Society for the Melioration

September 14, 2003

Society for the Melioration of the Condition of the Jews

Eugene Volokh of the Volokh conspiracy has been hosting a long discussion on Messianic Jews and mainstream Judaism, asking why Messianic Jews such as Jews for Jesus are ostracized and written out of the tribe while other, equally serious, heresies are treaded much more leniently.

The leading conclusion over there is that Jews have suffered so much from Christianity over the centuries, including a constant pressure to convert and assimilate, that any step that appears to lead towards assimilation is suspect. And, Messianic Judaism is often seen as a stealth attempt to convert Jews and break them away from their heritage.

I buy that argument, it certainly links with the over-riding theme in much of the Hebrew Bible that "Thou shalt not act like thy neighbors and blend into their society" and it links with the lived experience of modern Judaism. There was an interesting article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer about a Presbyterian-sponsored Messianic congregation in Philadelphia. The whole thing reminded me of Reverend J.C.F. Frey and the early nineteenth-century Society for the Melioration of the Condition of the Jews - one of the less successful of the benevolent movements that I write about.

Frey was born in Germany. He was Jewish, but he converted to Christianity and moved to England, changing his name as he did so. He finally ended up in America where, after a stint among the Presbyterians, he became a Baptist minister. Frey decided that there was a serious problem facing the nation and he led a crusade to solve this problem - there were a great many German Jews who had converted to Christianity and become religious orphans: their family and Jewish neighborhoods rejected them as apostates while German gentiles rejected them because they still thought of them as Jewish and thus "untouchable." So, Frey reasoned, why not create a colony in the United States where these converts could come and make a fresh start, free of ties and prejudices.

He went on the lecture tour, moving up and down the East Coast of the US in the late 1810s and early 1820s, preaching a sermon and passing the hat. He got some money here and there for his project, but it got nowhere until Elias Boudinot died. Boudinot was a wealthy man who had been an influential politician and then spent his retiring years in the benevolent project. He had been President of the Continental Congress after the Revolution, was an influential Representative in the first U.S. Congress, and after retiring from politics was President of the American Bible Society. Boudinot deeded 10,000 acres to the ASMCJ in his will, and when Boudinot died in the early 1820s Frey's society suddenly had the capital it needed.


Posted by Red Ted at September 14, 2003 12:51 PM | TrackBack