Horatio G. Spafford was known as a sincere, devout Christian. He was the father of four daughters, an active member of the Presbyterian church, and a loyal friend and supporter of D. L. Moody and other evangelical leaders of his day.
In November 1873, Spafford decided to take his entire family to Europe for a vacation, intending also to assist Moody in his evangelistic work once he arrived there. However, Spafford was unexpectedly detained in Chicago due to urgent business concerns, but decided to send his family aboard the S.S. Ville du Harve as scheduled. Midway through the trans-Atlantic voyage, S.S. Ville du Harve was struck by the English vessel Loch Earn and eventually foundered. Spafford's four daughters—Anna, eleven; Maggie, nine; Bessie, seven; and Tanetta, two—were among the 226 who perished in the aftermath. Mrs. Spafford, one of the few who were spared, sent her husband the heartbreaking telegram: "Saved alone."
Spafford immediately sailed for England to join his grief-stricken wife. As his ship passed the approximate location where his daughters had drowned, his deep sorrow mingled with his unwavering faith in God's goodness caused him to compose this hymn.