Decorated initial &

o the acculturation of many English Jews in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries corresponded a growing readiness among Christian English writers of the time to consider and represent the condition of the Jews in a sympathetic light. J.F.C. Harrison’s The Second Coming and Andrew Crome’s Christian Zionism and English National Identity offer broad overviews of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century millennialism that relates to these changing attitudes. Late eighteenth-century Christian writings on the Jews, notably those of Thomas Newton, Bishop of Bristol, Richard Hurd, Bishop of Worcester, and the Baptist theologian and Hebrew scholar John Gill, indicate that the millennialism of the seventeenth century was still alive. For example, Newton’s Dissertations on the Prophecies; which have remarkably been fulfilled, and at this time are fulfilling in the world (1754), which saw multiple reprintings in 1766, 1789, 1793, 1824, 1825, argued that

the preservation of the Jews is really one of the most signal and illustrious acts of divine Providence [ . . .] and what but a supernatural power could have preserved them in such a manner as none other nation upon earth hath been preserved. Nor is the providence of God less remarkable in the destruction of their enemies, than in their preservation. [ . . .] We see that the great empires, which in their turn subdued and oppressed the people of God, are all come to ruin. [. . .] And if such hath been the fatal end of the enemies and oppressors of the Jews, let it serve as a warning to all those, who at any time or upon any occasion are for raising a clamour and persecution against them.

Similarly, in An Introduction to the Study of the Prophecies Concerning the Christian Church (1772), consisting of twelve sermons, Hurd, Bishop of Worcester, argued that as the prophecies of the dispersal of the Jews had been fulfilled to the letter, so would prophecies of their restoration, and the Baptist Gill made the same point in his Body of Doctrinal Divinity (1767).

Left: Bishop Thomas Newton. After Joshua Reynolds. Middle: Joseph Priestly. Robert Wilkinson after William Artaud. Right: John Gill by George Vertue after Joseph Highmore. All courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Click on images to enlarge them.

The theme of the conversion of the Jews and their restoration to their homeland in Palestine was given an original twist, however, by Joseph Priestley, best known now for his work in the sciences, but active in his own time as a Unitarian minister. Inspired perhaps by the Jewish Christians of the first century A.D., Priestley proposed in Letters to the Jews inviting them to an Amicable Discussion of the Evidences of Christianity (1787) that, though lamentably the Jews had had to endure much suffering at the hands of so-called Christians, ignorant of the true teaching of Christ, Judaism and Christianity (as the Unitarian Priestley understood it) were in fact so close that both religions could be united or held together. While converting to Christianity, the Jews should therefore, as God’s chosen people, preserve their own traditions and rites, such as circumcision. They would then be restored to their homeland in Palestine.

Priestley had presented his argument for the perpetuity of the rites and institutions of the Jews the year before in Hermas; Of the Perpetuity of the Jewish Ritual. As was only to be expected, his position was not widely shared, especially by Jews. Priestley’s work elicited a response, rejecting the proposal of conversion and affirming the independence of the Jewish faith, from David Levi (1742-1801), a self-taught but widely respected English-Jewish Hebraist, translator, poet, and authority on, and champion of Judaism. (On Levi, see Popkin, “David Levi, Anglo-Jewish Theologian.”) Levi’s response elicited a further ,span class=”book”Letter from Priestley, which in turn provoked a second response from Levi. A friendly, respectful, and conciliatory relation to the Jews and to Judaism was characteristic of Priestley’s work and the exchange between the two men was similarly courteous and respectful.

