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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Conversion to Christianity

Conversion is the Biblical term for the turning of the sinner from his evil ways to God (). "Sinners shall be converted unto thee" (Psalms 51:13; compare Isaiah 1:27, and Jeremiah 3:12,14,22, where the A. V. has "return"; Ecclus. [Sirach) 5:7, 17:24-26, 18:13, 49:2). There can be no conversion without change of heart and conduct; that is, repentance of sins committed (Deuteronomy 30:2; Isaiah 55:7; Jeremiah 24:7; Ezekiel 18:27 et seq.; Joel 2:13; see see REPENTANCE).

Conversion of the Heathen.

Conversion of the heathen nations to a belief in God is one of the fundamental Messianic expectations (Isaiah 66:19-23; Zephaniah 3:9; Zechariah 14:9), and it is based upon the conception of an original revelation of God common to all men, wherefore heathen sinners are also expected to repent and turn to God (Jonah 3:3; Sibyllines 1:129, 4:169). For the sake of converting the heathen, idolatry was denounced by the seer of the Exile (Isaiah 41-), and individual heathens were in fact won over (Isaiah 56:6). The whole Hellenistic propagandist literature, foremost in which are the Sibylline Books,had the conversion of the Gentiles for its object, though its intention was to make them rather observers of the Noachidic laws, which included the worship of God as the Only One, than members of the Abrahamitic covenant; that is, full proselytes. A prayer for the conversion of the heathen is offered at the close of every service in the synagogue ('Alenu). In pre-Christian times very determined efforts were made toward proselytizing the heathens (see Matthew 23:15: "Ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte"; compare Gen. R. and Cant. R. 1:14: "The annual conversion of one heathen saves the whole pagan world"); but as soon as the Church took up the task, following the methods of Paul, who was eager to let "the fulness of the Gentiles come in" (Romans 11:25), the zeal of the Jews diminished, and "the conversion of the Gentiles," which "caused great joy unto all the brethren" (Acts 15:3), became obnoxious to the Synagogue (Yeb. 47b; see Proselytes and Proselytism).

Conversion of the Jews.

No sooner had the Roman world been conquered by the Church than the conversion of the Jews became its ever present aim, much against the intention of the founder of Christianity (Matthew 10:6); and henceforth conversion assumed a new meaning. It was no longer a return to God in repentance, but the adoption of a new faith—not always from inner conviction, but under the influence of a ruling and threatening outward power. No barbarity seemed too cruel to be used as a means of enforcing the conversion of the Jews (see the letter of Bishop Severus concerning the Jews of Magona [island of Minorca], in Grätz, "Gesch." 3d ed., 4:363; compare 5:47,49, etc.), although Pope Gregory I. (ib. 5:41), Bernard of Clairvaux (ib. 6:151), and other prelates deprecated such measures (see Ersch and Gruber, "Encyc." section , pp. 57, 62, 68, 77, 124, 151 et seq., 221 et seq., 230 et seq.). Even when, for the sake of keeping up the semblance of conversion by arguments, "disputations" were held between Jews and Christians in the presence of potentates, prelates, and the people, the defeat of the Jews was a foregone conclusion, and renewed persecution the unfailing sequel. Strangely enough, Jewish apostates acted as the most unscrupulous defamers of Judaism with the view of converting their former brethren (see Apostasy). The conversion of the Jews formed at all times an object of ambition of the Roman pontiffs, who compelled the Jews to attend at least once a year the Catholic service, for the purpose of listening to a conversionistic appeal. This practise was also followed in England, where the legal enactment forbidding Jews to disinherit their baptized children (see DISABILITIES) was enforced. In 1550 Pope Paul III. founded an institute for the conversion of Jews. England had its Hospital of Converts and House of Converts in London and Oxford as early as the thirteenth century (see "Missionen unter den Juden," in Herzog-Hauck, "Real-Encyc." 2d ed.).

Futility of Conversionism.

As to the results of such efforts Luther's utterance is characteristic: "It is as easy to convert Jews as to convert the devil himself" (quoted by Heman in "Missionen," in Herzog-Hauck, ib.). More typical is the story related of Everard, a highly respected Christian convert of the thirteenth century (see Brisch, "Gesch. der Juden in Cöln und Umgebung," 1:76 et seq.). After having led a secluded life as canon of the Church of St. Andrew in Cologne, he refused to take the sacraments in his dying hour, but gave orders to have a dog, a cat, a hare, and a mouse—animals which he had for years kept penned up in his courtyard—brought before him in the presence of all his friends; no sooner were they let loose than the dog seized the hare and the cat the mouse. "Behold," he then said to his assembled friends, "these four animals, which have never seen one another before, but have always been kept apart, acted simply in obedience to the instincts of their nature. Yet as little as the dog will ever cease running after the hare, and the cat after the mouse, so little will the Jew ever become a true Christian." Soon after, he breathed his last.

