Posted by: rcottrill | October 16, 2010

Today in 1888 – Horatio Spafford Died

SGraphic Chicago Water Worksome years ago, I walked the streets of Chicago, looking for remnants of times gone by. Few remain. The reason is that a great fire swept through the city back in 1871, incinerating hundreds of wooden structures on street after street. Only the stone edifice of the city’s water works (seen here in a picture I took) still stands from before that time. Everything else had to be rebuilt.

For one man, that city-wide blaze proved to be just one in a painful series of tragedies. As a Christian layman, Horatio Gates Spafford was a strong supporter of the work of evangelist Dwight L. Moody. He was also a successful lawyer and, in addition to his legal practice, Spafford owned considerable real estate in the city of Chicago. With the fire, his property was taken from him. And that financial setback came on the heels of the death of his only son. But the man’s faith in God remained strong.

Graphic Spafford TelegramSome time later, when Moody and Sankey announced their intention of holding evangelistic meetings in Britain, Mr. Spafford offered to go along to help. He proposed to take his wife and four daughters as well. It seemed a good opportunity to get them out of the devastated city for awhile. But as things turned out, the lawyer was detained on urgent business. So he sent his wife and daughters on ahead, saying he would join them later. It was not to be. Their ship collided with another in mid-Atlantic, sinking in only twelve minutes. Spafford’s daughters, Tanetta, Maggie, Annie, and Bessie were among the 226 who drowned. Only his wife was rescued. From Cardiff, Wales, she wired her husband, “Saved alone. What shall I do?”

Setting out to join his grieving partner, Spafford stood hour after hour on the rolling deck of the ship, thinking of the precious family God had given them, and then taken again. Many would have spurned such a God. But like Job, long ago, the sorrowing father had learned that God Himself is enough. He is the believer’s present hope and future joy. With Job, Mr. Spafford could say, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). And out of his weeping heart there arose a hymn that has blessed the people of God for well over a hundred years.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has 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.

This is Mr. Spafford’s only hymn. And before we leave it, I would like to record two stanzas that are rarely printed in today’s hymn books. In the original version, before the triumphant final stanza, come these two:

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

But, 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!
Blessèd hope, blessèd rest of my soul!

Here is a fine choral arrangement of the hymn, along with some interesting pictures of the whole Spafford family. (The choir belongs to a “smallish” Baptist church in Georgia.)

(2) More from Fanny Crosby
In 1882 Fanny Crosby published a fine gospel song called A Few More Marchings Weary, about the anticipation of heaven. The tune was composed by William H. Doane.

A few more marchings weary, then we’ll gather home!
A few more storm clouds dreary, then we’ll gather home!
A few more days the cross to bear,
And then with Christ a crown to wear;
A few more marchings weary, then we’ll gather home!

O’er time’s rapid river,
Soon we’ll rest forever;
No more marchings weary
When we gather home!

A few more nights of weeping, then we’ll gather home!
A few more watches keeping, then we’ll gather home!
A few more vict’ries over sin,
A few more sheaves to gather in,
A few more marchings weary, then we’ll gather home!

A few more sweet links broken, then we’ll gather home!
A few more kind words spoken, then we’ll gather home!
A few more partings on the strand,
And then away to Canaan’s land:
A few more marchings weary, then we’ll gather home!

Then there is her lovely hymn of worship, Blessed Redeemer (not to be confused with the song of the same name by Avis Christiansen). In this case, Ira Sankey provided the melody. It’s a song that deserves to be reprinted and used today. You can hear it on the Cyber Hymnal.

Blessèd Redeemer, full of compassion,
Great is Thy mercy, boundless and free;
Now in my weakness, seeking Thy favour,
Lord, I am coming closer to Thee.

Blessèd Redeemer, wonderful Saviour,
Fountain of wisdom, Ancient of Days,
Hope of the faithful, Light of all ages,
Jesus my Saviour, Thee will I praise.

Blessèd Redeemer, Thou art my Refuge,
Under Thy watch-care, safe I shall be;
Gladly adoring, joyfully trusting,
Still I am coming closer to Thee.

