On 15 November 1873, the French liner Ville du Havre sailed from New York with 313 passengers and crew on board. Delayed by pressing business, Chicago lawyer Horatio G. Spafford let his wife Anna and their four daughters go on ahead for Paris. After a week's steaming across the Atlantic Ocean, the ship collided with the iron clipper, Loch Earn, at about 2 a.m. on the morning of Saturday, November 22. Anna was picked up unconscious, floating on a plank of wood, by the crew of the Loch Earn, however her four daughters all perished. A fellow survivor, Pastor Weiss, recalled Anna saying, "God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why."
Nine days after the shipwreck Anna landed in Cardiff, Wales, and cabled Horatio, "Saved alone. What shall I do..." After receiving Anna's telegram, Spafford immediately booked passage to join her in England. While passing over the spot where his daughters died, he began writing the text for "It Is Well With My Soul," commemorating his daughters and conveying a sense of trust and ultimate peace with God's plan for his life. Family friend Philip P. Bliss, wrote the tune to accompany Spafford's text. The hymn was published in Gospel Hymns No. 2, a 1876 hymnal compiled by Bliss and Ira D. Sankey.
The Spaffords later had three more children, one of whom (a son) died in infancy in 1880. The following year, the family of four, including baby Bertha and newborn Grace moved to Jerusalem with some friends where they founded a group called the American Colony, whose mission was to serve the poor. The colony later became the subject of Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlof's Nobel prize winning book Jerusalem.