Jan. 26, 2021

Episode 7: Selah in Jerusalem

We go to Jerusalem to find out more about Selah Merrill, the longest-serving consul there before 1948.

Despite his desire to be in Jerusalem, Merrill didn't like the city or the people he encountered. He positively hated Jews; he disdained the American tourists; and he picked fights with the American colonists. So why did he stay?

Further Reading

Goldman, Shalom. Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

Goldman, Shalom. Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

Kreiger, Barbara. Divine Expectations: An American Woman in Nineteenth Century Palestine (Ohio University Press, 1999).

Shalev, Eran. American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2014).

Vogel, Lester, To See A Promised Land: Americans and the Holy Land in the Nineteenth Century (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993).

Dreams and Diplomacy in the Holy Land: American Consuls in Jerusalem in the 19th Century, Exhibit at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation


Host and Producer: Abby Mullen
Co-host and Co-producer: Kris Stinson
Music: Andrew Cote
Singer: Jamie Brown who sang “It Is Well”
Voice actors: John Turner and Jim Ambuske

Brown just wrote a great book called They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty, and Ambuske is the host of the podcast called Conversations at the Washington Library.


ABBY MULLEN: In March of 1902, the American consul in Jerusalem, Selah Merrill, braced himself for what he called yet another “tourist invasion of the Holy City.” Merrill complained that it was only 

SELAH MERRILL (John Turner): at considerable trouble and some expense we were able to make this company of distinguished American tourists far more comfortable than they otherwise would have been. Facilities for handling and caring for such a large company are abundant in an American city, but here they are conspicuous by their absence. (Lester Vogel, To See A Promised Land: Americans and the Holy Land in the Nineteenth Century (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), 163).  

MULLEN: Merrill’s complaints about the tourists in Jerusalem were probably valid–more than most consuls of his day, he had to deal with huge numbers of Americans who came to his city not to conduct business, but to see the sights. Merrill considered these tourists to be tremendous nuisances, but in reality, he had the same interest in this city that they did.

MULLEN: I’m Abby Mullen, and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the history of the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. I’m really delighted to welcome to the show today our producer, Kris Stinson, who’s going to help us figure out who this guy is, what his deal is, and why we should care about him. Hi Kris!

KRIS STINSON: Hello! I think where we need to start this story is with the beginnings of American interest in the Holy Land. The people Merrill encountered are part of a long tradition of American interest in the Holy Land, as part of the American story.

SHALOM GOLDMAN: let’s talk about the word “the Holy Land.” When you say, Why are Americans interested in the Holy Land? The Holy Land isn’t really a place. That is, it’s an idea. It’s a concept. And when we read about it, especially in the 19th century, it’s hard to say what people mean.

STINSON: We asked Shalom Goldman, who studies comparative religion, American religious history, and the Bible, to tell us more about this American interest.

GOLDMAN: Usually we assume they mean what’s now Israel, or maybe what’s now Israel and Palestine, you know, to the east, but the Holy Land could mean Egypt, it could mean Iraq. It could mean any place mentioned in the Bible. Commercially when Cook’s and other companies started to have tours of the Holy Land. That would usually mean you start in Brindisi, Italy, and you sail across the Mediterranean. And then Asia Minor is the Holy Land because St. Paul preached there. So it’s a very fluid term.

Poster for Cook's Travel company, includes an image of the Sphinx and a pyramid and the words "Cook's Nile & Palestine Tours."
Original 1900 Cook’s Travel Poster – Nile & Palestine, with Sphinx. ©Shapell Manuscript Foundation. Used with permission.

MULLEN: This fluidity means that Americans could find themselves in many parts of the biblical story.

GOLDMAN: I think this is the key to understanding in 2021, the kind of evangelical passion for Israel. Americans like to think of themselves as exceptional, the famous topic of American exceptionalism, and the great model for exceptionalism is the Hebrew Bible, a people chosen by God to go to a promised land. And many great scholars have pointed out that the colonial American colonial settlers are motivated to a large extent, I mean, okay, there were the pragmatic motivations, but they’re motivated by theology, which is they are fleeing George the Third, the pharaoh, who they call the Pharaoh, they are crossing the Atlantic, which is the Great Red Sea, and they are coming to the promised land. This is not an occasional remark. This is at the core of the explanation that the people on the Mayflower for example, give themselves.

