It’s a familiar story, one that many hymn books recount and preachers use to illustrate a hearty faith in God during difficult times. On a November night in 1873, the trans-Atlantic steamer Ville de Havre collided with a British vessel, the Loch Earn. In less than twelve minutes, the sea swallowed the Ville de Havre in her icy, black waters some thousand miles from the French coast. Crew from the other ship, alight in skiffs and other makeshift rescue vessels, frantically scoured for the living and the dead amidst a choppy mess of splintered wood, steamer trunks, and strewn clothing.
The British sailors managed to rescue a few fortunate souls, including a young woman draped over some floating wreckage, alive, but unconscious. Many others fared not so well; 232 souls perished in what some have called the worst maritime catastrophe until the Titanic sunk in 1911.[note]Jane Fletcher Geniesse, American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 58.[/note] Among the Ville de Havre‘s dead were the four young daughters of Chicago lawyer Horatio Spafford. He had sent the children and their mother, Anna Spafford, to vacation in France, where he would later join them after he finished some pressing business affairs at home.
When the crew finally succeeded in reviving the nearly half-drowned, unconscious woman, she cried out for her children–four girls, one just a baby, “torn violently from her arms” by the roiling sea.[note]Ibid., 56.[/note] Once ashore, Anna Spafford sent her husband a brief but poignant telegraph: “Saved alone.”
As Horatio Spafford sailed across the Atlantic to reunite with his grieving wife, the ship’s captain called Spafford to his cabin. By the captain’s estimate, they were now sailing over the place where the Ville de Havre went down. Overcome with a torrent of emotion, Horatio Spafford returned to his cabin and composed a piece of poetry destined to become one of the Church’s most beloved hymns, “It Is Well with My Soul.”
Anna Spafford’s story begins on a poor farm in Norway in 1842. Her parents, eager to have a better life for their children, did as so many immigrants before them: they fled to America. With baby Anna and two older children, the Olglendes settled in the growing community of Chicago. Anna was a bright child. Exceptionally beautiful with flaxen hair and intense blue eyes, Anna became the favorite of a wealthy neighbor who agreed to pay for Anna’s formal schooling at an elite Chicago boarding school when the family set out to make a permanent home in the snowy wilderness of Minnesota. Anna’s older sister, who had been caring for the girl and her ailing father after their mothers’ death, smiled upon such an opportunity for Anna. Her father, however, was not so sure. Though Lars Olglende worked to assimilate into his new home, even changing the family name to the more Americanized “Lawson,” he worried that a fancy education would spoil Anna. She, he feared, would no longer be content with the culture of her forebears, their Lutheran heritage, their simple way of life. But Lawson also feared for Anna’s soul: she had recently refused to attend church or pray or be submissive to his leadership. Yet the lure of education was too much for the thirteen-year old Anna, and Lawson relented. It was not long, however, before Anna was called from her comfortable Chicago life at the boarding school to the Minnesota wilderness. Ill health so weakened Lars Lawson that he needed Anna’s help on the homestead. So, the reluctant girl returned home, exchanging creature comforts for the harsh realities of frontier life: poverty, disease, and isolation. Anna believed these were the darkest days of her life. Once her father died a few years later, Anna returned to Chicago, vowing never to be poor again.
The Spafford children from left to right: Annie, 1862-1873; Margaret (Maggie), 1863- 1873; Elizabeth (Bessie), 1866-1873; Tanetta, 1871-1873.
Handsome, well educated, and a bit of a visionary, Horatio Spafford was a pillar in the Presbyterian Church. In addition to a successful law practice, Spafford was heavily involved in the Chicago Sunday School movement and the YMCA. On Sundays, Spafford taught Sunday School lessons, and during the week, he spent his free time listening with rapt attention to a uneducated, yet energetic former shoe-salesman stir up sleepy crowds with evangelical fervor. This preacher, Dwight L. Moody, and Spafford quickly became life-long friends, sharing a vision for the expansion of the gospel in the dark Chicago area, “preaching in the red-light district, plunging into saloons and brothels, and even barging inside miserable shanties to demand that their astonished occupants accept Jesus.” [note]Ibid., 29.[/note]Their friendship would have a profound effect on both Horatio and Anna.
