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David and Goliath: Jewish Conversion and Philo-Semitism in Late-Eighteenth-Century English Millenarian Thought

  • J. FruchtmanJr.
Chapter
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 175)

Abstract

Long struggling with the “Jewish question,” Christian writers have historically asked what should Christians do about the Jews’ persistent rejection of Jesus as their Messiah. Many Christians, however, still retained lingering hopes that the Jews would some day appreciate the supersession of the Old by the New Testament and thus convert to Christianity. In late-eighteenth-century England, this question profoundly resonated when growing millenarian longings permeated the writings of several ministers and political theorists like Joseph Priestley, a founder of the Unitarian church and the modern science of chemistry and an unrelenting critic of English government and politics. Among the Dissenting element’s most prolific writers, Priestley’s theological and miscellaneous works, which alone compromise over twenty-six printed volumes and do not include his scientific writings, were well-respected and wellknown.1 Despite his work in chemistry, electricity, and physics or his publications highlighting his opposition to the politics of the English government and his approval of the American and French Revolutions, Priestley’s primary concern was with the inexorable movement of time to the fast approaching millennium.2 He saw this movement in the Americans’ quest for liberty and independence in the 1770s and he was convinced that the leaders of revolutionary France and later even Napoleon himself forecast the beginning of the end of time. For Priestley, Jewish conversion heralded Jesus’s Second Coming and the ignition of last days. Little did he know that once he tried to convince English Jews to convert, his arguments would be competently and courageously met by the Jew, David Levi, a poor shoemaker-turned-hatter, who forcefully and articulately revealed the underlying weaknesses of Priestley’s claims.

