The first Hebrew-speaking congregation in Jerusalem since the days of the apostles: A history of Messianic Jews in Israel, Part 8

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Artist’s rendering of Bishop Michael Solomon Alexander's arrival in Jerusalem, 1842. (Image: www.christchurchjerusalem.org)

In the last few articles, we have seen how the LJS, the London Jews Society, has established itself in Jerusalem. They were an Anglican society specifically focused on bringing the gospel to the Jewish people (they are still around). Even though they were from England, they trained and brought missionaries from other European countries, and the missionary who led their work in Jerusalem was the Danish reverend John Nicolayson. He was the first protestant missionary to receive permanent residence in Jerusalem, from 1833. There was no church building, but they met in his private home for services. The ground was prepared to build the first ever protestant church in Jerusalem, but it was stuck in negotiations between the British and the Ottoman government. The only other Protestants in Jerusalem were the American missionaries of the ABCFM organization. They were not specifically focused on the Jews, but had a more general evangelistic scope.

In January 1842, Michael Solomon Alexander arrived, the newly appointed protestant bishop of Jerusalem. It was a joint bishopric between England and Prussia, and the appointment of a Jewish bishop who was a former rabbi made some rejoice and others angry. Those who believed in the restoration of Israel, and a return of the gospel to the Jews, and a saved Israel rejoiced. Those who believed in replacement theology and wanted closer cooperation between the Anglicans and the Catholics, and prayed for the day when the pope would approve the rites of the Anglican Church, gnashed their teeth in anger. The move also upset the religious status quo in Jerusalem, and brought in a new, foreign church, which was a political move of international magnitude. The Orthodox Christians and the Russians were not happy, nor were the Catholic Christians who had the back of the French and the Austrians. The Muslims of Jerusalem were not pleased, nor were the Rabbinic Jews who feared that this Hebrew-speaking evangelistic society would lure people away from the faith of their forefathers. Many influential English politicians opposed the move, fearing it would cause strife.

Because of the importance of this event, and of this first ever Hebrew-speaking congregation in Jerusalem in modern time, we will focus on the year 1842 in this article. In the next one, we can run forward with 1843 and beyond. Why have you not heard of this before? Probably because the high hopes of this year fell flat when Alexander suddenly died in 1845. But let’s wait with that. For now, let’s focus on the joy and the hopes of 1842.

When Bishop Alexander arrived in Jerusalem, he came with a party of around 40 people. It was him, his pregnant wife and six children, plus servants, chaplains, a doctor and a nurse. Another Jewish believer, Rev. Ewald was also with them, together with his wife and child.

The architect of the future protestant church in Jerusalem, Mr. Johns, came to meet them. They were all blissfully unaware that the Ottoman bureaucracy would postpone everything again and again, and that the first ever Protestant church in the Middle East wouldn’t be inaugurated until 1849, four years after Alexander’s death.

Johns brought with him the American missionaries of the ABCFM. Since the British consul in Beirut accompanied them, the Turkish pasha sent a guard to welcome them. They happened to arrive in Jerusalem in the midst of the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Adha, and as they entered the Jaffa gate, the guns thundered a salute for the holiday. Together with all the added escorts, they were now over 100 people on horseback.

The Alexanders spent the first few nights at the home of Nicolayson and then received the house where the British consul, Young, had previously resided. It was the best available, but Alexander wrote that it “gave me the idea of a dungeon which seems to me here almost universally the appearance of the houses outside.” Alexander met with the Turkish pasha of Jerusalem and preached his first sermon in Jerusalem.

Nicolayson had been holding informal prayer meetings in Hebrew since 1839, but Alexander now established them as formal daily prayers at 7 o’clock every morning, and evening prayers in English. “Though we are but a small band, yet I feel it peculiarly delightful thus daily to worship on Mount Zion,” Alexander wrote.

In early February, Deborah Alexander gave birth to a daughter who died just a few days old. Alexander wrote: “This has been an unexpected additional severe trial to us, but our God is gracious, and enables us by his grace to acknowledge his fatherly hand in all things.”

On February 28, Bishop Alexander placed the first stone of foundation for the new church. It was of great significance for the small Protestant community of Jerusalem, and in particular for Alexander. Until the church was completed, he was a bishop without a church. He and Nicolayson were unaware of the political turmoil between the British and the Turks that the permit of the church was causing. The negotiations were intense battles between the religious authorities in Constantinople and the British and Prussian ambassadors. In Jerusalem they built, based on a promise that the permit would arrive, and for the moment, the local pasha allowed it, assuming they had permission.

Ewald, the Hebrew Christian who had arrived together with Alexander, wrote that a common accusation they would receive from their fellow Jews in Jerusalem was, “We know that all of you have turned Christians for money; it is money that have induced you to forsake the faith of your fathers.” Ewald wrote that “it is often very difficult under such circumstances to keep one’s temper.” Yet the Hebrew congregation grew. On March 25, Ewald wrote that the small congregation of believing Jews on mount Zion now numbered 25 souls. “Zion, with its small number of believing Jews, will still become a place of attraction to many sons of Abraham.”

In England, many believers were ecstatic over the development, and dressed it in strong anti-catholic words. One said: “Now who is the lawful metropolitan of the Universal Church? Dr. Alexander, the Bishop of Jerusalem, where the first Christian Church was formed upon earth … therefore we cannot marvel that Rome is filled with jealousy and mistrust.”

