Horatio Spafford: Not Well With His Soul
Rev. Angus Stewart
If one searches for
information on the internet or in short books on
hymn-writers about Horatio Gates Spafford (1828-1888) and
his very popular song "When peace, like a river, attendeth
my way," with its moving chorus "It is well with my soul"
and catchy tune by P. P. Bliss, one will typically find
repetition of the moving story of the author's loss of four
young daughters in the tragic sinking of the SS Ville du Havre
in the North Atlantic (2
November, 1873), the most famous modern shipwreck until the
RMS Titanic (15 April, 1912).
Unlike most accounts of
Spafford and his hymn, Rachel Phillips' fifty-five page
treatment in her
Well With My Soul: Four
Dramatic Stories of Great Hymn Writers
is not 100% positive.
She mentions Horatio's
denial of eternal punishment and the failed attempt of a
member of his group in Chicago to resurrect a dead baby.
But these brief references are somewhat mitigated and
certainly not explored or condemned. Philips concludes her
biography extolling the hymn writer's "trust in the
sovereignty of his God" and "his faith in the love of
Christ" and the "light" spread by the American Colony he
established and led in Jerusalem.
However, the popular presentation of Spafford—that of a
godly man who rose above his afflictions and who is an
example to us all—is pure hagiography and bears little
relation to the truth.
In her carefully
researched book of some 400 pages, Jane Geniesse sets forth
the real story of Horatio Spafford and his
followers—something which few who sing his famous hymn know
or want to hear.
Things were not well with his soul at all.
Heresy and Schism
It all begins with heresy.
Although Horatio Spafford was a member of a Presbyterian
church, he was a fanatical Arminian, believing the false
gospel "that any man could save himself through the exercise
of free will" (35; cf. Rom. 9:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Gal. 1:8-9).
Contrary to the truth of predestination, Christ's particular
redemption and sovereign grace, Spafford taught that the
Lord Jesus died for all men head for head because God loves
and earnestly desires to save everybody, even the devil, for
there is no everlasting punishment. As Geniesse puts it,
after briefly setting forth the orthodox doctrine of the
"Horatio, on the other hand, was becoming obsessed with his
Arminian views. God, he believed, loved all sinners, and all
sinners might be saved, including Satan himself. He was even
prepared to deny the existence of hell" (75)!
Horatio Gates Spafford's
denial of eternal punishment (62, 75, 83) is flatly contrary
to the Word of God (e.g., Matt. 25:46; Mark 9:43-48; Rev.
14:11). Over against the hymn writer's teaching on the
salvation of Satan (10, 75, 82, 109), Revelation 20:10
declares, "And the devil that deceived them was cast into
the lake of fire and brimstone … and shall be tormented day
and night for ever and ever" (cf. Matt. 25:41). Spafford
sought to rob Christ of His punitive work on the judgment
day. According to him, Judas, Antichrist, Beelzebub and all
his host, as well as "the abominable, and murderers, and
whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars"
"have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and
brimstone" (Rev. 21:8; cf. 22:15). Instead, they shall enter
the joy of the everlasting kingdom in the new heavens and
the new earth!
In the service of this
Origenist theory of the salvation of all men and angels
(10), the hymn writer brought in a form of the Roman
Catholic doctrine of purgatory (10, 82). Purgatory, of
course, denies that Jesus Christ made full satisfaction for
all the eternal and temporal punishment which was due to His
people. Thus Spafford attacked the Saviour's substitutionary
atonement whereby He "by himself purged our sins" and so
"sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Heb.
The Bible teaches
that there are two places that people go to at death (heaven
or hell) and after the final judgment there is everlasting
bliss in the new heavens and the new earth or unending woe
in the lake of fire. Roman dogma presents three possible
destinations at death (heaven or hell or purgatory), with
purgatory eventually emptying, leaving the eternal states of
heaven and hell. The hymn writer's heresy is even worse than
Rome's, for, according to him, the dead go to one of two
places (heaven or purgatory—there is no hell) and there is
only one everlasting state, heaven, even for the devil!
However, Rev. William C.
Young, the minister of Fullerton Avenue Presbyterian Church,
Spafford's congregation, held to the infallible Scriptures
as summed in the
(75). Horatio hated the truth of Jehovah's sovereign grace
and was gaining followers to his own "quixotic heterodoxy"
(85; cf. 76). He used "his position as head of the finance
committee" and the "principal ruling elder" to call a
congregational meeting in July 1876 to allege that Rev.
