Isaac da Costa

Much has been written about this great son of Abraham, and the following is a short account of his conversion from his own pen:

You request of me, dear brother, some account of my conversion to the Christian religion, and to the faith in Jesus Christ; and I cannot refuse to tell the things which the God of our fathers has wrought in my soul. I will cheerfully join my testimony with that of my brethren, both by nature and in grace, who endeavour to instruct others and to teach their hearts by retracing the ways of God towards them in His providence and His grace.

To set His dispensations towards me in a clearer light, I must refer to many long past events. A son of Israel is constantly reminded that his personal history is closely linked with that of his fathers. I must then crave indulgence for prefacing my account with some particulars respecting my parentage, which I derive from one of the Jewish families that have for several ages dwelt in the Spanish peninsula. Some of my ancestors in that country professed Catholicism, first by compulsion; and afterwards (a case by no means uncommon in the history of our people in Spain and Portugal) from conviction, or at least, in sincerity. Humanly speaking, we might still have inhabited that country, and professed the Romish faith; but one of the members of our family, Canon Tresonis, of the collegiate church of Oporto, gave up, in consequence of his doubts on religion, his office and his country to return to the Synagogue of his ancestors.

We learn from various biographical works the history of Gabriel (Judaic Uriel) da Costa (Latin, ‘a Costa’) who with his younger brothers, was circumcised at Amsterdam, where, after falling into complete infidelity, he ended his life very unhappily. It is from one of these younger brothers, Joseph da Costa, that I take my descent, by the direct male line. My family belonged, during two centuries, to the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdan, where it enjoyed all the privileges which Holland then presented to my nation in its exile and tribulation. My father, who shared in the sentiment of devotedness to the house of Orange, so common amongst the Jews, and who was therefore very inimical to the revolution, educated me in the same principles. He was a very upright man, and gifted with a large share of good sense; and my education was to him an object of the most affectionate care and solicitude. His religious principles were by no means those of a strict Jew, although he maintained a decorous respect for the outward ordinances of religion. My mother was much more inclined to the religious observances of modern Judaism.

From childhood my mind had been partially influenced by a sort of religious instinct, a vague desire to know and to serve God, whilst I was, at the same time, involved in doubt and uncertainty, both as to Revelation itself, and with regard to the ordinances, and the oral traditions of the rabbis. At times I strenuously addicted myself to the devotional use of the prayers, the rites and commandments of my religion; at others, I relapsed into doubt, and gave way to a distaste for all these outward observances. The scoffing and irreligious philosophy of the eighteenth century inspired me with horror; and my attention was earnestly directed to the acquiring of an intelligent conviction respecting the existence and government of God, and the immortality of the soul. But the books I consulted in my search into these high interests failed to afford me satisfaction. Their arguments were not of sufficient weight fully to convince me of their truth, nor did their reasonings fix me in complete incredulity. Materialism alarmed, distressed, and shocked me. But the subtleties of Plato, of Mendelssohn, and others, could not reach my heart, nor warm it. My mind was at that time far from being convinced of the historical fact of Revelation, or of the veracity of the Old Testament, of Moses, and the Prophets. And although in the midst of this uncertainty, I still clung to the great recollections of my nation from a feeling of natural pride, my commerce with unbelievers, and my study of philosophers, had wrought in my mind so far as to exclude the idea of an immediate and positive revelation. I had formed a sort of deistical system, in which were mingled rabbinical and Mosaic principles. I looked upon Jesus Christ as a light proceeding from Israel for the illumination of the Gentiles: meanwhile the vanities of the world and sin ruled in my daily life. Such was the state of my mind when in the providence of God two events occurred which had a marked influence on my future course.

