mean reaching millions with the message of salvation.
It was critically important on Paul’s agenda, for he said, “After I have been there [Jerusalem], I must also see Rome” (Acts 19:21).
From Corinth he wrote, “So, as much as in me is, I am ready [eager] to preach the Gospel to you that are in Rome also” (Rom. 1:15).
Paul wanted to go to Rome as a preacher, but instead he went as a prisoner!
He could have written a long letter about that experience alone.
Instead, he sums it all up as “the things which happened unto me” (Phil. 1:12).
The record of these things is given in Acts 21:17–28:31, and it begins with Paul’s illegal arrest in the temple in Jerusalem.
The Jews thought he had desecrated their temple by bringing in Gentiles, and the Romans thought he was an Egyptian renegade who was on their “most-wanted” list.
Paul became the focal point of both political and religious plotting and remained a prisoner in Caesarea for two years.
When he finally appealed to Caesar (which was the privilege of every Roman citizen), he was sent to Rome.
En route, the ship was wrecked! The account of that storm and Paul’s courage and faith is one of the most dramatic in the Bible (Acts 27).
After three months of waiting on the Island of Malta, Paul finally embarked for Rome and the trial he had requested before Caesar.
To many, all of this would have looked like failure, but not to this man with a “single mind,” concerned with sharing Christ and the Gospel.
Paul did not find his joy in ideal circumstances; he found his joy in winning others to Christ.
And if his circumstances promoted the furtherance of the Gospel, that was all that mattered!
The word furtherance means “pioneer advance.” It is a Greek military term referring to the army engineers who go before the troops to open the way into new territory.
Instead of finding himself confined as a prisoner, Paul discovered that his circumstances really opened up new areas of ministry.
Everyone has heard of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the famous British preacher, but few know the story of his wife, Susannah. Early in their married life, Mrs. Spurgeon became an invalid. It looked as though her only ministry would be encouraging her husband and praying for his work. But God gave her a burden to share her husband’s books with pastors who were unable to purchase them. This burden soon led to the founding of the “Book Fund.” As a work of faith, the “Book Fund” provided thousands of pastors with tools for their work. All this was supervised by Mrs. Spurgeon from her home. It was a pioneer ministry.
God still wants His children to take the Gospel into new areas.
He wants us to be pioneers, and sometimes He arranges circumstances so that we can be nothing else but pioneers.
In fact, that is how the Gospel originally came to Philippi!
Paul had tried to enter other territory, but God had repeatedly shut the door (Acts 16:6–10).
Paul wanted to take the message eastward into Asia, but God directed him to take it westward into Europe.
What a difference it would have made in the history of mankind if Paul had been permitted to follow his plan!
God sometimes uses strange tools to help us pioneer the Gospel.
In Paul’s case, there were three tools that helped him take the Gospel even into the elite Praetorian Guard, Caesar’s special troops:
his chains (Phil. 1:12–14),
his critics (Phil. 1:15–19), and
his crisis (Phil. 1:20–26).
Paul’s Chains (Phil. 1:12–14)
The same God who used Moses’ rod, and David’s sling, used Paul’s chains.
Little did the Romans realize that the chains they put on Paul’s wrists would release Paul instead of bind him! Even as he wrote during a later imprisonment, “I suffer trouble, as an evildoer, even unto bonds; but the Word of God is not bound” KJV (2 Tim. 2:9).
He did not complain about his chains; instead he consecrated them to God and asked God to use them for the pioneer advance of the Gospel.
And God answered his prayers.
To begin with, these chains gave Paul contact with the lost.
He was chained to a Roman soldier twenty-four hours a day!
The shifts changed every six hours, which meant Paul could witness to at least four men each day! Imagine yourself as one of those soldiers, chained to a man who prayed “without ceasing,” who was constantly interviewing people about their spiritual condition, and who was repeatedly writing letters to Christians and churches throughout the Empire!
It was not long before some of these soldiers put their faith in Christ.
Paul was able to get the Gospel into the elite Praetorian Guard, something he could not have done had he been a free man.
But the chains gave Paul contact with another group of people:
the officials in Caesar’s court. He was in Rome as an official prisoner, and his case was an important one.
The Roman government was going to determine the official status of this new “Christian” sect.
Was it merely another sect of the Jews? Or was it something new and possibly dangerous?
Imagine how pleased Paul must have been knowing that the court officials were forced to study the doctrines of the Christian faith!
