Michael Solomon Alexander

Michael Solomon Alexander, first Protestant Bishop in Jerusalem, was born of Jewish parents in Schönlanke, a small manufacturing town in the grand duchy of Posen in May, 1799. He was trained in the strictest and straitest principles of rabbinical and orthodox Judaism. At the age of sixteen he became a teacher of the Talmud and of the German language. In 1820, when in his twenty-first year, he came to England to engage in a similar pursuit, and also to perform the duties of a shochet. At that time, as he said, he had not the slightest acquaintance with Christianity, and did not eve know of the existence of the New Testament. His knowledge of Christ was limited to strong impressions of prejudice against the Holy Name. Disappointed of a situation in London, he settled down as a tutor at Colchester. There the sight of a handbill of the London Jews’ Society, notifying its Annual Meeting, aroused his curiosity, and he obtained and read the New Testament.

Shortly afterwards he accepted the post of rabbi at Norwich, and subsequently at Plymouth, and in 1821 he married Miss Levy of that town. He there, in the providence of God, became acquainted with the Rev. B. B. Golding, curate of Stonehouse, to whom he gave lessons in Hebrew, and from the conversation which ensued from time to time, Alexander, after much inward conflict, almost came to the conviction of the truth of Christianity. The struggle was now almost heart-rending. He used to steal silently down to Stonehouse Church on Sunday evenings, and, under shadow of its walls, would stand riveted to the spot, while he listened to the songs of Christian praise, in which he dared not as yet take part.

His congregation, however, soon got to hear of his leanings to Christianity, and he was suspended from his duties as rabbi. He now regularly attended Mr. Golding’s ministry, and was eventually baptized, on June 22, 1825, in St. Andrew’s Church, Plymouth, in the presence of 1,000 people. His wife, who had been a secret enquirer, unknown to her husband, was baptized six months later in Exeter. Owing to Alexander’s position, his conversion aroused much interest, and proved a great encouragement to all workers in the cause. He was ordained deacon in Dublin, in 1827, by Archbishop Magee, at a time when the ordination of a Hebrew Christian was of very rare occurrence indeed, and appointed too a small charge in that city. In December of the same year he was ordained priest by the Bishop of Kildare, and joined the London Jews’ Society, which he served as missionary, in Danzig, from 1827 to 1830, and in London from 1830 to 1841.

One of the most interesting incidents in his work in Prussia was a visit to his birthplace, and the meeting with his brother, a rabbi to a large congregation near Posen. We quote the future Bishop’s own words, as shewing his humbleness of mind, and how fully he had left Judaism behind, and entered into the joys of his new faith.

“I cannot describe my feelings on finding myself now in Posen, my native country, when I reflect on the wonderful dealings of the Lord with me since I left this place nine years ago. I was then a wandering sheep from my Saviour’s fold, walking in darkness, and in the shades of death, ignorant of the Lord that bought me. How did He lead me? The blind by a way that I knew not. My soul doth magnify the Lord, because my spirit rejoiceth in my God, as my Saviour, especially when I consider I am now engaged as an humble, but unworthy, instrument to preach the glad tidings of salvation, and to declare to my brethren, what the Lord hath done for my soul. When my prospects of usefulness are dark, I look to my Lord, and say, ‘Thy grace is sufficient for me; Thy strength is made perfect in my weakness.’

“The Lord gave me another gracious token to His mercy at Posen. I wrote to my brother, who is rabbi to the large Jewish congregation twelve miles from Posen, informing him of my arrival, and requesting that we might have a meeting. I had very faint hopes of his compliance, as he had been most bitter against me since my baptism. His letter, however, expressed a wish to meet me half way from Posen. I immediately set off, and had the unspeakable satisfaction of embracing my brother, not as an enemy, even for the Gospel’s sake, but full of brotherly love and affection, and even giving me credit for sincerity. I stated to him the Gospel, and declared also to him an account of the hope that was in me. He acknowledged that he had not given the subject due consideration, but he promised he would. He told me what is very important, viz., that it is generally expected among the Jews, that the coming generation will embrace Christianity, and that Judaism is fast dying away. Time would not allow him to be much with us, and we parted, praying together that the Lord would open his eyes to behold His glory, as it shines in the face of Jesus, and that we may both be united in His love, and become brothers in Christ.”