GOLDMAN: in 1795, the president of Yale, addressed the graduating class, as our American Israel. I assure you there was not a Jew within 200 miles of New Haven, or there may have been two, right. This has nothing, zero, minus to do with Jews. It’s all about Christians imagining themselves as Hebrews, right. There are dark aspects to this by, you know, any progressive standard, that is the Native Americans are seen as the Canaanites, and they’re pagans, they’re idol worship, idol worshipers they have to be conquered or perhaps like the Amalekites in the Bible, they need to be gotten rid of. 

GOLDMAN: It’s all about America being a holy land, and the Holy Land being somehow an extension of America. The, the great expression of this is in the LDS Church, the concept of the two holy lands, we have American Zion, as in Zion National Park, and so much of Utah which is named for Biblical, it’s not just named, it’s imagined. It’s considered a biblical place. And then for the Mormons, they’re not replacements for Palestine. They’re kind of parallel sites. So you have, you have the Holy Land in the West, in the Americas, and you have the Holy Land in the east, in Jerusalem. 

STINSON: So Americans were really interested in the Holy Land not purely to be better Christians, but to be more complete American Christians. Lots of people got heavily invested in the study of the Holy Land, they even learned Hebrew, things like that. 

MULLEN: Since this kind of American connection to Palestine was so pervasive, it’s not surprising that people wanted to visit. And they did visit, starting in the nineteenth century right up until today. All the other places in the Holy Land might be sacred, or great to visit, like Bethlehem or Damascus, things like that, but Jerusalem is where the real action of the Christian story happened: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. So that’s where tourists really wanted to go. And that’s where consuls come in. If Americans were going to be traveling to the Holy Land, they needed someone who could help smooth their way.

STINSON: The guidance of a consul was especially important given the incredibly complex political and religious situation in Jerusalem. Not only were sites in the city claimed by Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox Christians alike, the city was ultimately a part of the Islamic, Otttoman Empire. Visitors and consuls had to navigate the various holy and historic sites claimed by each religious group. They also had to somehow bridge the gap between political regimes and local authorities who often did not share the same worldview. 

MULLEN: Given all the complications that Jerusalem’s political situation created, it seems like having an American consul there, and at other key places in the Holy Land, would be quite useful.

STINSON: To be honest, though, consular affairs in Jerusalem got off to kind of a rocky start. The first American consul was a guy named Warder Cresson, who was recalled before he ever got to Jerusalem in 1844. There’s a lot more to the story that we don’t have time to go into, but suffice it to say that Cresson would have made a very interesting consul. The State Department apparently had such a bad reaction to Cresson that they didn’t appoint a new consul to the post for another 14 years. 

MULLEN: But the fervor for traveling in Palestine didn’t die down. In fact, as the century progressed, even more Americans started traveling, mostly because it was a lot quicker and a lot cheaper as steam technology developed. So the consul’s job in Jerusalem got ever more complicated.

STINSON: Right! But interestingly enough, the US government seemed to have realized that a consul in Jerusalem could do his own cultural work as well as take care of the American tourists. Starting around the 1870s, the consuls who were appointed all went with a research agenda as well as a diplomatic mission. They wanted to go to the Holy Land to study it, to excavate it, to understand it: and the US government encouraged them to do just that.

MULLEN: And this is pretty surprising because by standards of the day, Jerusalem was not a particularly interesting city–

STINSON: Not at all.

MULLEN: –unless you had a real agenda, just like this. So that, finally, brings us back to Selah Merrill. Merrill was a product of all of this fervor for Palestine that we’ve been talking about. I have to believe that even his parents were interested in Biblical research because you do not end up with a name like Selah by accident.

