Collection American Colony in Jerusalem, 1870-2006Show Featured Items
The story of the American Colony in Jerusalem begins with Anna and Horatio Spafford of Lake View, Illinois, and the involvement of their family in the 1873 shipwreck of the luxury steamer, the Ville du Havre. The majority of passengers traveling aboard the Ville du Havre lost their lives in that catastrophe in the mid-Atlantic. Among the drowned were the Spaffords' four young daughters.
The bereaved couple’s reaction to the tragedy and their way of coping with the personal losses they sustained led them in new directions in their Christian faith. Their increasingly visionary beliefs included a millenarian hope in the imminence of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which set them and a small group of fellow faithful on a path to a new utopian communal life in Jerusalem. The Spaffordites took up residence in a house in the Old City in 1881, and in the next decade moved to what was then the outskirts of East Jerusalem. They followed in the footsteps of other western and European religious pilgrims, as well as educators, tourists, archaeologists, business people and missionaries who had come before them earlier in the nineteenth century. Theirs was a long-lasting community, ecumenical in intent, charitable in acts, and appreciative of the various faiths, languages, and cultures of Palestine.
The American Colony waxed in size, activities, and functions from the time of the arrival of the first group near the end of the Ottoman Empire, through World War I and into the beginnings of the British Mandate. In these decades the Holy City, and the geographical and political landscapes of the regions around it, grew in population and changed, altered by revolt and war and British influence, and by Jewish in-migration and settlement. Over generations the colony community weathered outward criticism and internal dissent. It underwent its own internal changes in leadership, the composition of its membership, and its mission. Members offered hospitality to travelers and participated in the educational, commercial, and cultural affairs of the city, while contributing significantly to the social welfare of the poor, especially women and children. Throughout its history, from its founding to the present day, the American Colony has exerted a lively influence in Jerusalem life.
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.
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.
The travelers from America took up residence in a house on the Old City wall, located in the Muslim Quarter, between Herod’s Gate and Damascus Gate. Among them were regulars from the house meetings at the Spafford’s home in Lake View. There was Mary and John C. Whiting, and their small daughter Ruth; Amelia “Elizabeth” Gould, a well-to-do widow; William Rudy, a business man who would manage the group’s finances; Rob Lawrence, Horatio’s adored nephew, and Margaret “Maggie” Lee, Horatio’s sister, who was given to prophetic visions. Otis and Lizzie Page brought their daughter Flora, and the children were cared for by baby nurse Annie Aiken.
The Spaffords braved the trip with their small daughters Bertha and Grace, the surviving two out of the three children born to them after the shipwreck (young Horatio, their only natural-born son, died of illness the year before their departure). The two Spafford girls who came to the Holy Land with their parents grew to adulthood and spent their long lives as residents of the colony in Jerusalem. Bertha would become a major chronicler of colony activities. In the first year in Ottoman Palestine a baby boy, John D. Whiting, was born to the Whitings. He grew up among the other young people of the colony and in 1909, he married Grace Spafford. Whiting worked closely with his sister-in-law Bertha Spafford and her husband Frederick Vester as a second-generation leader in the colony. In the fledgling years of the colony, Anna and Horatio Gates Spafford also adopted a local young man, Jacob Eliahu (Spafford). Talented and multi-lingual, he was the son of Sephardic Jews from Turkey. The Spaffords met him through the London Jews Society. With his many gifts, Jacob Spafford would prove an invaluable member of the colony until his death decades later.
In all the original group of religious pilgrims numbered eighteen men, women, and children. They took up housekeeping and lived and worshiped cooperatively, in a fraternal mode they felt mirrored the early apostles. Their communalism, the economic sharing and celibacy they soon adopted, was similar in Christian democratic principles to practices in other nineteenth-century religious utopias. They pooled their financial resources, shared their meals, and distributed household duties among themselves according to abilities. Without actively seeking converts, they reached out to neighbors in the Jerusalem community and offered generous hospitality at their table. Their lively musical prayer and song sessions soon became popular attractions for locals as well as for Christian visitors to Jerusalem.