Keywords

Jewish Community French Revolution English Government Jewish People Jewish Question 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    John Towill Rutt, ed., The Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestley, 25 Vols. in 26 (Hackney, 1816–31) cited hereafter as Works. Priestley’s scientific works were all printed separately.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The work on Priestley is enormous. For studies most related to the present subject, see Jack Fruchtman Jr., The Apocalyptic Politics of Richard Price and Joseph Priestley: A Study in Late Eighteenth-Century Republican Millennialism (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society Transactions, Vol. 73, No. 4, 1983); Clarke Garrett, Respectable Folly: Millenarians and the French Revolution in France and England (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975); and Martin Fitzpatrick, “Joseph Priestley, Politics and Ancient Prophecy,” Enlightenment and Dissent 10 (1991), 104–09. A new study of his life and work, the first volume of which has appeared, is by Robert E. Schofield, The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work from 1733 to 1773 (University Park, Penn.: Penn State Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    David S. Katz, The Jews in the History of England, 1485–1850 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 184, 250, and 292.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    James Peller Malcolm, a topographer and engraver, was born in Philadelphia but relocated to London after the American Revolution to study art at the Royal Academy. His main work, Londinium Redivium, or an Antient History and Modern Description of London (four volumes), was published between 1802 and 1807. See The Dictionary of National Biography (cited hereafter as DNB), 12:847–8.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Quoted in Katz, The Jews in the History of England, 294.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Lemoine, author and book dealer, was the son of a French Huguenot. See DNB, 11:906–08.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Quoted in Todd M. Endelman, The Jews of Georgian England (1714–1830): Tradition and Change in a Liberal Society (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1979), 261.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Quoted in Katz, The Jews in the History of England, 295.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Conversion as a key to anti-semitism is to be found in Leon Poliakov, The History of Anti-Semitism: From the Time of Christ to the Court Jews,trans. Richard Howard, 3 Vols. (New York: Vanguard, 1965), and Joshua Trachtenburg, The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1993).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    On the uniqueness of Jewish suffering, see Joseph Priestley, An History of the Corruptions of Christianity (Birmingham, 1782), in Works, Vol. 2.Google Scholar
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    Joseph Priestley, Letters to the Jews,Part I, Inviting Them to an Amicable Discussion of the Evidences of Christianity (Birmingham, 1787), in Works, Vol. 20.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    See Richard H. Popkin, “The Triumphant Apocalypse and the Catastrophic Apocalypse,” in Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Humanity,eds. Avner Cohen and Steven Lee (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Allanheld, 1986), 131–38. For medieval ideas, see Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970, first published in 1957).Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    On the transformation of millenarianism to the idea of progress, see the classic study by Ernest Lee Tuveson, Millennium and Utopia: A Study in the Background of the Idea of Progress (Peter Smith: Gloucester, 1972, first published in 1949). Millenarian ideas were not of course relegated solely to the Anglo-Saxon world, as Margaret Jacob and others have shown. See, for example, Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981).Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    With the conventionally long and descriptively vivid language of its title, see Thomas Brightman’s The Revelation of St. John, illustrated with analysis and scholions, wherein the fence is opened by the Scripture,and the events of things foretold, shewed by histories: together with a most comfortable exposition of the last and most difficult part of the prophecy of Daniel, wherein the restoring of the Jewes, and their calling to the faith of Christ, after the utter overthrow of their three last enemies is set forth in lively colours. Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    The full title contains the target of conversion: The Great Restauration,or The Calling of the Jewes and with them of all the Nations and Kingdoms of the Earth, to the Faith of Christ. Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    On English millenarianism generally, see Bernard S. Capp, The Fifth Monarchy Men: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Millenarianism (London: Faber and Faber, 1972); Paul Christianson, Reformers and Babylon: Apocalyptic Visions from the Reformation to the Eve of the Civil War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978); Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1972); William Lamont, Godly Rule: Politics and Religion,1603–1660 (London: Macmillan, 1969); J.F. McGregor and B. Reay, ed., Radical Religion in the English Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); and Peter Toon, ed., Puritans, the Millennium,and the Future of Israel: Puritan Eschatology,1600–1660 (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1970).Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Joseph Priestley, Letters to the Jews, Part II, Occasioned by Mr. David Levi’s Reply to the Former Letters (Birmingham, 1787), Works,20:261.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Priestley, Letters to the Jews, Part I, Works, 20:243.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Joseph Priestley, Essay on the One Great End of the Life and Death of Christ (London, 1769), Works,7:205 and 360–1.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Priestley, Letters to the Jews, Part I, Works, 20:233–4.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Joseph Priestley, Addresses to the Jews, Prefixed to a Discourse on the Resurrection of Jesus (Northumberland, Pa., 1799), Works, 20:300.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Priestley to Toulmin, October 6, 1786, Works, 1:396, Pt. 1. Toulmin was a minister, historian, and biographer. After his living as a Presbyterian minister failed, he became a schoolmaster, and had as one of his students John Towill Rutt, later editor of Priestley’s collected religious and political works. Toulmin is probably best known as the biographer of Socinus, the founder of the most radical form of Unitarianism, which held that Jesus was not divine, but merely a man. See DNB, 19:1009–10.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    DNB, 21:1034. For the most comprehensive modern treatment of Levi’s life and work, see Richard H. Popkin, “David Levi, Anglo-Jewish Theologian,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 87 (July—Oct. 1996), 79–101. See also the Rev. S. Singer, “Early Translations and Translators of the Jewish Liturgy in England,” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England 3 (1896–98), 59–71, and James Picciotto, Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History, revised and edited by Israel Finestein (London: Soncino Press, 1956, first published in 1875), 219–20. Scholars have disputed the years of Levi’s birth and death: the DNB and Singer claim he lived from 1740 to 1799; Popkin and Picciotto say the correct dates are 1742–1801.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    David Levi, Letters to Dr. Priestley, in Answer to Those He Addressed to the Jews (London, 1787). As indicated below, I have used both the 1787 and the 1794 edition of this work.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    See Singer, “Early Translations and Translators,” 61.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Levi also answered the critiques of Jews and Judaism (especially concerning their conversion to Christianity and eventual return to the Holy Land) by James Bicheno, Samuel Cooper, Anselm Bayley, M.P., Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, and several others. See DNB, 2:1034–5, and Singer, passim.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    David Levi, Dissertations on the Prophecies of the Old Testament. In Two Parts. Part I Contains all such Prophecies, as are Applicable to the Coming of the Messiah: The Restoration of the Jews, and the Resurrection of the Dead, whether so applied by the Jews or Christians. Part II Contains all such Prophecies as are applied to the Messiah by Christians only, but which are shown not to be Applicable to the Messiah (London, 1792), 107–08, quoted in Popkin, “David Levi,” 88, n. 41.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    For a pseudonymous Jewish response by “Solomon de A.R.,” see Katz, The Jews in the History of England,298. Singer describes Solomon de A.R. as “a waggish Oxonian… who, in the guise of a Jew, delivered a smart retort on the Doctor for his sophisms and contradictions. This pamphlet, however, Priestley considered too coarse to notice.” Singer, “Early Translations and Translators,” 63.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Levi made this point in both the first and second parts of his letters to Priestley. In the latter, for example, he noted “the consternation into which the greatest part of our nation was thrown on the appearance of my reply to your [Priestley’s] first letters” and that English Jews feared that Levi’s reply “might cost them dear.” David Levi, Letters to Dr. Priestley in Answer to His Letters to the Jews,Part II (London, 1789), 3.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    David Levi, Letters to Dr. Priestley, in Answer to Those He Addressed to the Jews, appended to Priestley’s original letters (New York: Published for J. Harrison for B. Gomez, 1794), 60–1. This 1794 edition of Levi’s first response is hereafter referred to as Letters to Dr. Priestley I (1794).Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    See DNB,21:1034.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Singer, “Early Translations and Translators,” 65.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Levi, Letter to Priestley, I (1794), 110–1.Google Scholar
  34. 36.
    Levi erroneously cited Numbers 17:8 as his text when it was actually Numbers 17:23. “And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses went into the tent of the testimony; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and put forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and bore ripe almonds.”Google Scholar
  35. 37.
    Joseph Priestley, Letters to the Jews, Part II, Works, 20:252.Google Scholar
  36. 38.
    Levi, Letters to Dr. Priestley I (1794), 66.Google Scholar
  37. 39.
    Priestley, Addresses to the Jews,Works, 20:299.Google Scholar
  38. 40.
    Quoted in Endelman, The Jews of Georgian England, 220. The bout is recounted in Picciotto, Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History,202–03.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. FruchtmanJr.
    • 1
  1. 1.Towson UniversityUSA

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