The founding of the first Protestant church in Jerusalem: A history of Messianic Jews in Israel, Part 6

Photo: Christ Church photographed by Auguste Salzmann in 1856 (Penn Libraries/Holy Land Collection)

John Nicolayson in Jerusalem 1833 – 1842

In 1833, John Nicolayson became the first protestant missionary to settle permanently in Jerusalem. He was Danish, but sent from the British LJS, the London Jews Society, which were specifically focused on reaching the Jews with the gospel. It was, however, also the first base of the Anglican Church in Israel, and his activities were not focused on the Jews only. He also brought a few American families with him, all sent out by the American missionary society ABCFM. The reason Protestants could now take up residence in Jerusalem was that the Ottomans no longer ruled Jerusalem directly. Ali Pasha ruled Egypt and large chunks of the levant, including Jerusalem, as an autonomous ruler under the Ottomans. So far, there is no Hebrew-speaking congregation in Jerusalem, nor do we have any large number of Jewish believers. The few Jewish believers we have seen have either been LJS missionaries from Europe or the one or two Jews from Jerusalem who reportedly came to faith, but the sources tell us nothing of what happened afterwards.

For now, the LJS and their activity in Israel will be our main focus, as they are the only ones trying to reach Jews with the gospel. Later, our focus will shift. This shift will be both because of additional protestant societies arriving in Israel, and also because the LJS changed their focus away from the Jews. Or didn’t. Or did. Actually, it went a bit back and forth during the second half of the 19th century, depending on who was in charge. As it turns out, different Christians apparently have extremely different views on the place of the Jews and the land of Israel in God’s redemptive plan. Who knew?

But back to our story. In May 1834, a peasant rebellion broke out, and angry mobs attacked Jerusalem, which was defended by the Egyptian troops. Thompson, one of the American missionaries, happened to be in Jaffa at the time, arranging for their furniture to be moved to Jerusalem. He got stuck there and couldn’t get back to Jerusalem until July. On May 26th, a series of strong earthquakes struck Jerusalem for several days, and plagues broke out. All the missionaries fell ill. When William Thompson finally returned to Jerusalem on July 12th, his wife Eliza had a very high fever. She passed away ten days later.

Thompson wrote: “The Lord had put out the light in my dwelling, laid my earthly hopes in the dust, and written my dear little babe motherless in a strange land. But it is the Lord that had done it – the same Lord who eighteen hundred years ago shed his blood in this very place to redeem our souls from death; and I have no doubt that the same love has directed all these afflicting dispensations.”

Thompson returned to Beirut, but came back to Jerusalem briefly in August to introduce Dr. Asa Dodge to the work. Another American missionary family, the Whitings, arrived as well. When the Jewish LJS missionary Calman returned from Baghdad in October, the protestant missionaries living in Jerusalem were now the Nicolaysons and Calman of the British LJS, and the Whitings and Dodge of the American ABCFM. Of these, only Calman was Jewish.

In November 1834, Nicolayson wrote optimistically of this “little band” of believers in Jerusalem. “May we have grace to strengthen each other’s hands both in praying to and acting for the Lord our Redeemer!” They would meet to worship in Nicolayson’s home. Little did they know that back in London, the November 1834 meeting of the LJS brought up the idea of establishing the first protestant church in Jerusalem – the church that would eventually be known as the Christ Church. It would take 15 years before the plan became reality.

The “little band” Nicolayson spoke of in November 1834 was halved by Spring 1835. Nicolayson and Dr. Asa Dodge both fell ill with high fever, and only Nicolayson survived. Dodge was buried next to Dr. Dalton and Mrs. Thompson. Calman was sick so often, he eventually had to be evacuated to Beirut. In April 1835, after Nicolayson had visited the Americans and seen their missions in Hebron and Bethlehem, he wrote to the LJS about the need to form a church in Jerusalem:

‘It appears that the American missionaries have not despaired of establishing themselves and forming a church at Jerusalem; and we know not why our Society, acting on the principles of our Apostolic Church, should shrink from making a similar attempt, in dependence on the Divine blessing, with a special view to the benefit of God’s people, the Jews.’