Another purportedly Jewish response came from one Solomon de A.R. (possibly a Christian using a pseudonym) who objected in his Reply of the Jews to the Letters Addressed to Them by Dr. Joseph Priestley (Oxford: J. Fletcher, 1787) that in , “You say that the law of Moses is of perpetual obligation, and that if we become Christians we are still to continue Jews and observers of the law of Moses. What then would have been the end and design of the mission of your Jesus, we profess we are unable to discover?” (5). Christians who challenged Priestley’s views were in most cases themselves well disposed toward the Jews. Thus James Bicheno, a dissenting clergyman and author of several politico-theological tracts, such as Friendly Address to the Jews (1787) and Signs of the Times (1792-94), argued in The Restoration of the Jews, the Crisis of all Nations (1800) that the wars currently ravaging humanity (i.e. the Napoleonic Wars) pointed to the early restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land.

Responding to the reflections of Priestley, Levi, and Bicheno on the status of the Jews, Thomas Witherby, a former solicitor in London and a lay member of the Church of England, published three works remarkably favourable to the Jews and to their religion: Observations on Mr. Bicheno’s Book entitled The Restoration of the Jews (London: Richardson, 1800), An Attempt to Remove Prejudices concerning the Jewish Nation by Way of Dialogue (London: Hatchard, 1804), and A Vindication of the Jews by Way of Reply to the Letter Addressed by Perseverans to the English Israelite, Humbly Submitted to the Consideration of the Missionary Society and the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews (London: Hatchard, 1809). In all three Witherby deplored the “very reprehensible conduct of the Christians toward the Jews” and the contempt and persecution the Jews had had to endure, not least at the hands of Christians. “The Jewish nation,” he claimed, “should be highly honoured and respected as the benefactors of mankind. [. . . ] Even when under the greatest national afflictions, the Jews have shown themselves to be a noble nation” (An Attempt, xiii-xiv). In the last of the three books, he also took issue with hyperactive conversion endeavours, such as those of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, founded in 1809 by a Polish-Jewish convert who, baptised in Germany in 1798, had come to England in 1801 and had already worked among the Jews of London on behalf of the London Missionary Society (founded in 1795 by evangelical Anglicans, together with Congregationalists, and other non-conformists). Witherby argued that these endeavours were “unadvised, rash, and unauthorised.” Given their “truly exemplary [. . .] attachment to their religion,” the Jews – rightly, Witherby held -- would never accept the kind of conversion, requiring abjuration of their own faith, that the Society’s missionaries and tracts sought to have them agree to ( An Attempt, xiv). In his earliest work, he had already expressed the modest hope, as formulated in the Preface to the Observations on Mr. Bicheno’s Book, that his own reflections would “tend to the increase of that respect with which your nation is treated by those Christians who are well instructed in the New Testament” and, at the same time, “would also tend to soften those prejudices, which the misconduct of Christians in times past have given you too much reason to consider as well grounded” (iv).

Witherby’s view – by no means widely accepted – was that “the misconduct of Christians towards the Jews and the errors of Christians concerning them” had been “the means of keeping them from the investigation of the Christian religion” and that “the opinion that the Jews are now suffering because of their fathers’ having required our Saviour to be crucified cannot (after an examination of scripture concerning it) be retained without impiety towards our blessed Saviour himself” (An Attempt, xvi). As Michael R. Darby explained recently, Witherby

believed that a desire to exalt the Christian religion at the expense of the Jewish religion was the greatest, as well as the earliest heresy which had disgraced the Christian church. [ . . . ] The Jewish and the Christian religions were so inseparably united that, unless the true foundation, the Jewish religion, were preserved, the Christian church would become weak and unstable, . . . Writing in the generation following Priestley’s, Thomas Witherby arrived at similar conclusions about the position of Jewish Christianity in the economy of God. He lamented the lack of a Jewish Christian Church, supported the view that Jewish believers should retain their national distinctions without renouncing the law of Moses, and advocated the integration of the rites of Judaism within worship. [Darby, 42, 44]

In Witherby’s own words, as reported -- and condemned -- by a reviewer of An Attempt to Remove the Prejudices Concerning the Jewish Nation, “as to [the] idea, that no one can be a Jew and a Christian at the same time, permit me to ask, were not all our Lord’s apostles Jews as well as Christians? Is there a single passage in the New Testament which intimates that a Jew by becoming a Christian, was to be less a Jew, or less regardful of the law of Moses, than he was before he became a Christian?” (Critical Review, or Annals of Literature, 3.3 (1804): 443)