In Jerusalem, Alexander and his family kept up the small congregation. They visited Bethlehem, they met with patriarchs of the historic churches, and in September they got the chance to move to a better house – the “best house in Jerusalem” at the time. It was a home owned by the rich Jew Amzalak, where the American missionaries Mr. And Mrs Whiting had lived before. They were leaving for Beirut and offered the home to Alexander, while also handing into his care some of their young converts. In October, nine Christians were confirmed, eight of them being Jewish. Nicolayson wrote about Alexander:

“Such was the depth of feeling with which he performed … he was so completely overcome, that at first he could not proceed at all, and only gradually recovered firmness enough to go on … our little chapel was quite crowded on this occasion, there being upwards of forty persons present.”

A week later Alexander performed his first wedding, between two people we have mentioned in a previous article. Remember the Jewish Rosenthal family that Nicolayson baptized in 1839? They had a 14-year-old daughter. Now she was 17, and she married Dr. Bergheim, the physician who had arrived to assist Nicolayson in Jerusalem in 1838, sent by the LJS.

As Alexander had many duties as the bishop, most of the missionary work was left to Nicolayson and Ewald. A problem that arose was the secret believers among the religious Jews. Ewald asked a Rabbi who secretly believed in Jesus why he didn’t confess his faith openly and received the answer that his wife and children would leave him if he did so. In addition, most Jews in Jerusalem were depending on the rabbis for the halukah money, support from wealthy Jews in Europe, and had no other way to make a living. Ewald discovered that a little group of secret believers hid a copy of the New Testament in the rocks, and went outside on occasions to read it together in secret, where their community and families couldn’t see them.

Dr. MacGowan was the name of the doctor who came to Jerusalem together with Alexander. He started to see patients right away and treated 20-30 people a day. He sent reports to the LJS on the harsh living conditions in the city, which was the primary reason for most diseases, and suggested erecting a hospital in Jerusalem with 12 beds. He also wanted land to grow medicinal herbs. Plans were set in motion, a building was leased, and the Jews debated whether it was lawful to receive medical treatment from Christians. The news reached Sir Moses Montefiore in England, who set out to find a suitable Jewish doctor to come to Jerusalem, to give the Jews an alternative to the Christian medical care. The “English Mission Hospital” would eventually be established two years later, in 1844, as the first hospital in Jerusalem.

Political conflict ensued as well, with the British consul, Young. Alexander believed that Jews who came to faith in Jesus and joined the British missionaries would receive British protection, but discovered that this was not the case. Three rabbis came to faith in Jesus, but as they were Russian subjects, the matter led to them having to stand trial before the Russian consul. To Alexander’s disappointment, Young did not intervene. Eventually the rabbis retracted and went back to their families. This event proved to everyone that becoming a Christian doesn’t automatically give you British consular protection and probably helped distinguish the genuine believers from the not so genuine. Young explained in a letter in the following way:

“When a Jew in Jerusalem embraces the Christian faith, many important considerations are involved. If the party is married, a divorce takes place, until the wife becomes a convert also. The children are also claimed by the Jews until they arrive at years of discretion. Their family and friends mourn for the convert as though he were dead, and the widow and children become dependent on the congregation. The Rabbinical law forbidding them to receive maintenance for a husband or father who has renounced his faith… If a European Jew professes himself a convert (as in the recent case) his government might prefer that he should unite himself to the church recognized by his own government rather than to one in connection with a foreign state.”

The three rabbis tried again to connect with the missionaries, endured excommunication from the Jewish community, and eventually retracted again. The pragmatic cost of a decision to follow Jesus was too high. One of them ended up divorced over the issue. They were forced to give the Rabbinic authorities names of Jews who had secretly visited the missionaries, and the halukah was threatened to be withdrawn from anyone who had contact with them. Ewald told the leading rabbis that the British government was concerned to protect the Jewish people of the Ottoman empire – and it didn’t matter whether the persecutors were Turks or fellow Jews. In November, a delegation of rabbis arrived from Tiberias to investigate “whether it was true that 14 rabbis of Jerusalem had embraced Christianity.”

In October, a Jewish believer became deacon of the church, and Nicolayson wrote:

“The nucleus of a Hebrew Christian Church in this city is now complete in all its offices, as well as functions. There is now a bishop, a priest, and a deacon also, all ‘Hebrew of Hebrews,’ a fact in the history of Jerusalem which had not been realized since its final destruction by Adrian in the second century.”

This was without a doubt the first Messianic congregation in Israel in modern time. We modern Messianic Jews can complain that it was not Jewish enough, if we wish, but then we also run the risk of having to define what exactly is “Jewish enough” to be Messianic, and what is “too gentile.” Yes, it was connected to a foreign mission, they probably met on Sundays and celebrated Christian holidays, it was probably very liturgic and high-church from our perspective – but fact remains that this was a congregation of Jewish believers in Jesus who prayed in Hebrew in Jerusalem. It was a first attempt to restore the Messianic Zionist dream of a Jewish people restored to their homeland Israel and to their Messiah Jesus, more than 100 years before the establishment of the State of Israel. 

We will soon see why this dream was tragically shattered just a few years later.

At the end of 1842, everyone was optimistic. Despite opposition, sicknesses and some hardships, overall things were looking good. They had laid the foundation stone for the new church. Eight Jewish people had been baptized, and things were looking bright. Alexander summed up the year thus:

“As it respects the future glory of Jerusalem, the restoration of the children, and the establishment of the Redeemer’s kingdom, whilst these are sure to take place, according to the Divine promise, we must ever bear in mind that the Lord has said, ‘For all this will I be enquired of.’ I beseech you therefore, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake … that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me, that my service which I have in Jerusalem may be accepted of him and be abundantly blessed.”

In the next article, we will look at how Alexander developed this ministry in 1843 and 1844, and his tragic death in 1845. After that, we will see how the focus shifted with the new bishop and how other missionary societies started arriving.