The American Colony in Jerusalem, 1870-2006


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A Community in Jerusalem

The Swedes

A group of men and women
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon American Colony members, Dec. 17, 1904. Image from members and activities of the American Colony (Jerusalem) photograph album (page 10, no. 32). Visual Materials of the John D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division, LOC.  LC-DIG-ppmsca-15830-00032

In the decade of the 1890s, the colony grew more ethnically diverse and attracted new members locally and through immigration. The colony as a whole expanded in membership and in economic self-sufficiency. By the turn of the century, the colony essentially functioned as a settlement house and as a hostel for foreign and regional travelers. 

American Colony ranks were greatly swelled in 1896 by the arrival of fervent Swedish converts who traveled from Näs, Sweden, and the United States. Among them were prominent Näs farmer Tipers Lars Larsson, and the members of a Swedish-immigrant evangelical congregation in Chicago led by Näs native Olaf Henrik Larsson. The latter group had been swayed by the influence of Anna Spafford during time she spent in Chicago during the previous year. They were attracted by the power of Anna’s millenarian message, the spiritual grace of her shipwreck story, and the Christian-democratic ethos of the colony. The arrival of these two contingents in Palestine in the spring and summer of 1896 turned the already international American Colony, in effect, into a dominantly Swedish-American colony.

Three men
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Enor Shelberg, Otis Page, Olaf Lind, American Colony. Image from portraits of the Whiting and Spafford families and other members of the American Colony (Jerusalem) photograph album (page 11, no. 19). Visual Materials of the John D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division, LOC. LC-DIG-ppmsca-18413-00019

The Scandinavian millenarians who joined the colony in 1896 brought with them a new mix of language, culture, and traditions. They also contributed new and needed practical skills. Founding members from America and Jerusalem brought elite educations and white-collar professional experience in business, law, education and volunteer social services with them to Palestine. The newer Swedish members provided essential experience that had been lacking in agriculture and marketing, animal husbandry, carpentry and black smithing, weaving, baking, innkeeping, and domestic, culinary, and industrial arts. With their added presence, the colony was soon maintaining wheat fields; providing eggs, dairy products, and flour to neighbors; and selling baked goods, especially European-style breads, to Jerusalem restaurants catering to tourist tastes. The Swedish women set up looms and began weaving cloth and coverlets to provide for in-house needs. Swedish men, meanwhile, operated anvils and forges in the colony blacksmith shop, or shaped plates, cups, and utensils in the tinsmith shop. Even those with no crafts background found themselves assigned to these or other domestic chores within the busy hive of the community.

A group of women sitting near spinning wheels
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Swedish members in the weaving room, American Colony, ca. 1900. Image from members and activities of the American Colony (Jerusalem) photograph album (page 28, no. 104). Visual Materials of the John D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division, LOC. LC-DIG-ppmsca-15830-00104

The Swedes’ unique spiritual journey and the challenges of their decision-making to leave their known world for Jerusalem was captured in historical fiction with the publication of  popular Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf’s  two-volume novel Jerusalem (The Holy City) in 1901-2 (English editions followed). Lagerlöf became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded in 1909. She visited the American Colony ten years before, in 1899. She extensively interviewed Swedish colonists who had made the difficult cultural and personal transitions from independent Scandinavian rural life to join the group enterprise in Jerusalem. She met with Anna Spafford and heard first-hand her tale of the Ville du Havre. She found Anna’s message of universalism inspirational, and would later use the story in public speaking to encourage ecumenicalism and international peace.

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