Isabella Marshall Graham: A Scottish-born Charity Worker, Educator, and Philanthropist

Isabella Marshall Graham was a Scottish-born charity worker, educator, and philanthropist who founded one of the earliest relief societies in the United States.

She was one of the leading figures in the movement to provide assistance to the poor who were coming into American cities in search of work in the early days of the industrial revolution.

She was the only daughter of Janet (née Hamilton) and John Marshall, a Lansdowne.

She attended the boarding school of Betty Morehead for seven years.

The Graham family was known for their piety and Isabella became a communicant (a church member who is entitled to partake Holy Communion or Eucharist) of the Church of Scotland at the age of seventeen at the Laigh Kirk, Paisley where Dr. John Witherspoon, who was later a signatory to the United States Declaration of Independence, was the minister.

The academic pursuit of Isabella Marshall Graham

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.

Brief Biography of Isabella Marshall Graham

Isabella Marshall Graham was born on 29 July 1742 in Lanarkshire, Scotland, and was the only daughter of Janet (née Hamilton) and John Marshall.

She was married to Dr. John Graham, an army surgeon in the Royal Americans regiment, which made her move with him to Canada a few years later.

There in Canada, they had three daughters and two sons, one of them died in infancy in Scotland. The surviving children were Jessie, Joanna Bethune, Isabella, and John.

Her husband was ordered to Antigua and she traveled there with him, her children, and two indigenous girls.

Dr. John Graham, Isabella Marshall Graham husband became ill with fever and died on 22 November 1774.

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Life after the death of her Husband

After the death of her husband, Isabella Marshall Graham returned to Scotland with her children. Pregnant with her fifth child at the time of her husband’s death.

After the birth of her son, Graham struggled to provide for her children as well as her elderly father.

As a way to care for her family, she opened a small school in Paisley and later a boarding school for young ladies in Edinburgh.

While visiting Scotland from America in 1785, Dr. John Witherspoon spoke with Isabella regarding returning to the United States.

After her children had completed their schooling, she departed for New York in July 1789 to help prepare the United States for its role as “the country where the Church of Christ would eventually flourish” and later that year established a school for young women.

Life in America

While living in America, Graham was a member of the New York Society Library along with many of the nation’s founding fathers and other influential individuals of the time.

She is the only woman who is listed under members with a political occupation within the site’s database.

Although her borrowing history at the library spans only four months, Graham checked out thirteen books during that period.

The records of her borrowing history demonstrate her interests in historical and biographical works, as well as novels and travel diaries.

The later end of Isabella Marsha Graham

Graham founded the Penny Society, later known as the Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick, friendly society for poor members, who contributed a penny a week to create a fund for providing for them when sick.

Graham established the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows in 1797.

The Society for Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children was one of the first women’s societies to engage in active public benevolence and successfully petitioned for shares of public welfare funds.

Graham also helped organize the Orphan Asylum Society (organized 1806

The Society for Promoting Industry among the Poor, and the first Sunday School for Ignorant Adults in New York.

She also aided in organizing the first missionary society and the first monthly missionary prayer meeting in the city.

Graham distributed Bibles to hundreds of families, as well as tracts prepared under her own direction.

She believed that cultivating piety and Christian morality was the key to lifting widows out of poverty.

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