STINSON: Exactly. Selah is a Hebrew word that appears in the Psalms in the Bible. It’s not a name, typically, so you’d have to be pretty well immersed in the Old Testament in order to think of it as a name you would want to give your kid.

MULLEN: Shalom Goldman told us a little more about Selah Merrill’s history.

GOLDMAN: before he became a consul he was a preacher. And he was a student of the Bible to the extent that he traveled to Germany to study Hebrew in Germany, So he was a preacher, he was a student of Hebrew. And he’s especially interested in artifacts. He’s an avid collector, of anything related to the Bible.

STINSON: He also became affiliated with Andover Seminary, where he taught courses in Biblical Research and Hebrew. During the Civil War, Merrill served as a chaplain to an African-American regiment. After the war he wanted to get even more into the study of Biblical lands and places. So he applied to be the consul in Jerusalem. At first blush, you might not think he had the personality necessary to be a consul, though.

Early Carte-de-Visite Photo of Longtime U.S. Consul to Jerusalem, Selah Merrill, ca. 1864. ©Shapell Manuscript Foundation. Used with permission.

GOLDMAN: He is the personality type that never quite finishes anything. Like if you notice that he goes to Yale for a year, but then he gets antsy and he leaves, right? Then he goes to the theological seminary, but he doesn’t quite complete it. Then he goes to Berlin to study Hebrew, but he only stays two years, right? I mean, then you should stay five years, you know, to do a doctorate. So, yeah, he’s very restless. And he’s also very angry and bitter. So he must have been a hard type to deal with, you know, everyone had a hard time with him.

MULLEN: Angry and bitter or not, Merrill really wanted to be a consul in Jerusalem. In fact, he served three terms as consul there and held the post for more time than any other consul before 1948. He wanted the consulship for his own reasons: to study in the Holy Land. If that sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve listened to our episode 4, where we talked about Alexander Russell Webb, who wanted a consulship just so he could study Islam.

STINSON: Merrill was like Webb in that his priority is not the well-being of Americans in the area, it’s his own study. However, he’s different from Webb in that his own exploits never kept him from doing an incredibly detailed job as consul, and doing it for a long time. 

MULLEN: But really what he wanted to do was study.

GOLDMAN: He collects hundreds and hundreds of valuable artifacts. And he wants to set up his own museum or have a prestigious American institution, keep his artifacts and, and finally, his artifacts, some of them go to the Harvard Semitic Museum. In fact, they form the core of what later became the Harvard Semitic Museum. He was kind of a hoarder. Then he collected books. you know, it’s very curious. He was obsessed with Jewish history. So he collected editions and manuscripts of Josephus. And then, after his death, his wife gave this collection to Yale. And it became the core of the Yale Judaica collection, which is one of the world’s great collections. Also, he wanted to do archaeology. Archaeology didn’t mean what we mean today, like on the National Geographic Channel or Discovery, right. Like, you know, when you’re a scientist, and you, you plot, you know, and you excavate, and you record and you photograph and no, archaeology meant, you went someplace, you walked around, and you saw stuff on the surface, and you kind of identified it and collected it, and you kind of guessed what this place might have been. It was all very amateurish. There was no professional archaeology in Selah Merrill’s time. So, you know, a skeptic or a cynic would say it was plunder, more than, more than archaeology. But he was rigorous in, you know, as much as he could be in his time in trying to understand how people lived in the ancient Near East. 

STINSON: And let’s give him some credit: Merrill’s work did inform future archaeological work in Jerusalem and the surrounding area for decades afterwards.

MULLEN: But for all we can tell, Merrill was a deeply unhappy man, and he’s full of contradictions. He loved the historic Jerusalem and the Holy Land of antiquity, but he seems to have hated the Jerusalem that he actually lived in. There are a few reasons for that. First of all, It would be hard for someone who is as antisemitic as Merrill is to like it. In fact, he has a reputation for a long time after this for his antisemitism. He finds the city dirty, he finds the people lazy and terrible. 

