Before reading Jane Fletcher Geniesse's American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem I had never heard of Anna Spafford or the American Colony, which she had a hand in founding. It's a fascinating albeit somewhat bizarre story of one woman's journey from Norwegian immigrant to leader of a Protestant evangelical sect in Jerusalem. Really the book is about so much more than that, that I'm not even sure where to start.
To be very honest, I'm not sure I would have liked Anna Spafford, but she led an amazing life. Anna Oglende emigrated to the United States as a young girl in the mid-1800s and grew up in Chicago. At the tender age of 15 she caught the eye of a successful older lawyer named Horatio Spafford. Willing to wait for her to complete her education, they married when she turned 18. By that time Anna was virtually alone in the world, having lost all but one family member to illness. Post-Civil War America was ripe for the kind of religious fervor that gripped the nation at this time, and the Spaffords felt the evangelical calling and responded to it wholeheartedly.
Horatio and Anna led a seemingly charmed life. They had four lovely daughters and a large house on many acres of land in a up-and-coming part of Chicago, but all at once tragedy hit. While they survived the Great Chicago Fire fairly unscathed, misfortune struck when the ship Anna was traveling to France on with her daughters sank. Anna was one of the few survivors, Horatio having been left behind to travel at a later date. Anna was devastated, but she accepted that her daughters were now with God and thus in a better place. To make matters worse, Horatio was undergoing financial difficulties that he kept from Anna. Although Horatio had always been religious, It was during this period that they began their own sect called the Saints (or the Overcomers) and founded a church beside their home.
Like many Americans at this time the Spaffords believed that the Second Coming was upon them. Horatio had received a prophecy that they needed to go to Jerusalem to meet the Messiah. In 1881 the Spaffords along with 16 followers sailed for Jerusalem and the American Colony was founded. Their followers gave up their property and jobs and invested all their money in the religious group. Anna gave birth several more times and two daughters would survive childhood. After Horatio's death Anna would be left to pick up the reigns, and though a combination of sheer will (at times verging on despotism) and effective organizational and business sense the colony would flourish. Her word was law in the colony and she claimed she was guided by God who spoke directly to her.
The colony caused much agitation to the American consulate in Jerusalem. Three successive consuls struggled with what they saw as strange behavior coming from the sect. Nearly every follower was separated from his or her money and had to rely on the colony for even the most basic necessities. Ever stranger directives were passed down by Anna. Marriage was abolished. Husbands no longer slept with wives, and children were separated from parents. The sect members didn't allow any sort of medical interference from doctors. Those of school age were taught communally (if at all--they would receive knowledge with the coming of Christ). Yet those living at the colony, and it later came to include believers from a variety of countries, followed Anna with a strange cult-like obsession. Rarely did they question her motives when she demanded such unquestioning loyalty. It seemed like there was a double standard, however, when it came to the education and desires of her daughters as opposed to those of her followers.
Although controversy dogged the Spaffords and their colony through the years, they did manage to do some very good works for the people of Jerusalem without regard to nationality or religious creed. Unlike missionaries present in the Holy Land, the Overcomers never tried to convert the native population. They could also be very generous when it came to feeding the poor, and during WWI they nursed any soldiers requiring their services. In later years the Colony was known for their gracious living and received many famous visitors.
When the Spaffords first arrived in Jerusalem, the city was still part of the massive Ottoman Empire. Jews were starting to pour into the city as well and the Zionist movement was gaining strength at this time. It was interesting to see how the Holy Land developed historically. So many different players had a hand in making what it is today. The American Colony was witness to it all, including the defeat and withdrawal of the Turks and the creation of the British Mandate, which would go on to change the face of the country helping to shape it to what we see today. To this day there exists the American Colony Hotel.
American Priestess came to me as a review copy. I was hesitant to accept it, as I wasn't sure if I would be interested in the subject matter, but it turned out to be an utterly compelling read. It's obviously well researched and well written. I read the author spent seven years working on it, and I'm not surprised considering the painstaking detail Geniesse included. It's chock full of interesting information and it reads like really good fiction. Thanks to Mara at Random House for passing this along to me. I now have five copies of the book to pass along to interested readers. Please note I can only offer them to North American readers this time (the books will be coming from the publisher and they only have the rights to distribute copies here). I'll take names until Friday July 4, and draw out five winners on Saturday morning. If you're interested (and I highly recommend this one), please let me know in the comment area.