When a friend invited sixteen-year old Anna to attend a Sunday School lecture given by Horatio Spafford, Anna reluctantly agreed. For Horatio, it was love at first sight. Though Anna never again attended his Sunday School lessons, Spafford was dazzled by Anna’s beauty and intelligence. He made a point to seek the young woman out and patiently woo her. Four years later, in 1861, the two were married.[note]”Family Tragedy,” The American Colony in Jerusalem, last modified July 23, 2010. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/americancolony/amcolony-family.html.[/note]
The future seemed bright for Horatio and Anna. Horatio’s law practice grew and he became well-known as a leader in medical jurisprudence. He also had gained a reputation for being a rather shrewd real estate investor, so much so that he was tasked with investing and managing the financial portfolios of friends and family. Shortly after their marriage, the Spaffords purchased a large, sprawling house in Lake View, a picturesque suburb of Chicago. It was in this house where Horatio and Anna’s four daughters were born. And it was in this house where Anna would later welcome in droves misplaced refugees from the Great Chicago Fire that destroyed much of the city, including Horatio’s law offices. And it was to be in this house where Horatio and Anna Spafford’s theology would take a marked turn.[note]Geniesse, 32.[/note]
The Civil War prompted a flurry of activity at the Lake View house. Spafford, along with Moody, became a vocal champion of abolition and a political fervor that fed upon a theology which blended social improvement with the gospel. Horatio went on speaking circuits, rousing support for Union troops, denouncing the evils of slavery, and waving the temperance banner. Often, the Spaffords hosted groups of like-minded religious visionaries at their Lake View home, but biographer Jane Fletcher Geniesse notes in her fascinating account that Anna Spafford lacked the theological “passion” that inflamed her husband.[note]Ibid., 34.[/note] Horatio and Moody also dabbled a bit in church history, particularly the teachings of Jacob Arminius. Thus, the Presbyterian elder and confessionally postmillenial Spafford began gradual but steady movement away from the historic doctrines of the Presbyterian divines and the Reformed faith.
Photograph of home of Anna and Horatio Gates Spafford, Lake View (Chicago), Illinois, c. 1875The seeds of dissatisfaction with the Presbyterian church were perhaps already sown when Spafford and Moody heard of a revolutionary, evangelistic preacher in England. John Nelson Darby was a firebrand–blasting the Anglican church as a dead, formalistic entity and completely beyond hope for reformation. Founder of the Plymouth Brethren movement, Darby’s vocal premillenialism, which promised an imminent return of Christ, intrigued Spafford. In 1870, Spafford spent four months in London, soaking up Darby’s theology and meeting another influential voice of the day, Professor Charles Piazzi Smith, an amateur archaeologist and the Astronomer Royal of Scotland.
What fascinated Spafford the most about Smith’s lectures were his ideas about the Second Coming of Christ. According to Smith, the ancient landmarks of the east–particularly the pyramids–held secret codes detailing the exact time of Jesus’ return. Through careful archaeology and some clever math, nearly all the future prophecies in the Bible could be revealed. Eschatology, the study of the “end times,” quickly became Spafford’s consuming passion, so much so that Spafford convinced Smith to inform him immediately of any sign of Christ’s imminent return.