Sometimes God has to put “chains” on His people to get them to accomplish a “pioneer advance” that could never happen any other way.
Young mothers may feel chained to the home as they care for their children, but God can use those “chains” to reach people with the message of salvation.
Susannah Wesley was the mother of nineteen children, before the days of labor-saving devices and disposable diapers! Out of that large family came John and Charles Wesley, whose combined ministries shook the British Isles.
At six weeks of age, Fanny Crosby was blinded, but even as a youngster she determined not to be confined by the chains of darkness. In time, she became a mighty force for God through her hymns and Gospel songs.
The secret is this: when you have the single mind, you look on your circumstances as God-given opportunities for the furtherance of the Gospel; and you rejoice at what God is going to do instead of complaining about what God did not do.
Paul’s chains not only gave contact with the lost, but they also gave courage to the saved.
Many of the believers in Rome took fresh courage when they saw Paul’s faith and determination (Phil. 1:14).
They were “much more bold to speak the word without fear.” That word speak does not mean “preach.” Rather, it means “everyday conversation.”
No doubt many of the Romans were discussing Paul’s case, because such legal matters were of primary concern to this nation of lawmakers.
And the Christians in Rome who were sympathetic to Paul took advantage of this conversation to say a good word for Jesus Christ.
Discouragement has a way of spreading, but so does encouragement!
Because of Paul’s joyful attitude, the believers in Rome took fresh courage and witnessed boldly for Christ.
Warren Wiersbe writes: While recovering in the hospital from a serious auto accident, I received a letter from a total stranger who seemed to know just what to say to make my day brighter. In fact, I received several letters from him, and each one was better than the one before. When I was able to get around, I met him personally. I was amazed to discover that he was blind, a diabetic, handicapped because of a leg amputation (and since then the other leg has been removed), and that he lived with and cared for his elderly mother! If a man ever wore chains, this man did! But if a man ever was free to pioneer the Gospel, this man was! He was able to share Christ in high school assemblies, before service clubs, at the “Y,” and before professional people in meetings that would have been closed to an ordained minister. My friend had the single mind; he lived for Christ and the Gospel. Consequently, he shared the joy of furthering the Gospel.
Our chains may not be as dramatic or difficult, but there is no reason why God cannot use them in the same way.
Paul’s Critics (Phil. 1:15–19)
It is hard to believe that anyone would oppose Paul, but there were believers in Rome doing just that.
The churches there were divided.
Some preached Christ sincerely, wanting to see people saved.
Some preached Christ insincerely, wanting to make the situation more difficult for Paul.
The latter group was using the Gospel to further their own selfish purposes.
Perhaps they belonged to the “legalistic” wing of the church that opposed Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles and his emphasis on the grace of God as opposed to obedience to the Jewish Law.
Envy and strife go together, just as love and unity go together.
Paul uses an interesting word in Philippians 1:16—contention. It means “to canvas for office, to get people to support you.” Paul’s aim was to glorify Christ and get people to follow Him; his critics’ aim was to promote themselves and win a following of their own.
Instead of asking, “Have you trusted Christ?” they asked, “Whose side are you on—ours or Paul’s?”
Unfortunately, this kind of “religious politics” is still seen today. And the people who practice it need to realize that they are only hurting themselves.
When you have the single mind, you look on your critics as another opportunity for the furtherance of the Gospel.
Like a faithful soldier, Paul was “set [appointed] for the defense of the Gospel” (Phil. 1:17).
He was able to rejoice, not in the selfishness of his critics, but in the fact that Christ was being preached!
There was no envy in Paul’s heart.
It mattered not that some were for him and some were against him.
All that mattered was the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
It is a matter of historic record that the two great English evangelists, John Wesley and George Whitefield, disagreed on doctrinal matters. Both of them were very successful, preaching to thousands of people and seeing multitudes come to Christ. It is reported that somebody asked Wesley if he expected to see Whitefield in heaven, and the evangelist replied, “No, I do not.”
“Then you do not think Whitefield is a converted man?”
“Of course he is a converted man!” Wesley said. “But I do not expect to see him in heaven—because he will be so close to the throne of God and I so far away that I will not be able to see him!”
Though he differed with his brother in some matters, Wesley did not have any envy in his heart, nor did he seek to oppose Whitefield’s ministry.
Criticism is usually very hard to take, particularly when we are in difficult circumstances, as Paul was.
How was the apostle able to rejoice even in the face of such diverse criticism?
He possessed the single mind!
