Was it Really Well with the Spaffords’s Souls?

Many know the sad story behind Horatio Spafford‘s penning of the famous hymn “It is Well with My Soul.”

(Spoiler alert. If you love the song, don’t read this blog post).

It is Well with My Soul, American Colony Jerusalem, Anna Spafford, Horatio Spafford, Chicago fire, Was it really well with the Spafford's souls?

Horatio Spafford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lawyer and church elder in Chicago following the Civil War, Horatio Spafford lost almost everything in the famed Chicago fire of October, 1871–the one allegedly caused by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.

Pretty much ruined, Horatio decided to take his family to Europe in December 1873 to regroup. At the last minute, Horatio had to deal with yet another financial difficulty and sent his wife Anna and four daughters, Annie, Bessie, Maggie and Tanetta, ahead to France on the Ville du Havre.

Halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, the Ville du Havre was struck by another ship.

Anna Spafford grabbed the baby and led the  girls to the top deck where they tried to get into a life boat. Twelve minutes after the accident, the bow broke and eleven-year-old Annie Spafford said, “Don’t be afraid. The seas is His and He made it.”

It is Well with My Soul, American Colony Jerusalem, Anna Spafford, Horatio Spafford, Chicago fire, Was it really well with the Spafford's souls?

Anna Spafford

The girls were swept into the frigid water and the baby was sucked from Anna’s arms as the ship sank. A lifeboat captain later found Anna floating unconscious on a piece of wood.

Once arrived in Wales on a rescue ship, Anna wired to her unsuspecting husband: “Saved Alone.”

Horatio’s reaction

Horatio sailed immediately to join her. When they reached the coordinates where the Ville du Havre sank, the captain brought Horatio to see the empty ocean. That night he penned the poem “It is Well With My Soul,” which became the song.

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.

Refrain: It is well, with my soul, It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, Let this blest assurance control, That Christ has 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 the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

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! Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!

And Lord, haste the day when my 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.

Up until this week, the above was all I knew about the Spaffords. The song itself has always been special to me.

Migrating to Israel

I recently, however, read a biography of Lowell Thomas and he referenced The American Colony in Jerusalem, noting the Spaffords relocated to the Holy Land a few years after the ship sank and spent the rest of their lives there ministering to the local population. Thomas first met Anna Spafford and her two daughters (born after the tragic loss of her other children) during World War I.

Further research took me to a terrific book which details the story: Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem.

In a nutshell, perhaps emotionally damaged because of the fire, the loss of the children, the humility of  financial ruin, Spafford gathered a band of believers and took them It is Well with My Soul, American Colony Jerusalem, Anna Spafford, Horatio Spafford, Chicago fire, Was it really well with the Spafford's souls?to Jerusalem (on someone else’s money) where they performed charitable acts and waited for the Messiah’s return. Horatio died seven years after their arrival and Anna became the head of a cult-like organization that took Jesus’ words seriously about helping those in need.

They fed and helped educate Muslims, Jews, Christians and Turks in late-nineteenth century Jerusalem. During World War I, as Americans and thus neutral, they ran hospitals in the ancient city.

Anna was a seer who ruled her followers with an iron fist and routine prophecies. A group of industrious Swedish immigrants joined her fellowship in 1896 to await the Messiah’s return.

For many years, members of her flock lived in celibacy and poverty; turned over all income and resources to Anna’s religious order; and were separated from the children they brought with them–who received only a meager education. Since Anna preached the Messiah was coming soon, there was no need for education or even book reading.

But they fed the poor and provided a place where Muslims, Turks, Jews, Christians and foreign visitors could mingle and talk. The American Colony Photography studio took most of the significant photos of Jerusalem during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, including documenting the great locust famine of 1915. The fellowship, as a religious organization, ended within a decade of Anna’s 1922 death.

What did the Spafford’s lives ultimately mean?

Geniesse summed up Anna Spafford’s life like this:

“Anna Spafford dreamed there would be peace between peoples, frequently declaring to her fellowship that ‘love could conquer disunity,’ and in many ways this is the American dream, rich with the conviction that there should be no distinctions between races, genders, ethnicities, or classes, with freedom and democracy available to all.

