In 1873, Horatio Spafford penned the lyrics of one of the most-loved hymns of all time, It is Well with My Soul. But should we sing a song by one such as Spafford, in light of the fact that he is known to have promoted beliefs contrary to Scripture?
This question becomes an ideal case study in how people sometimes twist history to support their agendas. On the one hand, there are many who simply treat Spafford as a saint. After all, Spafford wrote the words to It is Well with My Soul on a ship soon after he passed the location in the Atlantic Ocean where his four daughters (and nearly his wife) drowned in a shipwreck only weeks before. Spafford’s hymn resounds with the doctrinal truths of forgiveness of sin at the cross and the reality of the second coming of Christ. If you do an internet search for Horatio Spafford, you will discover that a majority of sites read like hagiography. Spafford, these sometimes-embellished accounts suggest, should be viewed as one who singularly trusted God in the midst of tragedy.
But others cry “Foul!” Spafford was a heretic since he denied the reality of eternal hell and taught universalism, the idea that everyone will go to heaven. Furthermore, because of the subsequent history of the hymn’s lyricist, we should not even think about singing It is Well with My Soul.
Both approaches, however, lack historical sensitivity and paint Spafford with broad brushstrokes. Spafford gets portrayed either as a saint or as a heretic. What both approaches fail to attend to is that Spafford appears to have started to move in a theologically aberrant direction sometime after two major tragedies in his life: the loss of his fortune in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and particularly after the loss of his four daughters (and almost of his wife) at sea in 1873.
What is the evidence that Spafford only started his move in a heterodox direction after the second tragedy? Four considerations make it likely that Spafford was a Bible-believing Christian up until the time of the shipwreck and the penning of his famous hymn, and then started to theologically waiver after that.
- Spafford was an active supporter of the ministry of D. L. Moody, who affirmed Christian orthodoxy. Spafford’s wife and daughters, in fact, were on their way to England to help with Moody’s upcoming evangelistic campaigns when the shipwreck occurred, and Spafford intended to follow soon.
- Only three years prior to the shipwreck, Spafford spent time with John Nelson Darby in England and accepted some of Darby’s millennial views. Now, it is true that some people dislike Darby’s version of dispensational premillennialism, but Darby’s overall doctrinal beliefs—and in particular the ones that later became problems with Spafford—comfortably fall within evangelical orthodoxy.
- Spafford was an elder in good standing at his old-school Presbyterian church until after the shipwreck.
- There isn’t a hint of unorthodox ideas in It is Well with My Soul, despite it being full of doctrinal affirmations.
These four combined pieces of evidence suggest that Spafford was a regular Christian who affirmed biblical orthodoxy—at least up until he faced a succession of life-altering tragedies that started him on a trajectory toward false doctrine.
Why does this matter? It matters because when Spafford wrote It is Well with My Soul, as best as I can tell, he was not a false teacher; he was a Moody-supporting Darbyesque Presbyterian Christian. Now, it is possible that after I post this article someone will point out some piece of historical evidence that will demonstrate that my attempted historical reconstruction is incorrect. If you know of any such evidence, I welcome you to put me straight (and, if convinced by your evidence, I will gladly take down this post). But based upon what I have been able to ascertain so far, I think that Horatio Spafford was not a proponent of false doctrine when he wrote It is Well with My Soul.
See also my post: What Does “It is Well with My Soul” Mean?
 See chapters 3-6 of Jane Fletcher Geniesse, American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem for details about this period of Horatio Spafford’s life.
This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.