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Pansy’s Impromptu Interview

30 Jan

In addition to writing stories and novels, editing a children’s magazine, and giving lectures on women’s topics that were dear to her heart, Isabella wrote Sunday-school lessons for children.

Photo of Isabella Alden about 1880 (age 39)


Her published lessons were well-regarding and widely adopted by many denominations. Several publications printed her lessons each month, and dedicated Sunday-school teachers across the country employed them every Sunday morning.

Isabella had been trained as a teacher; that’s how she earned her living prior to her marriage to the Reverend Gustavus Alden.

An August 1861 ad in the Oneida (NY) Sachem for Oneida Seminary


It’s little wonder, then that Isabella was regarded as an expert in her field, and often found herself giving impromptu talks about the proper methods of teaching Sunday-school, particularly for younger children (which were often called the “infant class”).

The May 1877 issue of Sabbath School Monthly magazine printed a letter submitted by a reader who had the pleasure of hearing Isabella give just such a talk. The reader had been at the Sabbath School Conference in Indianapolis earlier in the year, and was in the audience when Isabella was brought on stage to answer questions.

You can read the letter to the editor by clicking on the image below, or scroll down to read a transcript:



Messrs. Editors:
Many in our city who have enjoyed the writings of your special contributor, Mrs. Alden—our dear “Pansy”—had the opportunity, last week, of seeing her and of hearing her talk.

After the urgent solicitation of Dr. Vincent, who conducted a Sunday-school Congress of the M. E. Church, she consented to reply to questions on infant-class teaching.

To the first, “Should the infant class be present at the opening of the school?” she answered: “They should feel that the Sunday-school, and all that pertains to it, belongs to them.”

“What if the opening exercises are too lengthy?” She said that there might be folding doors, so that the rooms could be thrown together—that she had shut her doors when she had enough.

“Should there be a division of the class, and a teacher for each division?” She replied that one of the many difficulties that would result from it would be the desire to go from one class to another. This question is answered conclusively in last week’s chapter of her serial.

It was asked: “If I can not visit all my class, what can I do?” “You can send a messenger; some one who will make a pleasant and good impression, with a message of love, or a token of love, such as a flower.” She had been surprised to see how little things sent by a teacher were cherished by children.

She was desired to speak of blackboard teaching and we were convinced that her kind of object lessons would give a definite idea to the mind of a child. A heart on the blackboard, with a red crayon mark around it, and the word “clean” printed upon it, would indicate that it was washed in the blood of Christ.

As to memorizing verses, she told of the conductor’s punch that had been used by some teachers, making a round hole in the card for a perfect recitation, and a hole not round for an imperfect one, and how the child would work for that round hole.

Three different train conductor ticket punches and the hole shapes they make.


To the question, “How shall I secure a regular attendance?” she replied, “Do the best you can.”

To the many that wish they could see Mrs. Alden, I would say that you would find in her a friend. She is a small lady; her face very bright, with delicate features; good teeth, rosy color; dark brown hair; very small hands. She dresses in good taste; very neatly. These items are not needed to add to the interest of her books, but they may satisfy some wonderings concerning their author.

Don’t you love the writer’s physical description of Isabella (she has “good teeth”!)?

When Isabella gave her impromptu talk in 1877 she was 35 years old, and a seasoned public speaker who seemed to make a very good impression on her audience.

You can read these previous posts about Isabella’s experiences as both a student and a teacher at Oneida Seminary:

BFFs at Oneida Seminary

The Accusation

Free Read: The Book That Started It All

Locust Shade … and a New Free Read!

18 Jan

January’s free read is Gertrude’s Diary, a novella first published in 1885.

Isabella wrote the book in the “diary style” she often used. In the story, twelve-year-old Gertrude and her friends are given a set of Bible verses for each month of the year, along with journals in which the girls are to record their experiences as they try to live by the verses.

Isabella often incorporated her own life experiences into her stories (see last week’s post for an example) and Gertrude’s Diary is no exception. Isabella was very candid about the fact that she had a temper that often got her in trouble when she was young. It isn’t hard to imagine as you read Gertrude’s Diary that some of Gertrude’s temper-induced predicaments might be based on episodes in Isabella’s own life.

In the final chapter of the book Isabella gives a very real nod to one of her favorite places on earth when she reveals that Gertrude’s home town is called Locust Shade.

Locust Shade was a place Isabella knew well; in “real life” it was the name of the Toll family farm in Verona, New York. Isabella’s best friend Theodosia Toll Foster was raised at Locust Shade and Isabella spent many wonderful weekends and school vacations at Locust Shade with Theodosia and her family. You can read more about their friendship and Locust Shade here.

Gertrude’s Diary is available to read for free. Just click on the cover to begin reading.



Won by a Sister’s Prayers

9 Jan

In Isabella Alden’s books she often includes a character who is a “sort of” Christian. In Mrs. Solomon Smith Looking On, Laura Leonard was just such a Christian.

Laura had been brought up in a good home by good, Christian parents. She went to church every Sunday and attended Sunday-school. Laura was kind and knew right from wrong, but she had never accepted Jesus Christ as her Saviour. To the contrary, Laura rebelled against the mere thought of taking such a step . . . until Mrs. Solomon Smith helped show Laura that being a Christian and loving the Lord was the only way Laura would find real and lasting happiness in her life.

When Isabella wrote about Laura Leonard, she wrote from experience. Like fictional Laura, Isabella had been raised by loving Christian parents. She, too, attended church every Sunday, and joined the family in home worship every evening.

Beginning at a young age Isabella was carefully taught what the Bible says about who will be able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and that the only way to have eternal life is through Jesus Christ; yet Isabella never took the ultimate step of choosing to accept Christ as her Saviour.

Then the unthinkable happened. When Isabella was twelve years old, she fell seriously ill. For several days neither her parents nor the doctor believed she would live. But, miraculously, the crisis passed, and Isabella began to recover.

Her sister Marcia, who was nine years older than Isabella, had stayed by Isabella’s side throughout her illness. She had watched over Isabella, and slept in a chair by her bed, never leaving Isabella’s side for more than a few minutes.

