In 1871, Horatio Spafford, a prosperous lawyer and devout Presbyterian church elder and his wife, Anna, were living comfortably with their four young daughters in Chicago. In that year the great fire broke out and devastated the entire city. Two years later the family decided to vacation with friends in Europe. At the last moment Horatio was detained by business, and Anna and the girls went on ahead, sailing on the ocean liner S.S. Ville de Havre. On November 21, 1873, the liner was rammed amid ship by a British vessel and sank within minutes. Anna was picked up unconscious on a floating spar, but the four children had drowned.
After receiving Anna's telegram, Horatio immediately left Chicago to bring his wife home. On the Atlantic crossing, the captain of his ship called Horatio to his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where his four daughters had perished. It was there that he penned these words;
"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."
He later wrote to Rachel, his wife's half-sister, "On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs."
Horatio wrote this hymn, still sung today, as he passed over their watery grave.