John Nicolayson, his first years in the Middle East, 1826 – 1833
In the previous articles, we have seen how the missionaries were not able to stay permanently in Jerusalem, and constantly had to stay for a few weeks or months, and then had to leave. In this article, we will see how and why this changed, when John Nicolayson became the first permanent protestant resident of Jerusalem. As so many others that we’ve covered so far, he worked with the LJS, the London Jews Society, established in 1809.
Rev. John Nicolayson was born in Denmark in 1803. He was seized by a zeal for missions in 1821 and left his homeland to study in Berlin. There, he was headhunted by the LJS in 1823. He was sent out in 1825 after two years of study in LJS’s seminary. The plan was that he would replace Lewis, who was unwilling to go back and assist Dr. Dalton.
All previous missionaries who had been in Jerusalem had either died, or went on to other endeavors. Dr. Dalton was now their only man in Jerusalem. He lived with his family in Beirut, and he came to Jerusalem on December 1825, arranging to move there permanently. The doors were closed to missionaries, but as a doctor, he had a chance of getting a visa.
When Nicolayson first arrived in Jerusalem in January 1826 and met Dalton, he was only 22 years old. There was a great deal of rejoicing and prayers together when they met, followed by tragedy when Dalton died so suddenly from a fatal fever. Nicolayson arranged for Dalton’s funeral in Jerusalem, and as he couldn’t get a permit for permanent settlement, he left Jerusalem in February 1826 to join the American missionaries in Beirut. He comforted Dalton’s widow, Jane, and their two orphan children, George and Henry. Henry died in July 1826, less than one year old.
In November 1826, Nicolayson moved to Safed in the Galilee to explore the possibilities of establishing a mission there, but noted that it would be stubbornly objected. He noted, however, that medical activities might be of assistance in capturing the hearts of the Jews. Eventually, he went back to Beirut.
In March 1827, Nicolayson returned to Jerusalem together with three other missionaries connected to the CMS (Church Missionary Society). Their primary goal was not to distribute scriptures but to study languages, and they only visited for a short while. They attempted to preach the gospel a few times, but left within a month. One of these three missionaries was Samuel Gobat (1799-1879), who continued to Ethiopia. He would much later return as a protestant bishop in Jerusalem, but that wasn’t until 1846.
In January 1828, Nicolayson married Dalton’s widow in Beirut. In May, all the protestant missionaries, including Nicolayson, evacuated Beirut and went to Malta, as the political tensions made the Turkish rulers hostile towards the British.
With Nicolayson in Malta, an unexpected visitor came to Jerusalem in 1829 – The Jewish missionary Joseph Wolff was back. (See article 3 for more background about him).
Wolff came to Beirut in May 1828, finding it empty of protestant missionaries. “Here at Beyrout we live as quietly and safely as at London,” he wrote with ill-concealed criticism of the evacuation. He wrote ‘we’ because now he was married, and brought his wife, Lady Georgiana Mary Walpole, with him. She was a descendant of Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of Great Britain. When they failed to obtain a firman, travel permit, to go to Jerusalem, they went to Egypt. When Wolff realized he wouldn’t get the firman, he hired 17 camels and off they went to Jerusalem anyway. This time he also had high eschatological expectations – he was certain that the second coming of Christ would occur in Jerusalem in 1847, so he now arrived as the “Apostle to the Jews.” He was certain that time was short. When much later asked, in 1852, why he thought Jesus would return in 1847, he simply answered, “Because I was an ass.”
This time, he didn’t honor his previous obligation to the Rabbis to not distribute the Hebrew New Testament, and the authorities reprimanded him for selling his books in the open. He was told to distribute his books “privately, but not publicly.” Maybe sensing the imminent second coming, he abandoned the previous discussions with Rabbis about the Talmud, and spoke about the New Testament directly with regular Jews. “I do not seek the Rabbis, but the poor,” he wrote. Many came to him to talk and discuss, sometimes as many as forty people at once. Not necessarily to hear the gospel, but often to argue with him.
One of the richest Jews in Jerusalem at this time was Yosef Amzalak. He was originally a Sephardic Moroccan Jew from Gibraltar, and he held British citizenship. The rumors surrounding him were that he had been a slave trader who repented and moved to Jerusalem to live a pious Jewish life and repent of his sins. He was involved in the banking business. A few years earlier, in 1827, he had hosted an old Jewish British friend in Jerusalem – Sir Moses Montefiore. It had been Montefiore’s first, and very short, visit to Jerusalem, but it was what sparked his interest in Jewish philanthropy.
Amzalak had met Wolff during his previous visits, but this time, he clashed with him. He and his wife visited Wolff and his wife several times, but it ended when Wolff insisted that “the Talmud is a lie and you will go to hell if you do not believe.” Amzalak said that he would forbid the Jews to come to Wolff. On March 1st the Rabbis put a ban of excommunication on any Jew who comes to visit Wolff. After that, barely anyone came to visit him except “one who professes himself to be convinced of the truth of the gospel of Christ, and three Jewish ladies who called on Lady Georgiana, and who were very inquisitive respecting our belief.” This one Jew who was convinced was named Joseph Maimoron, and he later came to Jaffa to be baptized by Wolff.
