The theme had been rattling around inside the brain of musician and composer Philip Bliss for months. The melody wouldn’t leave him alone, yet he had no words to put with it.
Like many composers, Bliss created the composition and placed it in a drawer, expecting a good marriage with the words he knew would be forthcoming someday.
Tim Colliver of The Times-Gazette in Hillsboro has been writing a delightful 12-part series of articles entitled “The 12 Carols of Christmas” that appeared daily until Christmas Eve, relating the stories and history behind many of the best-loved sacred songs of the season.
The account I want to share is just such a story.
The tale begins in Chicago in 1871, near a small shed situated behind the home of Catherine and Patrick O’Leary and located four or five blocks from Lake Michigan. A spark started a blaze inside the shack that roared as the wind picked up, consuming the entire downtown.
The fire had practically destroyed the entire real estate holdings of Horatio G. Spafford, a successful attorney and entrepreneur.
David Warner wrote that, in late November 1873, the Spafford family began celebrating Christmas, the season of goodwill. And goodwill is what they needed. They booked a trip to Europe, a voyage intended to restore hope and bring healing into their lives.
An urgent business matter detained Horatio in New York, but he sent his wife, Anna, and their four girls, Annie aged 11, Margaret Lee 9, Bessie 5, and little Tanetta age 2, on ahead. Horatio kissed them goodbye and told them he would soon follow them.
In a few days they planned to dock in Europe, and arrive in Paris, the City of Light, in time for Christmas.
Once onboard the ship on the evening of Nov. 22, Anna and her girls knelt, repeated their prayers and fell asleep, dreaming of the Yuletide festivities to come. But, at 2 o’clock in the morning, the ship jolted them awake inside their berths. Despite flawless weather, the Ville du Havre had collided with the Loch Earn, an iron-hulled Scottish clipper.
Just 12 minutes after impact, a wave swished over the deck. Anna tried desperately to keep her children together, but the two eldest became separated in the confusion, and the sea drew Anna into the deep, along with her two youngest daughters.
She held on to 5-year-old Bessie until she could hold no more. Her last memory was of 2-year-old Tanetta, in her tiny nightdress, torn from her grasp, floating away until she, too, disappeared. Later, the crew of the Loch Earn found Anna floating unconscious on a wooden plank.
Days later, 47 survivors landed in Cardiff, Wales. Mrs. Spafford telegraphed her husband.
“Saved Alone. What shall I do?” were her only words.
Horatio boarded the next ship, leaving New York to meet his wife. The December night was raw and windy. Oblivious to the freezing weather, Horatio paced the deck for hours, until the ship passed the approximate place where his daughters had perished.
The captain pointed below, but Horatio didn’t look down. Instead of panic, a sense of calm quietly engulfed him.
He returned to his cabin and sat at a small wooden desk. The words flowed. “It is Well with My Soul,” he wrote.
Philip Bliss read the words of Horatio Spafford’s prayer, and remembered the tune he had long ago put aside. He sat down at the piano and finished the composition.
A few months after writing the song, Philip Bliss was dead. Not on an ocean liner, but on a train, a giant locomotive from Buffalo, New York, heading west through Ohio.
The solitary whistle blew as they passed through Ashtabula, Ohio, and approached a long, wooden trestle. The bridge collapsed, and like the Ville Du Havre, the train fell to the bottom.
Bleeding and dazed, Bliss crawled through a window. He tried to pull his wife out behind him, but the twisted metal pinned her under the ironwork of the seats. Understanding he could not save her, he slid back through the window and joined his wife, until they both died, at 38, at the bottom of an Ashtabula County river.
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.
In 1881, the Spafford family moved to Jerusalem and there they set up a small orphanage near the little town of Bethlehem. Their purpose was to provide a secure and caring home for children of the area.
As we leave the darkness of the pandemic into the light of Christmas, may we remember how a family, in the darkest moments of life, found the hope and peace we associate with this season, and how it transformed them.
And the seed of service which they had planted bore sweet fruit indeed.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County native and former county commissioner and sheriff. His recently published book, “Around the Fire: Stories from Here and There” — comprised of his nonfiction stories through the years — is available through the Clinton County History Center in Wilmington, or you can reach Pat directly at 937-205-7844 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org to purchase a copy.