Graham, Isabella Marshall

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GRAHAM, Isabella Marshall

Born 29 July 1742, Lanarkshire, Scotland; died 27 July 1814, New York, New York

Daughter of John and Janet Hamilton Marshall; married John Graham, 1765 (died 1772); children: three daughters and a son

During Isabella Marshall Graham's early years her intense interest in religion brought her to study under John Witherspoon, pastor of the Presbyterian congregation of Paisley, Scotland, and later president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton). By age seventeen, Graham had arrived at firm religious convictions and was admitted to the Lord's Supper, which she considered to be a full commitment to her church and those it served.

Two years after her marriage to a physician, a move was made to Canada due to her husband's appointment as surgeon of the Royal American Regiment. John Graham died on a mission in Antigua in 1772, leaving Graham with three daughters under five years and a son who was born shortly after his father's death. Returning to Scotland, Graham taught and successfully administered a large boarding school in Edinburgh. It was upon the recommendation of Dr. Witherspoon that Graham moved to New York City and in 1789 established a school for young women. Other institutions in New York for which she was instrumental in founding and supporting were the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (1797), the Orphan Asylum Society (1806), the Magdalen Society (for the mentally ill, 1811), the Society for the Promotion of Industry Among the Poor (1814), and the Sunday School for Adults (1814).

Graham's works do not have a consciously literary purpose; they chronicle the events of her life in the context of revolutionary America. The Power of Faith (1817), edited by Graham's daughter, Joanna Graham Bethune, includes correspondence, meditations, journal entries, and a small number of religious poems. The volume went through four editions; the final one contains the narrative which Graham composed on her husband's death. Her daughter also edited a second volume, The Unpublished Letters and Correspondence of Mrs. Isabella Graham (1838).

All of Graham's works appear to serve the purpose of furthering her own understanding of her faith in the practical and pressing concerns of her life. Graham's approach to humanity and to God is clear; she sees her service to God primarily as service to others. In both devotional materials and correspondence there are signs of her familiarity with the Scriptures. Fragments of Psalms, Proverbs, Letters, and Gospels are intermingled consistently, creating a kind of biblical stream of consciousness.

Graham's correspondence with her husband between 1767 and 1772 constitutes an important body of the collected letters. Here Graham deals with a strong sense of dependence on her husband. She appears to live in the shadow that John would die, at which time she felt her life would be "insupportable." The correspondence after 1772 is Graham's record of the slow process of accepting death and resolving to make the remainder of her own life worthwhile. Another large segment of correspondence concerns Graham's activity in initiating her work for the poor and oppressed in New York. The rationale, plans, and organization of a variety of institutions are submitted to local public officials to enlist the needed funds and support.

One of Graham's most engaging pieces is a meditation entitled "My Last Journey through the Wilderness." After summarizing the journeys of the Israelites and of the early Christian community, she sees herself as part of this history in her present struggle. This theme of the journey is also present in her poetry, which is strongly reminiscent of 19th-century hymns. The language, style, and imagery in Graham's writings are similar to those of the preachers and religious personalities of her period, but her work provides a unique view into one woman's faith and experience.


Belden, E. P., New York: Past, Present, and Future (1849). Bethune, J. G., The Life of Mrs. Isabella Graham (1839). Lamb, M. J., History of the City of New York, Vol. 2 (1881). Mason, J. M., Christian Mourning: A Sermon Occasioned by the Death of Mrs. Isabella Graham (1814). Scott, A. F. Natural Allies: Women's Associations in American History (1991).

Reference works:

NAW (1971). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

New York Evening Post (27 July 1814).


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Graham, Isabella Marshall

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