The following year, in 1836, Nicolayson came to London to lay forth his full proposal, and to be ordained by the bishop of London. The LJS resolved that “the establishment of a Protestant Church in which service shall be conducted according to the order of the Church of England is essential in order to exhibit practically what Christianity is, as distinguished from the corruptions of Roman, Greek and Armenian Churches, which are so peculiarly offensive to the Jews, and which confirm their prejudices against Christianity, as an idolatrous and unscriptural system.”

Money was put aside, practical decision were made as to how to receive the needed permits from the Egyptian government, and Nicolayson was bestowed with the authority to purchase land in the name of the LJS. It proved to be very difficult. The Egyptian government didn’t want to approve a church and referred them to the Turks, and the Ottoman government rejected the request for permits of building a church. The Muslim law forbade the building of new churches, as they only allowed rebuilding or renovations of existing ones. Also, they did not permit a foreigner to purchase land. Someone suggested they rent a place, use it as a small chapel for a few years, and then try to purchase the land and build a church – technically, it would then be “rebuilding of an existing church.”

Parallel with the efforts to build a church, more Jesus-believing Jews arrived. The LJS sent two Hebrew Christian doctors to Jerusalem in 1838, and they immediately started to offer medical treatment free of charge to poor Jews. Their names were Gerstmann and Bergheim. Bergheim being more of a chemist (pharmacist) and an assistant to Dr. Gerstmann. They arrived during a plague, and their services were much appreciated, even by the Rabbis. The ban they had put on the Protestant missionaries was lifted. At times, these two doctors would treat as many as one hundred patients in a day. Nicolayson made plans to form a hospital in Jerusalem.

As for the church, Nicolayson managed to purchase the property in 1838 through a local Armenian “straw man,” and the land was signed over to Nicolayson in 1839. They used the existing buildings as temporary prayer halls and residential quarters for the missionaries and their families. It would still take another ten years before they actually built the church.

Two more important things happened in 1839 – one was that a British consul was appointed to Jerusalem, William Tanner Young. He was entrusted to afford protection not only to British subjects but also to the Jews in general. However, he did not have a good relationship with Nicolayson. He wanted to be more directly involved and be written as one of the owners of the land they purchased, which the LJS rejected. Disputes ensued that took on both a personal and political aspect – Young represented the interests of the British crown, while Nicolayson the interests of the LJS and the Anglican church – and they were not always compatible. Young was obliged to offer protection to the missionaries, as they were British citizens, but the missionaries were not bound to act within diplomatic restrains, as they were an independent private society. Nicolayson was by this time an experienced missionary who had given his life for the cause, while Young was a new and inexperienced diplomat who needed to prove himself, and their relation was always tense. The situation for Nicolayson was easier as long as Lord Palmerston, who was very supportive of the missionary work, was the foreign minister and Young’s superior.

The other important thing that happened in 1839 was the first baptism of a Jew within Jerusalem. He was not from Jerusalem, but from the Danubian principate of Wallachia. His name was Simeon Rosenthal, and he had met Nicolayson a few years earlier at the mission station in Izmir, Turkey. Nicolayson baptized him, his wife, their 14-year-old daughter and their 4-year-old son on April 14th, 1839.

In November 1839, Nicolayson’s youngest daughter, Jane Dorothy, died from an illness only eight years old. He wrote: “It has pleased our heavenly Father to take our youngest beloved daughter, Jane Dorothy, to himself, almost quite unexpectedly to us. On Tuesday last [October 29] (this is Saturday,) she was in perfect health; Wednesday morning she began to complain, and begged to be put to bed; on Thursday she continued feverish, and rather delirious; on Friday morning she seemed so much better that the doctor said she might get up. … Yesterday afternoon her mother began to think the complaint more serious and asked the doctor if there was danger. … Soon some very severe spasms followed one another at short intervals. We prayed the Lord to shorten her struggle, and we were heard. At six the last spasm, which reached the heart, was over. She then breathed so gently and calmly that we scarcely perceived when her young spirit took its departure from the body, – ‘to be,’ we doubt not, ‘with the Lord who bought her.’”