For medieval conversions to Christianity see Apostasy and Apostates.

Modern Conversionism.

The modern era of culture and reason greatly changed the attitude of the Christian toward the Jew. No longer did the broad-minded Jewish man of affairs, such as the Spanish period produced, look down with disdain upon his intellectually inferior Christian antagonist. The breadth of view and the larger knowledge were now on the side of the Christian, while in the narrow ghetto the mind of the Jew had become cramped, and his whole life and thought were circumscribed by the Talmud. It was frequently from sincere pity that Christian statesmen and religious leaders looked for the day when, as the Church believed, "the veil of Moses" would be taken from the Jewish people, so that they should no longer appear "as a mere wreck and ruin of the past, a mummy preserved by the centuries only to testify to the living truths of Christianity." Their conversion was one of the motives which led men like Cromwell (Grätz, "Gesch." 10:104; Blunt, "Status of the Jews in England," p. 30) and Vane (see O. S. Straus, "Roger Williams," p. 172) to grant liberty and civil rights to the Jews. Others, again, were moved by the same motives to oppose such concessions (see "Juden-Emancipation," in Ersch and Gruber, "Encyc.").

In his turn the Jew came to regard Christianity in a different light, especially where a return to the simple teachings of the New Testament became the aim of many Christians, and where the growth of friendly relations disclosed to both Jew and Christian the fact that they had many more interests to unite them than differences to keep them apart. To Jews ambitious to obtain worldly success, the temptation came in many forms to remove the barrier of creed by a few drops from the baptismal font, willingly bestowed by the ruling Church; and many a descendant of Abraham, eager to eat of the fruit from the tree of modern knowledge, forbidden to him in the ghetto, was perplexed by the question whether he might not don the garb of Christianity in order to participate in its culture. The ProtestantChurch was quick to perceive her opportunity, and organized her efforts toward the conversion of the Jews, being in many countries supported by the government in its dealing with the Jews as citizens. Still the spirit of loyalty held the Jew within the fold, and only a few, and those rarely of the best elements, yielded to such influences.

Strange to say, Great Britain, with her liberal policy toward the Jews, presented at the close of the eighteenth century the first large list of secessions from the Jewish camp. The descendants of those who bravely resisted the storms of persecution in Spain were ready, when the sun of prosperity smiled on them, to sacrifice the pride of their ancestral heritage to the blandishments of fortune and fame offered to the converts (see J. Picciotto, "Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History," pp. 196 et seq., and see Converts, Modern).

In America, too, the same fate befell a number of Jewish families scattered throughout the country. Without organization and the strength of conviction, they were lost in the various churches; only occasionally features and names betray their Jewish origin (see "Publications Am. Jewish Hist. Soc." 1:98, 2:91, 4:197; Kohut, "Ezra Stiles and the Jews," pp. 37-49, 85, 111; Wise, "Reminiscences," pp. 62-70, 272; Lowell, in "Atlantic Monthly," Jan., 1897; Kohler, in "American Hebrew," Jan., 1892).

Christian Missions to Jews.

The first attempt to organize the work of converting the Jews was made in Holland at the synods of Dordrecht, Delft, and Leyden (1676-78). The example was followed in other Protestant countries. In Hamburg Esdras Edzard, a disciple of John Buxtorf, founded an institute for the conversion of the Jews, and the municipal laws of Hamburg, which forced the children of the Jews to attend the Christian schools, greatly aided him in obtaining converts. In Hesse-Darmstadt, where the Jews in the sixteenth century were, as elsewhere, compelled to attend the church once a year to listen to conversionist addresses, there existed also an institute for the conversion of the Jews. In 1736, "400 erring sheep were admitted into the Christian fold, and 600 impostors were refused admission," naively says the official record (see Herzog-Hauck, ib.). The next to take up the work of converting the Jews were the Moravian brethren in the middle of the eighteenth century, and the Pietists of Halle, whence the Callenberg Institute (1728-92) sent forth its missionaries over the world. But all these efforts were of little avail. Lavater's attempt to convert Mendelssohn showed the futility of such endeavors (Mendelssohn, Moses).