The conversion efforts, directed chiefly at the poor Ashkenazi community, of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, were more straightforward. Though motivated, as one scholar has put it, by charity, rather than, as in the past, by hatred, generously financed by the growing numbers of evangelical Christians (William Wilberforce, for instance, the champion of the movement to abolish slavery, was one of the Society’s founding members), and supported by some advocates of full emancipation, such as Lord Bexley, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1812 to 1823 and proposer of a Jewish Emancipation Bill in the House of Lords in 1830 – they were nonetheless directed at completely appropriating an element in society perceived as alien. Their conversion efforts may also have been indirectly related to the development of nationalism in the age of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars (Ragussis). In fact, however, they did not come near to achieving their goal. The number of converts was never significant: 829 by the end of 1859, of whom only 367 were adults, i.e., “an average of only sixteen converts annually since 1809, and a mere seven adults per year” (Smith, 283; Scult, 3-17). In contrast, a considerable number of Sephardi Jews did convert, but “few (if any) did so out of religious conviction, and they made no pretense of having done so.” They were motivated rather by “the desire of many to assimilate into the larger culture of which they felt themselves a part, and from which they were barred by legal disabilities and communal restrictions” (Smith, 287). The celebrated economist David Ricardo who converted on marrying a Quaker, was not untypical and even those who did not themselves convert on taking Christian wives usually raised their children as Christians.

Whether in the theological speculations of a Priestley or a Witherby or in the proselytising endeavours of evangelicals, it is hard not to discern, in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth, a new and more vigorous outreach in British society toward the Jews, an acknowledgment of the severe mistreatment they had had to endure at the hands of Christians, including English Christians, and an increased interest in understanding them and in moving towards some form of reconciliation and integration. On their side, the Jews themselves felt encouraged to contribute to the growing literature attributing their alleged “degradation” (ignorance, narrow-mindedness, financial greed and obsession, low-level street trading activities, lack of interest in either agriculture or the new manufacturing industries) to their treatment over the centuries by Christians, while at the same time pointing to their many contributions – economic, cultural, and also military -- to societies such as Denmark, the United States, and post-Revolutionary France, in which they had been emancipated from all disabilities.

Left: Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid ('Will you let me a loan?'). By and published by Richard Dighton. Published August 1824. Right: Sir Francis Henry Goldsmid, 2nd Bt ('Statesmen, No. 131. "Barrister and Baronet."'). Vanity fair caricature by James Tissot. December 1872.

Among the most respected of those Jewish writers was Sir Francis Henry Goldsmid (1808-1878), England’s first Jewish barrister, a future M.P., and a son of the wealthy financier Sir Isaac Leon Goldsmid (1778-1859), himself the first Jewish baronet, an activist for complete Jewish emancipation, a supporter of the Jewish Reform movement, and one of the founders of University College, London. Goldsmid produced several tracts, among them: The Arguments advanced against the Enfranchisement of the Jews considered in a Series of Letters (1833, 2nd ed. 1838) and Remarks on the Civil Disabilities of British Jews (1838), both put out by the notable London publisher, Richard Bentley. In Arguments advanced against the Enfranchisement of the Jews, Goldsmid pointed out that

during the year 1832 every civil privilege has . . . been extended to the Jews of Barbadoes and Lower Canada: and as it has been found in England that many of those most sincerely attached to Christianity have been among the foremost to claim true freedom of conscience for their Jewish brethren, so also in Canada none was more active than a pious Divine of the Established Church [the Rev. Mr. Stevens, Chaplain of the Forces at Montreal] in seeking to obtain for the Jews of that province equality of political rights, to which, from his acquaintance with their conduct as men and as citizens, he felt that they were fully entitled. But I do not rely chiefly on the example of those places where the enfranchisement of the Jews is still recent.