When Isabella began to feel better, Marcia asked her one day:

“Would you have gone to live in heaven if God had called you when you were so ill?”

Isabella was genuinely surprised by the question, but Marcia said, “The thought of parting from you forever was one of unceasing agony to me; and my constant prayer during all those days and nights of illness was that you might be spared until you could choose Christ.”

These words made a lasting impression upon Isabella. They came to her with all the power and force of a sudden revelation: for though she had been carefully trained, and knew in a theoretical way the plan of salvation, she had never given the matter five minutes serious thought, until her sister appealed to her as she did.

Isabella tried to put the subject aside again, feeling that it darkened the day and made her uncomfortable; but the Holy Spirit had carried it home to her soul, and over and over again Marcia’s words rang in her ears.

Isabella could no longer deny the truth. She wrote, “It is not enough for me to believe in Christ as a Saviour, I must ‘choose’ Christ as my Saviour.”

Soon she began to feel that in a strange and wonderful way her sister’s earnest and loving prayer that she might be spared to “choose” had been answered. And with it came the conviction that she was compelled to make a definite choice.

Not long afterward, she did choose the Lord Jesus Christ as her personal Saviour.

What a blessed decision that was for the millions of readers of her books!

Isabella Alden at her writing desk.

In 1902 Isabella wrote:

“In a few more years it will be half a century since I chose Christ. I have had abundant reason to thank God for sparing my life at that time, and for giving me a faithful sister.”

Isabella and Marcia remained close, loving sisters for the rest of their lives.

And Isabella used her experience of being a “sort of” Christian as a device to show her fictional characters—and her readers—that believing in Christ wasn’t the same as choosing to make Christ the center of our lives.

Isabella originally shared her story of how she became a Christian in a 1901 edition Christian Herald newspaper.

No Simple Case of the Flu

14 Nov

It’s autumn in the United States, and for most Americans, that means shorter days and colder temperatures.

It also means the start of the flu season, when about 20% of the population can expect to suffer feeling feverish, achy and just plain crummy for about a week between now and April of 2018.

Influenza season was troublesome in Isabella’s time, too; especially because Americans didn’t have the advantage of the flu vaccines and anti-viral drugs we have today.

But in 1918, when Isabella was 77 years old and living in Palo Alto, California, Americans suffered through a terrifying epidemic of influenza known as the Spanish Flu.

United States Health Service flyer from 1918


The first documented wave of Spanish Flu struck the U.S. with a vengeance in the fall of 1918. Americans quickly realized this strain of flu was not the usual variety that brought chills, fever and fatigue that lasted a few days.

This new strain of flu was highly contagious, and it proved particularly fatal to healthy young adults—an alarming complication. Previous strains of flu usually resulted in death for children and the elderly; and health officials were baffled by the fact that the healthiest segment of the population seemed to be the most vulnerable.

A nurse takes a flu patient’s pulse at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., 1918.


Another terrible consequence was the speed with which the flu struck. Victims died within hours or days of their symptoms appearing. In fatal cases, the victims’ skin turned blue and their lungs filled with fluid; nothing could be done to save them.

The first wave of the epidemic struck the eastern part of the United States hard.

From the Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1918.


Large cities, small towns, and rural areas suffered equally. One physician at an Army station in Massachusetts wrote:

“These men start with what appears to be an attack of la grippe or influenza, and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate.

“It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a new mixed infection here, but what I don’t know.”

In very short order, hospitals were overrun with patients. Health officials had to commandeer meeting halls, golf courses, large private homes, and any other places that could be converted into temporary hospitals to house victims of the epidemic.

Make-shift hospital tents set up to hold influenza patients in 1919. From the Centers for Disease Control.


In some towns officials shut down all public places, including schools and churches, and ordered citizens to wear masks at all times.

An ad printed in the October 18, 1918 edition of Illustrated Current News.


The numbers of fatalities increased steadily. In some places entire families were wiped out. Physicians, nurses, and healthcare workers couldn’t keep up with the numbers of patients that needed their care, and they soon became patients themselves. By October 1918 New York City’s health department estimated that over 20% of the city’s nurses were sick.

Mortuaries were also overwhelmed; bodies piled up. Morticians and cemetery workers were struck down with the flu like everyone else, and some communities had to resort to disposing of bodies in mass graves. In other places, grieving family members had to dig graves for their own loved ones.

A family posing while wearing masks during the influenza epidemic.


Entire cities came to a virtual halt; so many people were ill there was no one to deliver mail, collect garbage, or harvest crops. Businesses closed and government agencies shut down because there was no one well enough to report to work.

A New York City street sweeper on an almost-deserted street in 1918.


Health officials and town leaders fought against the disease in the only ways they knew how. They told citizens to stop shaking hands. They ticketed anyone who coughed or sneezed or spat in public.

Health Department poster on the back of a trolley car.


They closed theaters and barred libraries from circulating books.

They passed ordinances prohibiting people from gathering, hoping to stop the virus from spreading.

Headline in the October 7, 1918 edition of the Indianapolis News.


Some cities required residents to wear masks any time they stepped outside the doors of their homes.

Meanwhile, residents in mid-west and west coast states of the country—such as in California, where Isabella was living at the time—could do little more than hope the deadly epidemic would remain confined to the east coast.

Students at Brigham Young University wear hygienic masks during a lecture in 1918.


Their hopes were bolstered by uninformed health officials who, in an effort to keep the public calm, spread incorrect information about the deadly virus.

Misinformation printed in the Los Angeles Herald, September 27, 1918.


But in truth, mid-west and west coast states could do little to halt the epidemic’s march toward their cities and towns.

Red Cross workers in St. Louis report for duty with their ambulances, October 1918.


It didn’t take long before the first confirmed cases of Spanish Flu were reported in Northern California.

From the Los Angeles Herald, October 12, 1918.


In the Santa Clara Valley, where Isabella lived with her husband and family, the first documented cases of Spanish Flu hit in November, 1918.

County officials and town leaders imposed quarantines and prohibited residents from congregating, hoping to stop the spread of the virus.

Like other places in the country, Isabella’s neighborhood hospitals were soon over-crowded with patients. Health officials cancelled all school classes and converted the newly-built San Jose Normal School into hospital wards.

