America’s First Consul to Jerusalem

Warder Cresson's journey to Jerusalem, and to Judaism, took a convoluted path.

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Born in Philadelphia in 1798, Warder Cresson was raised a Quaker. He became a wealthy farmer in rural Pennsylvania, married and had a son. He also became a lifelong seeker of religious truth. By the 1840s, Cresson had become, in turn, a Shaker, a Mormon, a Seventh-day Adventist, and a Campbellite. The latter two denominations believed that the Second Coming of Christ was close at hand. Cresson became notorious in Philadelphia for religious “haranguing in the streets,” warning all within earshot of the approaching apocalypse.

In 1844, Cresson expressed his certainty that God was about to gather the Jewish people in Jerusalem as a prelude to the “end of days.” Cresson wrote, “God must choose some medium to manifest and act through, in order to bring about his designs and promises in this visible world; This medium or recipient is the present poor, despised, outcast Jew  God is about gathering them again [in Jerusalem].” Cresson decided to move to Jerusalem to witness the great event. His family stayed behind.

Before departing, Cresson volunteered to work as the first American consul in Jerusalem, which was then a part of Syria. His Pennsylvania congressman, Edward Joy Morris, lobbied the State Department to have him appointed. Soon after Cresson sailed, however, a former cabinet official informed John C. Calhoun, then Secretary of State, that Cresson was mentally unstable. Calhoun dispatched a letter to Cresson, which reached him in Jerusalem, informing him that his appointment had been rescinded.

Cresson decided to stay on in Jerusalem despite this disappointment. He had come as an evangelical Christian to witness God’s ingathering of the Jewish Diaspora. His time in Jerusalem, however, drew him to become a Jew. The impoverished, deeply religious Jews he found in Jerusalem, who were living with only the barest necessities, touched Cresson’s heart. Cresson was offended by the “soul snatching” behavior of Christian missionaries who attempted to bribe some Jews with food and clothing into accepting conversion. He wrote, “The conversions which have been reported . . . [by] the Protestant Episcopal Mission were owing to the wants of the converts, not to their conviction.” He expressed admiration for those Jews who resisted conversion despite the material incentives.

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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