The following months, Wolff and his wife set up a Christian school for the children of the Greek Christians, but that venture failed as well and caused a rift between the Greeks and Wolff. Someone, possibly a Greek, tried to poison Wolff, which nearly cost him his life, and eventually the Greeks banned Wolff and read an excommunication against anyone who would send their children to his school. It is very possible that Wolff was covertly teaching Protestant theology, and promoted his personal eschatology in these schools, which the Greeks could not accept.
Banned by both the Greeks and the Jews, Wolff was no longer able to accomplish anything in Jerusalem. Amzalak accused him of witchcraft, and many Jews didn’t even dare come close to him. He left Jerusalem in June 1829 and would never come back. He still spent some time in Jaffa, where he also baptized Joseph Maimoron.
Wolff never came back to the Holy Land, but spent many more years traveling the world and preaching the gospel. He died in England in 1862.
Nicolayson came back to Jerusalem in 1831, to clean up the “mess” Wolff had left behind. Not only the havoc wrought in the Bible Society room but also the damaged relations with the Greek Orthodox. He arrived with Samuel Farman, another LJS missionary. His goal was not to distribute scriptures this time, but to close the Bible Society room. The deaths of the people involved and the political situation made it clear that Jerusalem could not be a center for distribution anymore. Little did Nicolayson know that only two years later he would settle down permanently in Jerusalem as the first protestant missionary able to do so.
Nicolayson barely talked to the Jews at all during this visit. On a visit to a synagogue, he noticed the late rabbi Mendel’s son, but didn’t talk to him. The ban the Jews had put on Wolff was extended to all foreign protestant missionaries. They met Amzalak, who told them about Wolff and the trouble he had caused.
The relation with the Greeks was also problematic now, and we can only imagine that they were happy Nicolayson came to close the Bible Society room. In Nicolayson’s words:
“Papas Ysa and myself set about cleaning up the chaos, into which Mr. W had thrown all the things. Not a box had he left unbroken, not a book remaining, and many things were wanting.” Nicolayson packed the things up into five boxes of scriptures belonging to BFBS and five boxes of scriptures and tracts belonging to LJS, and shipped them off to Beirut. He also settled the bill with the Greek convent for the many years that protestant missionaries had lodged and used their rooms.
The tidying up shows us they imagined that this was the end of an era. They could not imagine that a new era of Jerusalem becoming a mission station would start just two years later.
At the end of these two weeks, Nicolayson reached an agreement with Papas Ysa, similar to the one that had been with Procopius ten years earlier. They would send Bibles in Greek and Turkish for distribution to the Christian pilgrims, and the circulation and distribution would be entrusted to the Greeks. As for the disappointment that the past ten years of missionary labor seemed to have been in vain, Nicolayson wrote: “We reminded him of the duty on our part of labouring in hope and patience, leaving the time and measure of success with the Lord, who has promised that his Word shall not return unto him void, but shall accomplish that which he pleaseth, and prosper in the thing whereunto he sends it.”
Nicolayson and Farman left Jerusalem in September 1831 and went back to Malta.
Everything changed when Muhammad Ali Pasha, the local ruler of Egypt, conquered the Levant in his rebellion/war against the Ottomans between 1831 to 1833. In a peace negotiation, mediated by the British and French governments, Ali did not receive the independent kingdom he wanted, but became an autonomous ruler under the Ottomans, ruling all of Egypt, Crete, Palestine and Syria.
The new Egyptian rule was more favorable to the Western missionaries, and the ban against them coming to live permanently in Jerusalem was lifted. Was the time ripe to make Jerusalem a new missionary center?
Nicolayson and Farman had moved back from Malta to Beirut in 1832. In January 1833, they met another Jewish missionary, Erasmus Scott Calman, originally from Courland (now part of Latvia). He had been sent out by the LJS to go to Baghdad, but as he reached Beirut, he realized it would not be possible to go there, so he went to Jerusalem. Nicolayson had wanted to go back for some time and followed. They arrived in Jerusalem in January 1833. Calman spoke Hebrew and made contacts within the Jewish community.
This time, Nicolayson wanted to find a permanent building, and received help from Joseph Amzalak. Amzalak told him he was going to buy a new residence and was ready to put his present house at the disposal of the mission. Calman left to go to Baghdad, and Nicolayson went home to Beirut. There he met two American missionaries who had just arrived – William Thompson and his family and William Jones Hardy. They were both willing to move to Jerusalem.
When they arrived in Jerusalem, they found Amzalak hadn’t bought a new residence yet, but he undertook to help them purchase a building close to his home. Nicolayson went back again to Beirut to arrange for the move, and in October 1833 he and his family finally settled permanently in Jerusalem as the first protestants to do so. His family was him, his wife Jane, Dr. Dalton’s son, George, who was now nine, and two little daughters, born in 1830 and 1831: Mary Elizabeth and Jane Dorothy. William Thompson and his family followed them.
Nicolayson wrote in his diary: “Only when the Egyptian army under the command of Ibrahim Pasha had entered Palestine was I able to return with my family from Malta to Beirut, and after the conquest of Acre and complete [Egyptian] control over the country [I managed] to settle for the first time in Jerusalem… Therefore it should be noted that the first permanent settlement of the [Protestant] Mission in Jerusalem itself began only in 1833.”
The location of the new home of Nicolayson was inside the walls of Jerusalem, close to Jaffa gate, opposite the King David citadel. The place where the Christ Church building is today.
In the next article, we will go further into Nicolayson’s first ten years in Jerusalem, and the initiative to build the first protestant church in the Middle East.