Young was guilty of "poor financial management" in order to
oust him (76). Evidently, Spafford expected few to attend
apart from his friends and followers so that he would have a
majority. He was to be disappointed, for 150 parishioners
showed up. Moreover, "the church's finances were actually in
better shape than they had been in some time," Horatio lost
the vote 126-20 and the membership saw through him and his
Rev. Young retained his office in the church whereas an
indignant Spafford, in a huff, resigned "white with anger"
(76; cf. 79).
understood from the Word of God the dignity of a true church
of Christ and the seriousness of separating from it:
... no one is permitted to
spurn its [i.e., a true church's] authority, flout its
warnings, resist its counsels, or make light of its
chastisements—much less to desert it and break its unity.
For the Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly
that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity
anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided
it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments. He so
esteems the authority of the church that when it is violated
he believes his own diminished ... From this it follows that
separation from the church is the denial of God and Christ.
Hence, we must even more avoid so wicked a separation. For
when with all our might we are attempting the overthrow of
God's truth, we deserve to have him hurl the whole
thunderbolt of his wrath to crush us.
Calvin also states that
"no one escapes the just penalty of this unholy separation
[from a true church] without bewitching himself with
pestilent errors and foulest delusions."
How true this is, with Horatio Spafford himself being a
clear example, as we shall see.
Soon Spafford added
the sin of gross public schism to his sins of heresy and of
slandering and seeking to depose a faithful minister.
"Immediately, he ordered that a chapel be built [on the land
he owned behind his] house," so that in this new
congregation "he would regain his position as the undisputed
Like false prophet
Harold Camping, from his "bad experience" in an instituted
church (brought about by his own egregious sin), Spafford
proceeded to write off not just his own local church but all
churches. Horatio repeatedly claimed, "God has showed us
that 'the Church' in all its parts ... is destitute of
spiritual power ... Theirs are false teachings" (121).
Horatio, his wife Anna and their followers viewed the
visible churches with "contempt" (95; cf. 189, 203, 225),
calling them "Babylon" (121, 218).
Instead of the
instituted churches, God was now working with Horatio and
Anna and their followers, the Spaffordites or Overcomers, as
their opponents called them, or the "Saints" (82, 84, 86,
87) or the "Bride" of Christ as they arrogantly called
themselves (6, 10, 80, 82, 83, 87, 88, 105, 164, 186, 284).
According to Spafford's teaching, "God had chosen the
Overcomers instead of the organized church as the new 'holy
and peculiar people' to be 'the Bride made one with Him and
one another'" (284). Horatio claimed that "to be a true
Christian, one must be 'consecrated with the Bride'" (80)
for they were "the only ones in the world who would be
prepared for [the Lord's] coming" (82), since "the
established church had failed in its mission" (80).
Spafford's restorationist view was that the church had been
"suppressed" and "buried" for centuries but now "with their
help" it would rise "phoenix-like" in "this last of the
dispensations before Christ's return" (80). Only through
Horatio's "developing doctrine," "new truths" (79) and
"remarkable insights" would "the world be led back to God"
(80). Never mind the work of the Holy Spirit in the
development of doctrine in true churches over two thousand
years, salvation was only rightly taught in "a religious
system of [Spafford’s] own" (65)!
The hymn writer never
joined—nor did he even want to join—a true church. In
leaving Fullerton Avenue Presbyterian Church and never again
becoming a member in a Christian congregation that
manifested the three marks of a true church (faithful
preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments and
exercise of church discipline), Horatio and his wife
practically excommunicated themselves.
I have been unable to
ascertain if Spafford's group in Chicago had any ordained
office-bearers (pastors, elders and deacons) or administered
baptism, the Lord's Supper or church discipline, though, of
course, they did have some form of oral communication which
may have been called preaching. After they moved to
Jerusalem, while Horatio was still living, they appeared
even less like an instituted church; after his death, when
his wife, Anna, held sway, this trend continued.
In short, whether in
Chicago or in Jerusalem, the Spaffordites possessed none of
the three marks of a true church (Belgic
29) and neither of the two keys by which the kingdom of
heaven is opened and shut (Heidelberg
Lord's Day 31). With "Horatio's radical gospel" (76), cultic
ecclesiology and universalist eschatology, he went from the
depths of heresy to the highest schism: declaring his sect
the "Bride" of Christ and dismissing all the instituted
churches of God.