Aerial view of San Jose Normal School, 1909.


By the time the epidemic ran its course in the spring of 1919, fifteen residents of Isabella’s community had died, and over 300 had been infected.

Volunteers at San Jose Normal School prepare meals for patients and healthcare workers.


The impact of the flu on the country was staggering. One out of every four Americans had been infected by the time the Spanish Flu epidemic ran its course in  1919. Over 550,000 Americans had died, and more than 50 million people worldwide were killed.

Isabella’s family was spared. While she and her family may have taken ill, no members of the Alden or MacDonald families died from the Spanish Flu. Still, it must have been a frightening and anxious time for Isabella, as it was for all Americans.

Here’s a brief video that explains the impact the Spanish Flu had on residents of South Carolina, especially its small communities, like Isabella’s:

And this video (from PBS’s American Experience series) includes interviews with Americans who survived the epidemic and give first-hand accounts of its impact on their families and neighborhoods:



iPhones and Isabella

20 Sep

Last week Apple unveiled its new iPhone with the latest innovations in communication technology. Its release came 130 years after Isabella Alden first mentioned the telephone in the plot of one of her novels.

As convenient and indispensable as phones have become in our modern age, the same could be said of telephones in Isabella’s time. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, telephones changed the way Americans lived.

Isabella was 35 years old when Alexander Graham Bell patented his version of the telephone in 1876; but that first model had very limited capabilities.

Inventor Alexander Graham Bell


Although the early Bell telephones certainly transmitted sound, they only worked between two locations that were hard-wired to each other.

An illustration of Bell demonstrating his invention in 1877


Then, in 1878, a man named George Coy invented the telephone exchange and immediately turned the telephone into a much more practical invention.

Instead of telephone lines being strung between two locations as Bell had envisioned, Coy’s exchanges linked any number of telephones to a single point: a switchboard.

An 1890 illustration of women working a switchboard at a telephone exchange.


At the exchange, legions of trained switchboard operators used a series of cords and sliding keys to connect and reroute incoming calls to other telephones linked to the exchange.

An early telephone exchange, about 1898


Thanks to those exchanges, telephone line construction exploded with growth over the next few years. By 1880, there were 47,900 telephones across America. By 1881, telephone service between Boston and Providence was established. By 1892, a telephone line had been constructed between New York and Chicago; and two years later New York and Boston were connected.

Switchboard operators at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company near Washington, D.C.


Another benefit of those exchanges: jobs. As telephone service expanded, more and more trained switchboard operators were needed to connect calls; and the majority of the operators hired were women.

A 1911 photograph of a switchboard telephone operator.


When Isabella published her novel Eighty-Seven, she included a character who worked as a switchboard operator. Her name was Fanny Porter, and she worked in the Dunbar Street Telephone Office. Another character in the story described Fanny as …

… a bright, pretty girl, young, and quite alone here. She lives in a dreary boarding-house, and used to have some of the most desolate evenings which could be imagined.

Switchboard operators in 1914


Fortunately, not all switchboard operators lived and worked under such conditions. While the majority of switchboard jobs required working for a Bell Telephone Company, there were other positions available. For example, some large businesses that required multiple telephone extensions were equipped with their own exchanges and hired operators to run them.

Switchboard operators in an office, about 1910.

In fact, businesses were the foremost users of the telephone in the late 1890s. That’s because, in general, phones were too expensive for individual homeowners to install and maintain; but Mr. Mackenzie, the wealthy businessman in Isabella’s novel Wanted, could afford to have a telephone in his home.

In fact, the telephone plays a small but pivotal role in the story. When Rebecca Meredith, the novel’s heroine, first meets Mr. Mackenzie, she thinks he’s hateful and selfish, until she mentions one evening that his young daughter is a little hoarse. To her surprise, Mr. Mackenzie immediately telephones the doctor and …

… administered with his own hand the medicine ordered. Even after the doctor had made light of fears and gone his way, the father sat with his finger on Lilian’s small wrist and counted the beats skillfully and anxiously.

After witnessing his tenderness for his daughter, Rebecca begins to change her opinion about Mr. Mackenzie.

In her 1892 book, John Remington, Martyr, Aleck Palmer was also a young man of great fortune; he, too, had a telephone in his home and business, which caused Mrs. Remington some concern. You see, she was intent on playing matchmaker between Aleck Palmer and her friend Elsie Chilton and invited the unsuspecting couple to dinner without letting either know the other had been invited. As Mrs. Remington explained to her husband:

Elsie is getting to be such a simpleton that I am afraid she would run home if I should let her know he was coming; and as for him, he is developing such idiotic qualities in connection with her, that I feel by no means certain he would not get up a telephone message or something of the sort to call him immediately to the office, if he should know before the dinner bell rang that Elsie was in the house.

But by the time the 20th Century dawned, the demographics and cost of telephone usage changed dramatically. Telephone companies had connected most major cities and strung sufficient telephone lines across the country to bring costs down, and phone company executives began to set their sights on a new goal: providing service to residential customers.

At first, advertising to consumers stressed the obvious: keep in touch with friends and family.

Blowing kisses over the phone, 1908.


Then, in 1910 the Bell Telephone Companies developed several strong marketing campaigns that offered different reasons why every home should have a telephone. One campaign was directed specifically at the lady of the house.

The ads had strong visual cues, like this one illustrating how a phone in the home meant a family could summon a doctor quickly:

The series of ads was printed in magazines and on postcards, showing how a Bell telephone …

… keeps travelers in touch with home …

… guards the home by night as well as by day …

… summons help during household emergencies …

… relieves anxieties over a loved one …

… and quickly helps arrange replacements when servants fail you.

The ad campaigns were extremely successful. People began to think of telephones as an essential tool for the home, instead of a mere convenience. Soon, telephone companies across the country were installing residential telephones at an astonishing pace.

This Bell Companies business card for the Philadelphia area cites the number of installations locally and nationally. The blank space was filled in by an installation or service subcontractor with his own contact information.


