The author, Horatio G. Spafford (1828-1888), was a Presbyterian layman from Chicago. He had established a very successful legal practice as a young businessman and was also a devout Christian. Among his close friends were several evangelists including the famous Dwight L. Moody, also from Chicago.
Spafford’s fortune evaporated in the wake of the great Chicago Fire of 1871. Having invested heavily in real estate along Lake Michigan’s shoreline, he lost everything overnight. In a saga reminiscent of Job, his son died a short time before his financial disaster. However, the worst was yet to come.
Desiring a rest for his wife and four daughters as well as wishing to join and assist Moody and [his musician Ira] Sankey in one of their campaigns in Great Britain, Spafford planned a European trip for his family in 1873. In November of that year, due to unexpected last-minute business developments, he had to remain in Chicago, but sent his wife and four daughters on ahead as scheduled on the S.S. Ville du Havre. He expected to follow in a few days.
On November 22 the ship was struck by the Lochearn, an English vessel, and sank in twelve minutes. Several days later the survivors finally landed at Cardiff, Wales, and Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband, ‘Saved alone.’
Spafford left immediately to join his wife. He then wrote the hymn “”It is well within my soul”. This hymn is said to have been penned as he approached the area of the ocean thought to be where the ship carrying his daughters had sunk.
Another daughter, Bertha, was born in 1878 as well as a son, Horatio, in 1880, though he later died of scarlet fever. After the birth of daughter Grace in 1881, Spafford and his wife moved to Jerusalem out of a deep interest in the Holy Land. There they established the American Colony, a Christian utopian society engaged in philanthropic activities among Jews, Muslims and Christians.
After Horatio Spafford’s death in 1888, Anna Spafford remained in the American Colony, and daughter Bertha Spafford grew up there. The Spafford Children’s Hospital, still in existence today, arose out of the American Colony in Jerusalem. The Spafford’s main residence is now the American Colony Hotel; it was run by Horatio Vester (son of Bertha Spafford) until his retirement in 1980 and continually ranks among the finest hotels in the world.