What were the
meetings of Horatio Spafford's new group like? In short,
they were precursors of Pentecostal and Charismatic
assemblies and in some instances the Overcomers were even
worse. "Holy oranges" were used in their services in Chicago
and "for a time the congregation sanctified oranges as the
presence of the Holy Ghost" (81)! Various "physical
manifestations" occurred (83), such as strong shaking (127),
jerking and fainting to the floor (81). These are not
characteristics of those filled with the Holy Spirit, for He
gives us "a sound mind" (II Tim. 1:7).
Some members would
"run noisily about during prayer meetings" (82). Later, when
the Overcomers moved to Jerusalem, a Muslim man, with his
Islamic prayer beads, came to their eight o'clock prayer
meetings and "always arrived promptly." Whereas prayer is
only to be made to the Triune God through Jesus Christ, the
Eternal Son who became incarnate to die for the sins of His
sheep, the Muslim continually defamed the Holy Trinity in
Horatio's presence (104-105). "His only English words were
'one, not three!' which he would shout loudly at intervals"
during the prayer meeting in the Spafford house (104). It is
ironic that the Overcomers called all other churches
"Babylon," when their own meetings were a veritable Babel of
confusion! Peace was not flowing like a river among the
followers of the hymn writer.
As well as their
disorderly meetings (I Cor. 14:33, 40), the Overcomers
claimed they could perform miracles and heal the sick (e.g.,
10, 83, 117, 127, 132). Like the Charismatics, but unlike
those in Bible times who really did exercise Christ's power
to heal, their fraudulent claims were exposed time and time
again. Horatio tried but failed to heal a crippled member of
their group (106). They failed to raise a baby from the dead
(117). When another Overcomer, Mr. Gould, was sick with
consumption, the Spaffordites claimed that they would heal
him; after he died, they declared that they would resurrect
him (132). Despite, their evident failures, like the
Pentecostals, few saw through the sham and left. Also this
view of sickness, as being brought on and not cured because
of an individual's sin, gave scope for Overcomers to accuse
an ill fellow member against whom they had a grudge (137).
To cite a couple more
bizarre charismatic experiences of the Overcomers, here are
two claims of Horatio's wife, Anna, that remind one of the
fanaticism of charlatans like Kenneth Hagin or Benny Hinn.
First, she was "literally lifted between the floor and the
ceiling in her fight with the Devil whom she conquered;"
second, she was "transported bodily to the Mount of
Transfiguration" (177). Very heady, mystical stuff! But, of
course, she saw neither Christ, Moses nor Elijah (on that
mountain) nor Satan (in the air) and it was the devil with
his lies who got the victory, overcoming Mrs. Spafford.
The thoughtful reader
will not be surprised to learn that along with their claims
of charismatic manifestations, healings and experiences,
Horatio and his wife and group claimed to receive
supernatural and miraculous messages, prophecies, signs,
encounters, visions, visitations and revelations from God
(e.g., 81, 82, 85, 105-107, 158, 161, 168, 169, 172).
Margaret Lee, who claimed to have received the "baptism in
the Holy Spirit," joined Spafford's group very early
(80-81). Maggie received "signs," through movements of
various parts of her head. At first, God indicated His will
to her through "a loud crack of her teeth," but the volume
was too high for her husband and her manifestations could
come at inopportune times, such as in the middle of a meal.
In response to his prayer, Margaret's sign was transferred
to her eyes, which, when drawn back into her head, indicated
the divine affirmative. This certainly made for "a more
dramatic form of worship than biblical exegesis" and drew a
crowd. An observer remarks,
A little community
gathered round her who all brought everything in their lives
to be tested by the cracking of her jaw [or the withdrawing
of her eyes]. They engaged or dismissed servants, arranged
their households, transacted their business, gave up old
businesses, entered into new businesses, formed friendships,
gave up friends, dressed, did everything in fact by the
guidance of [Maggie's] sign (81).
sister received a third manifestation: the sticking out of
her tongue, which the Overcomers viewed as "thrilling,
natural, and sacred" (107).
Another lady in the
group gave guidance not through her teeth or eyes or tongue
but by her nose or, more specifically, her nose's sniffles.