The devastation of the Great Chicago Fire and the ensuing economic depression in the early 1870s sent the Spaffords’ own private economy into a tailspin. Horatio’s real estate deals crumbled when fire destroyed the Lincoln Park property he was speculating on. His own property was heavily mortgaged in order to keep his various land deals afloat. Confident that he could eventually regain the money, Spafford dipped into the private accounts he was supposed to manage for his friends and family–including his own niece and nephew– to cover his losses and hide from Anna the extent of their financial ruin. And like so many others, Horatio gambled his winnings on the railroad boom with highly inflated currency only to suffer another setback when the bubble burst. It was in the midst of this turmoil that Horatio set his sights on France. In Europe, he reasoned, he could provide a little better for his unwitting family and escape the mounting pressures of creditors and investors hounding him for their money. Yet at the last minute, Horatio told Anna that he could not join them on the Ville de Havre. He had found a buyer for some property, and hoped the transaction could raise their financial prospects, allowing him to have a “clearer conscience”–at least that’s what he told Anna.[note]Ibid., 71.[/note] Though Anna resisted Horatio’s attempts to stay on in America, he finally prevailed. Horatio did not tell Anna, however, that just as his family was about to embark on their ill-fated voyage, he received a telegram informing him that the prospective buyer had suddenly died. It seemed to Horatio that things could not get any worse.
Aftermath of the Chicago Fire. Photo attributed to George N. Barnard, 1871
The survivors of the Ville de Havre were rerouted to London after the shipwreck. As Anna waited there for her husband to join her, D.L. Moody–once again in England leading revivals–paid Anna a visit. Anna calmly received him, apparently at peace with the harsh providence of recent weeks. Yet Moody feared that once Anna returned to her empty nest, she would die of sorrow. Moody pleaded with Anna, “‘Annie, you must go into my work…you must be so busy helping those who have gone into the depths of despair that you will overcome your own affliction by bringing comfort and salvation to others.'”[note]Bertha Spafford Vester, Our Jerusalem (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1950) 49.[/note]
With as much alacrity as she could physically and financially bear, Anna heeded Moody’s advice. She became involved in Chicago’s Womens’ Christian Temperance Union and went out to the slums of Chicago, feeding the poor, nursing the sick, and doing what she could to help women escape from abuse. All the while, Anna and Horatio attempted to settle back into a normal and more modest life. Yet the loss of their children and their fortune shook Horatio and Anna both. Their friends at the Fullerton Presbyterian church, which Old School Presbyterian Cyrus McCormick helped found, wondered what Horatio and Anna had done to receive such crushing blows from the hand of God. So while Anna spent her energies doing things to overcome her misery, Horatio turned inward. He became so consumed with the dangers of accumulating earthly goods that he even enjoined Anna to “avoid attachments” with anything that was not eternal.[note]Geniesse, 72.[/note] Horatio also began to question some of the doctrines of the Church, namely limited atonement and the reality of hell. It was untenable to Spafford that his perished children might not be in heaven, and by the time his theology had fully developed, Horatio denied the existence of hell and eternal punishment and even claimed that the devil himself would be saved.[note]Angus Stewart, “Horatio Spafford: Not Well With His Soul.” Covenant Protestant Reformed Church, accessed November 15, 2013, http://www.cprf.co.uk/articles/spafford.html.[/note] Horatio began to be more vocal about his new beliefs in church where he served as an elder, and he gained quite a following. After a particularly nasty church business meeting (called by Horatio to oust the orthodox pastor), Horatio and Anna left the church, sweeping out with them a fair number of the congregation. Lake View now became a church building and Horatio, unsurprisingly, the new pastor.
Dwight L. Moody
Dwight L. Moody
Though Horatio and Anna’s departure from the established church raised a few eyebrows in Chicago, the new group whom Horatio called the “Bride” drew in a motley collection of people also dissatisfied with their own churches. Horatio had stopped practicing law and devoted his time almost exclusively to Bible study (especially the book of Revelation). He became even more insistent in his premillenial and Arminian doctrines and was convinced that the “Bride” must return to Jerusalem to await Christ’s return. This eschatalogical emphasis is not surprising if one considers a verse of Spafford’s classic hymn often omitted from many hymnals:
But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh trump of the angel! Oh voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul![note]Horatio Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul,” http://cyberhymnal.org/htm/i/t/i/itiswell.htm.[/note]
The group that had been gathering in Lake View also took on a distinctly charismatic character. Not only was Horatio receiving “words from God,” some others–particularly the women in the group– became “prophetesses” who also received divine revelation. One woman knew God was speaking to her when her nose began to “sniffle.” Another’s teeth would loudly clatter, much to the annoyance of her husband. She asked God to give her a different sign, so now any new revelation was accompanied by her eyes rolling back in her head.[note]Geniesse, 81.[/note] The charismatic fervor so erupted among the “Bride” that women flopped and fainted on the floor, and even claimed one sign “that oranges were to be used in their services, and for a time the congregation sanctified oranges as the presence of the Holy Ghost.”[note]Ibid.[/note] Anna did not initially join in with these prophetesses. In fact, she seemed a little put off by the spectacle of it all. Instead, she spent her time quietly running the house, ministering to the hurting women that so often took shelter there, and steadily watching their savings dwindle down to nothing. It was a challenging blow to the refined and poverty-fearing Anna. But in 1881, Horatio had received the sign he was most waiting for–the call to go to Jerusalem.