And after each new installation was complete, telephone residential customers notified friends and family of their new phone number by sending out cards like these:


Soon telephones became not only an essential device for the home, but a convenient tool for the lady of the house. In Ester Ried’s Namesake, published in 1906, Ester Randall worked as a cook in the home of the Victor family. And being a stylish family, the Victors, of course, had a telephone, which Mrs. Victor used regularly, as in this scene where she explained to Ester her plans for dinner:

We’ll make the dinner light and easy to manage; just a steak and some baked potatoes and canned corn. Did you say there was no corn? Oh, I remember, you told me yesterday, didn’t you? Well, just phone for it. Call up Streator’s, they are always prompt; tell them they must be. And we’ll just have sliced tomatoes with lettuce for salad; all easy things to manage, you see. As for dessert, make it cake and fruit—strawberries, or peaches, it doesn’t matter which. Why, dear me, that dinner will almost get itself, won’t it?

It’s amazing to think that Isabella Alden saw the development of one of the greatest inventions of the Twentieth Century. In her time the telephone was innovative and exciting. It opened new avenues of jobs for women and changed the way people interacted with each other; and Isabella reflected those changes in her novels and stories that we still read and appreciate today.

You can read more about Isabella’s novels mentioned in this post by clicking on the book covers below:









Singing ‘Molly Bawn’

6 Sep

When Isabella wrote The King’s Daughter in 1873, she wrote a novel that was contemporary for her time. In the book, she referenced household items and songs that were popular in 1873.

For example, in chapter eight, Miss Dell Bronson tries to convince Sam Miller to attend a temperance meeting with her.

At first Sam—a man who described himself as having gone to wreck and ruin—is aghast at the idea, but Dell won’t take no for an answer.

Instead, she uses all her powers of persuasion to entice Sam to the temperance meeting:

“Go and try one. I don’t believe you have ever been. We are going to have singing. I know you are fond of music. I heard you singing ‘Molly Bawn’ this morning. I like your voice. I want you to come and help us sing.”

Of course, songs sung at a temperance meeting would not include Molly Bawn; but by mentioning the song in her book, Isabella referenced a popular song her readers would instantly recognize.

Oddly enough, there are many versions of the Molly Bawn song. An Irish version tells the story of Molly Bawn being shot by her lover when he mistakes her for a swan as she hides in the forest.

But the American version—which is probably the version Isabella had in mind—is about a young man hoping to rendezvous with the girl he loves: Molly Bawn.

This sheet music, published in 1881, gives the lyrics to Molly Bawn:

The sheet music for Molly Bawn. Click on the image to see the music and lyrics.


Molly Bawn was an incredibly popular song that captured and held America’s imagination. The melody was easy; the lyrics were romantic; and if you happened to have the singing voice of an Irish tenor—which may have been true of Sam Miller—the song was practically written for you.

In 1878 a writer named Margaret Wolfe Hamilton (who published under the pseudonym Mrs. Hungerford) wrote a novel loosely based on the song.

The 1904 paperback version of the novel Molly Bawn.


The book version of Molly Bawn was an instant success in America. In fact, one of the novel’s characters utters for the first time in print, a phrase we still repeat today:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Hamilton’s novel was so popular, it remained in print for decades.

Artist Charles Dana Gibson—famed for his illustrations of The Gibson Girl—was so inspired by the story, he created his own depictions of Molly Bawn:

“Molly Bawn” by Charles Dana Gibson, 1911.


In 1916 a movie of the Molly Bawn story hit theaters. It starred silent film actress Alma Taylor in the lead role.

Film actress Alma Taylor in a scene from the 1924 silent film Shadow of Egypt. She played Molly Bawn in a 1916 film adaptation of the novel by Margaret Wolfe Hamilton (aka Mrs. Hungerford).


Clever Isabella! When she dropped the name of the song ‘Molly Bawn’ in chapter eight of The King’s Daughter, she knew she was giving her readers a reference they—and subsequent generations—would readily understand.

Would you like to hear a 1911 recording of the American song Molly Bawn? Click here to go to the Library of Congress website to hear the song.

And you can click here to learn more about Isabella’s novel, The King’s Daughter.

Horatio Spafford’s Second Chapter

28 Aug

This is the second in a two-part series about Isabella Alden’s uncle, Horatio Gates Spafford. If you missed part 1, you can read it here.

After the loss of their children in the wreck of the Ville du Havre in 1873, Horatio and Anna’s sorrow was immense. They returned to Chicago and tried to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Dwight Lyman Moody, circa 1900, from the Library of Congress


Their dear friend, Reverend D. L. Moody, was their greatest support and comfort. He begged Horatio and Anna to stay busy, knowing that their silent, empty house would be a great and solemn reminder of the loss of their children.

“Annie, you must go into my work,” Rev. Moody said. “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.”

Anna promised to follow his advice.

Two years after the tragedy, Anna gave birth to a son, Horatio, who died four years later from scarlet fever.

Horatio Goertner Spafford


Then their daughter Bertha was born in 1878; two years later, in 1880, Grace was born. Both girls were healthy and hearty and brought them much joy.

Bertha (right) and Grace (left) Spafford


But with Reverend Moody’s advice in mind, Horatio and Anna found themselves pulled in a new direction. For years they had been holding prayer meetings and Bible studies in their home at Lake View. In those meetings, they emphasized optimism and God’s blessings in their lives, despite the hardships they had endured.

With prayer and reflection, Anna became convinced that she survived the sinking of the Ville du Havre for a purpose.

Anna Spafford


Horatio, too, began to search his life and his faith for an explanation of their loss. As a result, he felt increasingly drawn to a life of service to God, and he felt called to one special place in particular: Jerusalem.

Horatio Spafford

After all he had been through, Horatio wrote in a revealing letter:

“Jerusalem is where my Lord lived, suffered, and conquered, and I, too, wish to learn how to live, suffer and, especially, to conquer.”

After much prayer and thoughtfulness, Horatio and Anna decided to leave America. In 1881, when Grace was still an infant, they led a small group of like-minded American Christians to Jerusalem, where they established a Christian society known as the “American Colony.”

The original house of the American Colony


They found a large house in the Muslim Quarter, near Herod’s Gate; it sat high on a hill and all around the house were Muslim, Jewish and Mohammedan slums. This, Horatio and Anna decided, was the house from which they would minister to the people of Jerusalem.

