Isabella’s Uncle and the Hymn that Changed America

Isabella’s mother Myra Spafford came from a large family. Her father married twice and Myra was one of twelve siblings from both marriages.

Myra was 25 years old and already a wife of four years by the time her youngest brother, Horatio Gates Spafford was born. Like Myra, Horatio was raised in a home where strong faith in God and service to others were qualities valued above all else.

Horatio Gates Spafford


Horatio grew up to be an ambitious and energetic young man. A lawyer by trade, he was about 29 years old when he left his family in New York and headed to Chicago to practice law and earn his fortune.

Business card from Horatio Spafford’s law firm


Chicago was the perfect place for a man like Horatio. The city was booming—between 1871 and 1880 the population grew by 176,000 people—and Horatio saw opportunity.

While other builders and entrepreneurs concentrated on developing the marshy areas of Chicago close to Lake Michigan, Horatio invested in real estate north of the metropolis. By the time he reached his 42nd birthday, Horatio’s law practice and business investments had made him a very wealthy man.

He was also a husband to his wife Anna, and father to four little girls: Annie, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Tanetta.

Anna Spafford with her daughters Annie, Margaret, and Tanetta.


He owned a fine house at Lake View, a north suburb of Chicago. He employed household servants and a French governess for his children.

The Spafford “cottage” at Lake View, Chicago (from the Library of Congress)


And though he lived well, Horatio used the majority of his wealth in service to God. He was an active abolitionist prior to and during the Civil War, and he hosted many anti-slavery meetings in his home.

He made evangelical visits to inmates at jails and prisons, helped run prayer and revival meetings, and taught Sunday school at his church.

Frances Willard, President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.


He also supported causes that were dear to his heart, such as the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union. He often welcomed the organization’s president, Frances E. Willard, into his home for extended stays.

The same was true of Horatio’s support for evangelist Dwight L. Moody, who would become a dear and life-long friend.

Dwight Lyman Moody, circa 1900, from the Library of Congress



Horatio’s youngest daughter Tanetta was only two months old on October 8, 1871, when fire broke out in the city of Chicago. With a poor alarm system, shabbily constructed buildings, and draught-like conditions due to lack of rain, the fire spread rapidly from one wooden structure to another. It raged for two days and destroyed over one-third of the city.

Chicago, after the great fire (from Library of Congress)


Although the Spafford home was somehow spared, the city was devastated.

Over 300 people lost their lives, and over 100,000 people were homeless, many of whom survived with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.


Horatio—who had invested in real estate in the area of the city that was hardest hit—suffered serious financial losses.

Still, he and Anna opened their home to many people who no longer had a home of their own, and he worked tirelessly to rebuild the city’s churches, businesses, and housing.

Laying the first cornerstone of a new building, as Chicago rebuilds after the fire.


In 1873, while he and his wife were still working to help the needy and displaced citizens of Chicago, Horatio received a letter from his friend, Dwight Moody, who was in Europe, igniting a religious revival. Dwight asked Horatio and Anna to join him in London.

Undated photo of Dwight L. Moody from the Spafford family album (from Library of Congress)


The invitation could not have come at a better time. Both Horatio and Anna were weary from the stress of their philanthropic work. To add to their troubles, Horatio’s financial condition had become dire, due to a national economic downturn that occurred in 1873.

Horatio and Anna decided to join Dwight in England and live abroad for a year. They set off for New York, along with their children’s governess. Also in their party was a boy named Willie Culver, the twelve-year-old son of close friends, who was returning to school in Paris.


When they arrived in New York, Horatio received word that a business deal was in danger of collapsing, and—given the precarious state of his finances—he decided to return to Chicago to salvage what he could of the venture.

Rather than postpone the trip, Anna and the children—along with their governess and Willie Culver—went on to Europe without him.

At about 2:00 a.m. the morning of November 21, 1873, in the frigid waters in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, their ship, the Ville du Havre, collided with an English iron ship, the Loch Erne.

Headline from the Chicago Tribune, December 2, 1873.


