Keyword:

To a Different Drum

Joseph Wolff: Hebrew-Christian Missionary (1795-1862

In the 19th century, as European society began to open up to Jews and as the Aufklarung or Enlightenment began to draw Jewish students into the wider academic world, many Jewish students left the ghettos seeking to master the vast accumulation of knowledge available in the universities of Europe, especially in Germany. One of the great mysteries of that period was how the students managed to finance their studies or even how they managed to live at all. Joseph Wolff was largely sponsored by Christian patrons but his very protracted studies must have been extremely costly and there must have been something about him which encouraged people to help him and to be patient with his rather eccentric behaviour. He was known as the “Eccentric Missionary” and it is perhaps as well that he eventually made his home in England which, at that time, was something of a haven for eccentrics
Wolff, probably the first great Jewish missionary of the modern era, has to be seen as a genius, an illui as his fellow-Jews would have called him. This is seen in the comment of his father, Rabbi David Wolff of Weilersbach in Bavaria, where Joseph was born in 1795, “He is continually walking about and thinking, which is not natural.” This comment was made after a Lutheran minister had told the young Joseph to read Isaiah 53 and Joseph had asked his father to explain the passage to him. Although Joseph was only seven his father expressed the fear to his wife, “Our son will not remain a Jew!” His father was wrong, but it was his way of expressing his fear that Joseph would be lost to his own rabbinic tradition.

Certainly Joseph showed a true Jewish zeal for learning and, having been sent to the Protestant Lyceum in Stuttgart, he then went on to a Roman Catholic Lyceum in Bemberg and there resolved to become a Christian and to follow the example of Francis Xavier and become a Jesuit missionary. He was just eleven years old but this sentiment caused his relatives at Bemberg, with whom he was staying, to throw him out. From there he went to Frankfurt and from thence to Halle, to Prague and then to Vienna. At fifteen years of age he was studying Latin, Greek and History in Munich. He went on to study Philosophy at the Lyceum in Saxe Weimar where he met the great German philosopher Goethe. He then went off to Heidelberg University and from there to Switzerland but, at the Catholic college where he was staying, he refused to bow to the statue of the Virgin and Child and, once again, he was sent on his way. Returning to Prague he was baptised by the Abbot of a Benedictine monastery on 13th September 1812 at the age of seventeen.

A unique man

In all his travels and studies, Wolff learned from both Protestants and Catholics but he retained a remarkable independence of mind which would not allow him to conform to the customs and superstitions of those around him. This caused endless friction but it meant that he was never absorbed or swallowed or digested into the society of his day. To quote a modern phrase, Joseph Wolff was “marching to the beat of a different drum” and all his various studies and experiences went towards making him a unique man of God, prepared for a unique ministry.

From Prague, at the age of seventeen, he went to Vienna to study Arabic, Ecclesiastical History and Divinity where he earned his keep by giving private lectures in Latin, Hebrew, Chaldean and German. He was at this time a Roman Catholic but in 1815 he went on to the Protestant University of Tübingen to continue his Oriental studies in the theological faculty. While there, he decided to walk to Rome via Switzerland, Milan, Turin and Genoa and while in Rome he was introduced to Pope Pius VII by the Prussian ambassador. Wolff patted the Pope on the shoulder and asked for a blessing, which he was given! When someone asked, “Wolff, how could you pat the Pope’s shoulder? Aren’t you aware that the Pope is God?” he gave what was a good Jewish and Protestant reply: “How dare you say such a thing! The Pope is dust of the earth.”

He studied at the Roman Seminary where he became a personal friend of Giovanni Ferretti, to whom he gave lessons in Hebrew. They argued about Papal Infallibility and Ferretti later became a Cardinal and, eventually, was appointed Pius IX, the Pope who proclaimed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and Papal Infallibility in 1870. But Wolff’s argumentative disposition made him a bad Catholic. He was told that the Holy Scriptures could only be accepted on the authority of the church and this stirred him up, as a lover of the Bible, to protest. He spent a lot of his time in Rome protesting at Catholic doctrine and arguing against the church’s dogmas and it is remarkable that people tolerated him. Henry Drummond visited Rome while Wolff was there and heard him arguing with his Roman Catholic teachers and fellow-students. Drummond, who was a rich and influential man, associated with the Irvingite movement in England, was very impressed by Wolff and invited him to England. In 1819, at the age of 24, after he had been expelled from his Roman college he came to England which, at that time, was the centre of the civilised world. England had defeated the great Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, was at the height of its power, and was looked to by all lovers of freedom and democracy as the ideal of all their hopes. Wolff himself described England as, “...the land of energy, integrity and piety ... the land of gentlemen”.