By the time Horatio, Anna, and their two young daughters (born since the shipwreck), left America for Jerusalem, Spafford had amassed some $100,000 in debt, which by today’s calculation amounts to over two million dollars. Some speculated that Spafford left for Jerusalem to escape his financial responsibilities. Since Spafford had stopped working, the new church subsisted mainly on the backs of wealthy widows and a hefty amount of borrowing. In tow with the Spaffords were fourteen others, both men and women, some of whom would finance the Overcomers stay in Jerusalem for years to come.
The Overcomers, as Horatio now called the group, had come to Jerusalem to wait for the Messiah’s impending return. Their first full day in Jerusalem the pilgrims spent on the Mount of Olives, watching the heavens for a sign of the Second Advent. They were disappointed, but some stories tell of how a representative contingent of Overcomes picnicked every afternoon on Olivet with “tea and cakes” hoping to be the first to offer refreshment to a travel weary Jesus.[note]Michael B. Oran, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007), 281.[/note] This first contact was important to the Overcomers, for they were “determined to be at the head of the line of office-seekers when the new administration comes in.”[note]Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (NP: Craig Press, 1973), 655.[/note] Horatio expected Jesus to return to Jerusalem and establish his millenial kingdom. Jesus would wipe away all doctrinal distinctions and staff His cabinet with members who overcame sin and misery by love and good works, just like Horatio’s Overcomers.
Undeterred by Jesus’ delay, Horatio and Anna established their little colony in a rented house in the Old City. Here, the religious activities begun in Lake View continued and Anna took a more active role in the community’s worship. She insisted that the group members call Horatio the “Branch,” and much to the dismay of the others, she appropriated for herself the groups’ former title of “Bride.” Anna also began to assert more power over the other prophetesses of the group. She started having what she called “manifestations”–apparently a significant step up from a mere sign. More than this, she soon insisted that she alone could accurately interpret any signs the other prophetesses might have. Anna believed that God now spoke through her to Horatio. In one event, Anna told Horatio that God commanded him to go pick up one of the other members–an old army captain left disabled from the war. Horatio struggled to lift the old man, but he did, thus reenacting by divine “inspiration” Paul’s healing of the crippled man in Acts 14 and solidifying her prophetic control.
Anna’s newfound zeal presents an interesting question, however. Though Anna might have considered herself devout while she was still in Chicago, her religious activity was primarily focused on practical pursuits. Theology was never in the forefront of her mind. But the situation in Jerusalem was different. The Overcomers were there to effectively jockey for position in the coming age. The cohesion of the group was crucial if they were to weather the difficulties of an unknown, and perhaps lengthy, time of waiting. Coupled with this was Horatio and Anna’s decided lack of finances. Three of the individuals that came over with the Spaffords were quite well off. One, Amelia Gould, and the group’s most enthusiastic “prophetess,” was an elderly widow flush with cash. The other two, John and Mary Whiting, were a young married couple with money and a very sizeable inheritance at their disposal. Anna did all she could to not only see that the Whitings and Amelia Gould were comfortable, but that they were still committed to the Overcomers cause, despite the fact that Jesus hadn’t returned. Slowly, but surely, Anna used her charisma to garner enough power, ensuring that their finances stayed intact, and that she herself would never lose control over the circumstances of her life like she had so many times before.
