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Peace like a river

February 1999 | by Don Fortner

Horatio Spafford was a successful and prominent businessman in Chicago in the middle of the last century. He had enjoyed great success. He was wealthy, well known and influential. But overnight he lost almost everything. The great Chicago fire left him in near financial ruin, and he decided to relocate to Europe with his family.

Saved alone

At two in the morning, on 22 November 1873, he put his wife and four daughters on a French luxury liner (the largest and most luxurious in the world) and kissed them goodbye. He promised to meet them in France in a few weeks time, as soon as he could settle his business affairs.

Several days out of port, that luxurious liner, sailing peacefully towards France, was rammed by an English ship. It took the largest and most luxurious ship in the world just two hours to sink to the ocean floor.

Two hundred and twenty-six people died, including all four of the Spafford daughters. Nine days later, when the survivors landed at Cardiff, Spafford received a short wire from his wife. It contained just two words, ‘Saved alone’.

Sorrow and peace

As soon as possible, he booked passage on a ship to Europe to join his wife. On the way over, the captain called Spafford to the bridge of the ship. He said, ‘According to my calculations, we are now passing over the place where your children drowned’. Spafford thanked the captain, went back to his cabin, and wrote these lines.

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’.

This man had lost his business, his home and his children. Yet he declared to a friend: ‘I am glad I can trust the Lord when it costs me something’. When he and his wife finally met and embraced, she said, ‘We have not lost our children. We are only separated for a little while’.

Trusting God

How could the Spaffords bear such trials, such losses, and such heartaches, with such composure? Only one answer can be given. Horatio Spafford and his wife believed God. They were convinced in their hearts of the truth recorded in Romans 8:28: ‘We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose’.

The knowledge and understanding of God’s providence is the comfort and strength of believing hearts in the midst of their trials and temptations in this world. Blessed of God, and truly happy, are those people in this vale of tears who know and trust our God, the God of all providence.