In 1840, the scandalous Damascus affair occurred. A French priest in Damascus went missing, and the French consul accused the Jews. The local pasha, wanting to keep good relations with the French, arrested and tortured 13 prominent Jews, accused of having murdered the priest for ritual purposes. Four of the arrested Jews died from their torture. Christian mobs attacked and destroyed a synagogue, ripped apart Torah scrolls, dressed dogs in tfillin and talithot, and dug up Jewish graves. When the news of this reached the Austrian consul in Aleppo, he drew worldwide attention to it, creating outrage and anger from many European countries, and from Jewish communities worldwide. Since the libel was instigated by the Roman Catholic church and the French, it was easy for LJS and the British government to harshly condemn it. The LJS sent Nicolayson to Damascus to investigate the matter, and based on his findings, LJS published the pamphlet, “Reasons for believing that the Charge, lately Revived against the Jewish People, is Baseless.”

Fifty-eight Jewish believers in Jesus from London signed the following statement:
“We, the undersigned, by nation Jews, and having lived to the years of maturity in the faith and practice of modern Judaism, but now by the grace of God members of the Church of Christ, do solemnly protest that we have never directly nor indirectly heard of, much less known among the Jews, of the practice of killing Christians, or using Christian blood, and that we believe this charge, so often brought against them formerly, and now lately revived, to be a foul and satanic falsehood.”

Moshe Montefiore, as the representative of the Jewish community in England, led a delegation to Alexandria to plead with Ali Pasha. Eventually, the 9 surviving Jews were released. Montefiore even persuaded the Sultan in Constantinople to issue a firman declaring that blood libels are slanders against the Jewish people and are prohibited in the Ottoman empire. After that, any blood libels that occurred (usually coming from French or Greek Christians) were swiftly rejected by the Ottoman government.

Back in Jerusalem, Nicolayson drew up plans for buildings he wanted to erect on the land they owned, and started himself building a wall to separate them from a nearby mosque. The wall was completed in 1840, and the foundations of the church were prepared. Nicolayson hired workers, and they build the first floor and set up the windows and doors. The LJS sent a talented architect, WC Hillier, to Jerusalem to build the actual church, in the hopes of eventually receiving the permit. Hillier spent weeks examining the grounds, the structures already built, and set up plans for continued work.

And then he died in typhus.

Shortly after Hillier’s death, war erupted again, concluding in Egypt losing its grip on the levant, and Jerusalem again falling under direct rule from Constantinople. Most missionaries, doctors, as well as the consul left the area, and the only ones who stayed were a few of the Americans and Nicolayson and his family.

Since Great Britain had been on the Turkish side in this war (while the French sided with the Egyptian ruler), Nicolayson was certain that this was the time to obtain permission from Constantinople. After having sent a few letters to London, he set sail for England in December 1840. It was now or never. When he arrived, he participated in a special meeting of the London committee in April 1841. They decided to establish “The Apostolic Anglican Church at Jerusalem from whence the word of the Lord may sound forth to His ancient and still beloved people the Jews, through the whole length and breadth of the land of their forefathers.” They appointed James Wood Johns as the responsible architect instead of Hillier. Taking precautions, they also appointed an assistant for him to be trained as his replacement if he died. They also resolved that if they were successful in establishing this, they would need to appoint an Anglican ordained English-born minister in Jerusalem, and Nicolayson would be serving under him. Nicolayson accepted.

Nicolayson was then asked to travel to Constantinople to be involved in the negotiations with the Sultan about obtaining the permit to erect the church. When he arrived, he realized that the British ambassador was not as helpful as he had hoped, and he had to involve Lord Palmerston. The Prussian envoy in Constantinople joined forces with the British in demanding the permit to erect a place for Protestant worship in Jerusalem. An official “firman” was never issued, but they did eventually receive an “unavowed permission to build an English church in Jerusalem … on condition that the fabric be modest and unostentatious in appearance and dimensions, and not calculated to attract attention.”

Nicolayson didn’t wait for a final decision, but went home to Jerusalem, with the architect Johns. They went through Malta, where they hired stone masons and skilled workers. The plans were set out for a church in “Gothic or Norman style to seat 300 worshippers.” They were not aware that diplomatic quarrels and negotiations back and forth between the Ottomans, British and the Prussians kept on, while they were busy preparing the church, creating facts on the ground.

And then, in 1842, he arrived. The newly appointed Jewish Protestant Bishop of Jerusalem.

Michael Solomon Alexander.