At one point a small
party travelled to Boston with neither money nor purpose,
guided solely by "a sniffle" from one of their
"prophetesses." They were discovered sitting on a curbstone,
waiting for further direction from the sniffle. While they
all returned safely and quite enjoyed their excursion, the
newspapers got wind of the escapade, and there was no end to
the ridicule or the interest of reporters (81-82; cf. 158).
Compared to learning
God's will from cracking teeth, drawn-in eyes, a protruding
tongue or a sniffling nose, opening one's Bible at random
for guidance and seizing upon whatever sentence the eye may
fall upon (81) or taking "one word out of one passage of
Scripture, two out of another and so on, stringing them
together so as to make the sense they wished" (109) almost
The Spaffordites did
not shirk from drawing the inevitable conclusions from these
divine messages to male and female members. They advocated
and practised women preaching (169), contrary to Scripture
(I Cor. 14:34-35; I Tim. 2:12), and called Horatio, Anna and
others "prophets" and "prophetesses" (6, 82, 283, 294).
This, as many Pentecostals and Charismatics realise,
logically follows from their (false) claim to direct
revelation, the "Thus saith the Lord" (161). However, the
Overcomers were more consistent than most similar groups in
our day in that the oracles they received were written down
and "treasured as the utterance of God" (148; cf. 168, 298).
Not content with
claiming the mantle of "prophets," the original twelve adult
Spaffordites who left Chicago for Jerusalem were also
"apostles" (90, 253). Horatio's sister, Margaret Lee, was
called "Moses" (81, 105) and one "Mrs. L." (another
reference to Maggie or a different lady in the group?)
"claimed to be John the Baptist, Elijah, Moses and Aaron"
(127). Surely, this would have made her much greater than
any prophet in the Bible!
But the highest
titles were given to Mr. and Mrs. Spafford. Horatio was the
"Branch" (105, 106, 127, 164), which Geniesse understands as
a reference to John 15:5: "I am the vine, ye are the
branches" (105). Anna was the "Bride" (105, 164), for,
although originally the group itself was called the "Bride,"
she "started to lay claim to the title for herself" (105).
Thus not only were the Spaffordites the real church on
earth, the "Bride," for the Christian churches were
apostate, but Horatio's wife was the "Bride" in the highest
sense and he personally took upon himself another term for
God's church, the "Branch" which abides in Christ (John
Four Bad Reasons
for Migrating to Jerusalem
Of the four bad
reasons for the departure of twelve adult Spaffordites and
four children from Chicago for Jerusalem in 1881, two were
push factors and two were pull factors. The first push
factor was Horatio's grave financial problems. He had been
re-mortgaging property and borrowing heavily (83). He was
guilty of "financial malfeasance for several years" (64),
abusing a number of trusts committed to him, even spending
money belonging to his own niece (49, 97). The year he left
America for Palestine, Horatio owed over $100,000 (88) and
feared that "at any moment he would be served a subpoena
from one of his creditors" (89) for he was "in danger of
being arrested" (90, 132). Horatio's fraudulent borrowing
and financial woes continued in the promised land (e.g.,
117-118, 130-131). As we have seen, he was definitely a
religious "crank" and probably a financial crook or, at
least, an "unmitigated rascal" (131). The U.S. Consul in
Jerusalem, Selah Merrill, "was aware of forty-one creditors
demanding payments" from the Spaffordites, including their
landlord, for they "had not paid rent for over two years"
(153). Among the many issues brought up in a Chicago court
in April and May of 1895 were the financial improprieties of
Horatio and his wife and group (158-162).
The second push factor was
the strong (and justified) criticism of Spafford and his
followers for their heretical theology and bizarre
behaviour. The members of Fullerton Avenue Presbyterian
Church and Horatio's neighbours and creditors were disgusted
with him (82-90). The Chicago press understandably ridiculed
him and his group (3). Not only the
Chicago Daily Tribune
(76, 84, 326, n. 10) and the
Chicago Daily News
(82, 326, n. 6), but even the
New York Times
denounced the "new sect" (10).
While some speak of
Horatio's leaving Chicago for Jerusalem as "stepping out in
faith," it is more correct to see it as his fleeing
creditors and escaping from bad publicity. Anna herself
acknowledged the last two points as reasons for their
migration to Palestine: "We must pray now that Mr. Spafford
is relieved by the Lord of these debts. We must pray that
Mr. Spafford is delivered from those who are persecuting
him. We must turn our thoughts to Jerusalem" (87).