In his work in London, Alexander frequently preached to the Jews and took an active part in the revision of the New Testament in Hebrew and the translation of the Liturgy into the same language. He held the post of Professor or Hebrew and Rabbinical Literature in King’s College, London, from 1832 to 1841. In 1840 Professor Alexander’s name appeared at the head of some sixty names of leading converts from Judaism, who had subscribed to a formal “protest of Christian Jews in England” against the Blood Accusation, or charge against the Jews of using Christian blood in their Passover rites. This was a remarkable document, emanating as it did from so many who were by nationality Jews, and who had live to maturity in the faith and practice of modern Judaism.

Just at this juncture an event took place which then and since aroused considerable commotion in the religious world at home, the establishment of the Anglican Bishopric at Jerusalem.

Dr. McCaul, to whom the Bishopric was first offered, declined it on the ground that a Hebrew Christian ought to occupy the position. Consequently, Alexander was selected and consecrated, as first Bishop of the new See, on Sunday, November 7, 1841, in Lambeth Palace, by Dr. Howley, Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by Dr. Blomfield, Bishop of London, Dr. Murray, Bishop of Rochester, and Dr. Selwyn, Bishop of New Zealand. A distinguished company was present, including his Excellency the Chevalier Bunsen, as representing the King of Prussia; Sir Stratford Canning, Her Majesty’s Ambassador Extraordinary to the Porte; Baron Schleinitz, Prussian Chargé d’Affiares; the Prussian Consul-General Hebeler; Lord Ashley; The Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone; the Right Hon. Dr. Nicholl; Sir Robert H. Inglis; Sir Claudius Hunter, and the Rev. Dr. Abeken, Chaplain to the King of Prussia. The sermon was preached by Dr. McCaul from the appropriate text of Isa. lii. 7, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace, that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!”

The next morning the Holy Communion was celebrated in the Episcopal Jews’ Chapel by the new Bishop, who preached his last sermon before his departure from England, in the evening, from the appropriate, and, as subsequent circumstances proved, pathetic words, “And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there,” & c. (Acts xx. 22-24). On the 13th a farewell meeting was held, and an address presented to the Bishop, who with Mrs. Alexander, the Rev. G. Williams, his private chaplain, the Rev. F. C. and Mrs. Ewald, and Dr. E. Macgowan, sailed from Portsmouth, on December 7. H.M Steam Frigate “Devastation” was granted for the purpose by the Government. The party arrived off Beyrout on January 14, 1842, and reached Jerusalem on January 21.

The entry of the Bishop into Jerusalem was a unique event in the history of the Holy City, and was thus described by himself: “On Friday evening we arrived in the city of our forefathers under circumstances of peculiar respect and honour…. We formed quite a large body – the Consul-General (Colonel Rose), with seven or eight of his escort; Captain Gordon, and six or seven of the officers of the “Devastation;” Mr. Nicolayson and Mr. Bergheim, who met us at Jaffa, and accompanied us; Mr. Johns and the American missionaries, with escorts, who came to meet us about three miles from Jerusalem; and, at last, the chief officers sent by the Pasha, who had himself come to meet us in the afternoon, but was obliged to return, as night came on, and it was damp (we arrived about six o’clock), and a troop of soldiers, headed by Arab music, which is something like the beating of a tin kettle. Thus we entered through the Jaffa gate, under the firing of salutes, & c., into Jerusalem, and were conducted to Mr. Nicolayson’s house, where we were most kindly and hospitable received, and all felt overwhelmed with gratitude and adoration…. We had service in the temporary chapel on Sunday last. I preached my first sermon from Isaiah lx. 15; Mr. Williams preached in the afternoon, and Mr. Nicolayson conducted a German service in the evening. We had a very good congregation, all our friends, the Consul-General, Captain Gordon, and the officers, being present. Our feelings on the occasion can be better imagined than expressed, as you may easily suppose. We also had the Sacrament, and it will be pleasing to the ladies of Reading to know, that the handsome communion-service which they presented to the church was made use of for the first time by the Bishop of Jerusalem.”

The Times contained a full account of the Bishop’s entry, and concluded with these words: “The Mission is sure of the firm support of the British Government and the British Ambassador at the Porte. As regards Syria, the Consul-General has lent all the force of his official authority, personal influence, and popularity, to set the undertaking afloat, while the mild and benevolent character of the Bishop, and the sound practical sense and valuable local experience of his coadjutor, Mr. Nicolayson, are sure guarantees that caution, charity, and conciliation will preside at all their efforts.”

In conformity with instructions received from Constantinople, proclamation was made in the mosques, that “he who touches the Anglican Bishop will be regarded as touching the apple of the Pasha’s eye.”