They took the house, along with some property next to it that would make a nice garden; and the entire group moved in and pooled their resources to live under one roof.

Herod’s Gate as it appeared in 1898


It was Horatio and Anna’s vision of work to be done that gave the group direction. With the Spaffords as leaders, members of the American Colony devoted themselves to philanthropic work among the people of Jerusalem. Anyone who needed help received it, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Colony members did not preach or proselytize; instead, they first concentrated on building bridges to their new neighbors.

Members of the American Colony at the port city of Jaffa in 1902. Jaffa is famous for its association with the biblical stories of Jonah, Solomon, and Peter.


The American Colony provided service to others in any way they could. They ran soup kitchens, hospitals, and orphanages. They soon became trusted friends among the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian residents of Jerusalem.

One of their greatest and most enduring accomplishments was the Spafford Children’s Center, which is still run today by descendants of Horatio and Anna Spafford.


Horatio Spafford’s efforts in Jerusalem were a success. His love for the Lord transformed his personal suffering into a ministry that helped tens of thousands of men, women and children, and brought countless souls to Christ.

Life in Jerusalem was not without its challenges and hardships. One of the group’s greatest trials came from other American’s who distrusted their motives and spread horrible and sometimes ugly rumors about the group and, in particular, about Horatio and Anna. Some of those rumors persist to this day. Horatio and Anna responded to their critics in the only way they knew how: by following Christ’s instruction to turn the other cheek.

In 1888 Horatio developed a persistent fever he could not shake, and eventually the illness developed into a malignant malaria. For many days he was too weak to get out of bed; the disease sapped his strength and appetite.

Bertha was only ten years old, and Grace was eight, when Horatio, unconscious and emaciated, lay dying. Anna held his hand; and at one point, he opened his eyes and said to her:

“Annie, I have experienced a great joy; I have seen wonderful things.”

He tried to say more, but weakness overcame him, and he fell to sleep again.

He died in his sleep on October 16, 1888 at the age of 59.

Horatio Gates Spafford.


Grief-stricken, Anna carried on, and sought comfort in her faith, just as she had on that horrible night at sea eight years before.

Bertha (top) and Grace (bottom) with their mother, Anna.


She assumed leadership of the Colony. Under her guidance, the colony swelled from 18 members to over 150. In 1896 the Colony moved to larger quarters near the Tomb of Kings in East Jerusalem.

American Colony members at Tombs of Kings 1901.


With Anna’s guidance, the American Colony expanded its ministries, as well. They sponsored an arts club, a drama club, and a literary society, at which everyone was welcome. They even formed a concert band, and gave music lessons.

The American Colony school in 1899


They started the Moslem Girls School, which provided a basic education, as well as vocational training to young girls, in order to provide an alternative to their culture’s traditional early arranged marriages.

During World War I Colony residents worked in Jerusalem’s hospitals alongside Red Cross workers.


They opened the doors of the house, taking in anyone who needed a place to stay, no matter their religion or ability to pay.

As Bertha Spafford, Anna’s eldest daughter, grew into womanhood, she began to play a greater role in the Colony.

Bertha Spafford, age 19, in 1896.


Bertha worked beside Anna and later wrote:

My admiration for my mother was greater than all else.

In the spring of 1923 Anna was 80 years old, and her health began to fail. Bertha wrote:

The end came quietly. It was like a candle flickering and finally going out. We were determined that the only note sounded at her funeral should be one of praise for a useful life, which had been a blessing to many.

Hundreds attended her funeral service, while letters and telegrams poured in from all over the world.

Anna Spafford in the Colony courtyard about 1920.


Years later Bertha recalled with clarity one of the prayers spoken at the service:

Life is eternal and love is immortal;
And death is only a horizon;
And a horizon is nothing,
Save the limit of our sight!

Bertha honored her mother’s memory by converting the original Colony residence into a children’s facility. Named the Anna Spafford Baby Nursing Home and Infant Welfare Center, it provided pediatric care and social services to children throughout Jerusalem.

The Anna Spafford Baby Home in Jerusalem.


In later years, the name of the Center would be shortened to the Spafford Children’s Center, which still operates today.

Like her mother, Bertha had a remarkable ability to see a need in her community and then work diligently to fill that need. She started an industrial school for boys and men, and a lace-making school for women and girls. During World War I she established an orphanage and foster care system for girls who had lost one or both parents through war, poverty or illness.

Bertha Spafford, about age 60 in 1938.


For over sixty years, the American Colony in Jerusalem continued the work Horatio and Anna Spafford began, and ministered to the people of Jerusalem.

Bertha led the way, always with her parents’ vision in mind. Through two world wars and many local armed conflicts, she never wavered in her work or in her selfless devotion to the inhabitants of the Holy City.

Today, the Spafford Children’s Center is still in operation, and provides medical treatment and outreach services for Arab children and their families in Jerusalem. You can read about their work on their website. Just click here.

Some of the residents of the American Colony in 1904.


The house that served as the American Colony’s residence still stands with its doors open. It is a thriving hotel owned by the descendants of Horatio and Anna Spafford. It’s a favorite place for journalists, diplomats, and aid workers who visit the Holy City. Some famous guests include Sir Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), authors Saul Bellow and John Le Carre, actors Robert De Niro and Peter O’Toole, designer Giorgio Armani, and Soviet President Mikahil Gorbachev.

The hotel as it appears today from the garden.


In 1950 Bertha Spafford published Our Jerusalem, a wonderful book detailing her parents’ lives. In the book, she tells the story, as Anna described it to her, of the sinking of the Ville du Havre. It also includes many wonderful accounts of the good work Horatio and Anna Spafford did in Jerusalem. Our Jerusalem is a remarkable story of faith and good works, all done in Jesus’ name. You can read the book for free. Just click on the image below to begin reading.



Isabella’s Uncle and the Hymn that Changed America

22 Aug

Isabella’s mother Myra Spafford came from a large family. Her father married twice and Myra was one of twelve siblings from both marriages.

