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The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem

Written by Jane Fletcher GeniesseAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jane Fletcher Geniesse


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: June 17, 2008
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-385-52668-5
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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For generations, The American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem has been a well-known retreat for journalists, diplomats, pilgrims and spies. However, few know the story of Anna Spafford, the enigmatic evangelist who was instrumental in its founding

Branded heretics by Jerusalem’s established Christian missionaries when they arrived in 1881, the Spaffords and their followers nevertheless won over Muslims and Jews with their philanthropy. But when her husband Horatio died, Anna assumed leadership, shocking even her adherents by abolishing marriage and establishing an uneasy dictatorship based on emotional blackmail and religious extremism.

With a controversial heroine at its core, American Priestess provides a fascinating exploration of the seductive power of evangelicalism as well as an intriguing history of an enduring landmark.


A Beginning

The world to an end shall come
In eighteen hundred and eighty-one.

—Prophecy by an anonymous author, 1488

On a windy September day in 1881, the captain ordered the anchor dropped while the ship was still far offshore. This was routine procedure, as the port of Jaffa in Palestine was notoriously unsafe. Until that moment, however, not one of the eighteen pilgrims assembled on deck had been aware of just how difficult disembarkation might be. In their haste to leave Chicago, none had thought to pack a guidebook, and they now strained to make out details of the scene before them. The town of Jaffa seemed pretty in the morning sunlight. A mosque crowned a picturesque riot of domed houses tumbling down to the sea. There was an inviting waterfront, lined with handsome brick and stone warehouses, and orange trees abounded in the countryside around the town. But the foaming waves that crashed against a circular belt of sunken boulders between them and the shore were distinctly intimidating.(1)

Neither their own steamer nor any of the other large ships anchored nearby could get close to shore. This had been so since 1345, when the Egyptian Mamluks had destroyed Jaffa's venerable harbor, determined that no infidel crusaders would ever again invade the Eastern lands after Sultan Baybars had expelled the last Western knights in 1271. Tradition had it that Andromeda was chained to one of these jagged rocks, and it was from Jaffa—or ancient Joppa--that Jonah had fled to escape being sent to Nineveh, and then was swallowed by a whale. Hiram of Tyre sent his Lebanese cedars on floats to this port for Solomon to build his great temple in Jerusalem, and in the town itself Simon the tanner had been host to Saint Peter.

The pilgrims knew these stories. Though they lacked a guidebook, they each carried a Bible, and biblical names and characters were as familiar to them as those of their families. They were both weary and excited. They had been voyaging since August 17, when they left Chicago abruptly, after nightfall. If some had not been completely ready, none could have hesitated. The glorious message for which they had been waiting had come at last. Eagerly, they obeyed the summons. The Resurrection was at hand and they were prepared to meet the Messiah.

Thus, via Quebec by train, then by steamer to London, six women, four men, a nineteen-year-old youth, two young girls, and three babies had sailed by the northern route to Liverpool. With the addition of a retired British army captain and his wife who had asked to join them in London, the little band was now close to their hearts' desire. Soon they would be in Jerusalem to greet their Savior personally when He alighted on the Mount of Olives.

Within moments, a motley fleet of rowboats and little barges surging through the rock barrier threw their lines over the ship's side and were bobbing against its hull. A rabble of barefooted Arabs, hoisting themselves up with ropes and chains, clambered swiftly aboard, shouting incomprehensibly. Many had daggers thrust into their wide red sashes, and all seemed enormous and frightening to the startled passengers whom the captain had only recently warned of Jaffa's famously unceremonious custom of disembarkation. Clad in baggy trousers and wearing red fezzes, the boatmen fell upon passengers and baggage like a swarm of hornets, scooping men, women, children, trunks, valises, and hatboxes up in a viselike grip, and half-tossed, half-handed them over to their waiting comrades below. Finding themselves breathless and disarranged but at least safe in the heaving tenders, the ladies patted their bonnets and skirts back into order while the gentlemen offered a steadying hand. Once past the rock barrier, they were again seized by the Arab longshoremen, who carried them through the surf and up the beach, and finally set them down on Canaan's sacred soil.

Little did the pilgrims guess, as they waited for their ride over the sultan's new carriage road from Jaffa to Jerusalem, that filth, illness, and sorrow awaited them. Nor could they know of the singular friendships and rapturous moments that also lay ahead. In Chicago, the newspapers had called them the "Overcomers." Their doctrines were strange. They had been rebuffed and ridiculed for their beliefs, and for their unwavering faith in their spiritual leaders, Horatio Spafford and his blue-eyed wife, Anna. Yet educated, attractive, mostly well-to-do, and some socially prominent, these pilgrims were moved by the absolute conviction that they had been called to their journey.

