Americans in Palestine


History Magazine

When peace like a river attendeth my way

When sorrow like sea-billow roll,

Whatever my lot Thou hast taught me to say:

“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

–hymn, Horatio Spafford, 1871.

Protestant-America’s religious identity has long been bound up with the Promised Land. The Pilgrim Fathers,   likening themselves to the Children of Israel, created a Bible-based society. They not only espoused Biblical values, but also   named     their offspring for Biblical figures and their settlements for Biblical sites. Over the years, scores of Samuels, Abigails, and Nathaniels settled in New World Zions, Canaans, and Rehoboths.

For generations, the Bible was the most-read   book in America. People   were as familiar with its history and geography     as   their own. Through it, they   envisioned   a   utopia of milk and honey blessed with    heavenly spirits, green pastures, and still waters.

These idealistic visions   shaped much of Protestant-America’s religious and cultural past. By the mid-1800s, they   inspired   American tourists, archeologists, pilgrims, scholars, and explorers to visit the Holy Land, then under Ottoman Turkish rule. They also inspired missionaries to colonize and re-Christianize the cradle of Christianity.

Adventist  William Miller  prophesized  Christ’s  Second Coming  and  the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth,   first  in  1843,  and then   in  1844. When it did not occur, thousands of his followers, many of whom had sold their worldly goods in anticipation, were left disillusioned. Clorinda Minor, however, believed   that God had chosen her to prepare the Holy Land. So she   led a   Millerite group to Palestine, planning to   encourage Jewish settlement, a requisite for Redemption. They reached Jaffa, the ancient port city, in 1849.

The American Consul in Beirut, responsible for their welfare,   hardly knew how to respond. “How am I to act when any crazy and distressed citizen of the U.S. comes into this country?” he asked. “There are several of them of late arriving … with strange ideas in their heads that our Savior is coming this year into the world to judge the people….” The Millerites   were not the last to come, however, nor was the consul the last to wonder why.

Minor’s group   initially joined British settlers at an   experimental farm in Artas, an Arab village near Bethlehem. There they planned to    teach poverty-stricken Jews to work   the soil and   convert them   to Christianity. Although   the land was fruitful, water plentiful, their   neighbors friendly, and they lived without fear, the colonists found that converting Jews was far more difficult than   expected. One wrote, “We long with much anxiety when the fullness of the Gentiles shall have come in, and so all Israel shall be saved.”

Following an internal dispute, the Americans left Artas for     Mount Hope , a small Protestant-German agricultural colony situated on a barren hilltop outside Jaffa. The community, which suffered   hunger, disease, and agricultural setbacks, quickly   declined.

Soon another evangelistic family, the   Dicksons of Groton, Massachusetts arrived, incorporating   Mount Hope into their   American Agricultural Mission. They too   promoted   Christianity, modern agriculture, and American ideals. Their   Bedouin neighbors, however,   taunted their relatively independent women unmercifully and vandalized their livestock and property. In January 1858, “five large, stout men rushed in, armed with guns, swords, pistols, and a large club.” They ransacked the compound, raped some of its women, and wounded others,    fatally shooting the grandfather of writer John Steinbeck. In a letter home, Walter Dickson, who witnessed the attack, admitted, “Our farming operations are, for the present, at an end.”

Eight years later,  glib-tongued  George J. Adams,  former   Methodist,   Baptist, Campbellite,  Latter Day Saint  elder, and would-be   Shakespearean actor,   shepherded  his  flock, the  Church of the Messiah, from  Indian River, Maine   to  Jaffa. When the Jerusalem consul    learned of their plans, he attempted    “to dissuade [these] deluded people from such an insane undertaking,” citing Ottoman government opposition and Bedouin lawlessness. For good measure, he added,   “May the Lord have mercy on them!” His warning, however,   fell on deaf ears. The colonists arrived   in the Holy Land dreaming of fruitful soil, sun-kissed orange groves, and the sweet dew of Heaven.