Philippians 1:19 indicates that Paul expected his case to turn out victoriously (“to my salvation”) because of the prayers of his friends and the supply of the Holy Spirit of God.
The word supply gives us our English word chorus.
Whenever a Greek city was going to put on a special festival, somebody had to pay for the singers and dancers. The donation called for had to be a lavish one, and so this word came to mean “to provide generously and lavishly.” Paul was not depending on his own dwindling resources; he was depending on the generous resources of God, ministered by the Holy Spirit.
Paul shared in the pioneer advance of the Gospel in Rome through his chains and his critics; but he had a third tool that he used.
Paul’s Crisis (Phil. 1:20–26)
Because of Paul’s chains, Christ was known (Phil. 1:13), and because of Paul’s critics, Christ was preached (Phil. 1:18).
But because of Paul’s crisis, Christ was magnified! (Phil. 1:20)
It was possible that Paul would be found a traitor to Rome and then executed.
His preliminary trial had apparently gone in his favor. The final verdict, however, was yet to come.
But Paul’s body was not his own, and his only desire (because he had the single mind) was to magnify Christ in his body.
Does Christ need to be magnified?
After all, how can a mere human being ever magnify the Son of God?
Well, the stars are much bigger than the telescope, and yet the telescope magnifies them and brings them closer.
The believer’s body is to be a telescope that brings Jesus Christ close to people.
To the average person, Christ is a misty figure in history who lived centuries ago.
But as the unsaved watch the believer go through a crisis, they can see Jesus magnified and brought so much closer.
To the Christian with the single mind, Christ is with us here and now.
The telescope brings distant things closer, and the microscope makes tiny things look big.
To the unbeliever, Jesus is not very big.
Other people and other things are far more important. But as the unbeliever watches the Christian go through a crisis experience, he ought to be able to see how big Jesus Christ really is.
The believer’s body is a “lens” that makes a “little Christ” look very big, and a “distant Christ” come very close.
Paul was not afraid of life or death! Either way, he wanted to magnify Christ in his body. No wonder he had joy!
Paul confesses that he is facing a difficult decision.
To remain alive was necessary for the believers’ benefit in Philippi, but to depart and be with Christ was far better.
Paul decided that Christ would have him remain, not only for the “furtherance of the Gospel” (Phil. 1:12) but also for the “furtherance and joy of [their] faith” (Phil. 1:25).
He wanted them to make some “pioneer advance” into new areas of spiritual growth. (By the way, Paul admonished Timothy, the young pastor, to be sure to pioneer new spiritual territory in his own life and ministry. See 1 Tim. 4:15, where “profiting” is our word “pioneer advance.”)
What a man Paul is! He is willing to postpone going to heaven in order to help Christians grow, and he is willing to go to hell in order to win the lost to Christ! (Rom. 9:1–3)
Of course, death had no terrors for Paul.
It simply meant “departing.” This word was used by the soldiers; it meant “to take down your tent and move on.”
What a picture of Christian death! The “tent” we live in is taken down at death, and the spirit goes home to be with Christ in heaven. (Read 2 Cor. 5:1–8.)
The sailors also used this word; it meant “to loosen a ship and set sail.”
But departure was also a political term; it described the setting free of a prisoner.
God’s people are in bondage because of the limitations of the body and the temptations of the flesh, but death will free them.
Or they will be freed at the return of Christ (Rom. 8:18–23) if that should come first.
Finally, departure was a word used by the farmers; it meant “to unyoke the oxen.”
Paul had taken Christ’s yoke, which is an easy yoke to bear (Matt. 11:28–30), but how many burdens he carried in his ministry!
(If you need your memory refreshed, read 2 Cor. 11:22–12:10.)
To depart to be with Christ would mean laying aside the burdens, his earthly work completed.
No matter how you look at it, nothing can steal a man’s joy if he possesses the single mind!
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Maltbie Babcock, who wrote “This Is My Father’s World,” has said, “Life is what we are alive to.”
In Paul’s case, Christ was his life. Christ excited him and made his life worth living.
Philippians 1:21 becomes a valuable test of our lives. “For me to live is and to die is .” Fill in the blanks yourself.
“For me to live is money and to die is to leave it all behind.”
“For me to live is fame and to die is to be forgotten.”
“For me to live is power and to die is to lose it all.”
No, we must echo Paul’s convictions if we are going to have joy in spite of circumstances, and if we are going to share in the furtherance of the Gospel.
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain!”
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