Those of you who have read some of my personal site know that I spent a good portion of my life as a musician, both in the service of the US Military as well as in the service of various church groups. I understand the power of music, and I understand that some of the best music is written when motivated by strong emotion.
There are some Christian hymns that still stir my soul. I no longer believe the message of the songs, but when a song is good, it is good, regardless of the message. One of those that has come to my attention again recently is "It is Well with my Soul" by Horatio Spafford. For those not familiar with the old song, or who may have forgotten it, I uploaded a windows media audio file which can be heard here:
Mr. Spafford wrote his song inspired by tragedy.
Born in New York State on October 30, 1828, Horatio G. Spafford became a lawyer, practicing law and teaching jurisprudence in Chicago. By the time he was in his early 40s he was quite successful and invested heavily in downtown Chicago real estate along the shores of Lake Michigan. The infamous Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed all his land holdings. His material losses were exceptional.
Always a religious family, Horatio decided to take a holiday in England to assist the famous Dwight L Moody as he traveled about England on one of his evangelistic crusades. Horatio and Anna his wife planned to join Moody in late 1873. The Spaffords traveled to New York in November, from where they were to catch the French steamer 'Ville de Havre' across the Atlantic. Yet just before they set sail, a last-minute business development forced Horatio to delay. Spafford encouraged his family to go as planned, so as not to ruin their holiday. He planned to follow later. Anna and her four daughters sailed East to Europe while Spafford returned West to Chicago. Nine days later, Spafford received a telegram from his wife who was now in Wales. It read: "Saved alone."
On November 2nd 1873, the 'Ville de Havre' had collided with 'The Lochearn', an English vessel. It sank in only 12 minutes, claiming the lives of 226 people. Anna Spafford had stood bravely on the deck, with her daughters Annie, Maggie, Bessie and Tanetta clinging desperately to her. Her last memory had been of her baby being torn violently from her arms by the force of the waters. Anna was only saved from the fate of her daughters by a plank which floated beneath her unconscious body and propped her up. When the survivors of the wreck had been rescued, Mrs. Spafford's first reaction was one of complete despair. Then she heard a voice speak to her, "You were spared for a purpose."
Upon hearing the terrible news, Horatio Spafford boarded the next ship out of New York to join his bereaved wife. Bertha Spafford (the fifth daughter of Horatio and Anna born later) explained that during her father's voyage, the captain of the ship had called him to the bridge. "A careful reckoning has been made", he said, "and I believe we are now passing the place where the de Havre was wrecked. The water is three miles deep." Horatio then returned to his cabin and penned the lyrics of his great hymn.
This is usually where the story ends when told in Church, followed inevitably by the singing of the hymn, and then a heart wrenching invitation to come to the altar to lay any burdens at the foot of the cross or something along those lines.
The following is the rest of the story:
Later a son, Horatio, and a daughter, Bertha, were born to them. When little Horatio died of scarlet fever at the age of three, it was a crushing blow, as deeply felt as the shipwreck.
Before these terrible incidents overtook their lives, the Spaffords had become interested in the Holy Land. A friend, Dr. Piazza Smith, went to Giza and when he came back, he told Horatio that he believed the pyramids were made by divine inspiration. The visit with Dr. Smith made Horatio and Anna take an active interest in the prophecies of the Old Testament and the Holy Land. After the horrific events that seemed to be haunting their lives, Anna needed a change and Horatio understood this. He felt the Holy Land was a good place to go to witness prophecy and refresh the body and soul. Horatio and his wife, Anna, became quite religious after the shipwreck. Horatio said, "Jerusalem is where my Lord lived, suffered and conquered and I wish to learn how to live, suffer and especially to conquer".
Their only surviving child, Bertha Spafford (Vester) in later life wrote about her experiences in "Our Jerusalem," which documents how she came to Jerusalem with her heart-broken parents in 1881. They brought with them their family and a small group of Protestant followers. They were called the "Spaffordites" or the "Overcomers" because they wanted to overcome the tragedy that they had experienced. They built what would be known as the "American Colony" with a sacrificial sense of purpose, acting on what they considered divine commands. The colony provided education, religious education, nursing to the sick and fed many people. The colony was used a Red Cross facility during World War I. The American colonists also set up medical facilities, orphanages, soup kitchens, schools, and a pediatric hospital. The good works of the colony live on today with hospitals and the Spaffords Children Centre in Jerusalem.