The third reason, and
the first pull factor, was Spafford's premillennial ideas:
the Jews would return to Palestine, Christ would come bodily
to Jerusalem and there would be a golden age of 1,000 years
(6, 9-10, 36-39). Moreover, Horatio was fascinated with
date-setting schemes which claimed to fix the time of the
Lord's return (38-39, 84, 166-167). So Jerusalem was an
attractive destination to them, especially if they knew
(more or less) when Jesus would descend. This is, of course,
contrary to Christ's own teaching (Matt. 24:36), though it
is fitting that Spafford's first name comes from the Latin
millennial mania was added a fourth element: charismatic
revelation. His wife received a "supernatural visitation"
calling the Overcomers to Jerusalem (89, 105). They must go
to the holy city to greet Christ personally at His descent
on the Mount of Olives (2, 10, 82, 88, 162, 211), for the
hymn writer and his followers were commanded by God to
travel to Jerusalem to be the Saviour's special welcoming
committee. After that, so they claimed, the Bride will
"return in great triumph and blessing to bring the Word to
the world" (88)!
the day after they
arrived in Jerusalem, the Star of Bethlehem was to ...
settle on the head of one of them, and this fact would go
out to the world, and immediately all the people who were
expecting the Lord's coming, and looking for it, would
hasten as fast as possible to Jerusalem and gather round the
Star, and then, when all the saints were gathered, the Lord
would ascend, and His saints with Him, into the air above
Needless to say, the
Star of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:1-10) did not settle on any of
their heads. This was just the first of their failed
Soon after their
arrival in Jerusalem, "The appointed time found the
Overcomers assembled in ascension robes on Mount Olivet ...
waiting for the heavens to part" (106). While tarrying for
that holy event, Horatio's wife and sister got into a
"vitriolic spat" over which of them was the greater
prophetess and leader (106). The second advent did not come
and the party did not return singing, "When peace, like a
river, attendeth my way." This sorry spectacle of the
Overcomers traipsing back from the Mount of Olives should be
carefully considered by anyone singing this stanza of
Spafford's popular hymn (64):
And, Lord, haste the
day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be
rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound,
and the Lord will descend—
"Even so—it is well with
The clouds did not roll
back, the trumpet did not sound and the Lord did not descend
that day in 1881. The hymn writer is in the long and sorry
list of false prophets who engage in date-setting, including
William Miller, a baptist lay preacher and a key figure in
the rise of the Seventh Day Adventist cult (between
21 March, 1843 and 21 March , 1844; 18 April, 1844;
22 October, 1844), and Harold Camping (on or about 6
September, 1992; 21 May, 2011; 21 October, 2011). By reason
of Spafford's shenanigans, "the way of truth [was] evil
spoken of" (II Peter 2:2).
That none of the
Saints would die before the Lord's coming "had been one of
the group's core beliefs" right from the start (121, 134,
139). But die they did. As its typical with apocalyptic
sects, Horatio now introduced a condition to try to explain
away the falsified prophecy: "no one would die as long as
'they believed in God and overcame all worldly temptations'"
(135). But if "avoiding temptation" was "the only way of
immortality," as Spafford claimed (136), then a ready excuse
is provided (and is even inevitable) for every Overcomer,
for no one is sinlessly perfect in this life (I John 1:8)!
After John Whiting,
one of the original twelve "apostles" of the Overcomers,
died, his mother-in-law (a sharp critic of the sect) sought
to erect a headstone on his grave. The Spaffordites refused
her "because they expected John to rise soon and meet them
walking in the street" (146). This (failed) prophecy of
resurrection was just another way of getting around their
false eschatological claims proceeding from their millennial
But surely Horatio, the
"Branch," would never die! Such was his faith and that of
his community: Christ would come before he would die. One
version of Spafford's famous hymn declares, "The sky,
not the grave,
is our goal." This was definitely his own personal hope, for
he was not supposed to die and be buried at all! On this
basis, even when he was seriously ill, a doctor was
deliberately not called (139). Even when Spafford died of
malaria on 16 October, 1888, four days shy of his sixtieth
birthday, the delusion continued: there was no point
erecting a grave stone because the Lord's return was so near
A mysterious prophecy of
Anna's, "Seven years in the land," which was made in 1881
and which could well have been meant and/or understood to
fix the year of Christ's return as 1888 (106), was now
applied to Horatio himself who had died that year. The
"marvelling" (and gullible) Spaffordites were reassured. The
were being fulfilled (141)!
