Isabella Graham was born on 29 July 1742 in Lanarkshire, Scotland and was the only daughter of Janet (née Hamilton) and John Marshall, a landowner. She grew up on an estate at Elderslie, near Paisley. With money from a legacy left by her grandfather she attended the boarding school of Mrs Betty Morehead for seven years. The Graham family were known for their piety and Isabella became a communicant of the Church of Scotland at the age of seventeen at the Laigh Kirk, Paisley where John Witherspoon, later a signatory to the United States Declaration of Independence, was the minister .
In 1765 she married Dr. John Graham, an army surgeon in the Royal Americans regiment. Two years later, she went with him to Canada. They had three daughters and two sons, one of which died in infancy in Scotland. The surviving children were; Jessie, Joanna (Joanna Bethune), Isabella and John. Her husband was ordered to Antigua and she travelled there with him, her children and two indigenous girls. On 17 November 1774 John Graham became ill with fever and died on the 22nd of the month. She would never remarry and would from then on wear the clothes of a widow. Pregnant with her fifth child at the time of her husband's death, she chose to return to Scotland with her children. After the birth of her son, Graham struggled to provide for her children and 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.
She founded the Penny Society, later known as the Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick, a friendly society for poor members, who contributed a penny a week to create a fund for providing for them when sick.
While visiting Scotland from America in 1785, 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 ladies.
She retired from teaching in 1798 to devote herself to philanthropic work. Through her efforts in part or entirely, the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows, the Orphan Asylum Society (organized 1806), the Society for Promoting Industry among the Poor, and the first Sunday School for Ignorant Adults, were established in New York. She also aided in organizing the first missionary society and the first monthly missionary prayer meeting in the city; was the first president of the Magdalen Society of New-York (founded 1812); systematically visited the inmates of the hospital, and the sick female convicts in the state prison; and to hundreds of families distributed Bibles, 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.
Her memoirs were written by Dr. Mason (8vo, 1816), and her letters and correspondence, selected by her daughter, Mrs. Bethune, were published in New York in 1838.
- Marquis Who Was Who in America 1607-1984. New Providence: Marquis Who's Who LLC. 2009. Retrieved 15 July 2013.
- Harris Elwood Starr (1931). "Graham, Isabella Marshall". Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
- The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Poverty and Homelessness in New York City. New York: White Tiger Press. 2013. Retrieved 4 February 2014.
- "Search: Magdalen Society (New York, N.Y.)". Brown University Library. Retrieved May 6, 2013.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Ripley, George; Dana, Charles A., eds. (1879). "Graham, Isabella". The American Cyclopædia.
- Works by Isabella Graham at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Isabella Graham at Internet Archive
- Joanna Bethune (1839). The life of Mrs. Isabella Graham. New York: J.S. Taylor.
- Joanna Bethune, ed. (1838). The unpublished letters and correspondence of Mrs. Isabella Graham. New York: J.S. Taylor.