American Priestess tells the true story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem. It is part biography, and part the story of American evangelical Christians who settled in Jerusalem in the late 19th century to await the End of Days. Anna Larsdatter was born in Norway in 1842. As a young child, she emigrated with her family to Chicago. Through a series of misfortunes and happenstance, Anna was reared by a well-to-do family and was well-educated for a girl of her time. She was introduced to Horatio Spafford, a much older attorney who fell in love with her. They married when Anna was 19, shortly after the beginning of the Civil War.
The first section of this books drags a bit, telling of Anna and Horatio’s life in Chicago. It definitely picks up when the Spaffords, along with some of their followers, arrive in Jerusalem in 1881. For a time they live within the walls of the Old City. When their numbers expand, along with their treasury, the group rents a former pasha’s palace in East Jerusalem. They eventually purchase this property and, in the twentieth century, this becomes the famed American Colony Hotel.
The group of “overcomers” spends much time and effort feeding and nursing the poor, be they Jews or Arabs. They are well regarded by the locals, but are constantly at odds with the American consular officer. He is concerned with the group’s financial irregularities and rumors of how they practice their religion. Anna Spafford hears voices from God, and controls every aspect of the lives of her followers. Meanwhile, the Chicago relatives of some of her followers are concerned that Anna has, essentially, stolen their money for her own purposes.
American Priestess contains a tremendous amount of information. Jane Fletcher Geniesse has certainly done her research. I was particularly interested in life in Jerusalem during the fall of the Ottoman Empire and World War I, which was devastating for people in the Middle East. This book is well-written but it is not a quick read for the casual reader.
Published in hardcover-Nan A. Talese-2008