One of the many damaging aspects of the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ that is preached in some churches is that it does not prepare or enable Christians for adversity. The ‘Prosperity Gospel’ promotes the idea that if you have enough faith, pray enough, give enough money, etc, then God will bless you. These ideas are neither supported by the Bible nor the experience of many truly faithful Christians, and of course we should not forget the experience of Job in the Old Testament. Quite frankly there is no connection between the depth of a person’s faith, their faithfulness to God, and the degree of blessing, or not, they receive in this life.
One person whose life exhibits this is Horatio G. Spafford, a highly successful Chicago lawyer in the 1870’s. He was a wealthy man, with much wealth invested in property. Indeed he was someone whose life at that time could be used to support the concept of the ‘Prosperity Gospel’. Horatio was married to Anna and together they had five children. Horatio was a committed Christian and elder in the Presbyterian church.
However, in 1870 their youngest child (4) Horatio Jnr died from Scarlet Fever, and then in the next year Spafford lost all of his investments and most of his money in the ‘Great Fire’ of Chicago. Regardless, the Spaffords continued to use what they had left to feed the hungry, help the homeless, care for the sick and comfort those damaged by the Chicago fire.
In 1873 they planned to travel to Europe partially for the benefit of Anna’s failing health but also so they could help out in an evangelistic campaign being run in England by the great evangelist D.L. Moody. However, the day they were to leave, a business emergency arose and so Horatio sent Anna and their four daughters on ahead. On November 22nd 1873 while crossing the Atlantic Ocean their ship collided with another and sank. Anna was saved, but all four daughters drowned. Anna was heard to say after the tragedy that in her grief and despair she heard a soft voice saying to her ‘you were saved for a purpose’. She also recalled what a friend had said to her previously:
“It is easy to be grateful and good when you have so much, but take care that you are not a ‘Fair-Weather Friend’ to God.”
When he heard about the tragedy Horatio immediately left to travel to England to bring his wife home. On Horatio and Anna’s return journey across the Atlantic Ocean to America, now just the two of them, the Captain of the ship called Horatio to the bridge and said to him “We are now passing over the place where your children lie.” Horatio then went back to his cabin and penned the words to his famous hymn, ‘All Is Well With My Soul’ based on the words of the Shunamite woman in 2 Kings 4:26.
When peace, like a river, attends my way,
When sorrows like the sea waves roll;
Whatever my lot, You have taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul
It is well, with my soul
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul
Though Satan should beat me, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has looked at my helpless state,
And has shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin, oh, the joy of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
And Lord, speed the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trumpets shall sound, and the Lord shall descend
Even so, it is well with my soul.
Anna and Horatio had three more children—one of whom (another Horatio) also died from Scarlet Fever as a 4 year old just like his brother.
The Spaffords’ life and experience is a total denial of the ‘Prosperity Gospel’, and an indictment of comfortable, fair-weather Christianity. They are an example of deep, real, enduring faith, in all the worst that life can throw at us.
In 1881 they left America and went to Jerusalem where they started a work which became known as the ‘American Colony’. They served the needy, helped the poor, cared for the sick and took in homeless children. Their reason for living, their ‘purpose’, was to show those living about them the love of Jesus, the Jesus who says to every Christian
“You are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Samaria and Judea and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).
Horatio Spafford, together with his wife, were not ’fair-weather’ Christians but an example of real Christian faith, a shining light and expression of the hope true Christians have in Christ. The hope and certainty of those who truly have a relationship with God, a faith that, even when returning to the site of the most appalling personal loss and tragedy, can still say “It is well with my soul”.