Overcomers: Saved Alone. What Shall I Do?

Horatio and Anna Spafford

Horatio and Anna Spafford

All the world is full of suffering.
It is also full of overcoming.
Helen Keller

In the 1860s, Horatio and Anna Spafford lived in Chicago with their five children, Annie, Maggie, Bessie, Tanetta, and Horatio Jr.

Horatio was a successful lawyer, real estate tycoon, philanthropist, and well connected in his community – offering his home as a regular meeting place for activist movements.  Though the family was devout Presbyterian, popular evangelist speaker, Dwight L. Moody, was a good friend.

By 19th century standards, the Spaffords lived the idyllic life.  Well, that is until 1870 when their only son, 4-year-old Horatio Jr., died of scarlet fever.

While still reeling from that loss, Chicago’s Great Fire destroyed much of Spafford’s real estate holdings.  The financial blow was devastating.  But they considered themselves blessed.  Their home was spared and they still had their family.

Others weren’t so lucky.  Hundreds died in the Chicago fire, and thousands were left homeless.  So the Spaffords opened their home and used what assets they had left to feed the hungry, care for the sick and injured, and help the needy.

Within three years Anna Spafford’s health was failing, and perhaps in hopes of easing the pain of recent tragedies, the Spaffords decided to sail to Europe and join some friends in England, where Moody would be preaching.

Spafford Kids

Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta Spafford

The ship was due to sail in November, but Horatio was suddenly detained on business and persuaded Anna and the girls to go on ahead.  He would soon follow.

Then the unthinkable happened.

22 November 1873 the ship Ville du Havre was struck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean by a British iron sailing ship.  The Ville du Havre, with Anna and her four daughters aboard, sunk within minutes.  Only 81 of the 307 passengers and crew survived. All four of the Spafford daughters drowned.

Anna Spafford's Telegram

Anna Spafford’s Telegram

Saved Alone.  What Shall I Do?
Miraculously, Anna was one of the survivors.  Nine days after the shipwreck, she landed in Wales where she cabled Horatio,
“Saved alone.  What shall I do?”

What indeed.

As soon as Horatio received word, he immediately caught the next ship out to bring his wife home.  Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, the captain of the ship called Horatio to the bridge, at one point, to give him sobering news.

“A careful reckoning has been made and I believe we are now passing the place where the Ville du Havre was wrecked.  The water is three miles deep.”

Without saying a word, Horatio returned to his cabin and penned words that became the beautiful hymn, “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 say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is well, with my soul
It is well, with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
I nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

But the 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.

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

After the shipwreck, Anna would go on to give birth to three more children, a son who died at the age of four (again) of scarlet fever, and two daughters who survived.

The Overcomers
The Presbyterian Church, to which the Spaffords belonged, claimed that the family’s tragedies were all due to divine punishment (that smacks of Job’s story in the Old Testament).  Like Job, Horatio wholeheartedly disagreed.  He believed in a loving God.  So the family broke away from that congregation and moved to Jerusalem where they founded a Christian community which the press later dubbed “The Overcomers.”

It was here that Horatio and Anna continued to do what they did best: serve the needy and poor, care for the sick, and take in homeless children.

Upon hearing of Christian good works in a Jewish community, a Swedish writer traveled to Jerusalem to study the Spafford’s movement and ended up writing a book, Jerusalem, that won her the Nobel Prize.

Look at that.  One couple’s faith to invert their trials ended up blessing many lives.

It is difficult for me to fathom a more trying existence than that of Horatio and Anna.  Yet in their day people knew them – not as mourners – but as Overcomers.

Ville du Havre
After Philip Bliss composed music for Spafford’s “It Is Well With My Soul,” Spafford named the hymn Ville du Havre (after the ship that claimed the lives of his four girls).  Amazing.

Instead of seeing the vessel with anger or despair, he labeled it with Faith.

How appropriate for our hero Horatio.  For it was bold, gutsy faith that enabled him to walk to the edge of his darkness and turn to the Light.  With that illumination, he found the wherewithal to transform pain into poetry, heartache into harmony, sorrow into song.  And the phoenix that emerged from those ashes became a life of even greater purpose.

“My burden is my purpose.  Without it, I wouldn’t be.”
Solange Nicole

The gospel works.  Faith works.  And thank goodness for the Horatio Spaffords of the world who show us that there is a Way up and out of any trial that may darken life – and that is to turn to the Light.

With a little focused faith, who knows, you and I could join ranks with one of the most inspiring groups around – the Overcomers – and add to the music.

Inspiring video of Spafford’s Hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul.”




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