Thinking again on the many lives lost a decade ago on September 11, Americans shed many tears yesterday. A visitor at our village church yesterday had come back home where he was ordained for the ministry over 49 years ago. Now retired but still preaching, Ed Handkins answered our song leader’s request that he sing for us.
Before singing “It Is Well with My Soul,” Ed reminded us briefly of the familiar story of how the hymn was written. Ed knew this would be a needed song yesterday when much of our nation, still suffering and still grieving from the attack ten years ago, was also trying to hold tightly to the belief: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” Not only had the anniversary reminded us of great loss of lives in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., but as I looked around our small congregation, I realized so many monumental personal problems that people were living with.
And I was reasonably sure that there were many more problems that I knew nothing about in that small sanctuary. I have enormous respect for pastors who know of so many human hurts in their congregations and are helping people deal with them but often cannot share these heavy burdens with the rest of us. None of us understand the pain and destruction caused by nature nor by human nature. We wish such troubles could be annihilated and that the sorrows like sea billows would go away. They obviously don’t. But as I listened and thrilled to Ed’s powerful voice, the message in song penned by the grieving Chicago lawyer brought me comfort and a sense of God’s care.
I’d briefly heard the Horatio Spafford story before, but listening to his hymn yesterday sent me hurrying to Google today, and I learned a much larger and longer story. An even more complicated story.
Horace G. Spafford was on his way to Europe in 1873 to meet his wife Anna, who had wired him of the shipwreck that had taken the lives of their four beloved daughters. At the point in the ocean where the wreck had occurred, the captain told him where they were. Spafford, who had been a poet from his youth and who wrote lyrics for songs, found it in his faith to write the hymn that has been sung all over the world for over a century now.
Despite their work for the abolition of slavery, serving in their local congregation, given to hospitality, and helping friends such as Dwight L. Moody and musicians Ira Sankey and Philip P. Bliss, the Spaffords had never been exempt from troubles. As a young teen, Anna had lost her immigrant parents soon after they came to America. After their marriage, Spafford had made land investments in northern Chicago shortly before the terrible Chicago fire, which resulted in deep financial losses for him and a harrowing experience for his wife. He was away, but Anna took in refugees from the fire only to become sufficiently threatened by the approaching flames that the guests and she and her four little girls had to evacuate.
The family trip to Europe was planned to help Moody and Sankey in their evangelistic endeavors and to provide a time of healing and rejuvenation for their family.
At the last minute, Horatio had business prevent his going with Anna and their daughters on the luxury ocean liner. He would come later. A ship from England rammed into the S. S. Ville de Havre one night. Within twelve minutes, the steamer sank. Life boats were unavailable held fast by a recent paint job. Surrounded by Annie, Megan, and Bessie with the youngest daughter Tanetta in her arms, Anna was on deck when heavy winds took her child from her clutch before all were thrown in the ocean.
Anna was one of the small number of survivors when she was rescued semi-conscious on a piece of planking and taken by the rescuing boat to Wales. Horatio was on his way to bring her home when he composed the famous hymn.
Back in their empty house in Lakeview near Chicago, Horatio and Anna grieved and resumed life. They went on to have a daughter Bertha and a son named after his daddy. Now they continued their spiritual life with an entirely new set of values. Then a scarlet fever epidemic in 1880 claimed the life of the son when he was four. Some people wondered what the Spaffords had done wrong to be so punished with such losses.
As they intensified their Bible study, they became intrigued with the second coming and with a desire to go to Jerusalem. As soon as their baby Grace was born in 1881, the Spaffords led a party of thirteen adults and three children to the then Ottoman Palestine to start a Christian community trying to pattern after the New Testament church. Their mission was to serve the poor, and they made no distinction in serving Jews, Muslins, or Christians.
They tried to help whoever needed help and won the appreciation and respect of the people living in Jerusalem who called them The American Colony. Of course, they also attracted jealousy and criticism including that of two United States consuls. A court case exonerated them, but some of their beliefs and practices are still questioned today.
They adopted Jacob Eliahu Spafford, a talented and bilingual son who continued work with the colony in his adulthood as did his two sisters and other children reared in the commune. Horatio had died in 1888 at age 60, but Anna assumed leadership until her death in 1923.
Relief and charitable work was then continued under the direction of the second generation of The American Colony’s children and even the third generation until the 1950s when inner tensions in the group caused the communal group to cease.
Many people disdain the group for its unorthodox beliefs and for human errors and less than perfect lives.
But down through the years since the tragedy at sea in 1873, health care and hospitals have been provided, schools made available, orphaned babies and children have been cared for, and thousands of people were fed in times of food shortages during wars or plagues. The Spafford commune has produced an amazing abundance of good fruit that has helped and blessed people of all faiths. Read more about Horatio and Anna’s heritage at:
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