Ridley H. Herschell and Jewish Conversion to Protestantism in the 19th Century

In 1842, the United States’ major Presbyterian publishing house, the Philadelphia-based Presbyterian Board of Publication, offered to the public one of the strangest books they had yet published. The author, Polish-born Ridley Haim Herschell, hailed from a family of pious Ashkenazi Jews. A bright child and good student, Herschell procured an education in then Prussian-controlled territories. In Berlin, Herschell encountered Christian literature and had what he called a dramatic conversion to Christianity. He asked Roman Catholics and Protestants for help learning his new religion as he struggled to reconcile his Christian beliefs with his Jewish family and heritage; he eventually became a Protestant because he believed Protestantism allowed him to reconcile his Jewish heritage with his Christianity more easily than Roman Catholicism did. Herschell never reconciled with his family. From Paris he went to London. Through the sponsorship of sympathetic British aristocrats, he gained educational and—as it turned out—religious patrons. The Church of England Bishop of London baptized Hershcell in 1830. He married a Scottish woman from a Presbyterian background a few years later.

Herschell’s baptism as an Anglican did not keep him from irenic endeavors wirth Presbyterians. He felt called to evangelize fellow Jews, and his missionary efforts found warm support in broad swathes of Anglophone Protestantism in the 1830s and 1840s. Herschell’s engagement with Jews remained broadly sympathetic. He appeared to be aware of complaints that he was too coddling of Judaism. Herschell argued he never coddled Jews; his Protestantism, however, led him to take seriously the errors of Roman Catholicism. He wrote in 1837 that he had “been charged with drawing too favourable a picture of my own brethren, while I have been too severe on professing Christians. To this I can only reply, by stating, that I have not intentionally done either. He reminded his readers that he was not indicting the Christians of Great Britain. I do not compare English Jews with British Christians. “I compare the Jews of my native country with the ungodly heathens around them, as the papists and infidels, who assume the Christian name, ought more properly to be denominated.” [i]

Conversion of the Jews for Herschell rested on an embrace of who Jesus Christ was. The Messiah, Herschell reminded his generally Protestant readers in 1837, was a Jew. His best-known book, A Brief Sketch of the Present State and Future Expectations of the Jews, “endeavoured to impart more just views of the present condition of my brethren the Jews” than was “commonly entertained among Christians.” Herschell hoped “through the blessing of God, to awaken, amongst the true disciples of Jesus, a feeling of deeper interest towards my brethren, and, ought I not to add, His brethren, according to the flesh; who, let it never be forgotten, are still, as a people, beloved of God for the Fathers ‘ sakes.”[ii]

American Protestants received Herschell’s work sympathetically, even if they debated some of his eschatological views. Herschell proposed a form of eschatological Zionism that argued a future mass conversion of Jews would occur before Christ’s second coming. That position divided American Protestants. So Herschell’s “Millenarian statements,” Charles Hodge’s Princeton Review suggested, “will be carefully weighed, before adoption, by such as read the work without settled opinions on this contested question.” Nonetheless Hodge and his colleagues could report to their readers that “this little volume, by a son of Abraham, will be found entertaining and instructive. It contains new and interesting statements with regard to the present condition of the Jews.” Herschell’s book went through a half dozen printings in the 1830s and 1840s in Great Britain and the United States.[iii]

Herschell’s work antedated the rise of dispensationalism in the United States by half a century. American theological philosemitism, and Protestant philosemitism in general had roots in historic Protestant theological commitments. Where Protestants landed the question of whether a mass conversion of Jews at the end of history—what is now often rendered as Christian Zionism—did not mean Protestants did not view Jews as a people worthy of care and prayer. Herschell’s argument that Christians should care for Jews for Christ’s sake carried more weight, and earlier weight, than dispensationalism did in the development of Christian and particularly Protestant philosemtism.

[i] Ridley H. Herschell, A Brief Sketch of the Present State and Future Expectations of the Jews (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications), 7-8.

[ii] Ibid., 9.

[iii] The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review 15 (1843): 288-89.


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