Word soon spread in Jerusalem that there was yet another contingent of the faithful eagerly awaiting the Messiah’s return, but this group was different. The Overcomers–known to the locals as the American Colony–did not proselytize. They did not insist that Jews be trucked back to the Holy Land to hasten the Second Coming, though they were happy to see it done. They did not discriminate against who could come visit the Colony’s increasingly popular times of singing and prayer. Horatio and Anna, not only welcomed Jews and Turkish Muslims into their worship gatherings, they allowed them to participate. Love, according to Horatio and Anna, overcame any such theological wranglings–to the point that they could join in prayer with a visiting Muslim sheik who took to suddenly interrupting the meetings with a clear repudiation of the Trinity, crying out “One, not three!”[note]Geniesse, 104.[/note]
Just as Anna and Horatio had done in Chicago, so too in Jerusalem they began a vigorous crusade of good works. But sometimes performing good works–like feeding and clothing the poor Arab women and children huddled outside the Colony’s gates–is costly. The funds the Overcomers had on hand dwindled, and checks from supporters back home grew infrequent, either through religious cooling or sticky-fingered couriers. In order to finance their program of good works, Horatio turned to borrowing money from the Arab and Jewish businessmen whose trust he gained through the ecumenicism of the American Colony. The trust between the Arabs and the Colonists so blossomed that some of the wealthy Arab families asked the Colony to tutor their children in English. Horatio agreed, though he believed that education was a waste of time, since all they ever need learn would soon be revealed when Jesus arrived. Meanwhile, Anna made friends with the Arab women, giving them instruction on questions of childrearing and baby care. All the while, wandering souls–some Americans, some Germans, were given sanctuary in the American Colony, so long as they agreed to break from the organized church and spurn any national identity. All money was held in common among the Colony, so any who joined must empty their belongings into the communal purse.
The largest expense in good works, however, came in response to Horatio’s eschatology. Horatio had come across a band of Yemeni Jews eager to return to the land of their fathers. Since they came from Yemen, however, the orthodox Jews of Jerusalem would have nothing to do with them, but accused the strangely dressed pilgrims of being Arabs. These outcast Jews, Horatio believed, were none other than Gad, the lost tribe of Israel. Horatio practically drained their coffers so that he could fulfill prophecy, “Blessed be he that enlargeth Gad.”[note]Ibid., 114.[/note] The “lost tribe’s” arrival could only mean that Jesus was at hand.
Trouble in Paradise
Swedish group, May 10, 1946, those from Dalarna remaining in colony of original group [American Colony]. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
Swedish group, May 10, 1946, those from Dalarna remaining in colony of original group [American Colony]. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
The arrival of the “Gadites” inflamed even further Horatio’s preoccupation with prophecy and with the Overcomers necessity to prepare themselves spiritually for the second Advent, which would surely happen any moment. But tragedy punctuated these spiritual heights, for two Colony members suddenly died, one of a congenital heart defect, the other of a heart attack. Shock rippled through the Colony, for Horatio and Anna had been teaching that death could not touch their group if they were pure in heart. Here now was proof that the Colonists were not holy enough and were themselves the hindrance to Messiah’s arrival. Horatio and Anna stepped up their program of spiritual instruction. Horatio preached long sermons on the dangers of attachments and anything not heavenly minded. Anna required every Colony member to attend morning devotions and make a full, public confession of all of their sins–particularly the “salacious” ones–after which Anna would absolve the sinner and admit the wandering one back into fellowship.[note]Ibid., 137.[/note]
One morning, Horatio and Anna assembled the group to announce their latest revelation from God: marriage, the ultimate human attachment, was to be abolished in the Colony. “Everything,” according to Horatio, “must be wholly on the altar.”[note]Ibid., 136.[/note] In an ecstatic fervor, Anna ripped off her wedding ring and cried out, “Attachment is the danger, attachment is the sin! Remember, God forms a trinity between brother and sister, and God is first!”[note]Ibid., 137.[/note]
Amazingly, most of the married couples complied with this enforced celibacy. However, one young married woman, Lizzie Page, stood up to Anna. This was not a true message, argued Lizzie. She would not destroy her wedding ring, nor heed this message, because marriage was a sacred vow before God to her husband. When Lizzie refused to participate in the groups’ daily confessionals, Anna did all she could to ostracize her from the group, “declaring that ‘the devil’ was in her. In the midst of this stress, Lizzie fell ill. Anna was triumphant: “Sickness is the fruit of sin!”[note]Ibid.[/note] Anna demanded that Lizzie be removed from the house–doctors were not necessary for true believers, according to the Overcomers. Lizzie and her husband, Otis Page, left the Colony, but not its controlling tentacles. Before long, Lizzie contracted tuberculosis. The Pages lived in abject poverty, without much food or any heat in their little rented house, for the Colony absorbed all of their assets. When Lizzie died and was buried in an unmarked grave, Otis Page pleaded with Anna to readmit him to the Colony. She eventually did, but Page lived there as a pariah for the rest of his days.
