by Kate Uttinger
It's a familiar story, one that many hymn books recount and preachers use to illustrate a hearty faith in God during difficult times. On a November night in 1873, the trans-Atlantic steamer Ville de Havre collided with a British vessel, the Loch Earn. In less than 12 minutes, the sea swallowed the Ville de Havre in her icy, black waters some thousand miles from the French coast. Crew from the other ship, alight in skiffs and other makeshift rescue vessels, frantically scoured for the living and the dead amidst a choppy mess of splintered wood, steamer trunks and strewn clothing.
The British sailors managed to rescue a few fortunate souls, including a young woman draped over some floating wreckage, alive, but unconscious. Many others fared not so well; 232 souls perished in what some have called the worst maritime catastrophe until the Titanic sunk in 1912. Among the Ville de Havre's dead were the four young daughters of Chicago lawyer Horatio Spafford. He had sent the children and their mother, Anna Spafford, to vacation in France, where he would later join them after he finished some pressing business affairs at home.
When the crew finally succeeded in reviving the nearly half-drowned, unconscious woman, she cried out for her children – four girls, one just a baby, "torn violently from her arms" by the roiling sea. Once ashore, Anna Spafford sent her husband a brief but poignant telegraph: "Saved alone."
As Horatio Spafford sailed across the Atlantic to reunite with his grieving wife, the ship's captain called Spafford to his cabin. By the captain's estimate, they were now sailing over the place where the Ville de Havre went down. Overcome with a torrent of emotion, Horatio Spafford returned to his cabin and composed a piece of poetry destined to become one of the church's most beloved hymns, "It Is Well with My Soul."
Anna Spafford's story begins on a poor farm in Norway in 1842. Her parents, eager to have a better life for their children, did as so many immigrants before them: They fled to America.
With baby Anna and two older children, the Olglendes settled in the growing community of Chicago. Anna was a bright child. Exceptionally beautiful with flaxen hair and intense blue eyes, Anna became the favorite of a wealthy neighbor who agreed to pay for Anna's formal schooling at an elite Chicago boarding school when the family set out to make a permanent home in the snowy wilderness of Minnesota.
Anna's older sister, who had been caring for the girl and her ailing father after their mothers' death, smiled upon such an opportunity for Anna. Her father, however, was not so sure. Though Lars Olglende worked to assimilate into his new home, even changing the family name to the more Americanized "Lawson," he worried that a fancy education would spoil Anna. She, he feared, would no longer be content with the culture of her forebears, their Lutheran heritage, their simple way of life. But Lawson also feared for Anna's soul: She had recently refused to attend church or pray or be submissive to his leadership. Yet the lure of education was too much for the 13-year-old Anna, and Lawson relented.
It was not long, however, before Anna was called from her comfortable Chicago life at the boarding school to the Minnesota wilderness. Ill health so weakened Lars Lawson that he needed Anna's help on the homestead. So, the reluctant girl returned home, exchanging creature comforts for the harsh realities of frontier life: poverty, disease and isolation. Anna believed these were the darkest days of her life. Once her father died a few years later, Anna returned to Chicago, vowing never to be poor again.
Handsome, well educated and a bit of a visionary, Horatio Spafford was a pillar in the Presbyterian Church. In addition to a successful law practice, Spafford was heavily involved in the Chicago Sunday school movement and the YMCA. On Sundays, Spafford taught Sunday school lessons, and during the week, he spent his free time listening with rapt attention to a uneducated, yet energetic former shoe-salesman stir up sleepy crowds with evangelical fervor.
This preacher, Dwight L. Moody, and Spafford quickly became life-long friends, sharing a vision for the expansion of the gospel in the dark Chicago area, "preaching in the red-light district, plunging into saloons and brothels and even barging inside miserable shanties to demand that their astonished occupants accept Jesus." Their friendship would have a profound effect on both Horatio and Anna.
When a friend invited 16-year-old Anna to attend a Sunday school lecture given by Horatio Spafford, Anna reluctantly agreed. For Horatio, it was love at first sight. Though Anna never again attended his Sunday school lessons, Spafford was dazzled by Anna's beauty and intelligence. He made a point to seek the young woman out and patiently woo her. Four years later, in 1861, the two were married.
The future seemed bright for Horatio and Anna. Horatio's law practice grew, and he became well-known as a leader in medical jurisprudence. He also had gained a reputation for being a rather shrewd real estate investor, so much so that he was tasked with investing and managing the financial portfolios of friends and family. Shortly after their marriage, the Spaffords purchased a large, sprawling house in Lake View, a picturesque suburb of Chicago. It was in this house where Horatio and Anna's four daughters were born. And it was in this house where Anna would later welcome in droves misplaced refugees from the Great Chicago Fire that destroyed much of the city, including Horatio's law offices. And it was to be in this house where Horatio and Anna Spafford's theology would take a marked turn.
The Civil War prompted a flurry of activity at the Lake View house. Spafford, along with Moody, became a vocal champion of abolition and a political fervor that fed upon a theology that blended social improvement with the gospel. Horatio went on speaking circuits, rousing support for Union troops, denouncing the evils of slavery and waving the temperance banner. Often, the Spaffords hosted groups of like-minded religious visionaries at their Lake View home, but biographer Jane Fletcher Geniesse notes in her fascinating account that Anna Spafford lacked the theological "passion" that inflamed her husband. Horatio and Moody also dabbled a bit in church history, particularly the teachings of Jacob Arminius. Thus, the Presbyterian elder and confessionally postmillenial Spafford began gradual but steady movement away from the historic doctrines of the Presbyterian divines and the Reformed faith.