The second half of the nineteenth century, often called America's Gilded Age, was known as "Bible drenched," and for good reason. After the recent and bloodily divisive Civil War, America had become rich, but the new wealth, resulting from an agrarian way of life giving way to an industrialized society, brought stress to many. A grand network of railroads and the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, had fueled a westward migration. Travel and the creation of new businesses had become easier, but massive dislocations followed. Suddenly there were crowded cities and an urban poor. Moreover, vast numbers of immigrants seeking work and a better life continued to arrive, bringing with them new ideas that disturbed rural America. By the middle of the tumultuous century that gave birth to the Overcomers, many made anxious by the secularism and Enlightenment thinking of the old Continent had turned to religion for reassurance and certitude.

This impulse was hardly new to America, which had already enjoyed two waves of religious "awakenings" in the past. The first had occurred four decades before the American Revolution, the second began at the start of the nineteenth century and lasted into the 1830s. Although the founding fathers, valuing freedom of conscience, had separated church from state, the country was overwhelmingly Protestant. Central to Protestantism was the belief that man needed no interceding church hierarchy to save his soul: justification was by faith, and salvation thus the responsibility of the individual alone. This liberating notion had given rise over the years to schismatic groups breaking off from mainstream churches to found their own denominations, develop their own creeds, and evangelize those in need of being "saved."

Alexis de Tocqueville, touring the country in 1831, had observed that "the prevailing passion" seemed to be "acquiring the good things of the world," but he had also been fascinated by a second powerful theme. "In the midst of American society you meet with men full of fanatical and almost wild spiritualism…From time to time strange sects arise which endeavor to strike out extraordinary paths to external happiness. Religious insanity is very common in the United States."
As the firewall between church and state prevented the creation of a state-supported church of the kind that existed in many European countries, individual preachers in America had to create and sustain their own congregations and develop techniques to bind them close. Conditions, therefore, were ripe for preacher-prophets to roam the land, look for converts, and win them away to their own special visions. Nothing, it seems, served as well as a revival to satisfy the Protestant's desire to embrace the Lord and lay down his burdens of sin and guilt. The country had long seen multitudes of eager seekers traveling long distances to gather in tents to be exhorted, to shout "Amen!" and to be born again. Longing to "feel" God's presence in their bodies as well as in their hearts and minds, many Protestants yearned for a dramatic baptism in the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, flourishing pentecostal movements had long been part of the American scene where overwrought believers engaged in strange, even shocking behaviors. (*)

In August 1801, at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, twenty-five thousand farmers and their families converged from their lonely mountain farms in search of religious communion. At a gathering larger than most cities of the period, and held under the auspices of Presbyterians but drawing masses from the faster-growing Methodist and Baptist denominations, men, women, and children laughed, sang, twirled, and barked like dogs until they collapsed unconscious on the ground in a trance. "These were rough people, profane, heavy drinkers, violent, who had never before attended night camp meetings. Conversion and love-making intermingled in an orgy of Pentecostal enthusiasm." (2) Reports of the bacchanal ignited a flurry of similar revivals elsewhere in the country among people equally lonely, ignorant, devoid of other entertainments, and above all bewildered by the social and economic upheavals marking the times.

The fervor famously scorched upper New York state, aptly named "the Burned-Over District" for its consecutive religious enthusiasms. Horatio Spafford was born and raised in Troy, New York, and had seen the impact of thousands of foreign immigrants converging to dig the 363-mile-long Erie Canal and rub their strange habits against staid old ways. Suddenly mills and factories stood where farms had been, and shantytowns sprawled with noisy pubs, drinking, and crime. Itinerant preachers arrived to offer consolation and their personal interpretations of Protestantism—if in fact these could be called Protestant at all—and the more sensational they were, the greater the number of adherents gathering to be consoled. Multitudes of sects arose. Perhaps among the best known were 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 practiced "free love" as preached by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848. Like most other sects, these products of the Burned-Over District revolved around a charismatic leader who drastically reordered traditional family relationships.
As nineteenth-century revivalism gathered momentum, expectations became common among Protestants in America for an imminent Second Coming. For many, the decades of violence in Europe had surely heralded that the end was near. William Miller, a New York state farmer and Baptist lay preacher, was one who twice preached a specific date for the return. When Christ disappointed Miller in 1843, he recalculated the date for precisely October 22, 1844, an exactitude that was his undoing. When some forty thousand Millerites gathered for the fateful day and again nothing happened, derision sent him to an early grave, while the believers who had sold their homes and businesses to don ascension robes were left to sorrow in bankruptcy.(3)