Lars Larrson, c. 1920 – 1935
Lars Larrson, c. 1920 – 1935
Death would soon touch the Colony again, this time claiming Horatio. He had long been weakening, even as Anna’s grip on the Colony strengthened. Before his death, Anna saw the need to begin a period of spiritual testing for herself and her husband which may have hastened his demise. Her solution was to become “as one” with a handsome English cleric living in the Colony.[note]Ibid., 138.[/note] The Overcomers sat in stunned silence when she announced her plan, but not a one challenged her, not even her husband. Other Americans in Jerusalem, notably the American Consul Selah Merill, heard about the Colony’s abolition of marriage and their leader’s rumored adultery. Merrill, a former Presbyterian chaplain, would become their loudest critic, particularly when Anna later established what she called “affinities.” Unmarried men and women would spend the night together on a regular basis, resisting temptation. If they succumbed, the group would hear about it in detail the next morning, finally receiving forgiveness from Anna.
During Anna’s spiritual testing, Horatio began a friendship with another woman outside the Colony, also an end-times enthusiast. Anna’s neglect, ironically the fruit of Horatio’s own theology of sanctification, no doubt fed this relationship–one of which Anna did not approve. Withered with age and ill health, Anna commanded Horatio to be sentenced to forty-four days of isolation from the group, forbidding anyone to have any verbal or physical contact with Horatio. Horatio’s body wasted away, but no doctor was called for him. When it became clear that Horatio would most certainly die, Anna vowed that she would “dance before the Lord.” She went out onto the Colony’s patio and whipped herself into a frenzy of twirling fabric and sweat. And when weeping mourners carried her husband off to the American cemetery, Anna stayed home.
Horatio’s death was problematic for Anna and the Colonists. Fueling the fire of the U.S. Consul’s criticism were the many complaints he’d received from the parties who had loaned money to the Spaffords. They wanted their money back. The Colony was deep in debt, since Horatio and a good number of the Colonists wrote off work as another attachment of this world. Anna was desperate. What little property the Colonists had was sold and every member was encouraged to plead with friends and relatives back home to send money. Amelia Gould was shaken by Horatio’s death, believing that a man so holy could not die before the Lord returned. Yet the Colony was in dire need of her fortune. And Mary Whiting’s mother heard reports of the Overcomers and was convinced–rightly–that her daughter had been brainwashed by a cult. She saw to it that her daughter could not access her inheritance so long as she remained in the American Colony. The fight over Mary Whiting’s money would extend to the Whitings’ children–and entangle the Colony, the Whitings, and Mary Whiting’s mother in a long, public battle over custody of the children. Anna traveled to Chicago, fighting hard a war of reputation building with all the diplomacy and charisma she could muster. Anna was victorious: the court awarded Mary Whiting custody of her children and her money. Yet that money, and Amelia’s, would only hold out for so long. Anna knew the Colony needed a shot in the arm to keep itself going. And that shot came in the form of seventy-six Swedes.
