And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well

“SAVED ALONE”: That was the telegram that Anna Spafford sent from Cardiff to her husband Horatio, back home in Chicago, on a day in late November 1873. Horatio Spafford wasn’t idling, and he wasn’t preoccupied with high-stakes business, either. His fortunes in real estate investments had met disaster in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and he was fighting to get his family afloat again, so he had to attend to zoning reviews and suchlike. So he sent his wife and their four daughters ahead on a ship to England, planning to meet them later on.

It was a trip they had planned to go on before the fire struck. Horatio also hoped to assist his friend, the evangelist and school-builder Dwight L. Moody, who was making his way through the country to preach and to raise money for the work of the Lord. The ship was named the Ville du Havre—a bitterly ironic name, because it never would reach any harbor. On November 22, it was struck by an iron-clad ship on the high seas, and more than two hundred of its passengers and sailors perished. Those included all four of the Spafford children.

And that is why Anna Spafford sent that telegram. And that is when Horatio Spafford, sailing to England to meet Anna, wrote the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul,” also known as “When Peace, Like a River.” His moral courage was, in my eyes, so remarkable, I hardly can begin to imagine it. For as his ship passed the area where the disaster had occurred, he took out a sheet of letterhead from his Chicago firm, and in a hand that looks like the dashing of a man in the straits of tremendous feeling, he wrote the first four stanzas of his hymn. He wasn’t just reaching for a poetic image when he wrote about the billows rolling, and the storms and the clouds; they were in his midst, right before his eyes, and waves of the ocean had covered over his four dear daughters.

Passion & Meaning

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Anthony Esolen is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Thales College and the author of over 30 books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House) and, with his wife Debra, publishes the web magazine Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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