The Bible Society room, distributing Bibles in Jerusalem: A history of Messianic Jews in Israel, Part 4

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In the past few articles, I wrote about how occasional protestant missionaries arrived in Jerusalem during the early 19th century, usually for a short time. Many came with a universal mindset to reach out to everyone, but some of them were focused specifically on reaching the Jews with the gospel. The organizations that sent them out were usually missionary societies established in the early 1800s.

We have seen how the London Jews Society (LJS) has taken a central stage in our story, simply because they were the only missionary society specifically focused on Jews, and they took a special interest in Israel. The British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) didn’t send any missionaries of their own, but equipped the LJS missionaries with Bibles and material. These Anglican societies didn’t only send out British people. Many of the missionaries sent out by them were Swiss, German, or Danish. Another missionary society involved in Israel was an American society named the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), which was established in Massachusetts. They were more general in scope and tried to reach out to everyone.

Joseph Wolff, who we met in the previous article, was the first Jewish missionary who could speak with the Jewish community of Jerusalem in Hebrew. He had a quirky personality, and the LJS found it difficult to work with him. They sponsored his travels, and reported on his successes, but were careful not to endorse him too wholeheartedly, in case he’d embarrass them. He lived in Jerusalem for a few months in both 1822 and 1823, and then left Israel for further adventures in Turkey, Armenia, and a little bit of everywhere. Don’t worry, he’ll be back.

We need to remember that Jerusalem, at this time, was only what we know today as the Old City within the walls. Some of the streets of modern Jerusalem existed. Hebron Road was the main road to Bethlehem and Hebron, and Jaffa road was the road to Jaffa, but they were not considered to be inside the city. Some of Jerusalem’s current neighborhoods, like Beit Tsafafa, Ein Kerem and Tsur Baher, existed as small villages outside of the city. But the process of Jerusalem moving outside of the walls, and swallowing up these villages, was still many decades in the future.

In November 1823, Pliny Fisk of the ABCFM came to Jerusalem with a specific purpose in mind. He set up the “Bible Society Room” which operated until 1831. Fisk stayed in Jerusalem until April 1824, while other missionaries from the other societies came and went. The names of these missionaries who came and went were William Jowett, William Bucknor Lewis, Jonas King, and William Bird. The Greek patriarch Procopius, who had been helpful to the Bible cause, had now passed away, and his successor was less keen on cooperating with the Protestants. The “Bible Society room” in the Mar Michael Greek convent helped overcome this issue.

Instead of bringing Bibles with them every time and selling/distributing them all before continuing, they could now leave a quantity of books in the room and come back later. They set this up, but not without trouble, both as they needed to agree with the Greeks and overcome their theological differences, and also as the Muslim authorities arrested them for selling Bibles to Muslims. Eventually, with the intervention of the British consul in Jaffa (there was no consul in Jerusalem yet), they reached an agreement where the “infidels” (Christians and Jews) were allowed to buy and sell their “infidel books” among themselves as much as they wished, as long as they didn’t sell them to Muslims. One of the missionaries, Lewis, got in contact with Jews and met Rabbi Mendel, Wolff’s old friend. Upon hearing that Mendel had been arrested for leaving his door open overnight, he complained to the governor of Jerusalem. Seeing the unfair treatment that Christians and Jews suffered under the Muslim authorities, Lewis voiced the necessity of having a British consul in Jerusalem.

In April 1824, Fisk left Jerusalem together with William Bird. Fisk to Beirut where his base was, and Bird went home to England. Their two parent organizations, ABCFM in Boston and LJS in London, wished they could make Jerusalem a base for Bible work in the region, but the Ottoman authorities wouldn’t allow it. The protestant missionaries from Europe and America had now attracted the attention of the Muslim authorities, and during the year 1824 a number of rules and bans were set up to limit the missionaries. One of those bans came directly from the Ottoman Sultan and said that Christian scriptures that entered the empire were to be returned. No Muslim could own them. Selling and buying them was prohibited, and if scriptures like that were to be found in a Muslim’s possession, they would be confiscated and burned. Despite this, the Bible work kept going on pretty much undisturbed since it turned out that each local authority was quite lax in the ban’s implementation.

Benjamin Barker was the agent of the BFBS, the British and Foreign Bible Society, in the area, and he was based in Smyrna. He visited Jerusalem between August and September 1824, staying in the Mar Michael convent, which also housed the Bible Society room. He reported that he was well received and that the Greeks and Armenians make sure that their pilgrims do not lack scriptures – indicating that they made use of the Bible Society room, even when the Protestant missionaries were absent. There was, however, no distribution or contact with the Jews.

In the spring of 1825, Fisk, King and Lewis returned to Jerusalem with a Christian doctor named Dalton, who also worked with LJS. Dalton lived with his family as a missionary in Beirut, and he came to investigate the possibility of settling down in Jerusalem. European protestant missionaries were not allowed permanent residency, but he hoped that for a doctor there might be a possibility.

Right at this time, the Pasha of Damascus arrived with a thousand soldiers for tax collection. He did this in a cruel way, and he brutally exhorted enormous sums, especially from the Christians and Jews. Dalton wrote: “Every day, nay, almost every hour, brings us intelligence of crime – Christians, Jews, and even Turks, seized and put in chains, and large sums demanded from them.”

Rabbi Mendel and some other Jews were taken in chains to the camp of the Pasha outside of Jerusalem. Lewis successfully intervened on his behalf, through the Spanish consul in Aleppo, who happened to be in Jerusalem to celebrate Easter. The Jews were released and Rabbi Mendel came to thank them for their help. When Dr. Dalton also helped to treat the wounds of the Greek superior of the convent who was mistreated by the Pasha, the relations between the Greek Orthodox and the European Protestants were strengthened. Dalton mentioned one case in which he gave a New Testament to a Jew who asked him for it.

In the wake of the Pasha’s brutal visit, a rebellion broke out, and people were killed and robbed. The four Bible-men hurriedly left Jerusalem in May 1825. Two of them, Lewis and King, didn’t want to come back. King had been sent out from the ABCFM and had by this time finished his contract and went home to the USA. Lewis went home to England, and even though the LJS wanted to send him back, he refused. Pliny Fisk, however, planned to return. He went to Beirut, ready to continue to be in charge of the Bible Society room in Jerusalem, and eventually go back there.

But then he died.

We will see this happen over and over. The diseases and fevers of the area claiming lives, and the great peril these missionaries went through to bring the gospel to us. Fisk wasn’t yet 33 when he died. Of all the missionaries who were in Jerusalem in 1825, only Dr. Dalton eventually returned. Now the Bible Society room was under his authority.

In December 1825, Dr. Dalton came back to Jerusalem, this time arranging to transfer his family from Beirut to Jerusalem and take up permanent residence. He met with Rabbi Mendel and the Greeks; he arranged language lessons for himself to study Arabic, Greek, and Hebrew. All the practical arrangements. He stayed in Jerusalem over Christmas and New Year’s while putting everything in order.

And then he also died.

But on January 3, 1826, just a few days before he was seized with the fatal fever that killed him, he met a new young and inexperienced Danish missionary that the LJS had just sent to Jerusalem.

His name was John Nicolayson, and we will follow him more closely in the next article.