Here’s how he describes it, mashing up his disdain for the city and his antisemitism all into one paragraph that he wrote back to the Secretary of State.

MERRILL: Jerusalem is one of the most crowded cities in the East. There is not room enough to give one half of the population a decent place to live in. Multitudes of the inhabitants live in stived houses or more properly dens, where it is impossible to have suitable ventilation to say nothing of proper means for cleanliness. This crowding is most marked in the Jewish quarter, where it is not uncommon to find four to a dozen persons in one small room with their cooking utensils and bedding piled in the corners or scattered upon the floor. It is characteristic of the Jews in Jerusalem at least, that they do not care to have this wretched style of life changed.

GOLDMAN: What Merrill focused on, and actually oddly, this links up to later, antisemitic tropes is that the Jews are not a productive people. He says that many times: the Jews are the middlemen, the Jews are not creating. Later this becomes part of, you know, German antisemitism, also, you know, and also Marxist, antisemitism, the idea that Jews are caught as the middlemen in productivity, and they’re not really generating something new. So I quote his statement to the, to the State Department saying that Jewish agricultural efforts shouldn’t be encouraged, because we all know that the Jews can’t really do this. They don’t want to do this. They want to stay in their cities and cheat people by financing.

MULLEN: It’s ideas like this that would lead to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion just a few decades later. Now Merrill wasn’t only down on the Jews; he was not too happy with the Ottoman government either. He recommended against Americans coming to do business in Jerusalem because he thought that the Ottomans were doing a terrible job of administering trade and infrastructure.

STINSON: And if all that weren’t enough to make him a thoroughly grumpy person, Merrill didn’t even like most of the visitors who come to see the sights. 

MULLEN: To be fair, all the American visitors took a TON of work. Americans had an idea about what their visit to Jerusalem should look like, and Merrill had to work behind the scenes very hard in order to make that imagination a reality, like we talked about at the beginning. This meant securing the proper permissions from all the local authorities, lining up the proper protection, smoothing over local affronts, and much more. He wrote once to the Secretary of State: 

MERRILL: The circumstances at this Consulate are peculiar. The four hundred to six hundred travellers who visit Jerusalem during the year are all dependent to a great degree upon the Consul. For instance, they cannot visit the mosque and the holy places connected with it unless the Consul sends an officially recognized guard with them, and likewise obtains from the local government, by a written order, a Turkish guard to accompany them also. Were not these precautions taken, Americans, or any other foreigners, attempting to visit the mosque would be insulted and stoned and and quite likely killed by fanatical Moslems. Often three or four parties wish to visit the Mosque on the same day, and we are sometimes obliged to make parties wait for one or two days until a guard can be spared to accompany them.

STINSON: This suggestion that Americans might be killed by locals seems a bit hyperbolic, but it’s borne out by one of the most famous visitors to the Holy Land, Mark Twain. Twain wrote in his book Innocents Abroad about his journey to Palestine, and though he adopts a rather sardonic tone about the silly Americans he’s traveling with, he does mention that this kind of journey could be quite dangerous.

MARK TWAIN: Rumors of war and bloodshed were flying everywhere. The lawless Bedouins in the Valley of the Jordan and the deserts down by the Dead Sea were up in arms, and were going to destroy all comers. They had had a battle with a troop of Turkish cavalry and defeated them; several men killed. They had shut up the inhabitants of a village and a Turkish garrison in an old fort near Jericho, and were besieging them. They had marched upon a camp of our excursionists by the Jordan, and the pilgrims only saved their lives by stealing away and flying to Jerusalem under whip and spur in the darkness of the night. Another of our parties had been fired on from an ambush and then attacked in the open day. Shots were fired on both sides. Fortunately there was no bloodshed. We spoke with the very pilgrim who had fired one of the shots, and learned from his own lips how, in this imminent deadly peril, only the cool courage of the pilgrims, their strength of numbers and imposing display of war material, had saved them from utter destruction. It was reported that the Consul had requested that no more of our pilgrims should go to the Jordan while this state of things lasted; and further, that he was unwilling that any more should go, at least without an unusually strong military guard. Here was trouble. But with the horses at the door and every body aware of what they were there for, what would you have done? Acknowledged that you were afraid, and backed shamefully out? Hardly. It would not be human nature, where there were so many women. You would have done as we did: said you were not afraid of a million Bedouins—and made your will and proposed quietly to yourself to take up an unostentatious position in the rear of the procession.