Conversions from Worldly Motives.

The tidal wave of cosmopolitan enlightenment achieved for the Church more than all her conversionists could. Captivated by the liberal thought of the age which beheld in creeds the work of priestcraft and superstition, the upper classes of Jews in Germany, Austria, and France gradually broke away from their ancestral religion, which appeared to them as a shackle and a misfortune, and felt no scruple in taking a step which was the only means of freeing the Jew in the eyes of the Christian world from the yoke and the shame of centuries. Not from conviction, but attracted by the hope of brilliant careers or grand alliances, hundreds of Jewish families in Berlin, Vienna, Königsberg, and elsewhere joined the Church, "fluttering like moths around the flame until they were consumed" (Grätz, "Gesch." 11:155 et seq.).

As Grätz correctly states, aversion to the Christian dogma and a profound attachment to the home life and the traditions of the past kept the majority from following the example. Only one power could really stem the evil of apostasy, and this Grätz ignores—the inner reform of Judaism which would again imbue the Jew with self-respect while disclosing to him his historical mission in the world (see Holdheim, "Gesch. der Entstehung der Jüdischen Reformgemeinde Berlin," pp. 33, 251, Berlin, 1857). The first attempt made by Zunz and his friends failed, and the consequence was despair and new conversions; e.g., that of Eduard Gans, Heine, and others (Grätz, "Gesch." 11:403 et seq.). And when at last a maturer stage was attained by the leaders of see Reform, and measures were proposed to improve the religious and social life of the Jew, the governments interfered, preventing and prohibiting, as far as they could, reforms, in order to force the Jew to seek salvation in the arms of the Church. In fact, government and Church, press and people, conspired to render the life of the Jew as miserable as possible, a continual martyrdom, while the strong conviction which produced martyrs in former ages was lacking. And as if to deprive the Jew of every spark of self-respecting manhood, it was made part of the Pharaonic system to declare the Jewish persuasion to be a disqualification for governmental offices and posts of honor in civic life or in the army, and at the same time to bribe Jewish men of letters and learning by offering them promotion in case they would change their faith.

To this was added another factor opening a new field of promise to converts. Inspired undoubtedly by a genuine love for the Jewish nation (Way, Lewish), "societies for the promotion of Christianity among the Jews" were started at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Great Britain, and spread under various names over the whole earth, sending forth missionaries and publishing tracts, books, and periodicals at an immense cost with the sole purpose of converting the Jews. Insignificant as the results were compared with the amount of labor and money spent by these societies, they have in the opinion of unbiased observers, Jews and Christians (see the opinions of the latter in Brann's "Jahrbuch," 1895, pp. 28-36), done great harm in endeavoring to uproot the faith of a race admired for its steadfast loyalty, and to alienate children from their parents and from domestic traditions which formed the basic element of their morality. Their main acquisitions seem to be the numerous converts in their employ, to whom they chiefly owe their success, if not existence, all of whom might have done far nobler work for the elevation of the Jewish race, had they been encouraged to strive for Judaism rather than against it. No reflection upon their sincerity of conviction or of purpose is necessary. That which offends the Jew in these conversionist efforts is that a premiumshould be put on an act of disloyalty as if it were a meritorious one (see Felsenthal, "Zur Kritik des Christlichen Missionswesens," Chicago, 1869; N. Samter, "Judentaufen im Neunzehnten Jahrhundert," in Brann's "Jahrbuch," 1895, pp. 9-48, where the literature is also given; "Missionen," in Herzog-Hauck, ib.; De Le Roi, "Gesch. der Evangelischen Judenmission, and , 1899).