Under the Spaffords’s leadership, colony members fostered interfaith friendships, visited the bedsides of the sick, and provided succor to the needy. Colony members studied Arabic, and in their first years in Ottoman Palestine, successfully forged social relationships with officials of the Turkish regime, with Muslim and Christian Arabs and Jews, business men, educators, and community leaders, as well as Bedouin groups. Palestinians came to work in the household, and individuals whose families were originally from India, Romania, Germany, Egypt, and Great Britain joined their enterprise. The colonists also founded a school for children and worked in the community as teachers in Jewish and Arab schools.
In the decade of the 1890s, the colony grew more ethnically diverse and attracted new members locally and through immigration. The colony as a whole expanded in membership and in economic self-sufficiency. By the turn of the century, the colony essentially functioned as a settlement house and as a hostel for foreign and regional travelers.
American Colony ranks were greatly swelled in 1896 by the arrival of fervent Swedish converts who traveled from Näs, Sweden, and the United States. Among them were prominent Näs farmer Tipers Lars Larsson, and the members of a Swedish-immigrant evangelical congregation in Chicago led by Näs native Olaf Henrik Larsson. The latter group had been swayed by the influence of Anna Spafford during time she spent in Chicago during the previous year. They were attracted by the power of Anna’s millenarian message, the spiritual grace of her shipwreck story, and the Christian-democratic ethos of the colony. The arrival of these two contingents in Palestine in the spring and summer of 1896 turned the already international American Colony, in effect, into a dominantly Swedish-American colony.
The Scandinavian millenarians who joined the colony in 1896 brought with them a new mix of language, culture, and traditions. They also contributed new and needed practical skills. Founding members from America and Jerusalem brought elite educations and white-collar professional experience in business, law, education and volunteer social services with them to Palestine. The newer Swedish members provided essential experience that had been lacking in agriculture and marketing, animal husbandry, carpentry and black smithing, weaving, baking, innkeeping, and domestic, culinary, and industrial arts. With their added presence, the colony was soon maintaining wheat fields; providing eggs, dairy products, and flour to neighbors; and selling baked goods, especially European-style breads, to Jerusalem restaurants catering to tourist tastes. The Swedish women set up looms and began weaving cloth and coverlets to provide for in-house needs. Swedish men, meanwhile, operated anvils and forges in the colony blacksmith shop, or shaped plates, cups, and utensils in the tinsmith shop. Even those with no crafts background found themselves assigned to these or other domestic chores within the busy hive of the community.
The Swedes’ unique spiritual journey and the challenges of their decision-making to leave their known world for Jerusalem was captured in historical fiction with the publication of popular Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf’s two-volume novel Jerusalem (The Holy City) in 1901-2 (English editions followed). Lagerlöf became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded in 1909. She visited the American Colony ten years before, in 1899. She extensively interviewed Swedish colonists who had made the difficult cultural and personal transitions from independent Scandinavian rural life to join the group enterprise in Jerusalem. She met with Anna Spafford and heard first-hand her tale of the Ville du Havre. She found Anna’s message of universalism inspirational, and would later use the story in public speaking to encourage ecumenicalism and international peace.
The Pashas Palace
The arrival of the large influx of Swedish members in the spring and summer of 1896 meant that the colony had outgrown their original living quarters in the house on the Old City wall. The colony retained the Old City building. It would become home to a photography laboratory and sewing rooms, and be used as a school and eventually as a baby home, children’s hospital, and social service facility.
The colonists moved their primary residence to a former The Pasha’s Palace in East Jerusalem, located not far from the Tomb of the Kings in what was then the outskirts of the city beyond the Muslim quarter. Their new much more commodious building had an inner garden courtyard and surrounding grounds. It had been the luxurious home of Rabbah Daoud Amin Effendi al-Husseini, and was part of an Arab neighborhood of upscale homes beyond the city walls.
The American Colony renovated the building for its own use, and began to operate it as a hostel for Holy Land visitors around the turn of the century. While Swedish members labored baking bread and weaving, and joined Palestinian staff in laundry, cooking, child care and domestic chores, American Colony youth had a literary club and a tennis court. They enjoyed picnics and group outings to swimming holes in the country side, and entertained visitors with holiday dramatic tableaus.