My father, perceiving my inclination for study, destined me to the career of jurisprudence, a pursuit which, though formerly closed to the Jews, had been partially opened to them since the revolution of 1795. From the age of thirteen to fifteen years (1811-1813), having attended regularly the Latin classes in my native city of Amsterdam, I began a course of lessons with the Professor of Antiquities and Literature, a man of learning, and possessed of a highly refines taste. His historical lectures gave him ample opportunity for asserting and setting in a conspicuous light the truth and high authority of the writings of Moses, and he earnestly vindicated those records from the sophisms and fallacies of Voltaire, and the other skeptics of the age. The idea of a positive revelation was now awakened in my mind; I began to believe in the divinity of the Old Testament, and this great truth gradually developed, was to me as a beacon amidst doubt and obscurity. Revealed religion, the diving authority of the Bible, is an historical fact.

My study of the Bible history was soon followed by enquiries which originated partly, I must own, from national pride. In the midst of the contempt and dislike of the world for the name of Jew, I had never gloried in it. I began, therefore to study the history of our families, and of our nation, in Spain and Portugal, in respect to its theology – its poetry – its attainments in science – its political and diplomatic position, taking a general review of its prosperity and of its astonishing calamities. Throughout their history, both ancient and modern, I perceived something so extraordinary as to be quite inexplicable, unless we view the Jews as the subjects of remarkable privileges, and of as remarkable a downfall; of a special election of God, and of an enormous crime on the part of the elect people. It was thus that the consideration of Judaism prepared me for the knowledge of that religion, which alone is the solution and the fulfillment of the pure and divine Judaism of the Old Testament.

Another circumstance in my life tended to my further enlightenment. The perusal of the ancient classics, the political events of 1813 and 1815, even the study of the history of my fathers according to the flesh, awakened in my soul the faculties of poetry. As a youthful poet, I was presented by a learned Hebraist of our nation to the greatest of our Dutch contemporary poets, the celebrated Bilderdyk, who died at the age of 75 years in 1831. He was a remarkable man in all respects, and one whose political and religious convictions, and originality of mind and character, had armed all this present age, at least in his own country, against him. Misunderstood, persecuted, banished in 1795, and harassed by all sorts of misfortunes, he had found from his youth, strength and consolation in the Gospel of Christ. Attached in heart to the truths of the confession of the Reformed Churches, he had besides early perceived the glorious future, announced by the prophets to the ancient people of God, and how their conversion to the Messiah, crucified by them, would be one day to the nations at large like life from the dead. From thence arose a particular attachment to Israel for their fathers’ sake, and for the love of Christ, who sprung from Israel according to the flesh. Very naturally, I felt strongly drawn towards this extraordinary man. I became his disciple, and also his intimate friend for eighteen years to the day of his death. It is to him, under the hand of God, and through His adorable grace, that I saw the light which led me to the Christian religion, and to the faith in Jesus, my Saviour, and my God. Not that Bilderdyk ever sought to make a proselyte of his young disciple. With a wisdom which I can attribute to nothing but the direction of the Almighty, he rather endeavoured to render me more of an Israelite than is consistent with the wisdom of the present age. He spoke to me from the Old Testament; he directed my attention to the prophecies, to the promises given to the fathers, to the portions of revealed truth, preserved even in the traditions of the Rabbis (Messiah ben David and Messiah ben Joseph, &c.) Especially he tried to make me feel that the true Christian shares in the hopes of Israel in regard to a glorious reign of Messiah upon the throne of David; and that on the other hand (it is thus that he expressed himself in a piece of poetry which he addressed to me in 1819), the sincere Jew is a Christian in hope.

Soon the hand of God led us further on. It was in 1820. Bilderdyk and I were engaged in a deeply serious conversation on the things of God and of truth. In the ardour of discourse he happened to say to me, that the ancient Jews themselves had acknowledged a plurality of persons in the ineffable unity of God. That God seeing Himself, contemplating Himself, reflecting Himself, begot His Son from all eternity; and that the Son is He whom Christians adore in the person of Jesus Christ crucified.

