Over the holiday period we are repeating some of my favourite Midweek Hymns. I picked this one not only because of the story but also for the wonderful singing of the Happy Iowa Farmer and Michael Eldridge.
After I wrote about O Love That Will Not Let Me Go last week, reader Roy Davey-Jenkins commented that ‘Great declarations and heart-stirring hymns often come out of deep trauma’, and mentioned that Horatio G Spafford wrote the hymn It Is Well With My Soul after his four daughters were drowned on the high seas.
I looked up the name and found an extraordinary story.
Spafford was a well-to-do lawyer in mid-nineteenth century Chicago. He and his Norwegian wife Anna had five children, a boy and four girls. They were friends and supporters of the prominent American evangelist and publisher Dwight L Moody.
In 1871 the Spaffords’ two-year-old son died of scarlet fever, and the Great Chicago Fire destroyed property in which Spafford had invested, ruining him. Two years later (presumably having recovered somewhat financially) the couple decided to visit Europe, where Moody was due to preach. They booked a passage on the steamship Ville du Havre, built 18 years earlier as a paddle steamer in London and subsequently converted to propeller drive. At the last minute Spafford was delayed because of business, so his wife went aboard with the four girls, 11-year-old Anna, known as Annie, Margaret Lee (Maggie) aged nine, Elizabeth (Bessie), five, and two-year-old Tanetta.
The ship sailed from New York on November 15, 1873, with 313 passengers and crew. In the North Atlantic a week later, at about 2am on November 22, Ville du Havre was sighted heading across the bows of the Scottish clipper Loch Earn, and dangerously close. The captain of Loch Earn ordered a sharp turn but it was too late and Loch Earn rammed Ville du Havre amidships, nearly breaking it in two. Awoken by the collision, the passengers came up on deck to find the ship sinking rapidly. They tried to push the lifeboats into the water, but they had recently been painted, and were stuck fast to the deck. Finally a few were prised free, but there were not nearly enough. Ville du Havre sank in less than 12 minutes. Loch Earn picked up 61 passengers and 26 crew but 226 souls perished.
Loch Earn was also mortally damaged with its bow smashed. Fortunately another cargo ship, the Tremountain, was nearby and the Ville Du Havre survivors plus the Loch Earn’s passengers were transferred. As the Loch Earn began to sink her crew abandoned ship and all survived. (The Loch Earn belonged to the Loch Line, which suffered a shocking series of disasters. By the time it closed in 1911, 17 of its 25 ships had sunk.)
The Ville du Havre victims included all four of the Spafford girls. Their mother Anna was picked up unconscious and floating on a plank. On arrival in Cardiff nine days later she telegraphed her husband ‘Saved alone. What shall I do?’
Horatio Spafford immediately left Chicago to bring his wife home. During the Atlantic crossing, the captain called him into his cabin to tell him that they were at the point where his four daughters had drowned.
Spafford wrote to a relative: ‘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, folded, the dear lambs.’ He wrote It Is Well With My Soul during this voyage.
The couple had three more children after the tragedy, two daughters and a son. The boy died at the age of three, again from scarlet fever.
In August 1881, they set out for Jerusalem in a party of 13 adults and three children and set up the American Colony, later joined by Swedish Christians. The American Colony engaged in philanthropic work amongst the people of Jerusalem regardless of their religious affiliation. Its members played a vital role in supporting the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities through the deprivations of World War I. One of their greatest achievements was establishing the Spafford Children’s Center, with which descendants of Horatio and Anna Spafford are still involved.
Spafford died from malaria in October 16, 1888, four days before his 60th birthday, and was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery, Jerusalem. His wife took over leadership of the Colony and died in 1923, aged 80.
The melody for It Is Well With My Soul was written by Philip Bliss, an American singer, teacher and composer. He too was a follower of Dwight L Moody. Among his other works was the hymn Pull for the Shore, Sailor, which survivors of the Titanic recalled being sung in the lifeboats. Here is an account from Edwina Mackenzie, though I can’t find out when the recording was made.
On December 29, 1876, Bliss, then aged 38, and his wife Lucy were passengers on the Pacific Express train, hauled by two locomotives, in north-eastern Ohio. In deep snow the train was crossing the Ashtabula river when the bridge collapsed. The lead locomotive made it across the bridge, but the second locomotive and the 11 carriages plunged 76ft (23m) into the water. The wooden carriages were set alight by their heating stoves and lamps, and soon the wreckage became an inferno. Bliss escaped, but returned to try to rescue his wife. No trace of either body was discovered. Ninety-two of the 159 passengers died. The Blisses were survived by their two sons, aged four and one.
Surprisingly, Philip Bliss’s trunk was found intact. It contained a manuscript of the lyrics of the only well-known gospel song for which he did not write a tune, I Will Sing of My Redeemer. It was set to music by James McGranahan the following year and became one of the first songs recorded by Thomas Alva Edison.
It has been hard to choose recordings of It Is Well With My Soul, but I will start with this one by Chris Rice, who was recommended to me by our stalwart US reader, Audre Myers.
This performance is by a talented church congregation in Springfield, Missouri.
Here is a stunning a cappella version by a US quartet called The Ladies, who won the Young Women In Harmony International Rising Star contest in New Zealand in 2016. They are Quincie Smith, Caroline Hunt, Kim Newcomb and Ashley Brockman, but I don’t know if that is the right order in the video. I also don’t know why they are singing in a basement corridor.
By request of my husband Alan, here is the Innocence Mission.
And this is my favourite, a farmer from Iowa singing in his ‘steel cathedral’, a huge grain bin which has marvellous acoustics.
All I can find out about him is this from his YouTube account: ‘I am a family farmer in Southern Iowa where my family and I grow corn and soybeans and raise cattle. I love having the wonderful opportunity to live and work in the great outdoors every day, and it is my honor to grow your grains and beef!’
What a great man.
PS: Thanks to TCW reader Jill for directing me to this great version in which Michael Eldridge sings all four parts – quite an achievement!