Blessèd Redeemer, gracious and tender,
Now and forever dwell Thou in me;
Thou, my Protector, Shield and Defender,
Draw me and keep me closer to Thee.


  1. thank you so much for stopping by after I read your comment I had to come over and check out your blog and wow what interesting timing. It’s unfathomable to me how God brings so many diverse groups of people together through the simple words of a hymn. I often find that when I can’t find the words to describe a feeling usually I can find a hymn that expresses things better than I ever could. I love learning about the history behind hymns and their authors there are so many stories that are only explained as orchestrated by God. I do hope you’ll visit again soon and I promise to as well.


    Mrs. A

    • Thanks so much for your kind note. And I agree about hymns giving our thoughts and feelings voice. They provide a rich “vocabulary” for praise, and teaching, and devotional expression. Let’s keep singing!

  2. […] Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]

  3. Where exactly were the two rarely used stanzas actually published? It is clear that the first manuscript had only 4 stanzas and the first printing as a hymn only used 4 stanzas – and Wikipedia points out how his daughter related a fifth stanza being added (4th in order) and the final line being changed (presumeably prior to the Gospel Hymns No. 2 publication). But that still doesn’t relate anything about the 5th stanza in order (they don’t even mention that stanza).

    Everyone seems to agree that he wrote all 6 stanzas, but i’ve never found where those were published – other than in articles of people saying the original consisted of 6 stanzas. Did Spafford ever publish anything in which he gives this definitive 6 stanza version? If not, where do poeple keep getting the text?

    • You ask a good question, Michael–for which I don’t, at the moment, have a good answer! I do know that gospel songster Ira Sankey was a personal friend of the Spaffords. At one point, he spent several weeks in their home. He claimed that it was during that time that Horatio Spafford wrote his well-known hymn. If this is so, it’s likely that (according to the popular version) Mr. Spafford roughed out the idea for the song while on board ship, traveling to meet his grieving wife. Then, that he polished the result later, perhaps even in consultation with Sankey.

      In Sacred Songs and Solos, a song book edited by Ira Sankey, the first five stanzas of the hymn are published (and credited to “H. G. Spafford”). Omitted, for some reason, is the familiar final stanza, “And Lord, haste the day…”

      That’s about all I can tell you, though I continue to explore resources–even some contemporary to the time–to see if I can learn more. As you may know, after the tragedy, the Spaffords moved to Jerusalem, and set up a retreat for missionaries. It is still run today, as a hotel, by their descendants. Perhaps more information can be found there. I’ll have to write and see.

      One further thought: It was not uncommon for hymn writers to later edit or add to their own songs. Perhaps Spafford added the two stanzas in question, himself, some time later–after the initial publication of the song.

  4. Aha!, and Thanks.

    I hadn’t seen that book by Sankey before. Previously, i’d seen his “My life and the story of the Gospel Hymns and Scared Songs and Solos” in which he relates the story of the hymn being written while he stayed with the Spaffords – but that volume reprinted none of the hymns it discussed.

    That he reprints the first 5 stanzas in SS&S, unless other information should arise, settles the question for me i think. This may even be the source from which those very few hymnals that use them, got them from. Curious he didn’t include the better-known 6th stanza (though i do so love that 5th one), but we already know unquestionably that Spafford wrote that one.

    Also interesting to note that Sankey, in SS&S restored the original text for the 1st stanza – reverting the ‘say’ (which he had printed in Gospel Hymns, and almost all hymnals have since followed) back to the original ‘know’ (which is, in my opinion, the better choice).

    As for the controversy of the date of composition (’73 or ’76), i bet your solution is pretty likely to be right. His daughter, in the Our Jerusalem book, mentioned him writing it aboard ship shortly after they’d passed the approximate point of the tragedy, in 1873 – Sankey says he wrote it three years later, while he was staying at their home. Likely what Sankey referred to was his finalizing or polishing of the text (maybe writing those two stanzas not included in the original manuscript, certainly altering his original closing line).

    Thanks again


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