The impact almost cut the Ville du Havre in two, and it began to sink immediately. Anna led her children, their governess, and Willie, to the deck to evacuate the ship.


But only two of the ship’s life boats were deployed, and they were filled primarily with the ship’s captain and crew. Of the roughly 350 people on board, only 87 survived; and of those survivors, 53 were crew members.

Artist’s rendering of the last moments of the Ville du Havre


The Loch Erne, badly damaged, turned around and deployed its own boats to find survivors. One of those boats plucked Anna Spafford, unconscious and badly hurt, from the water.

In the darkness of the night, her children Annie (age 11), Margaret (9), Elizabeth (5) and Tanetta (2) were never found.

Annie Spafford, from the Spafford family album.


Margaret Lee Spafford, from the Spafford family album


Elizabeth Spafford


Tanetta Spafford.


Also lost were the children’s governess and young Willie Culver.

In Chicago, Horatio received an early morning telegram from Anna that began with the heartbreaking words,

Saved alone.

What shall I do?

The telegram Anna sent Horatio, telling him of the tragedy.


Horatio immediately left on the next ship bound for Europe to join Anna. As he crossed the Atlantic, the captain of the ship—knowing of Horatio’s loss—called him to the bridge at one point, and solemnly told him they were about to pass the place where the Ville du Havre went down.

That evening, in his cabin, Horatio took up his pen and wrote the words to “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!”

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath 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,
Is nailed to His Cross, and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

And Lord, haste the day when the 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!”

The original manuscript. written on stationary paper from the Breevoort House, a hotel around the corner from Horatio’s law firm in Chicago. Horatio had some sheets with him while crossing the Atlantic and it was on these that he penned the words to the hymn.


In a letter to his sister-in-law a week later he wrote,

“On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.”

In 1876 Horatio’s friend composer Philip P. Bliss took the words Horatio had written and set them to music.

Composer Philip P. Bliss, from the Spafford family album.


Philip performed the hymn for the first time in public on November 24, 1876 before a large gathering of ministers, hosted by Dwight Moody.

Since then, “It is Well with My Soul” has become the most widely-used hymn of consolation in modern Christianity.

It has also had a profound impact on those who hear the hymn and learn the story behind it.

Many people have known tragedy and sorrow, reported a North Carolina newspaper in 1908; but even those who have faced hardships think again when they hear Horatio Spafford’s story. As one man told the newspaper reporter:

“I will never again complain of my lot. If Spafford could write such a beautiful resignation hymn when he had lost all his children, and everything else save his wife and character, I ought surely to be thankful that my losses have been so light.”

From The Commonwealth newspaper in North Carolina, February 2, 1908


You can read a detailed account of the sinking of the Ville du Havre as it appeared in an Ohio newspaper, the Holmes County Republican, on December 11, 1873. Just click on the image below and read the article in column 7 titled “A Horror at Sea.”

Horatio Spafford’s story doesn’t end here! Despite the many trials and setbacks he suffered, he never lost his faith in God or abandoned his calling to be of service to others.

Next Post: Horatio Spafford’s Second Chapter

7 thoughts on “Isabella’s Uncle and the Hymn that Changed America

  1. What a precious reading this morning Horatio Spafford showed with his faith in our God. I had heard of the story but you’re writing gave it new and poignant meaning. Thank you so much.

    1. Thank you, Eileen. I’d heard the story many times before, but I had no idea the writer of the hymn was related to Isabella Alden and Grace Livingston Hill. They certainly are a remarkable family!

  2. Simply wonderful and so inspiring. I cannot believe the connection to Isabella! I never knew that and oh, how could that family help but produce such deeply rooted Christian faith. What a legacy!!! Thank you so much for this beautifully written telling of a familiar story. The Isabella connection makes it all the more compelling. I can hardly wait to read the next segment. Many thanks for your dedication to helping us understand our Christian heritage.

  3. How much I needed this reading today, the song was already
    on my heart as it is full of sorrow and then I happen on this by His providential grace.

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