How Jewish is your Jesus?
Strange stirrings in 19th Century England?
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The idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, though present in Jewish hearts since the start of the Galut, really started to take hold of Christian minds at the start of the 19th Century. It all started (probably) with the Frenchman, Napoleon Bonaparte, who promised Palestine to the Jews. The trouble is that he failed to conquer the land, so it wasn't his to give away! But nice touch, Napoleon, your heart was in the right place. From that time on, particularly in Britain, we start to see many prominent people - writers, artists, statesmen - all with one mind on the Jewish issue; the need for a Jewish homeland.
Lord Shaftesbury was the most loved politician and one of the most effective social reformers in 19th Century England. He became interested in the Jews through his study of Biblical prophecy - he was so keen to understand the Old Testament that he forced himself to learn Hebrew for that very purpose. He became convinced that the Jews should be encouraged to return to Palestine, their God-given home and urged Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary to do something about it politically. Such was the might of the British Empire in those days that it seems the British were free to do what they liked because, as a result of Shaftesbury's prompting, Michael Alexander, a Jewish Christian, was sent to the Holy Land as the first Bishop of Jerusalem. Although this man only lived for another couple of years, and the scheme only lasted for fifty years, it represented solid achievement in the desire for an eventual Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Lord Shaftesbury never gave up his vision and constantly prompted key movers of 19th Century Britain to share this vision. It was said that he was sent a ring from Jerusalem that was engraved with the Hebrew words of a Psalm, "Oh, pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper that love thee." He wore this ring for the rest of his life. Curiously the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, London, was dedicated to him, which doesn't make that much sense as he did little to promote the cause of minor Greek deities!
Here was another product of the religious awakening of the 19th Century. Although this man was well off and a member of a respected and prominent family, the main part of Lewis Way's life was spent on one single purpose, the restoration of Israel.
In 1817 he made an extensive journey through Europe at his own expense, visiting Holland, Germany, Russia and Poland. On the reports he made to his missionary society, the Church Ministry to the Jews, missions were opened in Poland, Holland and Germany. When in Russia, he met the Emperor, Alexander I, with the expressed intention of reminding Russia of her 'Christian' duty to help restore the Jewish people to their homeland. Ironically, the subsequent treatment of Jews by the Russian people, through state-sponsored pogroms, did drive out many, though not just to the promised land, but also to Britain and America and other places.
In 1821 he placed his country home at the disposal of his missionary society, as a training school for Jewish Christians. In 1840 he died and was eulogised by a later historian thus, "The best earthly friend whom Almighty God has vouchsafed to the Society. God raised him up for this great work and furnished him with all the talents which it required; learning, genius, wealth, fervent piety and a heart overflowing with love for His ancient people."
The father of modern Zionism was an Austrian Jew called Theodore Herzl, who in his pamphlet The Jewish State, began to turn the far-fetched idea of a Jewish land in Palestine to a believable reality for many Jews. What isn’t so well-known was that he probably couldn’t have done it without a British Christian Zionist, William Hechler. Here was a remarkable man, he had even prophesised that the Jews would return to their land by the start of the 20th Century.
One day Hechler found a copy of Herzl's The Jewish State and became so excited that he searched him down and they became fast friends. Herzl considered Hechler to be a religious zealot but became interested when Hechler could provide him with an introduction to the German Kaiser and the British Prime Minister. This latter relationship was to bear fruit, as we read earlier. Hechler was to work alongside Herzl right until the death of the Austrian.