Anna Spafford with daughters Grace and Bertha. Photo courtesy Library of Congress
Anna Spafford with daughters Grace and Bertha. Photo courtesy Library of Congress
While Anna was in Chicago, one of the Overcomers ran across a small Swedish church worshiping in Chicago’s south side. Members of the Swedish church returned the favor, and paid Anna a visit at the house where she was staying. She regaled them with dramatic stories of how she overcame life’s trials through love and good works. She led the group in Bible study, prayer, and singing. She spoke to hungry Swedish ears of Jesus’ imminent return and the work of the American Colony in Jerusalem. The Swedes were dazzled by the prospect of a community committed to preparing the earth for the coming of the Lord. When Anna visited their church for the first time, noting signs of wealth–for the Swedes were industrious people–glittering furniture, immaculate rooms–she had another “message.” The Swedes were to join the American Colony. Before long, Anna in characteristic fashion, co-opted the position of the Swedish pastor, Lars Larsson, and convinced the congregation to join her in Jerusalem.
The Swedes brought with them a sort of industry and energy never before seen in the Colony. Many of the men were skilled carpenters. The ladies, eager seamstresses and weavers. Some of the younger men were talented photographers, so much so that when the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem wanted important WWI events documented, he commissioned the American Colony Swedes to photograph the comings and goings of state business. While the younger Swedes were not so thrilled with the prospect of celibacy, in general the Swedes acclimated to Anna’s leadership and life in the colony.
The American Colony finally began to prosper. Goods made by the Swedes were sold and the Colony’s coffers filled once again, which greatly pleased Anna. The influx of added members necessitated the relocation of the Colony to a large, luxurious estate just outside the city walls. Built by a sheik for his four wives, the “Big House’s” many rooms and generous gardens made a comfortable dwelling for the Overcomers. The flurry of philanthropic activity continued, for the American Colony now had an official school and welcomed droves of guests, tempted by the curiosity about the Overcomers’ reputation and Anna’s charm. The Colony even opened a little shop, selling Holy Land trinkets and hand-crafted goods made by the Swedes.
Anna’s visions and messages continued. And so did her control over the Colony. Anna’s children, Bertha and Grace, were notably spoiled and it irked the Swedish children. While one man would have to approach Anna and get permission to dip into the common purse for even the simplest clothes for his children, Bertha and Grace pranced around the compound in delicate muslin. Bertha and Grace received more education, with private tutors, and were always included in the company when important guests visited the Colony. Daily confessions were still part of Colony life and discontent with Anna’s rules was severely punished. Mothers were separated from their children, and those who dared leave the Colony were publicly shamed and excommunicated, cut-off without a penny of the wealth they’d help earn. And, ironically, when Anna saw an opportunity to make an advantageous match for one of her daughters, she had another vision: marriages could resume. Yet only Anna could make matches and ratify the marriages.
While many Protestant missionaries came to believe that the Overcomers–or Spaffordites–were nothing more than a deluded group of heretics, many in Jerusalem held the Overcomers in high esteem, particularly if they were unaware of Anna’s manipulation. During the Great War, the Overcomers ran soup kitchens, hospitals, and orphanages open to all without discrimination. Turk, Jew, or Brit, all were alike to them. Today, the heirs of the American Colony operate a children’s center for underprivileged children and the great house still stands as one of the most beautiful in all Jerusalem, now a five-star hotel.
American Colony Hotel, Photo by Adam Jones, Flickr
American Colony Hotel, Photo by Adam Jones, Flickr
For over forty years, Anna had done what Moody so long ago counseled her to do. No doubt, she through her American Colony, brought a kind of comfort to others. Wounds were tended, bellies filled, community made. Yet Moody’s words included another exhortation: to “bring salvation.” In her zeal to retain control over her circumstances, she forwarded a theology built on a foundation as unstable as the billows she feared. Anna and her Overcomers offered no real way of salvation, no lasting way to overcome the realities of a sin-sick world, for their gospel was one of good works, not faith in Christ.