For many Protestants, preachments from a Sunday pulpit by their Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, or Methodist pastors could never adequately answer their craving for an intense spiritual experience, which was for these seekers more important than scriptural guidance. So many turned to sects that offered unbridled and ecstatic practices, and over the years a wide variety of different strains blossomed from Protestantism. Among them were the Christian Scientists, the Churches of Christ, the Fourierists, Swedenborgians, and Seventh-Day Baptists, the Keswick movement, the Holiness movement, the Plymouth Brethren, Pietists and Quietists, Spiritualists, and Inner-Lightists, as well as endless other denominational divisions, branches, sects, and cults dedicated to satisfying "religious desire."4 Ever curious and experimental, Americans have tried everything from animal magnetism and healing machines to table rapping and magnetic fluids in their quest for communion with the saving God and a favorable reception in the world to come.

It was from this creative current in Protestant thinking that the Overcomers were born, inspired by their prophets, Horatio and Anna Spafford, in Chicago. Above all, they were convinced millenarians, awaiting the cataclysm in which God would destroy the ruling power of evil and raise the righteous into the heavenly kingdom.5 Unlike so many of their fellow citizens, however, who considered America itself to be the new Zion--the place for a fresh and godly start where they could build a new "City on a Hill"—the Spaffords and their followers turned eastward to the old Zion: Jerusalem, in Ottoman Palestine. Here they would establish themselves as the first permanent and longest-lasting American settlement in the holy city. All the while, they looked for the "signs" that would herald the Messiah's return, constructing a personal theology that incorporated much of evangelical thinking at that time, including the necessity of the Jews' return to the land of their fathers, according to the ancient prophecies. As they waited and watched, they would bear witness to the titanic events that ultimately formed the modern Middle East. Surviving war, famine, plagues, and revolution, these ardent believers participated in the death throes of the Ottoman Empire, witnessed the arrival of the victorious British in 1917, and eventually saw a second generation grow up. Their colony flourished through the British mandate period as Jews arrived in ever-increasing numbers to fulfill their own Zionist dream. A smaller group stayed on through World War II and eventually saw the creation in 1948 of the powerful new Jewish state, Israel.

The pilgrims became known almost immediately as the American Colony, although in due course their expanding membership would include British, Indian, Canadian, Scottish, French, Turkish, Romanian, Polish, Serbian, Spanish, Danish, Norwegian, and especially Swedish additions. 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. Yet to many Jews, Muslims, Greeks, Latins, Armenians, Copts, and sundry others who contended often viciously in the City of Peace, their reputation was quite the opposite--one of unsurpassed goodness and generosity to the poor and the needy around them. Notable visitors to Jerusalem who stayed under their hospitable roof returned home singing paeans to the American Colony even as it was quietly evolving into a business for the profit of the strongest of the surviving members, a business that exists today as one of the most celebrated hotels in the Middle East. As one contemporary wag observed, "They came to do good and they stayed to do well."

If the process crushed the lives of some weaker members unable to escape the cruelty, emotional blackmail, and discrimination that buttressed the pilgrims' utopian dream, the story is a very human one. In times of confusion, suffering, or dread of the future, otherwise reasonable men and women have willingly handed over their freedom to another deemed stronger and endowed with greater certainty--usually a leader they believe to be in touch with a "higher" authority. Certainly it happened when the Overcomers came to Jerusalem in 1881 and settled down as an active and integral part of one of the most fiercely divided and emotional places on earth. Their contribution to the social and political life of Jerusalem was to leave an indelible imprint. Even today there is not a map of Jerusalem that does not show the visitor how to find his way to the famous American Colony Hotel, just a short walk outside the walls.

On the bustling Jaffa quay, the sun beat down on the well-dressed and apparently affluent pilgrims as they moved toward the throng of Turkish soldiers, custom officers, and longshoremen. An agent for the British tourist agency Thomas Cook & Son identified himself to Horatio Spafford. Tall, silver-haired, and dignified, Horatio inquired about what arrangements had been made for them. The agent said he had two spring wagons to take them to Jerusalem. Surveying the ladies in their handsome traveling costumes, their guide added that he hoped it would not be too rough a ride. In the meantime, he suggested that they wander a bit in the streets.

