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The tragic story behind the beautiful hymn ‘It Is Well With My Soul’

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Actor Hugh Bonneville narrates at The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square's 2017 Christmas concert.
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Editor’s note: This story was narrated by Hugh Bonneville during The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square’s 2017 Christmas concert. The story is excerpted from the Choir’s new book release, Keepsake Christmas Stories: Holiday Favorites as Performed with The Tabernacle Choir.

This is a true story about a family at Christmastime—a mother and father who, in the night of their deepest despair, discovered the healing light of hope. As it was in Bethlehem, when darkness gathers, the Savior’s light shines. And when His light is reflected in sacred verse and song, the peace of Christmas, the real Spirit of the Season, lifts and comforts and blesses us all.

In mid-November 1873, an ocean liner, the Ville du Havre, set sail from New York with 313 passengers on board. One can imagine their festive Atlantic crossing with ribbons of red, swags of evergreen, and Christmas carols wafting through a dining room sparkling with candlelight. In a few days they would make landfall in Europe, just weeks before Christmas in Paris.

Anna Spafford and her four little girls were among the happy passengers. They had come from Chicago—Annie, age eleven; Margaret Lee, nine; Bessie, five; and little Tanetta, two. Their father, Horatio, had intended to sail with them but was detained on business. “Not to worry,” he assured his wife and children. He would book his passage in a few days, and soon they would be reunited in the City of Light, celebrating the season of joy. And joy is what they needed. Two years earlier, the Great Chicago Fire had all but destroyed Horatio’s business interests. This journey was intended to restore hope and bring healing into the Spaffords’ lives—which is why on the ship, on the evening of November twenty-second, Anna and her girls knelt down, said prayers for peace, and fell asleep, dreaming of the yuletide festivities to come.

At about two o’clock in the morning, they were jolted awake in their berths. Despite the night’s clear, starry sky, the Ville du Havre had inexplicably collided with the Loch Earn, an iron-hulled Scottish clipper. Lifeboats quickly filled with people. Many passengers leapt into the icy waters. Anna tried desperately to keep her children together, but the two eldest became separated in the confusion. Just twelve minutes after the impact, a wave washed over the deck and Anna was drawn under the water with her youngest daughters.

She held on to five-year-old Bessie until her strength gave out. Her last memory was of two-year-old Tanetta, in her delicate lace nightgown, torn from her grasp, getting smaller and smaller until she, too, finally disappeared. Later, the crew of the Loch Earn found Anna unconscious, floating on a wooden plank.

When the ship docked in Wales, Anna sent a telegram to her husband that began with the words, “Saved alone, what shall I do?”

Horatio immediately sailed from New York City. “There is just one thing in these days that has become magnificently clear,” he wrote to a friend. “I must not lose faith.”

Four days into his voyage, on a Thursday evening, the captain summoned Mr. Spafford to the foredeck. By the crew’s calculations, they were nearing the place where Anna’s ship had gone down, taking with it the bodies of their four daughters, now resting some three miles below. But Horatio refused to look down.

“I did not think of our dear ones there,” he later recounted. Instead, he gazed out across the rolling waves and up into the moonlit sky. There he began to formulate a simple expression of his faith—a verse that would become a beloved hymn.

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.

Only a few weeks earlier, in the same place on the open sea, Anna had experienced a similar awakening. After her rescue, when she regained consciousness, she was overcome with despair and wanted to throw herself back into the ocean. What was life worth now, and what could it ever be without her beloved children? But then, it was as if she heard a voice in her mind and her heart: “You are spared for a purpose, Anna. You have a work to do.”

► You may also like: ‘A gift to the Master’: 20 years of Tabernacle Choir Christmas magic

The couple returned to Chicago, where Horatio sought the support and prayers of his congregation to help him face the dire financial straits in which he found himself. Anna gave birth to a boy and then a girl. But—sorrow upon sorrow—that son, Horatio Jr., succumbed to scarlet fever at the age of three. Then, a year later, another daughter was born. Although only two of their seven children lived to maturity, the Spaffords never yielded hope.

Through that harrowing Christmas season of 1873, and in the years that followed, Horatio and Anna became even more certain that God loves all His children, whoever they are and whatever tribulations they may suffer.

In 1881, they moved their family to Jerusalem and established what they called the American Colony, not far from the “Little Town of Bethlehem” we celebrate at Christmas. Although they were deeply religious, their purpose was not to proselytize but to serve people of all backgrounds, relieving the effects of poverty, disease, and strife wherever they were found.

Seven years later, Horatio died. Once again, Anna Spafford had reason to give up, but she did not. Every life has contradictions and imperfections, and hers was no exception. Yet, when it mattered most, in her most profound spiritual crisis, when all seemed lost, Anna found the strength to move forward and to turn outward—to continue what she and her husband had begun. And the seed of service they planted in others bore sweet fruit, indeed.

In time, their daughter Bertha greatly expanded the Spaffords’ humanitarian work, all with the intent of rescuing those who had experienced the shipwrecks of life. During World War I, she led the way in organizing soup kitchens for refugees. She also oversaw hospitals for wounded soldiers on all sides of the conflict.

One Christmas Eve, on her way to Bethlehem, Bertha met a Bedouin man, his ailing wife, and their newborn son traveling to Jerusalem by donkey. Later she wrote, “Here stood before me a rustic Madonna and babe, and similar to Mary’s plight, there was no place for them to stay.” By the next morning the mother had died, and Bertha was asked to care for the child. She agreed. She named the little boy Noel. Within the week she had taken in two more orphaned babies. And so began the Spafford family’s most enduring charitable work—a renowned hospital for children.

Bertha explained, “We make no distinction in nationality or creed. The only requirement being that people absolutely need our help.” Some of the Spaffords’ charitable work continues to this day—in the children’s center that bears their family name.

For nearly 150 years, millions have sung and have been lifted by Horatio’s hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul.” Most have been unaware of the circumstances in which it was written, but they have been strengthened by its universal message. Horatio’s words resound with the truth we celebrate at Christmas: a child was born in Bethlehem, bringing peace on earth and good will toward men. Because of Him, the human spirit can rise above tragedy. Whenever, however we suffer our own night of sorrow, His love does shine in the darkness. His peace can heal the wounded soul. And the Christmas work of giving, loving, serving, and rescuing is ours, if we choose to make it so. As we do, we join with saints and angels to rejoice and sing: “It is well, it is well with my soul!”

Keepsake Christmas Stories: Holiday Favorites as Performed with the Tabernacle Choir

This commemorative collector’s edition celebrates 20 years of the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square’s beloved Christmas show—an annual tradition enjoyed by millions, both live on stage and through its holiday season broadcast on PBS stations, where it has earned Grammy and Emmy awards and nominations. Each year the show is hosted by a distinguished special guest, including Jane Seymour, Tom Brokaw, Kristin Chenoweth, and Hugh Bonneville. These holiday story adaptions have ranged from The Gift of the Magi to the story behind the writing of the hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul” to the inspiring tale of “The Candy Bomber”—an unlikely American WWII hero who dropped candy from his airplane to the children of Germany.

This coffee table edition is the perfect holiday keepsake for all ages and features photographs of the stage productions alongside the stories, which also includes a weblink to hear the stories from every performance.

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