MULLEN: More than that, Twain’s writing points out the major problem with Merrill’s job: It’s impossible to make Jerusalem and its surroundings match up with the imaginary Holy Land that these tourists have constructed in their minds. The mystery is summed up in these two excerpts from Innocents Abroad: 

TWAIN: It seems curious enough to be standing on ground that was once actually pressed by the feet of the Saviour. The situation is suggestive of a reality and a tangibility that seem at variance with the vagueness and mystery and ghostliness that one naturally attaches to the character of a god. I can not comprehend yet that I am sitting where a god has stood, and looking upon the brook and the mountains which that god looked upon, and am surrounded by dusky men and women whose ancestors saw him, and even talked with him, face to face, and carelessly, just as they would have done with any other stranger. I can not comprehend this; the gods of my understanding have been always hidden in clouds and very far away.

MULLEN: This is the ineffable, the mysterious, the feelings that people expect when they come to the Holy Land. And yet…

TWAIN: When I was a boy I somehow got the impression that the river Jordan was four thousand miles long and thirty-five miles wide. It is only ninety miles long, and so crooked that a man does not know which side of it he is on half the time. In going ninety miles it does not get over more than fifty miles of ground. It is not any wider than Broadway in New York. There is the Sea of Galilee and this Dead Sea—neither of them twenty miles long or thirteen wide. And yet when I was in Sunday School I thought they were sixty thousand miles in diameter. Travel and experience mar the grandest pictures and rob us of the most cherished traditions of our boyhood. Well, let them go. I have already seen the Empire of King Solomon diminish to the size of the State of Pennsylvania; I suppose I can bear the reduction of the seas and the river.

STINSON: Merrill ultimately couldn’t prepare his American tourists for this inevitable letdown, but he could at least get them to the sites they wanted to see. And along the way, he might be able to help out other Americans who had come to the Holy Land in order to start tour companies to cater to these rich, elite, white Americans.

GOLDMAN: So Mark Twain goes and kind of makes fun of the whole thing, of this commercialization of religion, you know, tours to see where this happened, did not happen, and the site of miracles, and of course, people are making money out of it, and it becomes a business. You know, it’s kind of like from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the religious ideas to the commercial ideas, right? And many in between. 

MULLEN: Merrill really hated this part of his job. But if he did a bad job, it was certain that his boss, the Secretary of State, would hear about it. Remember, the people coming to Palestine were wealthy and elite. They had friends in high places. And Merrill knew that–and he even did find a little pleasure in taking certain elite guests around the city. For instance, Merrill recorded one visit from General Lew Wallace, who was at the time the U.S. minister to Constantinople. You might know Wallace for his novel, Ben-Hur, which became a blockbuster movie starring Charlton Heston (see, American mania for Palestine!). Merrill thought very highly of Wallace, and he said so to the Secretary of State. 

MULLEN: But even the ones Merrill didn’t like, he had to try to get along with. His job depended on it–and his studies depended on his job. So if he wanted to keep collecting and reading and doing archaeology, he had to play nice. Ironically, he hated these tourists who came to visit Palestine, which is exactly what he did before he was a consul, when he undoubtedly had to get all the same papers from his predecessor in order to conduct his own archeological trips.

MULLEN: But it is true that this was a ton of work. For most of the visitors, Merrill was only on the hook for a short amount of time, kinda like cleaning the house before Grandma shows up and then being on your best behavior while she’s there, but the problem is that some Americans didn’t leave.

STINSON: In fact, hundreds of Americans came to Jerusalem with the specific intent to stay. Merrill had the most clashes with one known as the “American Colony,” but they were far from the first colonists in Jerusalem.