Myra was 25 years old and already a wife of four years by the time her youngest brother, Horatio Gates Spafford was born. Like Myra, Horatio was raised in a home where strong faith in God and service to others were qualities valued above all else.

Horatio Gates Spafford


Horatio grew up to be an ambitious and energetic young man. A lawyer by trade, he was about 29 years old when he left his family in New York and headed to Chicago to practice law and earn his fortune.

Business card from Horatio Spafford’s law firm


Chicago was the perfect place for a man like Horatio. The city was booming—between 1871 and 1880 the population grew by 176,000 people—and Horatio saw opportunity.

While other builders and entrepreneurs concentrated on developing the marshy areas of Chicago close to Lake Michigan, Horatio invested in real estate north of the metropolis. By the time he reached his 42nd birthday, Horatio’s law practice and business investments had made him a very wealthy man.

He was also a husband to his wife Anna, and father to four little girls: Annie, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Tanetta.

Anna Spafford with her daughters Annie, Margaret, and Tanetta.


He owned a fine house at Lake View, a north suburb of Chicago. He employed household servants and a French governess for his children.

The Spafford “cottage” at Lake View, Chicago (from the Library of Congress)


And though he lived well, Horatio used the majority of his wealth in service to God. He was an active abolitionist prior to and during the Civil War, and he hosted many anti-slavery meetings in his home.

He made evangelical visits to inmates at jails and prisons, helped run prayer and revival meetings, and taught Sunday school at his church.

Frances Willard, President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.


He also supported causes that were dear to his heart, such as the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union. He often welcomed the organization’s president, Frances E. Willard, into his home for extended stays.

The same was true of Horatio’s support for evangelist Dwight L. Moody, who would become a dear and life-long friend.

Dwight Lyman Moody, circa 1900, from the Library of Congress



Horatio’s youngest daughter Tanetta was only two months old on October 8, 1871, when fire broke out in the city of Chicago. With a poor alarm system, shabbily constructed buildings, and draught-like conditions due to lack of rain, the fire spread rapidly from one wooden structure to another. It raged for two days and destroyed over one-third of the city.

Chicago, after the great fire (from Library of Congress)


Although the Spafford home was somehow spared, the city was devastated.

Over 300 people lost their lives, and over 100,000 people were homeless, many of whom survived with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.


Horatio—who had invested in real estate in the area of the city that was hardest hit—suffered serious financial losses.

Still, he and Anna opened their home to many people who no longer had a home of their own, and he worked tirelessly to rebuild the city’s churches, businesses, and housing.

Laying the first cornerstone of a new building, as Chicago rebuilds after the fire.


In 1873, while he and his wife were still working to help the needy and displaced citizens of Chicago, Horatio received a letter from his friend, Dwight Moody, who was in Europe, igniting a religious revival. Dwight asked Horatio and Anna to join him in London.

Undated photo of Dwight L. Moody from the Spafford family album (from Library of Congress)


The invitation could not have come at a better time. Both Horatio and Anna were weary from the stress of their philanthropic work. To add to their troubles, Horatio’s financial condition had become dire, due to a national economic downturn that occurred in 1873.

Horatio and Anna decided to join Dwight in England and live abroad for a year. They set off for New York, along with their children’s governess. Also in their party was a boy named Willie Culver, the twelve-year-old son of close friends, who was returning to school in Paris.


When they arrived in New York, Horatio received word that a business deal was in danger of collapsing, and—given the precarious state of his finances—he decided to return to Chicago to salvage what he could of the venture.

Rather than postpone the trip, Anna and the children—along with their governess and Willie Culver—went on to Europe without him.

At about 2:00 a.m. the morning of November 21, 1873, in the frigid waters in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, their ship, the Ville du Havre, collided with an English iron ship, the Loch Earn.

Headline from the Chicago Tribune, December 2, 1873.


The impact almost cut the Ville du Havre in two, and it began to sink immediately. Anna led her children, their governess, and Willie, to the deck to evacuate the ship.


But only two of the ship’s life boats were deployed, and they were filled primarily with the ship’s captain and crew. Of the roughly 350 people on board, only 87 survived; and of those survivors, 53 were crew members.

Artist’s rendering of the last moments of the Ville du Havre


The Loch Earn, badly damaged, turned around and deployed its own boats to find survivors. One of those boats plucked Anna Spafford, unconscious and badly hurt, from the water.

In the darkness of the night, her children Annie (age 11), Margaret (9), Elizabeth (5) and Tanetta (2) were never found.

Annie Spafford, from the Spafford family album.


Margaret Lee Spafford, from the Spafford family album


Elizabeth Spafford


Tanetta Spafford.


Also lost were the children’s governess and young Willie Culver.

In Chicago, Horatio received an early morning telegram from Anna that began with the heartbreaking words,

Saved alone.

What shall I do?

The telegram Anna sent Horatio, telling him of the tragedy.


Horatio immediately left on the next ship bound for Europe to join Anna. As he crossed the Atlantic, the captain of the ship—knowing of Horatio’s loss—called him to the bridge at one point, and solemnly told him they were about to pass the place where the Ville du Havre went down.

That evening, in his cabin, Horatio took up his pen and wrote the words to “It is Well with My Soul.”

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul!”

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin — oh, the bliss of this glorious thought —
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to His Cross, and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend;
“Even so, it is well with my soul!”

The original manuscript. written on stationary paper from the Breevoort House, a hotel around the corner from Horatio’s law firm in Chicago. Horatio had some sheets with him while crossing the Atlantic and it was on these that he penned the words to the hymn.


In a letter to his sister-in-law a week later he wrote,

“On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.”

In 1876 Horatio’s friend composer Philip P. Bliss took the words Horatio had written and set them to music.

Composer Philip P. Bliss, from the Spafford family album.


Philip performed the hymn for the first time in public on November 24, 1876 before a large gathering of ministers, hosted by Dwight Moody.

Since then, “It is Well with My Soul” has become the most widely-used hymn of consolation in modern Christianity.

It has also had a profound impact on those who hear the hymn and learn the story behind it.

