Soon after he came to Chicago from Troy, New York, in 1856 to practice law, Horatio Gates Spafford became an intimate part of a circle of evangelical Protestants who centered around his friend, the influential revivalist Dwight L. Moody. He and Moody met in programs at the Young Men’s Christian Association in midtown Chicago, where Horatio availed himself of the advantages of the library, lectures, and book clubs. In this circle of acquaintances, he encountered a model of shared spirituality, learning, outreach, and self-initiative that he later translated into the ethos of the American Colony. Through Moody, Horatio became friends with sacred musicians like P.P. Bliss and Ira Sankey. The friends gathered together to compose and arrange inspirational music, and Horatio, a poet from youth, wrote lyrics for hymns.
As the United States drew ever closer to Civil War, Horatio stumped for Republican Party causes and offered courses in jurisprudence as a law professor. He made evangelical visits to inmates at jails and prisons, helped run prayer and revival meetings, and taught Sunday School as a pillar of his local Presbyterian church congregation. All this experience provided a foundation for what was to come.
Horatio Spafford first encountered Anna Larsson (Lawson), the fifteen-year-old teenager who later became his wife, in 1857 when he was teaching Sunday School and she attended a class with a friend. Anna, a Norwegian immigrant, had lost both her parents and was employed in the city as a waitress. Her mother Tanetta and young brother Hans died of cholera in 1849, soon after the family came to Chicago from Scandinavia when Anna was a small child. After this loss, Anna’s father Lars and half-brother Edward established a small farm in what were then the wilds of Minnesota, while Anna stayed behind in Chicago to attend Dearborn Academy with help from a family friend. When in 1856 her father’s tuberculosis worsened and he became gravely ill, Anna went out to the isolated farm to help, and she nursed him in his final illness. After his death she returned to Chicago to be near her half-sister, Rachel Fredrickson, and find work.
Anna’s difficult life experience and her unusually forthright and compelling personality made her appear mature beyond her years. Smitten by her beauty as well as her self-possession, Horatio Gates Spafford provided financial help to the young Anna so she could finish her schooling. He paid her tuition for an elite female academy, the Ferry Institute for Young Ladies, in Lake Forest, Illinois, where she excelled, particularly in music. He also courted her. After her graduation—and as the nation was torn by Civil War—the two married in September 1861. Anna and Horatio Spafford soon began a family and volunteered with the Christian Commission and the U.S. Sanitary Commission in home-front support of the Union cause.