From the Hardcover edition.
Jane Fletcher Geniesse

About Jane Fletcher Geniesse

Jane Fletcher Geniesse - American Priestess

Photo © Joe Arcidiacono

JANE FLETCHER GENIESSE, a former reporter for the New York Times, researched American Priestess for seven years. Her biography of Freya Stark, Passionate Nomad, was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. She lives in Florida and Washington, D.C.


“The story of an indomitable woman who . . . became [a] leader, unmanning all rivals. . . . A triumph.” –The Boston Globe

“Lively. . . . The Jerusalem years have the quality of a Hollywood epic.” –The New York Times Book Review

“[Geniesse’s] skillfully crafted narrative is always readable as it chronicles Anna’s often brutal manipulation of her followers.” –The Washington Post Book World

“A vivid picture of a dedicated cult's search for answers in the Holy Land and of the tense relationships of religious groups in Jerusalem.” –Janet Wallach, author of Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

“[A] fascinating story of the Spaffords and their quixotic enterprise.” –The Washington Times

“It is surprising and ironic that although the American Colony Hotel is favored by visiting journalists, none has ever before written a book about its unusual origins. Geniesse has now ably filled that gap.” –The Jerusalem Post

“Geniesse relates a tale that is as sweeping and epic in its scope as anything Edna Ferber wrote. . . . Fantastic.” –Rockland Free Press

“An engaging and enlightening account. . . . The author’s fascinating psychological profiles of Horatio and, especially Anna, dovetail seamlessly with her account of the Overcomers’ rise and inevitable demise.” –Louisville Courier-Journal

“Stunning–impressively researched and beautifully told.” –Jim Lehrer

“Colorful. . . . A fascinating insight into the upsurge in the late 1800s of ‘pre-millennial’ religious movements. . . . American Priestess is a great read–well written, thoroughly researched, and full of fascinating anecdotes.” –Internet Review of Books
“A vivid portrait of both a woman and a region on the cusp of transformation.” –Booklist

“Geniesse’s prose powerfully re-creates the terrors of shipwreck and of living through fire and war as well as the sights, sounds, and smells of everyday life in Chicago and Old Jerusalem. In Anna Spafford, Geniesse has created a charismatic, complex, and commanding figure as compelling as any fictive heroine.” –Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab’s Wife
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“The story of an indomitable woman who . . . became [a] leader, unmanning all rivals. . . . A triumph.” —The Boston Globe

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of American Priestess by Jane Geniesse.

About the Guide

Until now, few have known the true story of the house that became the American Colony Hotel, a retreat for foreign correspondents, diplomats, pilgrims and spies, or its bizarre history of tragedy, religious extremism, emotional blackmail, and peculiar sexual practices.

After suffering personal tragedy in the years following the Civil War, a prominent lawyer Horatio Spafford and his blue-eyed wife Anna rode the mighty wave of Protestant evangelicalism deluging the nation. Their charismatic leadership attracted followers eager to believe the Spaffords' prophecy that the Second Coming was at hand. In 1881, the Spaffords and their followers sailed to Jerusalem to see the Messiah alight on the Mount of Olives.

The Americans who were already settled in the Holy City declared the colonists heretics and whispered of sexual deviance, but Muslims and Jews admired their unflagging care of the sick and the needy, and Jews were intrigued with their advocacy of a Jewish Return to Zion. When Horatio died, Anna assumed leadership, shocking even her adherents by abolishing marriage and established a dictatorship that was not always benevolent. Ever dogged by controversy, she and her credulous followers lived through and closely participated in the titanic upheavals that eventually formed the modern Middle East.

American Priestess provides a fascinating exploration of the seductive power of evangelicalism and raises questions about the manipulation of religion to serve personal goals.

About the Author

Jane Fletcher Geniesse, a former reporter for the New York Times, researched American Priestess for seven years. Her biography of Freya Stark, Passionate Nomad, was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. She lives in Florida and Washington, D.C.

Discussion Guides

1. The “Overcomers” are described as “educated, attractive, mostly well-to-do, and some socially prominent.” Did this affect the way they were viewed by others? Have you ever felt more or less judgmental of particular religious adherents based on superficial characteristics (i.e. mainstream Mormons and Jews versus the less-assimilated Fundamentalist Mormons or Hassidic Jews)?

