Horatio Spafford wrote a beautiful hymn entitled ‘It Is Well With My Soul,’ but most people do not know there is more to the story of the man who penned these beautiful words.
Spafford was a prosperous lawyer, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, and a confidant of people such as Dwight L. Moody. He and his wife Anna lived comfortably with their four young daughters Anne, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta, in Chicago. In October 1871, a great fire broke out in Chicago, devastating the city, and with it Spafford’s sizable investments. In 1873, for the sake of his wife’s health, Spafford planned an extended stay in Europe for his family, a trip that he actually couldn’t afford. At the last moment, he had to stay behind due to his real estate business, while Anna and the four girls sailed ahead on the steamer Ville du Havre.
“The luxury liner was steaming through a calm, star-studded night when it happened. Fast asleep after days of rough weather and turbid fog, passengers were thrown from their beds by a violent shuddering and noise like an explosion. The prow of an iron-hulled sailing vessel had rammed them amidships and split the hull. Passengers who were not killed in the crash crowded the deck and swarmed the lifeboats. Many were crushed under the collapsing mainmast.
“A young mother (Anna Spafford) from Chicago clutched her 2-year-old daughter and tried to keep her other three girls close. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ little Annie told her. “The sea is His, and He made it.” Within minutes the ship rolled over, spilling the family into the sea. The mother clutched frantically as her baby was torn out of her arms” (World Magazine, April 27, 1019).
A sailor looking for survivors, found Anna floating on some wreckage. They were eventually picked up by a larger ship. “A few days later, she telegraphed her husband from Wales: ‘Saved alone. What shall I do.’
“Upon receiving the news, Horatio Spafford-successful lawyer, Presbyterian elder, and confidant of Dwight L. Moody-paced the floor all night in agonizing grief. Just before dawn, he finally spoke: “I am glad to trust the Lord when it will cost me something.” A week later, he was crossing the Atlantic to rejoin his wife Anna when the captain called his attention to the very spot where the wreck occurred. That night, in his cabin, Spafford wrote the poem beginning, ‘When peace like a river attendeth my way'” (WORLD Magazine April 27, 2019).
“When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrow, like sea billows, roll. Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say. It is well. It is well with my soul.”
That inspired hymn has ministered to many people in times of grief, trouble, and tragedy. However, very few people know the rest of the story.
Later on, in a time of financial difficulties, Spafford abandoned his church and embraced what many would consider heretical teaching. Believing that Jesus was soon to return, he established a colony in Jerusalem, Israel, where he eventually died. Janie R. Cheaney, in an article in WORLD Magazine, writes, “As far as we know, the Spaffords died as heretics, denying hell and preaching Universalism while demanding the utmost in works-righteousness” (WORLD Magazine April 27, 2019). Note – Universalism is the belief that everyone will be saved and reconciled to God, even the devil himself.
So, Spafford, even though he at one point was inspired to write a great hymn that blessed many, many people, was not able to ‘finish well.’ It was not ‘well with his soul.’ However, the hymn lives on and still ministers to people today.
THE CHALLENGE TO FINISH WELL
Not all the men of the Bible finished well, and this is also true today. I have been in ministry for nearly 60 years, and I can easily think of those people I have known in ministry, who had great giftings, had a calling in God, and extraordinary promise, yet fell away or quit and did not finish well.
- A promising student in bible school who falls into sin.
- People called to missionary service that never end up fulfilling the call.
- A young pastor with a vision for planting a church that ends up discouraged and quits.
- Others that start off serving God with enthusiasm who lose their passion and drift away.
- Musicians and praise and worship leaders who denounce their faith in God.
I could go on. It is sad. It is tragic. We need to realize that it is not enough to make a good start or even serve God faithfully for a time. The challenge before us is that we need to finish well.
THE BIBLICAL WARNING
I Timothy 4:1f tells us, ‘Now the Spirit says that in later times some will depart from the faith by deceiving themselves. . . ‘ What are some of the ways people do that?
- By falling into sin
- By embracing error
- Lack of integrity
- Bitterness over personal failure or the actions of other people
- Unrealistic expectations of God, life, and ministry
- By losing their first love
THE WAY TO FINISH WELL
To finish well, we need to have a strong foundation for our lives and ministry right from the start, built on Jesus, His Word, and lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. We need to commit to not just to make a good start, but to stay with it right to the end. Life is more like a marathon than a sprint. As Ravi Zacharias puts it, “Beginning well is a momentary thing; finishing well is a lifelong thing.” This means we need a life long commitment best lived out in the company of others who are also seeking to finish well.
You can do it! Others have! It is what we are called to do! “Run the race that is set before us with endurance. (Hebrews 12:1-2)”
EXAMPLES TO FOLLOW
The Bible has many examples of people who finished well. Just look at two of them. Jesus finished well. He completed the work the Father gave him to do. On the cross, He was able to say, ‘It is finished,’ and now He is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. Although it meant in His case sacrifice and suffering, nevertheless, He finished well.
Paul was able to write to Timothy, “I am already poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand (i.e., to die). I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith” (I Timothy 4:6-7). How was he able to state this? Because Paul had a life long commitment to the Lord and the call of God on his life, he was able to say, “I have not been disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19). Consequently, Paul, like Jesus, finished well.
HOW ABOUT US?
Will we be able to make the confession that Paul did? Will we be able to present to Jesus a life lived for Him right to the end? Will we ‘finish well’?
May it be so. Let us finish well!
I have never heard the rest of the story about Horatio Stafford. Very interesting!