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American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalemby Jane Geniesse
Synopses & Reviews
For generations in Jerusalem, a fabled mansion has been the retreat for foreign correspondents, diplomats, pilgrims and spies-but until now, few have known the true story of the house that became the American Colony Hotel or its bizarre history of tragedy, religious extremism, emotional blackmail, and peculiar sexual practices.
During the boom years following the Civil War, in the countrys heartland capital, Chicago, a prominent lawyer Horatio Spafford and his blue-eyed wife Anna rode the mighty wave of Protestant evangelicalism deluging the nation. When suddenly tragedy struck, the charismatic Spaffords, grieving, attracted followers eager to believe their prophecy that the Second Coming was at hand and in 1881 sailed with them to Jerusalem to see the Messiah alight on the Mount of Olives.
No sooner had they settled into the Holy City than the U. S. Consul and the established Christian missionaries declared them heretics and whispered of sexual deviance. Yet 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.
Written with flair and insight, American Priestess provides a fascinating exploration of the seductive power of evangelicalism and raises questions about the manipulation of religion to serve personal goals. A powerful narrative, the story sweeps through the dramatic collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the establishment of the British Mandate, and finally the founding of Israel where Annas house in East Jerusalem, now the American Colony Hotel, stands as an exemplar of beauty and comfort, despite its turbulent history.
"Anna glende Spafford's life was a classic 19th-century epic, related perceptively by Geniesse. Born in Norway in 1842, she came to the United States as a child, buried her father on the Minnesota prairie, then married evangelical lawyer Horatio Spafford in Chicago. Somewhat unhinged by the Great Chicago Fire, bankruptcy and a shipwreck that drowned four of their daughters, the couple founded a Protestant sect called the Saints; hounded by creditors, they absconded to Jerusalem in 1881 with a handful of followers to await the Second Coming. With Horatio's death, Anna tightened her grip on her 'American Colony' cult, abolished marriage and reshuffled couples into chaste 'affinities.' Then she turned her sect into a business empire, including a profitable hotel, farms, bakeries and Jerusalem's first telephone company, all staffed by Swedish converts. Whew! 'There are neither villains nor saints in this story,' notes Geniesse (Passionate Nomad), setting her sprightly account against the era's Christian Zionism and millennial hysterias. Geniesse paints her charismatic heroine as part ur-feminist survivor, part totalitarian despot. (June 17)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Bringing to life complex interactions among cultures and peoples as she did in "Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark," Jane Fletcher Geniesse now traces the odyssey of an oddball religious sect and its charismatic doyenne. Anna Spafford was 39 in 1881, when she and her husband, Horatio, arrived in Jerusalem with a small band of followers to greet Christ's imminent Second Coming.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Known as the Overcomers back in Chicago, the group had been drawn together by Horatio's apocalyptic teachings. But in the Holy Land, Anna emerged as the more forceful prophet, conveying messages from the beyond in ecstatic "manifestations." By the time Horatio died in 1888, Anna was their unquestioned leader, and she dominated the sect until her death in 1923. Although her religious beliefs were bizarre, the American Colony, as her group came to be called, was honored in Jerusalem for its charitable services to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. The Spaffords emerged in Jerusalem only after a long history of personal tragedy and economic reversals. The Chicago Fire of 1871 had made Horatio's investments worthless; his law practice remained, but he was crippled by debt. Their four daughters, while sailing to Europe with their mother in 1873, drowned after a mid-Atlantic collision. Floating on a plank in the ocean, Anna told a friend, she heard a voice saying, "You are spared for a purpose." Three years later, Horatio broke with the Presbyterian Church and built a chapel behind their Lake View house. Geniesse's cogent survey of 19th-century religious revivalism reminds us that many Americans shared the Spaffords' fervent desire to "surrender themselves utterly to the Lord's will." Only a devoted few, however, joined them in a congregation that Horatio declared the "Bride" of Christ, "the only ones in the world who would be prepared for His coming," which would be presaged by the Jews' return to Jerusalem. After Horatio was forced to confess the unpayable extent of his debts, a dozen