Since   the Scriptures foretold that strangers from afar would inhabit the Land and build up “the waste places,” Adams     arrived prepared. Along with 156 followers, his ship carried 22 sets of pre-fabricated Maine-made wooden houses. Since they were planning   to raise Maine crops like wheat and barley,   they also brought along modern   plows, sickles, grain mills, hoes, rakes, and a reaper. To ferry these supplies from boat to shore, they also carried rafts and yawl boats.

Although Jaffa then was an Ottoman backwater, a beehive of domed clay-colored houses   crowded with as many donkeys, mules, and camels as people, it was also the sole gateway to Jerusalem. Therefore, Adams also planned hotels and a carriage-road to serve the    tourists and pilgrims sure to come.

Newspapers back home followed the Jaffa-American Colony events closely as they unfolded. On arrival, the group, mechanics, merchants, farmers, and seafarers, set up a makeshift camp   along the beach. Then tragedy struck. A score, including children, their master carpenter, and their doctor, all succumbed to disease, possibly from contaminated water.

At least their colony site  outside Jaffa’s walls,  seemed promising. Unlike rocky Maine, it  was blessed with  rich soil. Besides, enthused colonist George W. Ames, “it is a glorious thing to live in a country where once dwelt the prophets, the patriarchs, and the Messiah himself.”

Yet he admitted that others longed to return home. Why? “Because [here] you cannot get pork and beans, pound cake and such like.” However, he stressed, “You must not think we are all discontented; it is only a few boobies.”

By the spring of 1867,   more “boobies” were complaining of more serious privations, “a changeable climate, bad water, scarcity of provisions, and want of cash.” Many of those who fell hungry before harvest time, remained hungry afterwards too. Their crops, for lack of rain, failed. Moreover,   merchants, exploiting their unfamiliarity with   the local tongue and with bargaining customs, were quick to deceive them.

They accused   Adams of deceiving them too, from the moment they set sail. He was intoxicated while aboard ship, they revealed, and once, in a mawkish mood, even “attempted to ‘do’ Richard III before his astonished audience.” He was also a blasphemous “adventurer, a charlatan, and a scamp,” who squandered their funds and   reduced them to near-slavery and wretchedness. A number of members   begged the American consul for aid in returning home.

Adams behaved more   erratically then ever, drinking and blaspheming freely, as the allegations multiplied. Finally, on their strength, he was    thrown into a Turkish prison for a time. After he was acquitted, he responded in an open letter to the Washington Chronicle. His colony was   united and happy, “peaceful on all sides,” he attested. Regarding his detractors, however, he was less charitable. “Let them go. We are glad to get clear of them; they were utterly unfit….Our prospects for the future are truly glorious.”

Interest in the Holy Land surged during America’s post-Civil War years. So many avidly followed Samuel Clemens’   newspaper dispatches     describing his adventures through Europe and the Near East   (which   later appeared   in Innocents Abroad.) Thus, they learned that   40 members of Jaffa-American Colony, young and old, “humbugged by their prophet,” had boarded his ship in Jaffa, bound for nearby Alexandria. The   explained that their newspaper appeals   to the people of Boston for financial aid had yielded just one dollar. Clearly, quipped Clemens, “practical New England was not sorry to be rid of such visionaries and was not in the least inclined to … bring them back.”

Utterly destitute, these people   had no idea what they would do once they arrived. But at least they had escaped. Another passenger, on learning their plight, paid their passage home.

Now only a handful remained behind. In retrospect, despite their leader’s     personal shortcomings, the Jaffa-American Colony   could boast many    accomplishments. They established a commercial shipping line,     introduced American crops to the region,   and planted the seeds of modern tourism.

After Adams abandoned his venture in 1868, German Templars, another   Christian sect, purchased the ready-made colony, a little bit of Maine, for their own. Along with green-shuttered wooden houses, they acquired a steam-powered mill, a five-bed hospital, and a 19-room hotel.

