Southern Presbyterians and the Roots of American Philosemitism

In the inaugural volume of The Southern Presbyterian Review published in December, 1847, Benjamin Morgan Palmer the younger reviewed Andrew Bonar and Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews from the Church of Scotland in 1839. The Presbyterian Board of Publications initially published the work soon after its completion in 1839. A second edition made its way to North America in 1845.

Palmer’s review of the work made it clear that he thought the work not what he had hoped. He thought the two Scots had not provided enough background on Jewish history to give appropriate context for the Church of Scotland’s specific missionary efforts. As a “directory” of Jewish life and as justification for Protestant and particularly Presbyterian missionary efforts Palmer found the work “as unsatisfactory as the works of which it was intended to be the supplement.”

The actual review of Bonar and M’Cheyne’s work was less important than Palmer’s own views on Jews in general. Southern Presbyterians displayed an early and pronounced streak of philosemitism in an era when Jewish life in the United States could still be precarious. Palmer, and South Carolina Presbyterians in general, lived and worked among Charleston’s sizable and vibrant Jewish population. James W. Hagy’s This Happy Land: the Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston explained how Jews in the South enjoyed relative inclusion compared to northern cities of the same eras. In 1800, More Jews lived in South Carolina than anywhere else in North America. Philip Morgan of Johns Hopkins, in an endorsement of Theodore and Dale Rosengarten’s A Portion of the People Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life, reminded audiences that “until 1830 Charleston was the capital of American Jewry; Christians in South Carolina elected the first professing Jew to office; Reform Judaism first came to the United States in the Palmetto State.”

It is unsurprising then that Benjamin Palmer spoke so admiringly of Jews. Their chief trait, he wrote, was “almost superhuman tenacity.” Their national life had been nearly destroyed time and time again through slavery, conquest, and a variety of other national calamities. Even as Jewish national life was seemingly destroyed, “the Jew is not.” Palmer evoked a nearly mystical tie between the Jewish diaspora and the Holy Land, and in this regard seemed to posit a form of proto-Zionism.

In all regions and in all situations, [the Jew] is the proudest monument of human constancy the world has ever seen. Patriotic, yet without a country or charter, without king or commonwealth. Religious, yet without altar or victim, without temple or priest—a fraternity whose bonds, though secret, are yet indissoluble. Though wandering to either pole, the sun himself does not more regularly turns at the tropics, than do the weary steps of the Jew, whom age is overtaking, to Zion as his resting place.”

Benjamin M. Palmer, “The Intellectual and Moral Character of the Jews,” The Southern Presbyterian Review I (1847-1848): 35

Palmer saw Jews as a mournful people, and for that reason alone, worthy of sympathy.

Sympathy for Jews did not mean Palmer was completely without prejudice. He complained that Jews in particular were rightly accused of avarice and he repeated the standard Christian refrain that they had been punished for disobedience to God and were in spiritual condemnation like all other non-Christians, but he also said that Jews were a naturally moral and virtuous people free from “the gross vices of other races.” Palmer affirmed that “as a people” Jews were “good citizens and obedient to the laws of every country in which their lot is cast. How many Jewish drunkards and beggars are seen in your streets; and ask your judges and your jailers how many convicts and criminals of Israel’s faith occupy the dock or the prison.” This, said Palmer, was a “remarkable challenge, and facts eminently sustain it.”

Like other southern Presbyterians—James Henley Thornwell, Daniel Baker, and John B. Adger among others all recorded marked sympathy for Jews in their writings—Palmer displayed noticeable philosemitism in an era when Jews were still routinely persecuted in Roman Catholic and Islamic societies, as well as in Lutheran monarchies in Europe. Slaveholding southern Presbyterians nonetheless sympathized with Jews. In Palmer’s case he went so far as to see a poetic beauty and unity between Jews and the Holy land, and he believed that the Jews had blessed humanity. He struck a mournful but somehow hopeful note when he wrote of Jews that “even in death his soul blesses the land which denies him a grave.” [1]

[1] All quotes taken from Benjamin M. Palmer, “The Intellectual and Moral Character of the Jews,” The Southern Presbyterian Review I (1847-1848): 30-55.


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