As regards the number of converts, De Le Roi, in his work on missions, has estimated that they run to something like 204,540 during the nineteenth century. Of these, 72,240 have transferred their allegiance to Protestantism, 57,300 to Roman Catholicism, and 74,500 to the Greek Church in Russia (but see CONVERTS TO CHRISTIANITY, MODERN). The exact numbers for the latter country are only known from 1836 to 1897, when they ran up to 58,502, which did not include conversions to Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in that country. Naturally, conversions occur most frequently during periods of persecution; thus while in Prussia between 1872 and 1879 the average was only 65 per annum, in 1888, at the height of the anti-Semitic movement, the number was 348. In the year 1897 they sank to 299. Similarly in Vienna during the seventies the average was only 40 per annum, whereas in 1896 457 were converted, and 468 in 1898 ("Statist. Jahrb. für Wien," p. 346). According to the "Oesterreichische Wochenschrift," Nov. 21, 1902, the figures were: in 1898, 472; in 1899, 565; in 1900, 627; in 1901, 615; and up to Nov., 1902, 555 converts. In the whole of Hungary in 1897 only 220 were converted ("Magyar Statist. Evkönyv," 4:435). The number of working agents employed by the English and Scottish societies in 1877 was 220, costing £670,000 ("Israel's Watchman," April, 1877, p. 55).

The number of conversions reached their height at the close of the nineteenth century, when under the watchword of anti-Semitism all the medieval fury of Jew-hatred was revived, and the Jews of continental Europe were made to feel that, in spite of their full and hearty participation in the political life and intellectual progress of their country, they were yet regarded and treated as aliens. Having in their worldly pursuits allowed their religious sentiment to fall to the freezing-point, and finding themselves disappointed in all their aims and aspirations, many wealthy Jewish families took that step which opened to them the door of admission into the highest circles. It must be left to the moralist to decide whether conversions caused by mere worldly motives benefit or demoralize society. It must be left to the statesman to decide whether in thus forcing Jewish elements to amalgamate with non-Jewish under the thin cover of a formal profession of creed, anti-Semitism does not rather defeat its own ends. From the Jewish point of view the law of natural selection, which is ever at work weeding out the weaker elements and allowing only those to survive that have the power of resistance, has been fitting the Jew for his highest task even in this crisis, just as Isaiah saw it in the vision of the tree reduced to a "tenth" by storm and fire (7:13).

The Berlin Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews spent more than 117,152 reichsthaler upon the conversion of 461 Jews during the fifty years of its existence (W. Zichte, "Fünfzig Jahre der Judenmission," Berlin, 1872), while the London Society paid between the years 1863 and 1894 from £600 to £3,000 for the conversion of a single Jew ("Saat auf Hoffnung," 1863, 3:16; "Friedensbote," 1871, p. 149; "Jeshurun," 1895, p. 274).

The policy of the Roman Catholic Church, though formally prohibiting forcible conversion (Decretals, c. 5, D. 45), has always been to facilitate conversion as much as possible, even when the subject was not of an age to appreciate the gravity of the act. The age did not seem to have been settled till a decision was passed by the Holy Congregation of the Curia (June 16, 1809), which fixed it at seven years. Besides this, children, if in danger of dying or if one of the parents had been converted to Catholicism, might be baptized against the will or without the knowledge of their parents. On Oct. 22, 1587, the Roman Curia decided that a Jewish child, when baptized even against the canonical law, must be brought up under Christian influence. A special house for converts was created at Rome (see CATECHUMENS, HOUSE OF), and many Jewish children were immured in it up to 1858, when the case of Edgar See Mortara drew the attention of the whole of Europe to the method of Roman Catholic propagandism as directed against the Jews at Rome. also Coen, Josef di Michele.

Work of Jewish Converts.

The converts also seem to be destined to do work, though involuntarily, for Judaism. Whatever of mental vigor there is in an offspring of the Jewish race, whatever spark from the fire of Sinai still burns in a descendant of the house of Israel, he can not help, even though he stray far away from his Jewish cradle, contributing a share of the Jewish spirit to the upbuilding of the divine kingdom of truth and righteousness in the larger world which he has entered. Just as it was the religious genius of the Jew that made Saul of Tarsus the great missionary for the heathen, so did the Oriental imagery of Benjamin Disraeli, and the wit and ardent love of liberty of Heine and Börne, carry Jewish elements into the life and literature of the English and the German peoples. To the cosmopolitan character of modern art, literature, and philosophy, Jews, even under the guise of a Christian confession, have contributed very essentially. It is the cosmopolitan idea of humanity which even the disjoined and disloyal members of the Jewish race are bound to proclaim.

Most modern converts, unlike the apostates of former centuries, have retained in their heart of hearts love for the faith and the history of their nation, and in critical hours many have stepped forth in its defense. They are, in the terminology of the Rabbis, ("such as apostatized for personal motives"), but not ("such as apostatized to provoke the wrath of Heaven by any malice of their own") (see 'Ab. Zarah 26a).


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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Conversion to Christianity'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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