The first Protestant missionary in Jerusalem: A history of Messianic Jews in Israel, Part 2 – 1818 to 1821

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A view of the Old City of Jerusalem circa 1900 (Photo: Public Domain)

Before I continue with this second part of Messianic history, I want to make one thing clear – I’m not a historian. I’m doing very little original research, and I mostly just read what real historians have written and summarize it. And since this is “popular science” and not an academic paper, I’m not using an elaborate system of footnotes detailing where each and every little piece of information comes from. I’m merely stealing, sorry borrowing, the facts from the real professionals. The three historians whose books and academic articles I’m borrowing the most from are Gershon Nerel, Kai Kjaer-Hansen and Kelvin Crombie, but I’ve also done some digging myself in online historic archives.

As long as we are clear on that, let’s go back to the early 19th century. As we said, just around the turn of the century, there was a renewed zeal for missions in England and new missionary societies were established, each with different ideas and goals. The three ones we need to focus on are: The CMS, Church Missionary Society, established in 1799, which engaged in general missionary work worldwide. The BFBS, British and Foreign Bible Society, established in 1804 which focused on translation and distribution of the Bible, often equipping the other societies. And finally, the LJS, London Jews’ Society (or the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews) established in 1809, which was specifically focused on reaching Jews with the gospel. Even though these were all led from England, they often trained and sent missionaries from all over Europe into the mission field.

All of them are still around today.

The first protestant missionary who arrived in Jerusalem was Cristoph Burckhardt, in May 1818. He was a Swiss Clergyman, and he stayed for less than ten days while he sold and distributed bibles. He didn’t work for any organization, but was supported by a wealthy English banker named Henry Drummond who was deeply concerned with Bible work and Jewish mission. The CMS and the BFBS were both involved in planning his trip, even though they didn’t officially send him out.

Burckhardt arrived from Geneva to Malta in January 1818. The plan was that he would go to Egypt, Jerusalem, Asia Minor and Greece equipped with 755 bibles in 13 languages, courtesy of the BFBS.

He arrived in Egypt and sold over 400 of them. In the middle of April, Burckhardt got aboard a ship in Alexandria bound for Haifa. He eventually reached Jaffa, where he enjoyed the hospitality of the local consuls and sold Bibles. He specifically mentions selling New Testaments in Hebrew to “a Rabbi and several other Jews.” This might be the first Hebrew New Testaments sold or given in Hebrew in the Holy Land since the New Testament era.

He also sold Bibles to convents and to Catholic churches who were very skeptic and spent hours examining the New Testaments to detect possible “Protestant heresies.” A later letter from 1822 attests that all the Bibles Burckhardt sold or distributed in Jaffa were burned by some priests.

From Jaffa, Burckhardt continued to Jerusalem, going during the night on horseback for 18 hours. He arrived right before Pentecost, May 9th, 1818. He later sent a letter from Jaffa on May 20th, so he must have stayed less than ten days in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The first few days in Jerusalem, he distributed Bibles in 12-13 languages, presumably to Christian pilgrims arriving for the Pentecost. He also visited Bethlehem. People from Bethlehem asked for Bibles in Arabic, but he didn’t have enough, having distributed them all in Egypt and Jaffa, and could only give them a few epistles to the Romans and Hebrews.

In Jerusalem, he sold one Hebrew New Testament to one Jew. That was it. In the letter he sent from Jaffa on May 20th, he said that a book should be published for Jews, written with “a compassionate heart” with reflections on the goodness of God. This booklet would prepare the minds of the readers for the idea of “a Universal Religion rather than a National Religion of the Jews.” He said that such a book would “by instructing the mind, produce great fruit in favor of that memorable race, the Jews.” He was however skeptic whether it would be possible to find an author for such a book.

On May 20th, Burckhardt was back in Jaffa, preparing to go to Beirut and Aleppo, equipped with Bibles in Hebrew and Syriac. He wrote that he was not able to form a Bible Society in Jerusalem, but that “seeds were sown.”

From there, he did indeed proceed and went to Lebanon and Aleppo. But in Aleppo, he caught a fatal fever and died suddenly in August 1818.

He sowed the first seeds and paid with his life. Many more would come after him.

Two years after Burckhardt, another missionary arrived in Jerusalem, James Connor. Unlike Burckhardt, he succeeded in establishing organized Bible work in the city. He arrived in March 1820 and stayed for six weeks. By working through the local Greek Orthodox churches, bringing with him letters of recommendation, he was able to engage them in distributing the Bibles he left with them. He also set up a system in which they would send more Bibles to Jerusalem according to need, and the local patriarch would be in charge of a Bible depot in the city. But he wasn’t able to sell any New Testaments in Hebrew to the Jews. In his report he stated that “Among the Jews I have not been able to do any thing. The New Testament they reject with disdain, though I have repeatedly offered it to them for the merest trifle. As for the Prophecies, they say, the Book is imperfect, and therefore they will not purchase.”

The Greek Orthodox patriarch in Jerusalem, Procopius, started to act as the agent of the Bible Society, promoting the Bible cause and selling scriptures to pilgrims, depositing Bibles in convents.

Additional protestant Bible men arrived in Jerusalem in 1821. Levi Parsons from the USA, who stayed from February to May, and Melchior Tschoudy from Switzerland, who came in April. Parsons was sent from the “American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions,” ABCFM, founded in Massachusetts in 1810. Tschoudy was the first missionary who came to Jerusalem specifically to reach out to the Jews, sent by the LJS.

As we said, the LJS was a society specifically focused on reaching Jews with the gospel. We need to remember that in the early 1800s, reaching out to the Jews did not necessarily mean going to Israel. Most Jews at this time were scattered in Europe, and the LJS started close to home and established a Hebrew-Christian congregation in London as early as 1813. The LJS stated goal was to “declare the Messiahship of Jesus to the Jew first, endeavoring to teach the church its Jewish roots, encouraging the physical restoration of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel, and encouraging the Hebrew Christian/Messianic Jewish movement.”

So the LJS, established in 1809, sent their first missionary to Eretz Israel, Melchior Tschoudy, only in 1821, and he was here only from April to May. He went together with Parsons to visit the Jewish synagogues. “We showed them a Testament in Hebrew. They examined it but dared not purchase it, without the consent of the Rabbis.” A later source claims that Tschoudy “distributed Bibles to [Jerusalem’s] Jewish residents” and another source claims that Parsons “went every day among the Jews until he left Jerusalem.” Parson’s letters and diary, however, don’t mention the Jews at all. They both left in May 1821.

And then in 1822, Joseph Wolff arrived. He was the first Jewish missionary who spoke to his countrymen in Hebrew, and he will be the focus of the next article.