More Overcomers died
in the following years. But if anyone wondered how this
fitted with their claims of "immortality," "Anna reminded
them that, as long as sinful thoughts were not excised with
the ruthlessness of a surgical blade, people would die"
(148). "The Advent," Anna claimed, "was delayed because her
followers had been 'iniquitous'" (215). How convenient!
During World War I,
"Anna predicted that Armageddon was at hand" (263). A few
months later, General Allenby defeated the Turks at the
Battle of Megiddo (September, 1918) and Mrs. Spafford "was
deeply satisfied by these biblical associations and assured
her people that the prophecies would be fulfilled at last"
Anna especially was
believed by herself and her followers to be immortal (186,
285, 294, 296) but she too died (17 April, 1923). After
that, "Months passed. There was no sign of the millennium.
The Messiah did not come; the prophecies remained
unfulfilled. Bereft, the congregation floated, doing what
they had always done. As they had been trained, they asked
no questions; they tried not to think" (297).
predictions were a grand delusion, as empty as a dream. As
an instance of those "evil men and seducers" of whom II
Timothy 3:13 warns, the hymn writer ruined his life and many
others by "deceiving, and being deceived."
We should now
consider more closely the cultic practices of Horatio
Spafford's group and see how they flowed out of their key
beliefs and fitted together. Hannah Whitall Smith, herself a
Quaker and generally sympathetic to "deluded" people "of
every stripe," investigated many fanatical religious sects,
compiled a file (324, n. 16) and published her findings. Out
of all the various weird groups, she calls the Overcomers
"one of the strangest" (325, n. 4). She had very good
reason, as we shall see.
While in Chicago, the
Spaffordites manifested bizarre behaviour, but it was when
they established the American Colony in Jerusalem and lived
"as one religious household" (109) that they became even
more cultic. They practised a form of communism (109, 193)
for all things were to be shared in common (238, 290).
People would sell their farms or give their savings into a
common kitty (90, 165, 193, 333, n. 17), into which salaries
too would go (290). Members were not allowed a bank account
of their own and had to ask for money from the cult leaders,
say, to buy clothes or shoes (165, 234).
Like those in the church
at Thessalonica whom Paul rebuked for not working because of
a mistaken notion that Christ was to return in the next few
days (II Thess. 3:6-12), Horatio too refused to work (129,
132-133, 149, 312-313), merely idling and rambling around
Jerusalem (118). Though rejecting work, he did not reject
borrowing or indebtedness (313). "The Lord," he said, "has
better things for us to do than work" (133). However, in
Psalm 128:1-2, the church sings "Blessed
is every one that feareth the Lord; that walketh in his
ways. For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands: happy
shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee."
The Overcomers' false
view of the imminence of Christ's coming also led to their
neglecting the education of their children (except those of
the Spaffords!) because, once the millennium arrived, "they
would be educated in a moment" (163; cf. 120, 180). Horatio
also betrayed his Anabaptist and cultic spirit when he
rejected historical and Christian books given to a member of
his community, and promptly returned them: "We have no need
of these histories. Our true education is about to come"
meant that he and his group, unlike all the missionary
groups in Jerusalem, "made no attempt to proselytize" (104;
cf. 111, 255). Why? Spafford's first reason was that the
millennium had not yet come.
Horatio and Anna did
not wish to evangelize the Jews they met any more than they
hoped to convert their Arab friends. The time was not ripe,
they acknowledged to themselves, although one day the Lord
would surely summon the world to the truths He had
vouchsafed their little fellowship (111).
Second, Horatio denied
hell, affirmed purgatory and taught universalism, even
including the salvation of Satan.
