The American Colony in Jerusalem, 1870-2006


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A Community in Jerusalem


Formal portrait of three women
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Bertha, Anna, and Grace Spafford, American Colony, Jerusalem, ca. 1890s. Image from portraits of the Whiting and Spafford families and other members of the American Colony (Jerusalem) photograph album (page 9, no. 12). Visual Materials of the John D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division.  LC-DIG-ppmsca-18413-00012

While accepted and admired in many quarters of the city, the colony was not without its detractors. American consuls with more conservative religious beliefs served as long-term critics of the colony’s less-than-traditional organizational structure and practices. They were, in effect, diplomatic thorns in the side of the colony, clashing over issues as disparate as custody rights and cemetery usage.  Some leaders of foreign missionary institutions, both Christian and Jewish, were also skeptical—some might say envious—of the colony’s stature within the local community in Jerusalem.

As the colony thrived and grew, key transitions occurred in its leadership. Horatio Gates Spafford and his fellow founder John C. Whiting were among the first colonists to die. They both succumbed to illness in the first decade of the colony, while the colonists still lived in the original house in the Old City. Their widows would spend the rest of their lives in the colony. When Horatio died from a congestive fever in 1888, Anna Spafford became the religious community’s leader.  Always a commanding presence, she in middle age became the matriarch and spiritual guide to the colonists, inspiring loyalty until her death in 1923.

Formal portrait of man, woman and child
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon Frederick and Bertha Vester with their first child, Anna Grace, 1905. Image from portraits of the Vester and Whiting families and other members of the American Colony (Jerusalem) photograph album (page 13, no. 34). Visual Materials of the John  D. Whiting Papers, Prints & Photographs Division. LC-DIG-ppmsca-18415-00034

Bertha Vester succeeded her mother as the colony’s primary leader. She had married in 1904 business man and fellow colony member Frederick Vester, the Swiss-schooled son of a German-Jerusalem missionary and antique dealer. Their wedding was the first in the colony, and it came after years of courtship. It also marked the end to the colony’s policy of celibacy, which had prevailed for two decades.

Under Bertha Vester’s leadership, the American Colony became increasingly secularized. With considerable internal controversy, the Vesters and Whitings put the collective community on a business basis. John D. Whiting, meanwhile, served for a  time as deputy American consul in Jerusalem and worked as a partner with Frederick Vester in the management of the Vester & Co.-American Colony Store.  From circa 1904 to 1948 the colony’s shop operated from a storefront near Jaffa Gate, offering antiquities and photographs, carpets and jewelry, Palestinian embroidered goods and other memorabilia of the Holy Land primarily to American and European tourists. The business also offered specialized guided tours to visiting archaeologists and biblical scholars.

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