The Spaffords, a third   group of   evangelical Protestant-American settlers, arrived in Jaffa in 1881. Seated atop wagons “shipped by Latter Day Saints who came from Maine,” they   followed the 35-mile rocky carriage-road up to Jerusalem.

Their lives had been difficult. After the Great Chicago Fire a decade before,   Horatio Spafford, detained by business, had sent his wife and four daughters ahead   by steamship to Europe to recuperate. En route, a British sailing ship rammed and sank their vessel. After her rescue, Anna cabled her husband, “Saved alone.” As he sailed to her side, he penned a hymn still loved today, “It is Well with My Soul.”

Some years later a daughter, and then a son, was born, but he too died young. Their Church, believing that the couple had earned   divine retribution, now shunned them. Drawing strength from their beliefs, the Spaffords, along with 45 followers, then   sought solace in Holy Jerusalem.

Walled Jerusalem  was  filthy, crowded,  and dusty,  bustling  with    Moslems, Bedouins, Jews, Greeks, Turks, Latins, Armenians, Syrians, Copts, Abyssinians,  and Greek Catholics chattering in  all the tongues  under the sun. Yet the group acclimated quickly, like their neighbors, enjoying native foods,    cooking over charcoal, and come winter, heating   their    lodgings with olive wood-burning small sheet-iron stoves.

When their leader, Horatio Spafford, died in 1888, Anna, who also claimed divine revelation, continued his mission. Under her guidance, the “American Colony,” as they were called, thrived. Members, to hasten the Redemption, lived communally and espoused celibacy, much like   the early Christians.

While visiting Chicago in the 1890s, “Mother” Anna met with members of the Swedish Evangelical Church who desired to join her mission. Their Swedish branch soon followed. All adopted the American Colony’s religious practices, customs, and language, English, as their own.

The Swedes’ arrival swelled the Colony to 150 members. To accommodate them all, the group purchased a palace that had once hosted a pasha and his four wives. It lay   outside the city walls, in an    area barren of greenery but for olive and fig trees. There   they devoted themselves    to   charitable deeds.

Since Jerusalem had no trained nurses then, they founded medical clinics and a hospital, where they nursed the local populace through bouts of smallpox, malaria, cholera, and influenza. They also founded an orphanage, and managed   soup kitchens. During World War One,   they fed thousands of the hungry each day.

Some people found the group, with its non-conformist matriarchal and religious mores, highly controversial. However, most Jerusalemites, grateful for their care, treated them well.

American Colony members shared both their   assets and labor. Some worked as   tailors, dressmakers, and   shoemakers or tended livestock and olive groves. Others managed their hostel, dairy, butchery, bakery, smithy, and carpenter’s shop. They filled their gift shop with vials of Jordan water, Bible bindings, and local antiquities. Their purchase of  an old camera, to mark the 1898 visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II to Jerusalem,   developed into a  prolific photo studio whose  collection,  today,  offers a rare look at 19th and early 20th century Palestine.

Although these devout laypersons   conducted communal morning prayers, held hymn-singing sessions, and ran Sunday schools and Bible-study classes,   they   did not actively proselytize. So they were accepted by all.

Everyone was welcome in their home, Bedouin sheiks, peasants, Arab dignitaries, Jewish leaders, and Christian missionaries from around the world. Since even those with sharply contrasting views and values met there, the American Colony became known as neutral territory.

Their    impressive and extensive number of personal connections served them well, especially during years of political contention,   tension, and times of war.

Nineteenth century evangelistic Mount Hope, the Jaffa-American Colony, and   Jerusalem’s   American Colony all settled in Ottoman Palestine to further    the Redemption. The American Colony thrived the longest, influencing Jerusalem’s social, political, and charitable life for over eight decades. Even today, their home, now a charming hotel  owned by descendants of the Spafford family, continues to welcome   people of all persuasions. It is still an oasis of peace.


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