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.