Isabella Graham – an 18th-Century Problem-Solver

Isabella Graham – an 18th-Century Problem-Solver

            “Who are these children, that idly ramble through the streets, a prey to growing depravity and vicious example?” Isabella Graham asked in 1804. By that time, she had already created a vast program of assistance to the needy, a program that included the very children she mentioned. So why were they now in the streets, “running about in the most imminent danger, apparently without protection”?[1]

            She knew the answer. “They are fed, they are clothed, their mothers’ fireside is made warm for them; but no culture is provided for their minds, nor protection from baneful example. These will, in time, follow that of the older ones, and grow up the slaves of idleness and vice, in the certain road to ruin.”[2]

            They needed more than food and clothes. They needed to learn to read, particularly the Scriptures.

Early Joys and Pains

            Isabella Marshall Graham was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland, on July 29, 1742, to a family of landowners and devout Presbyterians. An inheritance allowed her to attend boarding school for seven years. At 17, she made profession of faith in the Church of Scotland under the ministry of Dr. John Witherspoon, who would later become president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). At 23, she married John Graham, an army surgeon in a British army regiment.

            When John became stationed in Canada (first Quebec, then Montreal), 25-year old Isabella accompanied him there, leaving behind an infant son who was too young for the journey. The baby died within the year.

            After Canada, John was assigned to Fort Niagara in western New York, a place Isabella particularly enjoyed. There, she raised three daughters: Jessie, Joanna, and Isabella.

            In 1773, just as they were making plans to retire from the army and move to New England, her husband was ordered to Antigua, in the Caribbeans. As usual, she followed him with their children.

            The next year, John was overtaken by a strong fever and died, just before the birth of their fifth child, also named John.

            Overwhelmed with grief, 31-year old Isabella returned to Scotland with her children, struggling to provide for them and for her elderly father, who had recently become a widower. To do so, she opened a small school in their local town, and later a girls’ boarding school in Edinburgh. She also became active in charitable works.

Founder of Societies

            In 1785, she met again with John Witherspoon, who was back in Scotland for a visit. Impressed by her work, he encouraged her to return to the United States, something she had been thinking of doing. By that time, her father had died, and her son was boarding with friends. Taking her girls with her, she left for New York in July 1789.

            Soon after her arrival, she established a boarding school for girls, which immediately gained a good reputation, attracting many affluent young ladies, including future First Lady Anna Harrison. What made her school unique was the personal care she took of the students, making them part of her life.

            At the same time, she grew increasingly distressed over the condition of widows and other women who could not meet their basic needs, let alone pursue education. New York was a city of sharp contrasts, with a great disparity between rich and poor. Life was particularly difficult for widows, who grew numerically after the yellow fever epidemics of 1795, 1799, and 1803.

            Graham knew what it was like to be a widow and single mother, but at least her education had allowed her to open a school and earn a living as instructor. Women with no education were forced to compete with each other for menial work. Some resorted to begging or prostitution.

            She discussed this problem with other ladies who, in 1797, joined her in founding the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children (SRPW).

            Until then, women had performed charitable acts individually or within a church. This was one of the first women's societies to be fully organized and legally registered for a charitable pursuit, with active and successful fundraising efforts. As the society progressed, Isabella left her job at the school to devote her time to charity.

            The society helped 98 widows with 223 children just during the first winter, and the numbers continued to grow. But Graham was not satisfied with providing material help. She offered the women education, friendship, encouragement, and assistance in finding jobs. During the particularly trying winter of 1807-8, she bought flax and spinning wheels and found commissions on the women’s behalf.

            Soon, she realized even this was not enough. While the women were busy, their children were roaming the streets with many opportunities to get into trouble. “They quarrel, they swear; and such, no doubt, will lie and steal,”[3] she said. To remedy this problem, she recruited volunteers among her former students and the daughters of SRPW workers, and opened a school for these children. Instruction included the three R’s, vocational training, and Scripture memorization.

            “Snatch their little innocents from the whirling vortex,” she told the volunteers; “bring them to a place of safety; teach them to know their Father, God; tell them of their Saviour’s love; lead them through the history of his life: mark to them the example he set, the precepts he recorded for their observance, and the promises for their comfort: and by teaching them to read, enable them to retrace all your instructions, when their eyes see you no more.”[4]

            In 1806, the challenge of finding a place for six children who had recently lost their widowed mother prompted her to found the Orphan Asylum Society, with the help of other ladies, including her daughter Joanna and her friends Sarah Ogden Hoffman and Elizabeth Hamilton (widow of Alexander Hamilton).

            These efforts were not unhindered at a time when women could not vote and were not expected to act outside the sphere of their home. “An association of ladies for the relief of destitute workers and orphans was a new thing in this country,” Graham told her group of volunteers. “It was feeble in its origins; the jest of most, the ridicule of many, and it met the opposition of not a few. The men could not allow our sex the steadiness and perseverance necessary to establish such an undertaking. But God put his seal upon it; and under his fostering care, it has prospered beyond the most sanguine expectations of its propagators.”[5]

Last Years and Legacy

            In 1807, Graham retired as first director of SRPW but continued to visit women in their homes – especially widows and wives of men who were confined in institutions. She and Sarah Hoffman she also accompanied the city missionary, John Stafford, to the almshouse, city hospital, asylum, and prison. She died of cholera on July 27, 1814 – two days before her seventy-second birthday.

            Today, her name is remembered in the history of charitable societies as one of the first and most active pioneers. Few people read her writings, which include letters of encouragement to friends in need or new converts, devotional writings, and poems. In these, Graham writes with great wisdom and honesty, revealing a deep-rooted faith and an impressive theological foundation, both tried in the furnace of personal heartaches and disappointments.

            One of my favorite poems is “The Inward Warfare,” where she candidly describes the struggle most Christians know all too well, revealing an aspect of her life that is usually ignored in hagiographies and commendatory memorials of her accomplishments – an aspect that brings her closer to us and gives greater weight to her words of encouragement.


Strange and mysterious is my life!
What opposites I feel within:

A stable peace, a constant strife,

The rule of grace, the power of sin!

Too often I am captive led,

Yet daily triumph in my head.


I prize the privilege of prayer,

But oh! what backwardness to pray!
Though on the Lord I cast my care,

I feel its burden every day.

I seek his will in all I do,

Yet find my own is working too.


I call the promises mine own,

And prize them more than mines of gold,

Yet, though their sweetness I have known,

They leave me unimpress’d and cold.

One hour upon the truth I feed;

The next, I know not what I read.


I love the holy day of rest,

When Jesus meets his gather’d saints.

Sweet day, of all the week the bet,

For its return my spirit pants.

Yet often, through my unbelief,

It proves a day of guilt and grief.


While on my Savior I rely,

I know my foes shall lose their aim,

And therefore dare their power defy,

Assur’d of conquest through his name.

But soon my confidence is slain,

And all my fears return again.


Thus diff’rent powers within me strive,

And death, and sin, by turns, prevail.

I grieve, rejoice, decline, revive,

And vict’ry hangs in doubtful scale.

But Jesus has his promise passed

That grace shall overcome at last.


[1] E. White, The Power of Faith Exemplified in the Life and Writings of Mrs. Isabella Graham of New York, New York: Jonathan Leavitt, 1828, p. 300

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., pp. 299-300.


Simonetta Carr