2. The author quotes Alexis de Tocqueville's observation that Americans of his day were prone to extreme religious practices and beliefs: “Religious insanity is very common in the United States.” Even today, many Europeans look at Americans as beholden to an outdated puritanical ethic. Does de Tocqueville's statement still apply to Americans today?

3. Throughout the book, Anna seems to avoid funerals and burials. Do you think this stems from her intense effort to suppress her earlier tragedy at sea or rather is it an indication that she did not want to confront the fact that her idyllic colony was suffering many losses?

4. At the core of the Overcomers' decision to establish roots in Israel was the belief that final judgment would occur after the Jews returned to Zion. Many people argue that the contemporary American “religious right” is stridently Zionist for the same reason, yet a July 2006 poll by Pew Forum of Religion and Public Life found that 42 percent of all Americans believe “Israel was given to the Jewish people by God” and 35 percent believe that Israel is “part of the fulfillment of biblical prophesy about the Second Coming of Jesus.” How do these views affect you personally, your community, and even deliberations in Washington, DC? Are there other explanations for this particular form of Zionism?

5. Throughout history, leaders of fanatical movements have often been extremely intelligent, charming, or both. Anna's contemporaries often pointed to these qualities to explain her ability to establish a devoted following. Have you ever been drawn in by a messenger rather than a message?

6. In the Afterword, the author writes, “Anna…was hardly the first, and certainly will not be the last, to use religion as a tool in the service of goals having more to do with Caesar than with God.” What are some contemporary examples, from recent political campaigns or politicians' actions, that demonstrate that God is often improperly evoked for political and personal gain?

7. Anna's torment at sea and the loss of her children seemed to ignite even more devotion and enthusiasm for her causes. In times of trial do you personally feel your faith grows stronger or do you instead find cause to doubt that there is a greater purpose?

8. Horatio, and later Anna, dissuaded their followers from working, often assuring them that “God will provide.” This angered many of their adversaries who felt that able-bodied adults shouldn't rely on charity for their survival. Discuss.

9. Was Anna complicit in Horatio's death? Did her decision to “become one with another man” and her refusal to offer professional medical attention to her critically ill husband cause or accelerate his death?

10. On page 155, Mary's brother, Professor Lingle, says, “I have seen and heard enough to believe that [my sister] is completely under the control of Mrs. Spafford and hence does not wish to return with me to America…I do not believe it is her real wish.” Questions of free will and brainwashing often arise in cases of religious fanaticism. Do you feel it is sometimes within the authorities' rights to intervene when it seems as though a person is under the control of a harmful entity (e.g. the 2008 raid of the Fundamentalist Mormon compound in Texas)?

11. Through manipulation and underhanded tactics, Anna's daughter Bertha was able to prosper financially and socially while most of the colonists lived very simple lives. History has shown that leaders who preach equality and charity often allow for exceptions in terms of their own inner-circle. Is there evidence to suggest that Anna and Bertha's inconsistencies led to jealousy within the colony? Did Bertha's flaunting of her elevated status eventually lead to the unrest among the devotees?

12. While Anna gave U.S. Consulate Selah Merrill many reasons to be frustrated and annoyed with the colony, his eventual explosive comments to the journalist Alexander Hume Ford seemed to indicate a certain obsessiveness and unreasonable anger towards the colony. Was Merrill's extreme hatred justified, or did it indicate a character flaw?

13. While many of Anna's actions and beliefs were destructive, it could be argued that through wit, determination and cunning, she was able to accomplish an impressive feat for a woman in a time when women were generally powerless. Are there reasons to admire Anna's accomplishments? Whether her beliefs were right or wrong was she still a remarkable person?

14. If the emotional heart of this story is Anna's transformation from a passive and dependent wife to a formidable leader certain of the rightness of her convictions, how would you describe the traits in her personality that helped her to achieve this change in status? Discuss this from a psychological standpoint. Do you know anyone like Anna? Do you find any of Anna's traits in yourself?

15. The author dedicates this book to her grandchildren and writes, “As they decide the future, may they also study the past.” This is a sentiment that has been repeated in various forms in many places. As a reader, what lessons did you take away from this book? Are there warnings in its pages that could apply to your life or to people you know?

16. What role did Horatio's personal failure play in Anna's emergence as the Overcomers' leader? Do you know any marriages that have experienced a similar shift in the balance of power?

Suggested Readings

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, Jerusalem; Linda Lawrence Hunt, Bold Spirit; Michael B. Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East; Frances Osborne, The Bolter; Janet Soskice, The Sisters of Sinai; Janet Wallach, Desert Queen.

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