STINSON: At least since the 1840s, many zealous American Protestants had tried to colonize this little corner of the Ottoman Empire. There were people like William Miller and his ‘Millerites,’ Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Dickson, and, most notoriously, a man named George J. Adams. Adams became infamous because he got a lot of interest and a lot of money–and then basically drank the colony into the ground. All of these people shared a common theological belief: the belief that the end of days was upon them. Scholars call this conviction millennialism. 

STINSON: Millennialism spurred these people to go to Jerusalem because they thought closeness to the city would speed up the process of Jesus’s return–or they just wanted to be close to the action when it happened.

MULLEN: Jerusalem colonies didn’t really work.

STINSON: Not even close.

MULLEN: The problem is that the actual Jerusalem didn’t look like the Jerusalem they wanted, just like those tourists, and they still had to eat and live somewhere. And they didn’t necessarily want to fit into the place they were actually in. So the consul had to take care of them, and protect them, he had a big job. He had to make sure they could keep body and soul together while waiting for Jesus to come back. And let’s just establish something here: “colony” here doesn’t necessarily mean what we think when we generally think of colonies; this isn’t like the 13 American colonies, or sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Many colonists were more like squatters who weren’t necessarily trying to take more land, or feed back into a metropolitan system. They really were just there to wait.

STINSON: The most active colony during Merrill’s tenure was the American Colony. They had arrived in Jerusalem in 1881, just one year before Merrill came for the first time. Most of the colonists came from Chicago. Their leaders were an influential family who had been friends with Protestant luminaries like Dwight L. Moody, but they had their share of tragedy.

MULLEN: Today, if you have ever heard of these people, the Spaffords, you probably know a song written by Mr. Horatio G. Spafford, the leader of the colony. The song is called “It Is Well With My Soul.” He wrote this song after a terrible tragedy struck his family: his wife and four daughters were crossing the Atlantic when their ship sank, and only his wife survived, “Saved alone.” He wrote the song in response to that tragedy, but only a few years later he lost another child to illness. After losing five children, Spafford started to rethink some of his Presbyterian beliefs. Specifically, he began to doubt whether people really would be condemned to eternal hell–especially children. This isn’t surprising given the terrible loss of children he had endured.

STINSON: As Spafford began to question more of the key doctrines of Calvinism, such as the existence of hell, that suffering should be seen as divine punishment, predetermined salvation—his Presbyterian church objected. When he wouldn’t recant, they removed him from the church and branded him a heretic. So Spafford’s religious beliefs took an even more drastic turn, and he really doubled down on waiting for the Lord to return, which you can hear it in “It Is Well.” This increased desire to wait for the Lord spurred him to make plans to go to Jerusalem and just, well, wait.

MULLEN: When the Spaffords got to Jerusalem, they presented a very wealthy and put-together front, but they also immediately began to clash with Merrill’s sensibilities, who fancied himself a defender of Calvinist orthodoxy. Though he helped them get all the necessary paperwork to stay in Jerusalem, he resented their presence and he especially resented their way of acting like they were above the law. They got donations from people back home to fund their colony–because it turned out that the Spaffords were actually basically bankrupt–and to Merrill’s view, they just squandered those donations. In 1893, he wrote to the Secretary of State: 

MERRILL: The practise of those people, I look upon as nothing more nor less than obtaining goods and money under false pretenses. It is a form of swindling and the fact that they invoke God at every step does not remove from it its criminal character. I have told them repeatedly that it was a shame for them to live thus year after year on the money of other people, the majority of whom are poor trades people who cannot afford to lose their money. The Spaffordites do no missionary or educational work, in fact, they do not believe in these things, nor do they do manual work by which they might earn something. They simply live on other people, who are getting tired and demand a change.

MERRILL: The Department will see that my position between these people and their many creditors who are very clamorous, is a most embarrassing one. I wish some legal steps might be advised by which these people, the American portion of them, might be made to pay their debts or to leave the country.