A sincere Jew

He was introduced to Baptist, Quaker and Methodist churches but was not impressed until he attended an Anglican Church where he felt at home. The Church of England became his denominational home, after a pilgrimage which took him through many different types of religious groupings, from his father’s synagogue and various Lutheran and Catholic institutions until finally he reached a point where he felt his restless spirit could settle.

In all these years Wolff had acquired a very wide command of languages and had become a very experienced traveller at a time when both these accomplishments were much rarer than they are today. Since his youth, Joseph Wolff had wanted to be a missionary and his extensive studies and travels had fitted him for such a task in a remarkable way. But his model and hero, Francis Xavier, the founder of the Society of Jesus had ministered to the Gentile world. A providential meeting between Wolff and a rich Englishman named Lewis Way was, however, to turn Wolff towards a work amongst his own Jewish people. Lewis Way had rescued the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews from a £20,000 debt on the condition that it became an Anglican society. The London Society had been formed in 1808 as an interdenominational society, but was glad to become an Anglican society to qualify for Lewis Way’s help.

When Way met Joseph Wolff, he saw in him an ideal future missionary for the Society, so he sent him to Cambridge University to benefit from the ministry of the great evangelical Anglican Charles Simeon. He also studied under Professor Samuel Lee, specialising in Arabic, Persian, Chaldean and Syriac. Once again Wolff had linked up with outstanding and famous people who became great influences on his life. But not all his mentors were in agreement about his future; Henry Drummond wanted him to be off on his travels at once. But the London Society felt he needed more training. Wolff says, “The Jews’ Society for Promoting Christianity has been disappointed by every Jew they took up. One became a Mohammedan, another a thief, a third a pickpocket; and I am determined to remain there, to show them there is a sincere Jew in the world. They want me to spend also a few months with Lewis Way in order to get more knowledge of the world.”

More success than anticipated

The response of Henry Drummond shows that Wolff was not the only eccentric in this situation, “You are almost as great an ass as my friends Lewis Way and Simeon are. What knowledge of the world can you learn in Stansted Park? Knowledge of the world can only be gained in the world.”

When Wolff’s future came before the Society’s committee he asked for autonomy, which Henry Drummond and John Bayford wanted to grant, but the secretary and others wanted him to accept directions. The final result was that Wolff went off as a free-lance missionary, supported by Henry Drummond. This departure marks a turning point in Wolff’s life and gives us an opportunity to understand something about the dynamics of Jewish missions right at the beginning of the modern phase of such mission. The danger of tension between a central mission control and the mission agent on the field is illustrated and exemplified at the outset of Joseph Wolff’s career. In 1821 he left London and when he had travelled as far as Gibraltar he gave his personal testimony to the local rabbi in a form which he used throughout his ministry, “I am, as you know, a Jew by birth, the son of a rabbi, but I believe, by the grace of the Lord, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, for the prophets and Moses assure us of it with clear and distinct words; and by him alone, by Jesus of Nazareth, remission of sins is obtained if we believe in him”.

Wolff used New Testaments and tracts very extensively in his work and at first he was well received. From Gibraltar he went to Malta and thence to Alexandria on his laborious overland journey to Jerusalem, which he reached in March 1822. As the first missionary of modern times to preach in Jerusalem and as a visitor from England which was a country of great renown in those post-Waterloo years, Wolff attracted many visitors, to whom he preached in Italian, Hebrew, German, Arabic and English. We are told he met “with more success than could have been anticipated.”

Wolff’s progress in his ministry was greatly helped by the assistance given in those days by highly placed British officials and officers to the Lord’s servants. Wolff had a letter of introduction to the Turkish Sultan, which had been obtained for him by the British Consul in Egypt, and the British Ambassador to the Turkish court. It was there in Jerusalem, in the Muslim Turkish Empire, that Wolff won a young rabbi, Abraham ben David, to the Lord as the first fruit of his work in Jerusalem.

His travels continued through Syria to Cyprus, where he persuaded the Turkish Governor to release two Greek priests who had been persecuted and imprisoned.

A fine pedigree

It is interesting to see the way in which the practical challenges of presenting Christ to unbelievers seem to have set him free from the unhealthy influences of his earlier years. His encounters with the rather superstitious Eastern churches stirred him in protest against idols and images and his own position was clearly stated when he declared of himself that he believed everything in the Bible. The Bible was his guide and final authority in all his work.