Many people have known tragedy and sorrow, reported a North Carolina newspaper in 1908; but even those who have faced hardships think again when they hear Horatio Spafford’s story. As one man told the newspaper reporter:

“I will never again complain of my lot. If Spafford could write such a beautiful resignation hymn when he had lost all his children, and everything else save his wife and character, I ought surely to be thankful that my losses have been so light.”

From The Commonwealth newspaper in North Carolina, February 2, 1908


You can read a detailed account of the sinking of the Ville du Havre as it appeared in an Ohio newspaper, the Holmes County Republican, on December 11, 1873. Just click on the image below and read the article in column 7 titled “A Horror at Sea.”

Horatio Spafford’s story doesn’t end here! Despite the many trials and setbacks he suffered, he never lost his faith in God or abandoned his calling to be of service to others.

Next Post: Horatio Spafford’s New Beginning

Postcards from Chautauqua: Saturday in the Park with Pansy

8 Aug

A Sunset service at Palestine Park


“Nevertheless, she suffered herself to be persuaded to go for a walk, provided Eurie would go to Palestine….Flossy explained to her that she had a consuming desire to wander along the banks of the Jordan and view those ancient cities, historic now.” (Four Girls at Chautauqua)

Sometimes, I really, really wish I could take the Way Back Machine and latch onto Pansy’s group as they enjoyed the apparently mesmerizing lectures by a flamboyant Middle Eastern-born tour guide named Augustus Oscar Van Lennep. Not content to introduce the lakeside miniature Holy Lands that are a relic of Chautauqua’s Sunday School Assembly days, this enterprising, creative fellow dolled up in “Oriental” costume to give his lectures. That’s our man below, lounging in Rajah-like style, while his indulgent friends retain their upright Victorian postures.

Courtesy of the Chautauqua Institution Archives.


Gus must have had an equally fun set of folks who joined him—witness his jolly crew of costumed believers at Palestine Park in 1875/6-ish. Can you imagine??? Oh, how much fun must that have been!

Courtesy of the Chautauqua Institution Archives.


Alas, today the Park is largely neglected and used more as a family playground than an instructional living map.

I’ve been studying a 1920’s Bible Atlas by Jesse Lyman Hurlbut (Chautauqua lecturer, founding father, and big-time booster) to gain a working knowledge of the Holy Lands. As Dr. Vincent believed, I think understanding the topography and layout, relative distances and terrain of Palestine environs is extremely helpful when reading Scripture. I mean, when you see how far Gideon and his 300 brave soldiers had to track the Philistines, you really do understand why he was so angered when the locals wouldn’t give them any foods to keep their strength up!

According the Pansy’s many charming references to the Palestine Park, students were treated to not only the basic layout, but tiny townscapes and identifying plaques dotted the carefully crafted map. Bible verses connecting each significant stop provided context—and reasserted the importance of the location for the Christ-following traveler.

Today, in an effort to keep the residual charm of the place, small cast iron plaques are embedded along the landscape—they’re kept painted and somewhat landscaped. I understand there’s a “tour” each Sunday night and I hope to attend it someday.

I paced off various Bible place names made familiar by my Old Testament studies and was genuinely surprised to see how concentrated a radius these events encompassed. Here’s Jerusalem in relation to the Mount of Olives, only a stone’s throw from Bethany.

Mount Hermon in the distance provides the perfect “king of the hill” locale for the resort’s kiddie population. The impressive crevasse made me wonder if erosion hadn’t made the Jordan Valley a bit too deep?

“Here we are, on ‘Jordan’s stormy banks…I suppose there was never a more perfect geographical representation than this.” (Four Girls at Chautauqua)

Compared to the vintage postcards you’ll find in this blog’s archived Chautauqua posts (see the links at the conclusion of this post), I’d say the accuracy factor might be off a bit these days.

I found it charming that Jericho was in “ruins”—the flat-topped ancient buildings crumbled and scattered, like those of Hebron (though I’m not certain these ruins were intentional.)

Is someone is tending Jacob’s Well? Even on the dry day I visited, it was filled with water.

My favorite? The truly little town of Bethlehem.

I read the plaque as I exited the park, wistful at the thought of those tent-dwelling Sunday School teachers, nestling eagerly beside the “Mediterranean Sea” and along the shores of the Jordan, to understand more about the lands their spiritual ancestors walked.

What would they make of this rarely visited, gently poignant reminder of the Park’s original purpose? Today, no Bible markers or tablets grace the small stony stand-ins, no tiny replica buildings remain to represent scenes from the life of Jesus as they did in Pansy’s time. I turned my gaze to Chautauqua Lake, imagining the steamer pulling up to the nearby dock and unloading four lively 19th century girls, eager for fun, not knowing they would never be the same, thanks to their time in this beautiful place.

“Now, the actual fact is, that those three people wandered around that far-away land until the morning vanished … They went from Bethany to Bethel, and from Bethel to Shechem, and they even climbed Mount Hermon’s snowy peak and looked about on the lovely plain below. In every place there was Bible reading …” (Four Girls at Chautauqua)

Thanks for allowing me to share these mementos with you of my all-too-brief Chautauqua visit. My hope and prayer is to return soon to follow further in Isabella’s footsteps.

My fascination has led me to launch a tribute Chautauqua Literary & Science Circle reading plan—I’m pairing 19th century texts with contemporary works and next August, I hope to carry the Pansy Year banner in the Recognition Day parade. Interested readers can follow along with my literary journey at my blog, The Hall in the Grove.

Dusting off my sandals,


If you missed previous posts about Chautauqua Institution, you can read them by clicking on the links below:

Postcards from Chautauqua – Pansy-trod Pathways

Postcards from Chautauqua – On a Pilgrimage

Postcards from Chautauqua – Summer of 2017

A Tour of Chautauqua: Getting There

A Tour of Chautauqua: Strolling the Grounds

A Tour of Chautauqua: Where to Stay

A Tour of Chautauqua: Lectures and Classes

A Tour of Chautauqua: Having Fun

A Tour of Chautauqua: The Teachers’ Retreat

A Tour of Chautauqua: A Healthy Body

A Tour of Chautauqua: Palestine Park

100 Years Ago at Chautauqua

Postcards from Chautauqua: On a Pilgrimage

26 Jul

Karen Noske joins us again to share photos and descriptions of the Chautauqua landmarks she explored this summer, with Isabella Alden’s novels in mind. Welcome back, Karen!