MULLEN: Merrill saw these colonists as lazy, indolent, a net drain on society, possibly even criminal, and especially, under the thumb of a domineering leader. After Horatio Spafford died, he reported that Mrs. Spafford became the leader of the colony.

MERRILL: They are completely under the will of Mrs. Spafford. She has revelations from God and her word is as the word of God. They are in their own estimation above all moral law and it is no offense for them to deny all civil law.

STINSON: Merrill and the American Colony engaged in a war of words with each other that lasted decades. 

STINSON: In the end, it was the American Colony–sort of–that was Selah Merrill’s undoing.

MULLEN: This all started in the late 1880s, when Merrill decided he needed to do some excavating on a holy site in Jerusalem: Mount Zion. Coincidentally, Horatio Spafford was buried on Mt. Zion in the Protestant cemetery. Merrill needed to dig in just that spot, apparently, so he had a portion of the cemetery dug up and the bodies were reburied in the mass grave. It’s not totally clear whether Horatio Spafford was one of the people who got unceremoniously reburied, but Spafford’s daughter Bertha definitely thought he was–and she complained. To a lot of people.

STINSON: Specifically, to the Secretary of State. Merrill was initially cleared by the State Department, but public opinion and official exoneration are not the same thing. A few years later, several writers came to visit the American Colony and heard Bertha Spafford’s stories about the wickedness of the American consul. When they published their stories in 1907, churches all around the country threw a fit.

MULLEN: Even though the State Department had declared Merrill to be innocent of wrongdoing after she complained the first time, churches pressured the Secretary to reassign Merrill away from these holy sites that he had desecrated. And eventually the Secretary caved. In 1907, Merrill was reassigned to Guiana, where there were certainly no Biblical artifacts to excavate. 

MULLEN: So what are we to make of Selah Merrill? Well, in some ways, it all comes back down to his Hebraism: his interest in the Biblical Jews and the world of the Bible. That interest drove him to want to come to Jerusalem despite his hatred of actual Jewish people, and it certainly tempered the way he wrote and acted toward the Jewish people around him. But Merrill’s understanding of the Biblical world also tempered his view of people like the American Colony. He resented their interpretation of how to live in this most holy and sacred place, and he made his opinion known.

STINSON: And yet there are two sides to every story. In the case of Merrill and the American Colony, we have to look past the rhetoric and see how Merrill actually treated the colonists. Bertha Spafford poisoned the public’s view of Merrill, even after he had left Jerusalem, by arguing that he had no respect for them and that he had deliberately obstructed their religious practice. But in reality, Merrill seems to have bent over backward to make sure that the American Colony could stay in Jerusalem for as long as they wanted. We might even say that his advocacy kept them around far longer than they might have otherwise survived. 

MULLEN: And he did that because it was his job. In the end, Merrill did his job.

MULLEN: Hey, I bet you thought I was going to say “Consolation Prize is a podcast of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media” right now–and I am. I will. But before I do, if you found this episode interesting, I want you to take out your phone right now, and text one friend with a link to it on the app you’re using right now to listen to this. And say, “Hey, I found this episode really interesting, and you might like it too.” We’re just asking for you to tell one friend. Not share on social media, not send out an email blast. Just text ONE friend. That’s it.

Ok, NOW…Consolation Prize is a podcast of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. I’m your host and producer, Abby Mullen, and my co-host and co-producer for today was Kris Stinson. Special thanks to our guest, Shalom Goldman; if you want to know more about him, you can check out our show notes at consolationprize.rrchnm.org, where you can find a guest bio, a full transcript, and a list of more resources. Our music is by Andrew Cote; special thanks this week to Jamie Brown for singing “It Is Well.”  Our voice actors for this week were John Turner, who just wrote a great book called They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty, (you should definitely check it out)and Jim Ambuske, the host of the podcast called Conversations at the Washington Library, which you should also check out. And most of all, thanks to you for listening to our show.

Shalom Goldman

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. He is the author of Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews and the Idea of the Promised Land, as well as Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel and God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew and the American Imagination.