For Spafford, ultimately, it will be well with everyone's
soul for all will end up in heaven. But then why bother
witnessing, especially to Jews and Muslims and in such a
combustible place as Jerusalem, if all will eventually be
saved anyway? Horatio's hyper-Arminian universalism led to
the same sinful paralysis of witnessing as the evil of
hyper-Calvinism does at the other extreme!
charismatic view of healing involved a "strict ban on
medicine and doctors" (177; cf. 117, 118, 145, 147, 188,
255), resulting in preventable deaths (117, 177). After all,
calling for a doctor or using medicine betrays a lack of
faith! This rule was applied even to Horatio himself during
his final illness (139). The Overcomers' cultic position
that there was to be no mourning for the dead (140, 142,
145, 188-189, 254) was also observed regarding the hymn
writer. His own wife never mourned for him (139-140, 143)
and she even danced at his death (223, 295-296)! Following
their mother's example, her daughters celebrated when Anna
died (295-296). This is unnatural and unbiblical. We are not
forbidden to weep at the death of a believer—Christ did
(John 11:35). We are forbidden to sorrow as if we had no
hope of the general resurrection, like the unbelieving
pagans (I Thess. 4:13).
Attack on Marriage
One of the most
distressing cultic characteristics of the Spaffordites
involved marriage. First, millennial sects like theirs often
The argument is simple to grasp. Since marriage is a feature
of this age and not the next (Luke 20:34-35) and the
millennium is just about to start, those who are truly
zealous for the Lord can hasten or prepare for His coming by
ending marriage. Second, Horatio claimed that God had given
him divine revelation, which he passed on first to his wife
(136) and then to his community (137): now all the
Overcomers had to be celibate! Wedding rings were to be
taken off and destroyed or sold (137, 145).
What the Spirit
"expressly" calls the devilish doctrine of "forbidding to
marry" (I Tim. 4:1-3) was introduced as if it were the
teaching of the Holy Ghost, and married people had to live
as if they were not married (161, 172-174, 212), though not
all readily acceded to this new revelation (137, 163, 173,
192). Anna even had the gall to declare that "marriage was
license to sin" (215), again directly contrary to the Word
of God (Gen. 2:18; I Cor. 7:19).
noted that the Overcomers' household in Jerusalem consisted
of "175 persons, of whom 100 are women, many other girls of
marriageable age, and only 40 men." It all made for a
"hotbed of sexuality" (192). Mrs. Spafford's unclean spirit
had given her a revelation that made a bad situation worse:
At a meeting, Anna
revealed a message. Her followers were to be tested by
having "affinities." There were no longer any married
couples. Instead, each man was to have an "affinity" with
one of the younger women. Anna set about designating
couples, commanding them to spend the night in bed together.
They were to abjure sexual attraction as a vehicle to
"overcome" temptation, and to report to her any details of
their relationships. "We are to be like Adam and Eve before
the fall," she warned, and frequently invited Jacob Eliahu
to her room alone (149; cf. 151, 153).
This is not
"overcoming" temptation; this is putting oneself needlessly
in the way of temptation and so tempting God (Deut. 6:16).
Holy Writ calls us to "flee fornication" (I Cor. 6:18; Gen.
39:12) and to "make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil
the lusts thereof" (Rom. 13:14).
Even before Horatio's
death, Anna repeatedly committed adultery with another man.
This was how she piously sought to pass it off: "For 'the
spiritual training' of herself and her husband, she told the
group, she would become 'one' with another man" (138). This
is Antinomianism of the worst sort! Spafford's wife was a
modern "Jezebel" and the hymn writer falls under the
condemnation of Revelation 2:20: "thou sufferest that woman
Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to
seduce my servants to commit fornication." Scripture says,
"Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but
whoremongers and adulterers God will judge" (Heb. 13:4)!
upon the dissolution of marriage, children were "forcibly
taken away from their parents to be supervised and to sleep
in rooms with unmarried women" (177), bringing many tears
and much grief (177-178, 214-215). Why should the church
sing hymns written by an enemy of the Christian family? Why
not sing songs given by the Holy Spirit, such as Psalms 127
and 128 on the permanence and blessedness of godly marriage
and children in this life?
With a cooling of
apocalyptic fervour and the community's increased chaffing
at the unnatural denial of marriage, the beginning of the
twentieth century marked a "new dispensation" at the
American Colony (219, 234). "Anna, ever the realist, decided
it was time to countenance young men and women 'going
together,' and accordingly received a 'message'" (215).
Charismatic revelation can be so convenient!
however, still wanted to retain control. After all, she had
renamed the members of the community (103, 119) and she, the
undoubted leader, was to be called "Mother" (172, 297), as
well as the "Bride," for all were subject to her (161, 163).
Just as she appointed her favourite as manager of the
Colony's store (208), she "also decided who was to be
'engaged' and to whom" (215; cf. 216-217). Later, Anna
claimed that the Overcomers "had won their battle for
purity" (even though they had fallen into debauchery) and
they could even have an extremely lavish wedding for her
daughter, Bertha, with a Lutheran pastor officiating.
