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In 1996, the Southern Baptist Convention announced that its top priority would be converting Jews to Christianity. This initiative has historical precedent. In the 1600’s, various American Christian ministers tried to convert individual Jews in their communities. Not until the first quarter of the nineteenth century, however, did organized missionary efforts began in earnest. The American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews [ASMCJ], a group of Protestant clergymen led by Joseph Frey, a German-born, American-Jewish convert to Presbyterianism, launched the best-known crusade. Frey more than met his match in Solomon Henry Jackson, a Jewish newspaper editor from New York City who organized one of the earliest Jewish defense campaigns in American history.
The American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews had originally been founded as the American Society for Colonizing and Evangelizing the Jews. When the New York state legislature refused to incorporate an explicitly religious organization, the Society changed its name and refocused its program. The organization placed its emphasis not on converting American Jews, but rather on converting European Jews and settling them in an ASMCJ-operated agricultural colony somewhere in the rural United States. ASMCJ published a journal, Israel’s Advocate, whose pages detailed accounts of this colonization plan, complained that American Jewry stubbornly resisted conversion and was hostile to those who did convert, and accused the Jews of destroying the Society’s tracts.
To counter Israel’s Advocate, Solomon Jackson published his own journal, The Jew. In the first issue dated March 1823, Jackson denied that Jews destroyed the Society’s tracts or showed open hostility to converts. Jackson ventured that the Society’s pamphlets failed to make converts because their arguments were so weak. Jackson accused ASMCJ of claiming Jewish hostility to converts to stir up Christian anti-Semitism–not to make Jewish converts, but corpses. Jackson remarked that Christian clergy had long “soured the mind of their poor flocks against their innocent Jew neighbors, causing all the persecutions that have occurred from the first establishment of Christianity to the present day, and this I fear is inherent in the spirit of Christianity.”
Jackson particularly opposed the Society’s plan to bring European converts to an agricultural colony in America (a colony which, by the way, was never established). Jackson believed that offering impoverished European Jews a free trip to, and a home in, the United States on the condition that they convert to Christianity was bribery. Jackson further argued that poor, converted Jews who came to America would soon tire of agricultural labor and would renounce their new religion, throwing themselves on the goodwill of the American Jewish community. Historian George Berlin quotes Jackson’s reasoning in the journal of the American Jewish Historical Society:
Droves of apostatized Jews will be coming back to our cities, crying in sincerity Laman Hasham, Laman Harachamim; (this no Jew can withstand) we repent, we repent, and repent they truly will in sackcloth and ashes, for they will have nothing but rags to wear, and hardly anything but bread to eat. . . . Thus will [ASMCJ] empty Europe of paupers and inundate our cities with them. Thus would [ASMCJ] take the comfortable morsel out of our mouths, and out of the mouths of our children, and oblige us to divide it with the beggars of Europe.
As Berlin notes, “Jackson taunted the ASMCJ for its concentration on European converts and its seeming lack of interest in American Jews.”
We are also the children of Abraham, descended from the same stock as the Polish and German Jews;–indeed, many of us are Poles; many of us are Germans. . . Why not try to convert us? . . . Are you afraid you will be paid in your own coin? That you will receive as good as you send; and that when you gain one (if you should gain any) you might lose one hundred? You, in that case, must be conscious of the weakness of your cause.
Jackson attacked the theological underpinnings of Christianity, arguing against the divinity of Jesus, and challenging Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. He invited the editors of Israel’s Advocate to respond but, with one exception, the paper never replied. Jackson took this silence as concession, and of Judaism’s ability to endure as the true religion.
In October 1824, Jackson announced that he would cease publishing The Jew because “[Christian] religious publications are now conducted more liberal than heretofore.” In truth, Jackson had run out of money. Fewer than 1,000 Jews lived in New York in 1824 and, even if every Jewish household bought the paper, it was unlikely to make a profit. Of course, not every Jewish household bought it. Many New York Jews were apparently made uncomfortable by Jackson’s open confrontation of the Christian majority.
Despite the discomfort he caused Jew and missionary alike, Solomon Jackson combined the power of the free press and his deeply felt religious convictions to act in the face of Christian attempts to convert American Jews. His example has not been lost on contemporary Jewish defense agencies.