Fending Off the Missionaries

A group of Protestant clergymen decided their new mission would be to convert European Jews and settling them in a rural agricultural community somewhere in the United States.

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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.”

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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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