Evidently, the instituted churches were no longer "Babylon"
With the return of
courtship and marriage, parents could now raise their own
babies (234). Around the same time, doctors and medicine
were permitted —first of all in the instance of an Overcomer
who survived his suicide attempt (216). Even the bizarre ban
on gravestones, which supposedly "prevented the dead from
rising" (188; cf. 140, 163), was overturned, with Mrs.
Spafford herself being buried on Mount Scopus with "a simple
stone marked 'Mother' on her grave," though the prohibition
against mourning was apparently still in place, for that day
the Overcomers were "trying to suppress their tears" (297).
Horatio's story, complete
with sanctified oranges, holy sniffles, ascension robes and
discarded wedding rings, is fascinating but sad, and much
more that is bizarre and instructive could be added.
But enough has been
said to reveal that Horatio Spafford was a rabid Arminian
and a universalist, who believed in the salvation of Satan
and purgatory (like Roman Catholicism). The hymn writer was
also a false prophet, a charismatic and a cult leader. The
heretical teaching and utopian community of the "Branch" and
his "Bride" were not in the way of Christ's peace. It was
not well with his soul. Surely, it is far better to sing the
150 inspired Psalms written by true prophets of Jesus
Christ, the Branch (Isa. 11:1; Jer. 23:5; 33:15; Zech. 3:8;
6:12), for His beloved bride, the church (Eph. 5:23-32).
Horatio's famous hymn
is found, for example, in the Free Presbyterian Church
Our Own Hymnbook
(first published 1989, second impression 1998) as number
With My Soul: Four Dramatic Stories of Great Hymn
(Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2003).
Phillips, Well With My
pp. 46, 52.
Well With My Soul,
Jane Fletcher Geniesse,
The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the
American Colony in Jerusalem
(New York: Doubleday, 2007). Hereafter numbers in
brackets refer to pages in this book.
Horatio's heresies of universalism and purgatory should
be borne in mind in connection with the second and third
stanzas of his hymn, which, by referring to the Lord's
"blood" and "cross," might deceive the unwary. Spafford
does not mean these words in an orthodox Christian
The hymn writer's own
gross financial malfeasance will be discussed later.
Institutes of the
ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles
(Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960), 4.1.10,
4.1.5, p. 1018.
They very soon earned a bad reputation in Palestine too.
"From the start, they were viewed as cranks and
degenerates by Jerusalem's Protestant missionaries, and
particularly by two successive U.S. consuls who ascribed
to them immoral practices and sexual license" (7; cf.
The Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster hymnal renders
this stanza differently, though still maintaining
Spafford's apocalyptic references:
But, Lord, 'tis for
The sky, not the grave,
is our goal;
O trump of the angel!
voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope! blessed rest of my soul!
Geniesse even links
the writing of Spafford's poem, which became his famous
hymn, to his universalism (64-65). Horatio reckoned that
his four children were in heaven but what about the
others who went down with the
Ville du Havre?
And what of everybody else? "Perhaps, he thought, there
was no such thing as hell ... If God were love
[understood wrongly as if He loved every single human
and angel], why could not everyone be saved?" (65).
Geniesse lists several
other sects which "revolved around a charismatic leader
who drastically reordered traditional family
relationships," such as "the celibate dancing Shakers
who followed 'Mother' Ann Lee in 1776, then, in 1830,
Joseph Smith's polygamous Mormons, and, finally, the
Oneida Perfectionists who practised 'free love' as
preached by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848" (5).
Geniesse gives the example of Mr. Rudy, another member
of the Spaffordites: "every night a young Swede came to
him in her nightgown. She was married and the mother of
two children. They spent the night together and did
their best to resist the temptations of the flesh. But
should on occasion they fail, they knew they had only to
confess quietly to Anna, and she would forgive them"
(195). Contrary to Rachel Phillips' claim that the
American Colony spread "light," they were living in
darkness, engaging in appalling and sick practices. No
wonder they were accused of practising "free love"
One also has to appreciate Geniesse's skilful setting of
her subject in the context of European migration to the
U.S., America's Gilded Age, D. L. Moody's revivalism,
the great Chicago fire (1871), Zionism, World War I and
the creation of the modern state of Israel.