A Sect of Celibates

How to escape debt and gain absolute control over your followers.

Washington Post/December 14, 2008

A review of "American Priestess" by Jane Fletcher Geniesse

The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem

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. 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 persaude us that the story of the American Colony has any larger signficance.

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.

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