The Rev Frey ( above)
The conversion of the Jews to Christianity was seen by many of the Regency period as an important charitable act, similar to the help given to fallen women and the industrious poor. The main engine of this philanthropy was the London Society Promoting Christianity Amongst The Jews. It was proposed in August 1808 and was inaugurated on February 15th, 1809.
Its aim was “the benevolent purpose of rescuing the unhappy Jews from the state of moral degradation in which they find themselves”. They were a missionary organisation. One of their key members was William Wilberforce, the most famous proselytising evangelical of the time. They were mostly from the Church of England, with the addition of a few token dissenters.
By 1810, they had purchased a French Protestant Church in Church Street, Spitalfields, which had originally been built by the Huguenot community in 1743. Their newspaper advertisement said that they had produced 8000 pamphlets and opened a school in the East End, a printing press and a House of Industry.
Their leading light and founder was the Reverend Joseph Samuel C.F Frey, a Church of England Minister who was a Jewish convert. In April 1810, the Rev Frey was in Oxfordshire and in October he was in Scotland. It seems that the whole message of the London Jews’ Society was quite conciliatory in an age where Jews were held under the greatest of suspicion. While the society stressed the necessity for conversion, they asked their lecture audience to realise the importance of the first five books of the Torah as a foundation of Christianity. Jews had been a positive boon to civilisation, despite their error 1700 years ago. “Gratitude” says one of their newspaper reports “demands our assistance and commiseration” The Society pointed out that the treatment of Jews in Christian had been historically appalling and was not likely to encourage them to repent. They also praised Napoleon, a dangerous thing to do in Britain in 1811.
“Whatever the rapacity and injustice of the French Emperor, his enlightened policy towards the Jews deserves the imitation of every European power”
A letter to the Chester Courant (31.12.1811) supported the work of the society and the writer equally keen not to slur the Jews; the author was Michael Collin, a Jewish Rabbi convert. However there was a whiff of condescension; the Jews were in a lethargic slumber from which they need to be wakened; their ancestors had made the errors and had put the modern Jews under terrible, untenable obligations.
By 1811, the Society had set up an auxiliary branch in Carlisle and Dublin. The Carlisle Branch used mass subscriptions of 1 penny a week to raise £50 per year and the Dublin branch did the same, with the added help of donations from the enlightened yet pious members of the Irish “bon ton”. Both organisations raised money for a House of Industry for Jewish Women in the East End. The Dublin Branch, meeting for the first time in November 1811, noted with concern that there were 400 Jewesses in London, in “a debased state of human wretchedness”.
The Rev Frey was still sermonising around Great Britain. In 1811 he was in Chester and North Wales, at ten places in 12 days, including one day when he was in Conway at 11am and Bangor at 6pm.
In April 1811 the society boasted a new Hebrew –Christian Chapel in Bethnal Green, an increase in Jewish Children at the school from 36 in 1810 to 51, many thousands of more tracts in English, German and Hebrew and 24 baptisms. From our point of view, this may be a low number, but when the Society was formed in 1809 it was noted that there were no more than 30 converted Jews in the whole of the country.
A Jewish printing house had been established with many converted Jews employed; the implication was that they were being provided with jobs after losing them when they converted- to quote the Sussex Auxiliary Society formed in 1814-those persecuted for righteousness sake”. Cotton weaving equipment was purchased for a group of converts who had been pushed out of their synagogue and were now the deserving poor. Frey was in constant danger from the working class Jews of Spitalfields too; his early convert Bernard Jacob was attacked with his children in 1809. Frey was a hard working and brave man.
In May 1812 the Rev John Hutchins was in Colchester and Ipswich. In July he preached to 2000 people crowded into St Mary’s Bungay. They were now up to 35 baptisms with 70 children at two schools (slightly ominously)they were pleased to add that 55 of the children were “entirely taken from their parents” .
In many ways this seems to be a real achievement; although the number of new baptisms seems disappointing poor. Indeed most of the audience for the sermons were Christian. Most of the lectures and sermons were held in Church of England places of worship; but dissenter chapels were also used; there were no visits to purely Jewish audiences.
Twenty eight pounds were raised from both poor and rich at Bungay; like all advertisements and propaganda from the Society, it was made very clear that ladies were very welcome and would be accommodated. They used the same techniques of taking money from both rich and poor, creating elite fundraising events and penny societies for the poor. Cheshire had its own separate gentlewomen’s Society, were the lowest respectable annual subscription was a guinea.
As auxiliary branches sprung up, their success continued.. At Ipswich in March 1813 it was announced that there were 42 baptisms and 104 children in the school and their Chapel in Church Street Spitalfields now had a Congregation of the Hebrew- Christian Benei Abraham (The Children of Abraham)-the first Chapel for Converted Jews in Britain.
The Society expanded into a global missionary organisation and survives today as the The Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People, and is one of the ten missionary societies of the Church of England.
My book on the grim reality of Regency Britain is available now .
2 thoughts on “Converting the Jews 1809-1813”
Interesting piece. The conversion rate was not brilliant, given that a few decades later that converted chapel was to be converted again to a synagogue (Machzike Hadath), which is today the Jamme Masjid mosque. Church Street, named well given it had at one time a church at each end, is today called Fournier Street.
Thanks for your comments and interest!