In 1823 Wolff travelled to Persia. He attached himself to a caravan going to Baghdad and Kurdish bandits captured his party. He preached the gospel to them and in response they gave him 200 lashes on the soles of his feet! Wolff won many people to Christ and made a great impression wherever he went but on those occasions when he was met by physical violence he was never cast down for long and was soon back to his enthusiastic witness. On the whole, the Jews, Muslims, and others he debated seemed to respect him and saw in him a sincere and godly man, even if they disagreed with his message. After many adventures he moved from Persia to Russian Georgia and to Constantinople.

Arriving back in England, he was taken by his patron Henry Drummond to meet Edward Irving at an aristocratic dinner party. Wolff was drawn into the prophetic speculation which was very popular at that time and was asked by Irving, Drummond, Haldane and others to interpret the Hebrew prophets for them. It was at this point that his life took a remarkable turn; he met Lady Georgiana Walpole, a descendant of Prime Minister Robert Walpole and sister of Lord Orford. When Wolff developed a romantic interest in Lady Georgiana and her noble brother asked him about his family, Wolff claimed none less than Abraham and Isaac and Jacob as his ancestors. Lord Orford appears to have been suitably impressed and Joseph and Georgiana were married on February 6th 1827 at St. George’s, Hanover Square by George Simeon.

The English Dervish

Wolff had previously been accepted by the “Jews’ Society” in November 1826, so it might seem that as a married missionary he might now settle down. As it turned out, he was sent on deputation meetings, which drew large crowds, because he could give unique and fascinating accounts of travels in countries largely unknown at that time. Wolff became a naturalised Englishman in 1827, went to Amsterdam on behalf of the Society, and travelled around Holland giving lectures. When he and his wife returned to England they enjoyed Christian fellowship in the homes of the many well-to-do people who supported the evangelical cause.

When he returned to Jerusalem with his wife his reception was not as favourable as before and the secret of his remarkable survival in the largely Muslim and Turkish territories may have been connected with his use of a special title. He wrote, “I pass here among the Turks by the name of the English Dervish”, and the Muslims apparently expected a certain amount of erratic behaviour from “dervishes” or mystic holy men. This did not help with the mission, however, which eventually severed its connection with him. A friend named Frere came to his rescue and gave him £500, which opened up the possibility of further travel.

A great deal more could be recounted of Wolff’s travels to find the Lost Ten Tribes, and various other projects but the practical value of his travels for his own people is recorded by W.T. Gidney in his History of the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity amongst the Jews. He says:

Wolff was essentially a missionary explorer and traveller and held and executed a roving commission on behalf of the Society. The subsequent establishment of missions to Jews in the countries which he visited owed, in a great measure, to his early efforts, untiring energy and romantic enthusiasm.

Integrity, courage and genius

Wolff was ordained as an Anglican Deacon rather belatedly in America in 1837. On his return to these shores he was well received again and Trinity College Dublin awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Laws. Then, in 1838, the Bishop of Dromore ordained him as a priest so he was now the Rev. Doctor Joseph Wolff, an honoured and respectable clergyman. In 1838 he was appointed to the Yorkshire parish of Linthwaite and in 1840 moved to High Hoyland, a tiny village in Yorkshire, and the man he replaced preached a farewell sermon on the text, “...after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29).

Apparently this was intended as a welcome to the whole Wolff family, father, mother and their little son Henry! This son grew up to become Sir Henry Drummond Wolff GCB, QCMG, a Government minister in Florence and, later, a Government minister in the Ionian Islands.

Wolff carried out further travels from time to time but eventually settled as vicar of the parish of Isle Brewers near Taunton where he stayed for fifteen years. He wrote books about his travels, which aroused great interest, and the royalties from them helped him in his parish work. But Wolff never managed to cope with English ways. His wife Georgiana, before going away for a few days, made him promise to put on a clean shirt every day. When she returned she found him wearing five shirts, one on top of the other!

William E.Gladstone was his friend, as was Sir Walter Scott and Alfred Lord Tennyson and many other distinguished people. Sir Charles Napier was also his friend but he pulled Wolff’s leg once by reminding him in 1852 that he had once predicted that the world would end in 1845! These friends, many of them very shrewd judges of character, saw in Joseph Wolff a man of God, a devout and sincere ambassador for Christ, a good friend and a man of honour and integrity and courage, as well as genius. He died on May 2nd 1862 at the age of 66, still in harness, still serving Christ as well as he knew how.
This article by M G Bowler first appeared in the Autumn 2000

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