But there is more:
Upon their arrival in Jerusalem, the Spaffordites decided to live a communal life, with property held in common by the group. They did not send their children to school, but they educated them themselves. The community also practiced complete sexual abstinence. Husbands and wives lived in separate quarters and marriage was forbidden in the group. All was not peaches and cream for the American Colony as their religious dedication bordered closer to fanaticism.
The biggest problems began after Horatio's death in 1881.
Anna, Bertha's mother, took over the group. She abandoned her husband's D.L Moody influenced convictions and adopted an understanding of living a perfect life in line with holiness teachings. The colonists interpreted certain of Jesus' commands literally for those destined to enter Heaven: “and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of Heavens sake “(Matthew 19:12); “and "They which shall be accounted worthy, to obtain that world, and the resurrection for the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage “(Luke 20:34-36). Children were separated from their parents and Anna Spafford became Mother of the whole community turned cult.
The Colony also had problems with the American Consul in Jerusalem. Sean Merrill was the American Consul from 1882-1885 under President Chester A. Arthur, 1891-1893 under President Benjamin Harrison, and 1898-1907 under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Merrill was a Congregationalist minister and a scholar of the Holy Land. As such he did not care for the Colony's religious practices and agreed with others in the British and American Protestant communities who believed that people in the Colony were dangerous. While Merrill did not deal with the people who left the Colony, he noted that such people were not reimbursed for their contribution to the community, nor for property they had entrusted to the Colony.
The biggest thing about the Colony Merrill hated was the Colony's Messianic fervor and informal prayer meetings. He also did not care for the requirement of celibacy, and was appalled by the communal lifestyle. Merrill warned tourists against visiting the colony and described it in very negative terms.
By the early 20th Century many young people in the Colony had reached marriageable age, including Anna's daughter Bertha. Anna, in 1904 began to allow marriage and Bertha married Fredrick Vester. As a dowry to the Colony Fredrick gave them his family store, renamed The American Colony Store, which became the Colony's main source of income.
After Anna's death in 1923, Bertha took over the Colony. The religious rules were then relaxed greatly. Bertha did not have revelations like her mother and was not a fanatical religious leader. The people of the colony were now busy with raising their families, and were not as interested in Jewish immigration and settlement in the Holy Land. Without these intense religious principles to adhere to, the colony ceased to be a religious sect in 1930.
I personally know another lawyer turned minister who suffered a terrible loss a few years ago. The family was on vacation in another state when another driver ran a stop sign colliding with the vacationing family's van. Their 17-year old son was driving the van when it was hit. Although he came out of the accident with only some bruises, his younger sister in the back was killed. The family is very religious, very fundamental and nice people. Even so, the terrible mourning of losing their child has never left them and every time I see the bereaved mother, I hope she is getting help to cope with her loss. Her behavior and conversation betrays her fixation and inability to accept her loss.
I believe that the Spafford family were never able to recover from the overwhelming grief forced on them by circumstances. I don't blame them. I think they did remarkably well, all things considered. Something that speaks in support of my allegation is the route taken by the travelers when they finally left for Jerusalem. From Chicago, the Spaffords went to Quebec. The Spaffords delegation took the St. Lawrence River out of the North American continent to get to Jerusalem. The reason they took this route, instead of going through NY, was to take the long way around and avoid sailing over the wreck that claimed their four daughters. It just hurt too much.
What I take issue with is not that tragedy strikes people and leaves them changed by it. What I take issue with is the disingenuous use of anyone's tragedy by Christianity to falsely support their claim of a comforting and loving god. It may be argued that the faith the Spafford's enjoyed helped them as they tried to cope with the harsh reality of chance and mortality, but that certanily does not prove that faith to be well placed or true. It appears to me that neither the Spaffords nor my friends were genuinely comforted by the idea that their children were seated at the right hand of their own personal savior. The belief that they were in a better place did little to rub salve into the wounds of their grief. Nothing, it seems, could assuage their pain.
The Spaffords descended into a mild form of insanity and fanaticism. That does not speak well of the so-often-touted supernatural healing powers of the "Great Physician." The next time you hear "It is Well with My Soul" played somewhere, just remember the rest of the story.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)