Instead, Goldsmid points out that in those countries where Jews have the same right and duties as other citizens, they have made important contributions. For example, “in the United States, where for nearly half a century, and in Denmark and Holland, where during twenty years, the Hebrews have been free from any disability or restriction, the most beneficial effects have flowed from their equalization with their fellow-citizens.” In particular the experience of the Netherlands demonstrates that

the Jews have been no less zealous and active than their countrymen in asserting what has been regarded by the Dutch as the interest of the nation; that a very large number of them, it is believed above 10,000, have served with ardour in the armies of Holland, and that a considerable body of Jews, which formed part of the garrison of the citadel of Antwerp, has been stated by General Chassé to have shown remarkable valour, fully equal to that displayed by any other portion of his troops, in the obstinate defence of that fortress against the French.

The same, Goldsmid claimed, is true of the Jews in France where granting Jews the civil rights of other citizens removed many of those qualities that gentiles find objectionable. As Mérilhou, the French Minister at the time for Public Instruction, pointed out in the Chamber of Deputies,

The Israelites of our days . . . must not be confounded with that unfortunate class of former times—unfortunate because it was persecuted, for oppression has always the effect of debasing its victims. They are no longer, in France at least, given up exclusively to usury, as was the case before the Revolution of 1789, because they were then denied the possibility of being anything else, being excluded from all liberal professions. The blame must rest solely with their persecutors. But since the Constituent Assembly has placed the Israelites on a footing with other citizens, they have partaken of our glory and misfortunes; their blood has flowed on the same fields of battle as ours; their children have been brought up in the same schools with those of their Christian brethren; they have imbibed the same principles, adopted the same habits, and have become most deserving members of the State (Goldsmid, 2-4, Postcript, April 1833).]


A. R., Solomon de. The Reply of the Jews to the Letters Addressed to them by Doctor Joseph Priestley Oxford: J. Fletcher and London: Rivington, 1787.

Popkin, Richard M. "David Levi, Anglo-Jewish Theologian," Jewish Quarterly Review, 87 (October 1996): 79-101.

Crome, Andrew. Christian Zionism and English National Identity, 1600-1850. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Cumberland, Richard. The Observer, being a Collection of Moral, Literary and Familiar Essays, 5th ed. 6 vols. London: C. Dilly, 1798.

Darby, Michael R. The Emergence of the Hebrew Christian Movement in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Leiden: Brill, 2010.

Goldsmid, Francis Henry. Remarks on the Civil Disabilities of British Jews. Postcript, April 1833. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Francis Bentley, 1830.

Harrison J.F.C. The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.

Ragussis, Michael. Figures of Conversion: “The Jewish Question” & English National Identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Scult, Mel. “English Missions to the Jews: Conversion in the Age of Emancipation,” Jewish Social Studies, 35 (1973):. 3-17.

Smith, Michael. “The London Jews’ Society and Patterns of Jewish Conversion in England 1802-1859.” Jewish Social Studies, 43 (1981): 275-90.

Witherby, Thomas. A vindication of the Jews, by way of a reply to the letter addressed by Perseverans to the English Israelite, humbly submitted to the consideration of the Missionary Society, and the London Society for promoting Christianity among the Jews. London: Hatchard, 1809.

Witherby, Thomas. Observations on Mr. Bicheno's book, entitled The Restoration of the Jews the 6 July 2020 of all Nations : wherein the revolutionary tendency of that publication is shewn ... ; together with an inquiry concerning things to come. London: J. and J. Richards, 1800.

Witherby. Thomas. A Vindication of the Jews: by way of reply to the letters addressed to Perseverans to the English Israelite; humbly submitted to the consideration of the Missionary Society, and the London Society for promoting Christianity among the Jews. London: Hatchard; Cadell and Davies, 1809.

Last modified 29 July 2020