The London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews

This selection was taken from pages 146-148 of the 1998 Weatherhill edition of historian Michael Pollaks's "Mandarins, Jews and Missionaries".

Founded in 1809 in the flush of the neo-Puritan evangelical fervor then sweeping the upper and middle strata of English society, and numbering among it's patrons some of the most influential figures in British governmental and clerical circles, the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews soon came to be regarded by the objects of its attention with emotions ranging the entire gamut from tolerant amusement to apoplectic rage...

The London Society's missionaries channeled their energies to the proselytization of Jews of all classes, but concentrated initially on the poverty stricken inhabitants of the London area. They fed and clothed those penniless Jews who would listen to their preachments, and also furnished training and employment to some of them in a textile mill and a printing plant established for that purpose. For the most part, as many Englishmen, both Christian and Jewish, were quick to point out, the very few converts enticed by the "soul-snatchers" came from the ignorant, the indigent and the ignoble, a taunt not unlike the "rice Christian" jibe to which later missionaries working in other parts of the world were to become accustomed...

The Christian critics of the London Society - and they were not few - argued that the time, money, and energy being expanded to convert a Jew here and a Jew there might more profitably be devoted to bringing some of Protestantism's own lost sheep back to the fold. Many of these critics regarded membership in the London Society as prima facie evidence of eccentricity, or even worse. Thus, in a sanity hearing presided over in 1863 by Anthony Ashley Cooper, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, the question was posed: "Are you aware, my Lord, that she [the woman whose sanity was being questioned] subscribes to the Society for the Conversion of the Jews?" It was a question that would have been better left unasked. "Indeed," snapped back Lord Shaftesbury, "are you aware that I am president of that Society?".

On the whole, the members of the London Society tended to regard all believing Jews as backward, misguided, and willful beings - as problem children, almost - who, if treated firmly but humanely, might in God's good time come to realize that it was to their advantage to give up their obstreperously sinful ways and attain salvation through Anglican Christianity. The more compassionate of the London Society's agents, when stationed in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Muslim strongholds of North Africa and the Levant, did what they could to minimize the physical abuse to which Jews of these regions were chronically subjected. At home in England, however, the leaders of the London Society stood stoutly opposed to the extension of civil and political equality to those of their countrymen who did not happen to be Christian.

Totally convinced of the righteousness of their cause, the London Society's missionaries looked upon the anguish they occasionally inflicted upon the Jews as regrettable but unavoidable. An authorized history of the London Society, published in 1866, to give one example, records that in 1810 the London mission picked up a hungry fifteen-year-old boy, provided him with food and clothing, and persuaded him to defect from Judaism and accept baptism in the Anglican faith. When his father and mother discovered where he was and pleaded to be allowed to see him, the directors of the mission refused their request pointblank, fearing that the adolescent might be induced to recant and revert to Judaism. The Jewish community appealed to the King's Bench for the return of the youngster to his parents. The court, the London Society's historian reported with obvious satisfaction, rejected the Jewish petition after hearing the defense contend that since Judaism itself regards thirteen, the bar-mitzvah age, as the end of boyhood and the beginning of manhood, the parents could no longer be considered their son's legal guardian.

Note: See the pattern here of picking and choosing from Judaism whatever is most convenient, even if it goes so far to contradict commonly accepted norms of behavior - in this case English Law itself - in a court of English Law.

In this instance, and in innumerable others, the London Society proceeded from the premise that because its objectives were undeniably noble, and patently in the best interests of the Jews, its agents had the right to assume that when it came to converting the Jews the ends automatically justified the means.

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