The did my eyes perceive the first rays of new light. I began to read the New Testament; I read that unspeakably sublime and blessed word (St. John i. 6-14), ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word was made flesh.’ I began to feel an abhorrence of sin, for which the Saviour Himself manifested in the flesh, had suffered the death of the cross. I perceived the fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah, xi., liii., lxi., and in Psalms xxii., cx., &c. I adored – I believed, and by degrees this faith operated upon my conscience and my practice. Religion was no longer merely a sublime speculation, or a great national interest; I found that I must become the property of Jesus Christ, that I must live to Him, and by Him. Twenty years have elapsed since that period. Shame in the sight of God and before men befits me in recording so holy an obligation. But He who called me from the midst of darkness is faithful. He will not suffer me to quit this life without having truly glorified Him with my lips, and in my life, by the faith which alone saves. During the early days of my convictions I had, though with some hesitation, opened my mind on the subject, to my friend Capadose. We soon entered into a full discussion of it – and our conversations were more and more directed to the great questions of the truth and salvation; we read and examined together. A third enquirer into the Scriptures and the truth in Christ, was soon after joined with us. God gave me, in 1821, a wife whose choice from the first communication we had together on this all-important subject, was in accord with my own. By a remarkable providence of God, Hannah Belmonte, my cousin, betrothed to me in 1820, had been, through a train of family circumstances, brought up in a school of Christian young ladies. Having been admitted to share their religious instructions, she became acquainted with the catechism of Heidelberg, and had heard the blessed name of Jesus before I did. From the time I imparted to her what was passing in my own mind, she became to me a beloved sister in Christ, as well as a faithful companion in the trials of life, and in the search after eternal life through faith in our great God and Saviour. Together with our friend Capadose, we were baptized the 20th October, 1822, at Leyden; and the Lord afterwards added to us three other members of our family. We kept up a good understanding, and uninterrupted communion of feeling with my mother-in-law Belmonte, and her eldest daughter, Esther; though we were far from anticipating the happy change and renewal of heart and life, which quickly developed itself. By the Divine blessing, a conversation that my mother-in-law and I had together, one evening, was made the means of arousing her to a serious concern for the salvation of her soul, and this exampled was soon followed by her daughter. Both displayed great eagerness for Christian instruction, and shortly after they openly confessed the name of the Lord Jesus, and were baptized by the venerable and pious Pierre Chevalier (pastor of the Walloon church in this town) – who is now with them before the throne of the Lamb.

Our mother, then aged sixty-eight years, survived her baptism two years, a period which she devoted almost entirely to prayer and studying the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, her previous reading have been confined to the most frivolous publications. Perfect peace was the portion of her latter days, and her last words were, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ Her daughter Esther, who afterwards married the worthy son of the Walloon pastor, our intimate friend and brother, Monsieur J. Chevalier, after a most edifying course of devotedness to her Lord and Saviour, died in her confinement in June, 1840. Her soul also reposes in peace in the bosom of Abraham, and in the full fruition of His presence who redeemed her with His blood.

Another member of our family, who had become a disciple of Christ, and had been baptized some time after us (but quite independently of us), had preceded our dear sister in death; delivered from the depths of sin by the healing grace of the Lord, he had found pardon and eternal life through the new and living way of the blood of Christ. After having studied theology, he was about to assume the pastoral charge of one of our churches, when he was called to his rest.

To God the most holy, be thanksgiving and praise for his unspeakable mercies in life, in death, and throughout all eternity. Amen.

After Bilderdyk’s death, Da Costa was generally recognized as his successor among the Dutch poerts. He wrote fifty-three longer and shorter poems. Amongst his other works are – “Israel en de Volken” (2nd ed. Haarlem, 1848-49), a survey of the history of the Jews to the nineteenth century, the third volume dealing with the history of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. The work was translated into English under the title, “Israel and the Gentiles,” by Mary Kennedy (London, 1850), and into German by a friend of God’s Word (Miss Thumb), published by K. Mann, Frankfurt, A/M. 1855. He also wrote two papers, “The Jews in Spain and Portugal, and the Jews from Spain and Portugal,” in 1836; “The Von Schönberg (Belmonte) family,” in the “Jahrbuch fur Holland,” 1851; and “The noble families among the Jews.” (Navorscher, 1857).

Bernstein, A. 1999. Jewish Witnesses for Christ. Jerusalem: Keren Ahvah Meshihit.