Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rebecca & the Proselytizers

In the previous blog,"The Indian Removal Act, Evangelicals and Rebecca Gratz," I reported on some of the positive effects -- influences on the women's rights and anti-slavery movements, for instance -- of the the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century. The Evangelicals also founded institutions of higher learning, notably Oberlin College in Ohio, which was the first to admit women and African-Americans. That said, many Evangelicals deeply offended Jews with their aggressive efforts at conversion. Rebecca Gratz sometimes found herself a target of the proselytizers since she was celebrated as the inspiration for the character of Rebecca in Scott's tremendously popular novel Ivanhoe. In her correspondence she records two of these approaches; neither came from her Christian friends and associates of long standing who seem to have respected her faith.

In 1834, Rebecca reported to her sister-in-law Maria in Kentucky:

"I received a note from one of my neighbours a few days ago, requesting the loan of my bible, as she found according to hers the time was near at hand when the Jews would be gathered to their own land [millennialism, the belief in the coming Apocalypse, was one thread among many in the Second Great Awakening] --on returning it she expressed in another note her joy at finding my bible the same she used. [The King James Bible was the English-language version readily available in the United States.] She begged me not to let the light that was in me be darkness -- but daily to examine myself -- and have regard to my soul -- by studying the scriptures etc. -- and she is so earnest that I cannot help being obliged to her --thank God I have the law and the prophets and am willing to hear them."

Rebecca had acute insight into the intentions behind words and actions, and when they were good-hearted, she was patient with and forgiving of their consequences. She seems to have thought that this woman had had the essential Evangelical experience of spiritual rebirth and she wanted others to experience it as well. Rebecca honored her sincerity, but she also sensed another motivation mixed in: she thought the woman "should try to canonize herself by my conversion." The rebirth experience was becoming less important to the proselytizers than just getting a convert.

When she received an anonymous letter and pamphlet in 1842 from a women's group in Boston dedicated to the conversion of the Jews, Rebecca was not so charitable. The writer detailed a visit she had made to a synagogue in Nice, France, and ridiculed the Jewish form of worship. Rebecca was insulted by the ignorance and presumptuousness represented and thought it in "very bad taste" to be so addressed. Her fame had again made her a target for strangers.

But Rebecca was most irate at what befell her friends Jacob and Hannah Florance in 1845. The couple were bringing up an orphaned niece Sarah Marx with their own children, and in the summer of 1844 had taken the whole family on vacation to Schooley's Mountain, a fashionable watering place in northern New Jersey. There they had made the acquaintance of another Philadelphia family, the Hockton's. Capt. Hockton, the son of the family, proposed to Sarah, but the Florance's had asked his forbearance since she was only 17 and still at school. Sarah went back to school in the fall, but continued to see Hockton secretly, and the following June the two eloped.

Elopement seems romantic today, but at the time it was a scandal and extremely painful for the families involved. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the situation, parents felt terribly betrayed by their children and vulnerable to the gossip and criticism of the community. So, when Mrs. Florance got a letter from Sarah stating that she had married, the distraught woman went to the young man's mother, thinking that they could commiserate with each other. But Mrs. Hockton announced that she knew all about the secret romance, "that she had prayed in her closet that this might be the means of converting all the family to Christianity." Mrs. Florance could only reply that the Florances's faith was as fixed as Hockton's.

Rebecca was outraged. This had nothing to do with a spiritual rebirth central to Evangelicalism.
"Poor Sarah will soon be cited as a Christian convert -- probably thinks as little about religion" as her new husband's family. Rebecca knew it would be a social conversion, not a religious one, and she was infuriated at the arrogance which would carelessly break family ties. "Alas, how little the spirit of religion enters into [those] who dare trample on the rights -- the domestic peace of [their] neighbors -- steal a child -- and presume to justify the act by the profane prayer."

Here was the movement at its worst: all self-righteousness and sanctimonious justifications. In fact, Evangelicals' organized efforts to convert Jews were singularly unfruitful. Social forces rather than spiritual needs were more likely to effect the change where it took place.

Rebecca's Hebrew Sunday School Society is sometimes characterized as a defense against the Evangelical fervor, and this concern probably played a part in its creation and continued support by the Philadelphia Jewish community. Rebecca, in her correspondence, never mentions its mission as a shield against the Evangelical onslaught. For her, religious education for children was closer to being an absolute good than a tactic necessary in a particular situation.

(The story about her neighbor's attempt at conversion is from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson. The other two stories are from letters in the Miriam Moses Cohen Collection, Southern History Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

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