“. . . Perplexed, fearful of the future, swept by events out of their control, they did their best under the circumstances. The Spaffords in particular had to find a way to overcome crippling emotional wounds, while the Swedes and other members were overly susceptible to strong religious influences, paying the price in their captivity to Anna, who was hardly the first and certainly will not be the last, to use religion as a tool in the service of goals having more to do with Caesar than with God.”

I wanted the Spafford’s story to be a tale of deep religious faith that overcame tragedies and pointed to Jesus. Despite the hymn, I’m not so sure that’s what happened.

(You can read about Elisabeth Elliott’s tea with Anna’s daughter here.)


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Leave a comment


  1. It’s a sad story. While it’s tempting to think that they were simply unhinged by the loss of the children, I rather suspect that there was a deeper problem, a pull toward fanaticism.

    It shouldn’t dilute the song; it’s said that mental aberrations put people ‘out of phase’ with normal life. Int he moment that “it is Well with my Soul’ was written, the phases coincided.

    Sometimes it’s best not to know too much about the people we admire. They are only human.

    As are we.

  2. roscuro

     /  January 3, 2014

    Michelle, I knew the rest of the Spaffords’ story for many years (we used to have to research hymn histories in our homeschooling program) and it has ruined the song ever since for me. Your extra detail actually made it seem a little better – the writers I read hinted of wilder errors than those. However, there is one detail that I remember reading which you don’t write of, that Horatio Spafford suffered brain damage due to a dangerous illness and it was after that the strange colony was formed. Was that mentioned anywhere in your research?

    • Michelle Ule

       /  January 3, 2014

      American Priestess did not indicate brain damage, but something happened to Horatio Spafford’s moral fiber before the family went to Jerusalem. He was a well-known lawyer and a leading elder in his church but some of his ideas were heretical in my opinion–and that of many others at the time. He was forced out of his church and set up a fellowship based on his interpretation of Scripture. He felt the Messiah’s return was predicated on the Jews returning to Israel–which is one of the reasons they went to Jerusalem. During his last few years in Chicago, he was trustee of several estates and used their monies to further his personal finances–he was not honest. Unfortunately, losing his wealth may have made him and his wife more focused on money than was healthy for any Christian. I hesitated with this post because in spite of the way Anna ruled her fellowship they did a lot of good to the poor in Jerusalem. It’s the Swedes who believed her prophesies who suffered materially. A well written and interesting book.

  3. Absolutely, Andrew. A terrible blow to lose four children.

  4. Bukky

     /  October 15, 2016

    It was a very sad story…but thougt me a lesson to be calm and keep my faith in God in the mist of trouble.It is well with my soul in all situation.

  5. Mrs Sarah Isles

     /  March 7, 2017

    Mistakes he, and his wife, may have made at the end of his life do not nullify the work of the Holy Spirit’s anointing him to write this song. Many of us fall (Abraham, Moses, David) and we all have broken lives and cult thinking of our own. If we look to man we will always find sin. Since we walk by faith we must look to Christ, who saves us from ourselves most of all!!

  6. Michael Grinager

     /  September 11, 2017

    My great grandmother was a close friend of Anna’s. They met in Chicago, I never understood the friendship as Betsy was a Norwegian immigrant and staunch Lutheran. Nevertheless, they continued to write to each other for years after the Spaffords moved to Jerusalem. The letters were in English and were a treasured possession of my grandmother, and mother. It was not until the internet, when my research revealed that Anna was from Norway too! My great grandmother always stressed to her children that “we are Americans now so we will only speak English”. Apparently Anna had the same thoughts. It’s been a few years since I’ve read the letters, but I don’t recall any talk of imminent return of the Messiah. I’ll have to reread them after coming across this blog. Regardless this hymn has been played at every one of my family’s funerals.

    • Michelle Ule

       /  September 12, 2017

      The world is such an interesting place, thank you for telling us about the friendship in your family. “It is well with my soul,” still means a lot to me when I read it.

      You might find American Priestess interesting for the family connection. Thank you for your comments and, certainly, any historian would love to read those letters!


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