On a clear night in November 1873, days into a trans-Atlantic voyage, the Ville du Havre was inexplicably rammed at sea by a passing vessel, the Loch Earn. Among the passengers who were startled from their sleep were Anna Spafford and her children. They were on their way to Europe with family friends. Horatio Spafford had stayed temporarily behind in Chicago to see to financial affairs, which had been difficult for many since the ravages of the Great Chicago Fire. As the disaster at sea unfolded, the ship rapidly took on water and fires broke out in the hold. Anna bundled up her four young daughters, Annie, Maggie, Bessie and baby Tanetta, and shepherded them up onto the deck.
Time proved short. The severity of the damage was clear to the observant eye, and the luxury ship proved ill-prepared for mass emergency evacuation. Struggling passengers who tried to ready lifeboats for departure discovered that most were stuck fast, painted to the deck, while crew members commandeered those that were available and took to the sea. The Spafford girls stayed firm with Anna through the chaos, with Tanetta in her mother's arms. Survivors later reported that little Annie Spafford offered a calm voice of courage to the adults hovered around her. As the vessel began to tip towards its slide into the freezing depths, she calmly pronounced: "Don't be afraid. The sea is His, and He made it." As the ship sank, Anna Spafford was caught in a maelstrom of water. Tanetta was knocked from her grasp by whirling debris. The three older girls did their best to persevere. Two of them dog paddled and clung for a brief while to the corduroy pants leg of a male passenger swimming his way to the surface, but their small bodies soon gave out in the cold.
Anna alone of the Spafford traveling party survived the disaster. She was found by rescuers floating semi-conscious, buoyed on a piece of broken planking. Transferred to safety, and later conveyed with other survivors to land, she awaited further signs of her children in vain.
In recalling the incident, Anna would later say that the shipwreck experience and her miraculous survival marked an epiphany in her spiritual life. The Spaffords went forward with optimism and determination. They proceeded into new paths in their faith, confident in their belief that their daughters had seen salvation at the grace of a merciful God, and convinced as well that the end of everyday life itself as it had been known on Earth was soon coming for all. In the aftermath of the shipwreck, Horatio became beloved for the words of his hymn of consolation and faith, "It Is Well With My Soul." Set to music by P.P. Bliss, the hymn made its debut performance in Chicago in 1876, and continues to present day in its popularity.
After the ordeal at sea, Anna and Horatio Spafford became religious outsiders. They left their Presbyterian congregation where they had long worshiped, and instead held faith-based prayer meetings in their own home. They were joined by a group of fellow believers who were as confident as they that the Millennium—the time of Jesus Christ's Second Coming, as foreseen in biblical prophecy—was near at hand. Their millenarian group became known as the "Overcomers." The Spaffords had indeed overcome much travail. The American Colony was born out of their spiritual journey. Leaving Chicago behind, they led a small group of friends, all Protestant religious pilgrims, to Jerusalem in 1881.