My next objective was the Hall of Christ, as there was an archival lecture to be given momentarily on one of the most influential early religious leaders at Chautauqua, the renowned Shailer Mathews.

I imagined how Isabella might have felt, sitting in this arena, listening to contemporary reflections on the man whose influence changed the course of the Institute in so many ways.

The Hall of Christ, as it appears today.


“The Hall of the Christ, is first of all, to stand in the center of Chautauqua to represent Christ as the center of all learning and all true living; the Key to the true and eternal wisdom…a Hall where Jesus Christ is enthroned; where only his story is allowed; told in print and picture and sculpture and the human voice. Isn’t it grand!”

(Four Mothers at Chautauqua)

The workmanlike interior of the unprepossessing Hall of Christ makes me wonder if there haven’t been many changes to it over the years.

The Hall of Christ as it appeared in 1909


The general atmosphere is one of beneficent neglect and exhaustion. A magnificent organ dominates the stage—sadly, it was eclipsed by the speaker’s screen and I only got this tantalizing glimpse of it.


Engrossing as the lecture was, I was glad to make my way out towards my next objective—the centerpiece of Chautauqua for Isabella and, as it turned out, for me.

The Hall in the Grove

Directly adjacent to the Hall of Christ is the cherished “Hall in the Grove.” I recognized it immediately by its prominence and its beauty:

“If you have up to this time been even a careless reader of this volume, you have doubtless discovered that the center of Chautauqua life was the ‘Hall in the Grove.’ A beautiful grove, with trees old enough and grand enough to be worthy of their baptismal name—”St Paul’s Grove.” White-pillared, simple, plain, yet suggestive of such a brilliant past and hinting of such a glorified future … this bit of green and white, with a glimmer of lake between.”

(The Hall in the Grove, page 286)


The dedication plaque on the “Hall in the Grove” reads, “Erected in 1900 on the site of an earlier wooden hall placed here in 1879. This building was erected by the generous gifts of members of C.L.S.C. classes and other friends of Chautauqua.”


A talk by the very popular Bill Moyers (of CBS News fame) was just finishing up, so I crept in around the edges and starting following the elaborate and beautiful mosaics that frame the lecture hall’s floor.

“All was quiet there. The sunset meeting which had been held in that white, still place was closed sometime since, and their feet, as they stepped on the floor, resounded throughout the vacant Hall.”

(The Hall in the Grove, page 240)

I was delighted to find the shield of Pansy’s Class of 1887 in a place of genuine honor—nestled around the corners of the lectern.

The lectern platform itself is still a modest affair, virtually unchanged since Pansy’s class approached to celebrate their graduation. Let’s join Paul Adams from The Hall in the Grove here:

“Arrived at the white, quiet building, he entered it with soft tread, and, under an impulse which he did not in the least understand, uncovered his head. He stepped softly onto the platform, drew the armchair, which was the seat of honor, forward a trifle, and settled himself in it. Then he brought up before him in review the many and varied and wonderful experiences which the weeks had brought him in connection with that spot … Then he got down from the professor’s chair and … after a silent last look at the Hall, he walked home with Joe, they two speaking words together that were better than marble columns or millions of money, for they represented manhood.”

(The Hall in the Grove, page 382)

In The Hall in the Grove, Isabella shares a peek into her heart:

“…the gleaming pillars of the Hall of Philosophy rose up before him; something in the purity and strength and quaintness seemed to have gotten possession of him. Whether it was a shadowy link between him and some ancient scholar or worshiper I cannot say … but treading the Chautauquan avenues for the first time … his young heart thrill[ed] with a hope and a determination, neither of which he understood, every time he saw those gleaming pillars.”

(The Hall in the Grove, page 198)

When Caroline Raynor (another character in The Hall in the Grove) objects to the Hall being made in the style of a Temple of Minerva, she is vigorously corrected by her soon-to-be suitor, Robert:

“I like it exceedingly. Let the beautiful white temple be rescued from its heathen desecration and dedicated to the service of the good and true God our Father, and his Son Jesus Christ.”

(page 204)

I passed an ancient oak near one of entrances that was garmented in ivy and wondered … if I parted the ivy, would I find a lichen-crusted carving in the tree reading “Vine, 22, 1887”? (EightySeven, page 12.)

I surely saw what Dr. Winter Kelland did when …

“he and Vine walked … around under the hill, and up the hill, and come out beside the white-pillared hall and stopped under one of the tallest trees, and looked about them, and were silent. Dr. Kelland took off his hat and looked up reverently to the very top of the tall tree, beyond the top, into the blue of heaven.”

(Eighty-Seven, page 318)

As I walked reluctantly away from the Hall, I looked up and felt sure I was seeing the same trees, the same sky, the same view Pansy enjoyed in Four Girls at Chautauqua:


“None of all … who spent the day within the shadow of that sweet and leafy place have surely forgotten how the quaint and quiet beauty of the place and its surrounding fell upon them; they know just how the birds sang among those tall old trees; they know just how still and blue and clear the lake looked as they caught glimpses of it through the quivering green of myriad leaves …”

(Four Girls at Chautauqua, page 180)

Next time, Karen makes a little visit to the Chautauqua Post Office before trekking to the “Holy Land.”

If you missed previous posts about Chautauqua Institution, you can read them by clicking on the links below:

Postcards from Chautauqua – Summer of 2017

A Tour of Chautauqua: Getting There

A Tour of Chautauqua: Strolling the Grounds

A Tour of Chautauqua: Where to Stay

A Tour of Chautauqua: Lectures and Classes

A Tour of Chautauqua: Having Fun

A Tour of Chautauqua: The Teachers’ Retreat

A Tour of Chautauqua: A Healthy Body

A Tour of Chautauqua: Palestine Park

100 Years Ago at Chautauqua

The Hall in the Grove

Author of Classic Christian Fiction

Isabella Alden

Author of Classic Christian Fiction

Britt Reads Fiction

Reviews and giveaways for Christian fiction. Bringing readers information on great stories and connecting authors with their readers.

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