Overcomers accepted Anna's mandate: "To Jerusalem we will go to await the Messiah." Geniesse appears more interested in personality than theology; once the Spaffords, their two new babies and their followers settle in a large house in Jerusalem's Arab Quarter, she focuses on the group dynamics. Horatio preached celibacy to the Overcomers, but it was Anna who used it to destroy any "attachment" that might counter her absolute control. Children were separated from their parents, married couples were not allowed to sleep together, and marriage itself was forbidden altogether for many years. Geniesse describes self-criticism sessions worthy of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, complete with the ostracism of recalcitrant members. Distressed by these measures, Horatio himself was "tabooed from the notice or speech of inmates" while he was mortally ill. As he lay on his deathbed, Anna danced outside, proclaiming her sole attachment to the Lord. This creepy material, depicting a tyrant wielding unchecked authority over a terrorized flock, fits oddly with the admiring depiction of the American Colony's charitable works in Jerusalem. The Overcomers fed the poor, nursed the sick and taught the children of any religion, maintaining cordial relations with all, including the city's Turkish masters, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and surging Zionism rendered relations between Jews and Arabs increasingly tense. Among the few people the Colony couldn't get along with were two successive U.S. consuls convinced that it was a nest of weirdos who exploited their children and didn't pay their bills. Anna eventually dug out from under Horatio's debts and established several successful businesses for the Colony, which did indeed rely heavily on unpaid child labor. Readers will look in vain for a plain statement of what Geniesse thinks about all this. Her skillfully crafted narrative is always readable as it chronicles Anna's often brutal manipulation of her followers, various lawsuits with the hostile consuls and alarmed relatives of Colony members, political developments in the Middle East, and the growing influence of elder daughter Bertha Spafford, less interested in religion than in finding a respectable niche in Jerusalem society. We get a strong sense of Anna's personality; the people surrounding her are also shrewdly delineated. But lacking an overarching authorial point of view, the book fails to persuade us that the story of the American Colony has any larger significance. An afterword briefly profiles the Colony's contemporary offshoots — a prosperous hotel and a clinic that commendably continues to serve children of all faiths — and sketchily considers its legacy. "There are neither villains nor saints in this story," Geniesse writes. "If there is a lesson to be learned ... surely it is the importance of thinking for oneself lest one be victimized." That's a skimpy take-away, and a few sentences linking Anna's ideals to the American Dream are similarly underwhelming. Despite some vivid anecdotes and scattered passages of intelligent analysis, "American Priestess" ultimately loses its way. Wendy Smith is a contributing editor of the American Scholar. Her book reviews appear frequently in the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Reviewed by Wendy Smith, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Written with flair and insight, "American Priestess" is at once a portrait of Jerusalem from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire to the founding of Israel and a fascinating exploration of the birth of the evangelical movement in America.
During Chicago’s turbulent 1870s, Anna and Horatio Spafford, suffering personal and financial losses, broke from their evangelical colleagues to preach the need to return to Christianity’s apostolic beginnings. When Anna began receiving messages from God urging her to go to Jerusalem, members of their enthralled congregation followed them to Palestine.
In multicultural Jerusalem, the ecumenical Overcomers befriended Muslims, Jews, and Greeks alike, yet were determined that Jews be returned to their ancestral land. Their efforts were dogged by controversy, and two consular representatives of the United States accused them of deviant behavior and sexual license. Singularly charismatic, Anna ignored her critics and quashed all dissent, preaching a strange form of sexual abstinence, abolishing marriage, and declaring the established Church “iniquitous.” Her “benevolent dictatorship” survives today as the famous American Colony Hotel, a historic favorite of visitors to Jerusalem.
Written with flair and insight, AMERICAN PRIESTESS is at once a portrait of Jerusalem from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire to the founding of Israel and a fascinating exploration of the birth of the evangelical movement in America.
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.
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