The seeds of dissatisfaction with the Presbyterian church were perhaps already sown when Spafford and Moody heard of a revolutionary, evangelistic preacher in England. John Nelson Darby was a firebrand – blasting the Anglican church as a dead, formalistic entity and completely beyond hope for reformation. Founder of the Plymouth Brethren movement, Darby's vocal premillenialism, which promised an imminent return of Christ, intrigued Spafford. In 1870, Spafford spent four months in London, soaking up Darby's theology and meeting another influential voice of the day, Professor Charles Piazzi Smith, an amateur archaeologist and the Astronomer Royal of Scotland.
What fascinated Spafford the most about Smith's lectures were his ideas about the Second Coming of Christ. According to Smith, the ancient landmarks of the east –particularly the pyramids – held secret codes detailing the exact time of Jesus' return. Through careful archaeology and some clever math, nearly all the future prophecies in the Bible could be revealed. Eschatology, the study of the "end times," quickly became Spafford's consuming passion, so much so that Spafford convinced Smith to inform him immediately of any sign of Christ's imminent return.
The devastation of the Great Chicago Fire and the ensuing economic depression in the early 1870s sent the Spaffords' own private economy into a tailspin. Horatio's real estate deals crumbled when fire destroyed the Lincoln Park property he was speculating on. His own property was heavily mortgaged in order to keep his various land deals afloat. Confident that he could eventually regain the money, Spafford dipped into the private accounts he was supposed to manage for his friends and family – including his own niece and nephew – to cover his losses and hide from Anna the extent of their financial ruin. And like so many others, Horatio gambled his winnings on the railroad boom with highly inflated currency, only to suffer another setback when the bubble burst.
It was in the midst of this turmoil that Horatio set his sights on France. In Europe, he reasoned, he could provide a little better for his unwitting family and escape the mounting pressures of creditors and investors hounding him for their money. Yet at the last minute, Horatio told Anna that he could not join them on the Ville de Havre. He had found a buyer for some property and hoped the transaction could raise their financial prospects, allowing him to have a "clearer conscience" – at least that's what he told Anna.
Though Anna resisted Horatio's attempts to stay on in America, he finally prevailed. Horatio did not tell Anna, however, that just as his family was about to embark on their ill-fated voyage, he received a telegram informing him that the prospective buyer had suddenly died. It seemed to Horatio that things could not get any worse.
The survivors of the Ville de Havre were rerouted to London after the shipwreck. As Anna waited there for her husband to join her, D.L. Moody – once again in England leading revivals – paid Anna a visit. Anna calmly received him, apparently at peace with the harsh providence of recent weeks. Yet Moody feared that once Anna returned to her empty nest, she would die of sorrow.
Moody pleaded with Anna, "Annie, you must go into my work. ... You must be so busy helping those who have gone into the depths of despair that you will overcome your own affliction by bringing comfort and salvation to others."
With as much alacrity as she could physically and financially bear, Anna heeded Moody's advice. She became involved in Chicago's Womens' Christian Temperance Union and went out to the slums of Chicago, feeding the poor, nursing the sick and doing what she could to help women escape from abuse. All the while, Anna and Horatio attempted to settle back into a normal and more modest life. Yet the loss of their children and their fortune shook Horatio and Anna both.
Their friends at the Fullerton Presbyterian Church, which old-school Presbyterian Cyrus McCormick helped found, wondered what Horatio and Anna had done to receive such crushing blows from the hand of God. So while Anna spent her energies doing things to overcome her misery, Horatio turned inward. He became so consumed with the dangers of accumulating earthly goods that he even enjoined Anna to "avoid attachments" with anything that was not eternal.
Horatio also began to question some of the doctrines of the church, namely limited atonement and the reality of hell. It was untenable to Spafford that his perished children might not be in heaven, and by the time his theology had fully developed, Horatio denied the existence of hell and eternal punishment and even claimed that the devil himself would be saved. Horatio began to be more vocal about his new beliefs in church where he served as an elder, and he gained quite a following. After a particularly nasty church business meeting (called by Horatio to oust the orthodox pastor), Horatio and Anna left the church, sweeping out with them a fair number of the congregation. Lake View now became a church building, and Horatio, unsurprisingly, the new pastor.
Though Horatio and Anna's departure from the established church raised a few eyebrows in Chicago, the new group whom Horatio called the "Bride," drew in a motley collection of people also dissatisfied with their own churches. Horatio had stopped practicing law and devoted his time almost exclusively to Bible study (especially the book of Revelation). He became even more insistent in his premillenial and Arminian doctrines and was convinced that the "Bride" must return to Jerusalem to await Christ's return.
This eschatalogical emphasis is not surprising if one considers a verse of Spafford's classic hymn often omitted from many hymnals:
But, Lord, 'tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh trump of the angel! Oh voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!
The group that had been gathering in Lake View also took on a distinctly charismatic character. Not only was Horatio receiving "words from God," some others – particularly the women in the group – became "prophetesses" who also received divine revelation. One woman knew God was speaking to her when her nose began to "sniffle." Another's teeth would loudly clatter, much to the annoyance of her husband. She asked God to give her a different sign, so now any new revelation was accompanied by her eyes rolling back in her head. The charismatic fervor so erupted among the "Bride" that women flopped and fainted on the floor, and even claimed one sign "that oranges were to be used in their services, and for a time the congregation sanctified oranges as the presence of the Holy Ghost."
Anna did not initially join in with these prophetesses. In fact, she seemed a little put off by the spectacle of it all. Instead, she spent her time quietly running the house, ministering to the hurting women that so often took shelter there and steadily watching their savings dwindle down to nothing. It was a challenging blow to the refined and poverty-fearing Anna. But in 1881, Horatio had received the sign he was most waiting for – the call to go to Jerusalem.