The American Colony school, meanwhile, carried on in the old house under the generous directorship of American educator and natural history specialist John Dinsmore, who had come from Maine with his wife Mary to join the colony. Accepting both girls and boys, the school offered an English education to the children of well-to-do Muslim families, visiting diplomats, and a religious and ethnic mix of Jewish, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Ethiopian and European youth. The colony’s children’s tutor Johanna Brooke, a seasoned teacher who left her work at the London Jews Society mission school to join the American Colony, concentrated on teaching the arts, especially drawing and painting. Dinsmore was an accomplished botanist. In his career at the colony, which extended until his death in 1951, he compiled an impressive herbarium. The study and photography and painting of Holy Land wild flowers was a favorite colony past-time.
In 1897, nineteen-year-old Bertha Spafford was recruited by Ismail Bey Husseini, a former student of Horatio Gates Spafford’s, to direct the Moslem Girls School in the Old City. Spafford took on the challenge along with the more seasoned Miss Brooke, who joined her as co-director. Spafford worked as a director and teacher at the school until her marriage in 1904.
While accepted and admired in many quarters of the city, the colony was not without its detractors. American consuls with more conservative religious beliefs served as long-term critics of the colony’s less-than-traditional organizational structure and practices. They were, in effect, diplomatic thorns in the side of the colony, clashing over issues as disparate as custody rights and cemetery usage. Some leaders of foreign missionary institutions, both Christian and Jewish, were also skeptical—some might say envious—of the colony’s stature within the local community in Jerusalem.
As the colony thrived and grew, key transitions occurred in its leadership. Horatio Gates Spafford and his fellow founder John C. Whiting were among the first colonists to die. They both succumbed to illness in the first decade of the colony, while the colonists still lived in the original house in the Old City. Their widows would spend the rest of their lives in the colony. When Horatio died from a congestive fever in 1888, Anna Spafford became the religious community’s leader. Always a commanding presence, she in middle age became the matriarch and spiritual guide to the colonists, inspiring loyalty until her death in 1923.
Bertha Vester succeeded her mother as the colony’s primary leader. She had married in 1904 business man and fellow colony member Frederick Vester, the Swiss-schooled son of a German-Jerusalem missionary and antique dealer. Their wedding was the first in the colony, and it came after years of courtship. It also marked the end to the colony’s policy of celibacy, which had prevailed for two decades.
Under Bertha Vester’s leadership, the American Colony became increasingly secularized. With considerable internal controversy, the Vesters and Whitings put the collective community on a business basis. John D. Whiting, meanwhile, served for a time as deputy American consul in Jerusalem and worked as a partner with Frederick Vester in the management of the Vester & Co.-American Colony Store. From circa 1904 to 1948 the colony’s shop operated from a storefront near Jaffa Gate, offering antiquities and photographs, carpets and jewelry, Palestinian embroidered goods and other memorabilia of the Holy Land primarily to American and European tourists. The business also offered specialized guided tours to visiting archaeologists and biblical scholars.
As time progressed, many colonists distanced themselves from the colony’s more overtly religious origins. Death or disappointment surprised some of the most pious members, and original founders aged into secondary roles. Many who had grown up as children within the colony left to seek education or work abroad, or preferred a different kind of life as adults. Several younger members who remained became engaged and married. By the late 1920s, severe internal differences of opinion arose about the management of the colony, its operation as a collective, and its commercial versus charitable nature.
These factional disputes reached a climax within the colony as the financial collapse of 1929-30 impacted the world. The membership split along lines that were primarily, if not exclusively, American and Swedish. By the early 1930s dissident and disaffected members had departed, including among them the most prominent Swedish talents of the colony. Leadership centered in American hands, in the Spafford-Vester and Spafford-Whiting families. Gradually the community that had long offered hospitality as a hostel for religious travelers became the commercially operated American Colony Hotel. Leadership shifted to a third generation in the 1950s and 1960s, as children of Frederick and Bertha Vester took over management of the hotel and the children’s hospital.
The hotel today is under international management, and the majority of its board members are the descendants of early colony founders and members. A neutral spot throughout the violence in the last half of the twentieth century, it is a favorite haven for journalists and diplomats, as well as authors and artists. It has played host to international negotiations in the Arab-Israeli peace process. It continues to fulfil the American Colony’s reputation for hospitality to foreign visitors of all origins coming to the Middle East.