Last post I shared a picture of the four Spafford girls, the girls who tragically drowned in the horrible sinking of the ship Anna Spafford and her daughters were aboard in 1873, while Horatio, husband and father, remained in America. Horatio would write one of the greatest hymns of the era in reponse to their loss, “It Is Well With My Soul”. I found the picture in an article by Kate Uttinger. I had never seen a picture of the children, as many times as I have heard, and told, the story.
The article was fascinating on another account too. It tells the story of what happened afterward. I’ve never heard of the Spaffords outside of the hymn story. And there is a good reason for that.
Horatio Spafford worked closely with D.L. Moody, and was a vibrant evangelist during the awakening in the mid to late 1800’s, meeting Anna through a lecture he was giving. The occasion of their move to France was actually the bungling of their personal finances, much of which Horatio hid from Anna. Moving to France was a chance to start over.
After losing their girls, they threw themselves into their work of evangelizing in Europe, and, to shorten the story, they became enamored with the interpretation of prophesy and the precise prediction of the return of Jesus. This led them, finally, to move with some followers to Jerusalem where they named themselves “The Overcomers” and sought to be the first to welcome Jesus on his return, going so far as to host tea parties on the Mount of Olives to welcome Jesus and offer him refreshment (I kid you not. See the article). The Overcomers rapidly became very much a cult, with Anna wielding authority and using it as any cult leader does, to further her own power and wealth, and to provide a cover for immorality. In the meantime, they lost many of their funders, mishandled those they did have, and Horatio died, throwing things into confusion since none of the group was supposed to die until Jesus returned.
It’s a wild story, well told in the article. It seems a cautionary tale. I’m just not sure what of. Of what happens when you mismanage such terrible grief. Or of the dangers of end times speculation. Or of something else.
It certainly explains why we don’t hear much about the Spaffords outside of that terrible shipwreck.
If you want to learn more, search on The American Colony in Jerusalem, which is what they went by. The picture here if Jerusalem comes from a photo collection of the colony I found on the Accordance website.
Funny story. Since I don’t preach from a manuscript I am able to alter my sermons as I am preaching. One time I decided while preaching to tell the story of “It Is Well With My Soul.” But while I knew the story, I had not rehearsed the details for a while. I had the the children and Anna all dying in a car crash somewhere in America. Hmmm. Not quite. And a bit anachronistic. Lesson for ministry: check the details of your stories, and be real careful throwing one in off the cuff. Of course, I’m not sure anyone noticed. And it still made the point.
For more see: “The Shipwreck of the American Colony,” Kate Uttinger. Leben. Vol. 10. Issue 1. pp.3-23.