The presence of the Bishop was felt in work amongst the Jews in Jerusalem. The daily services held in the temporary chapel on Mount Zion were a source of much delight to him, and also the large congregations. The Bishop thus summed up his episcopal duties for the first year: “We have had every ordinance of our Church performed in our chapel.” The Bishop had held his first ordination on March 17, had baptized a Jew on Whitsun Day, and confirmed eight Hebrew Christians; married two converts; finishing up with the ordination of a Hebrew Christian missionary. The upper room proved all too small, and the building of the London Society’s permanent church, which was to serve the joint purposes as a Cathedral, a chapel for British residence, and a mission center, was proceeded with, although Alexander did not live to see its consecration. His episcopate was destined to be a very brief one, but its three years may well be described as “years of plenty.” His letters shew how ardently he threw himself into his work, and how very near his heart it was. Outlying districts of his extensive diocese were visited; and the outlook was bright and promising.

A great blow fell upon the work in the autumn in 1845, in his sudden death on Nov. 26, after the short episcopate of four years. The sad event occurred in the desert at Ras-el-Wady, on his way to visit Egypt, which formed a part of the diocese of Jerusalem. A pathetic interest attached to the Bishop’s last annual letter, written before he started for Cairo, in which, speaking of his arrangements, he alluded to the “uncertainty of everything.”

As to the past he spoke with conscious satisfaction of the Divine blessing resting upon the work of Jewish converts baptized and confirmed, and amicable intercourse maintained with Jewish residents and strangers in Jerusalem, of opportunities at Jaffa, of his visit to Damascus, and of friendly relations maintained with the different churches. He thus concluded “On the whole we have great reason to thank God and take courage, and to call upon our friends to join with us in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, on the memorable day, January 21, when we made our first entry into the Holy City. A day which is much to be remembered, even when the results, which have already followed in this short period, be alone taken into consideration; but a day which we trust will yet prove on of the most remarkable in the history of the Church, when the Lord ‘shall build up Zion, and appear in His glory,’ and when all, who now mourn for her, seeing her desolate and trodden down, shall rejoice for joy with her; and when God’s people shall be delighted with the abundance of her glory.”

Mrs. Alexander thus described the Bishop’s last days in the desert at Belveis, Nov. 3, 1845: “On setting out through the desert, each day my beloved husband and myself rode our own horses; we generally were in advance of the caravan, and we used regularly to chant some of our Hebrew chants, and sang the following hymns: ‘Children of the Heavenly King;’ ‘Long has the Harp of Judah hung;’ Psalm cxi.; ‘Glorious things of thee are spoke;’ all out of our own hymn-book; and never did his warm and tender heart overflow so fully, as when he spoke of Israel’s future restoration. When I spoke to him about his duties in England, he answered, ‘I hope, if invited, to preach my first sermon in England at the Episcopal Jews’ Chapel;’ and on my asking what subject he would take, he replied, ‘I shall resume the subject I adopted when I last left that dear congregation;’ namely, that none of these trials had moved him. (Acts xx. 24-28)”

His chaplain, the Rev. W. D. Veitch, reporting the death, said: “It was truly a heart-rending scene. In a tent, in the wild sandy desert, no medical help at hand, to see the widowed wife and fatherless daughter bending over the lowly pallet, on which were stretched the lifeless remains.”

“The immediate cause of death,” wrote Mrs. Leider, who formed one of the party, “was rupture of one of the largest bloodvessels near the heart; but the whole of the lungs, liver, and heart, were found in an exceedingly diseased state, and had been so for a length of time; the accelerating cause, doubtless, was great and continued anxiety – such as the Bishopric of Jerusalem and its cares can best account for. I heart it said on this occasion that had his lordship not come into the East, he might possibly have lived to a good old age; but the mitre of Jerusalem, like the wreath of our blessed Lord, has been to him a crown of thorns.”

The body was taken first to Cairo, where Mr. Veitch preached the funeral sermon from the most appropriate text that could have been chosen – “So Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab.” (Deut. xxxiv. 5)

On December 6, a mournful caravan set out from Cairo with the Bishop’s remains, recalling the sad procession which returned to the Promised Land with the bones of Joseph. The cortege arrived at Jerusalem on the 20th of the same month, at seven o’clock in the evening, and proceeded at once to the English cemetery, where, by torchlight, the remains of the beloved and venerated prelate were deposited in their last resting place, the Rev. J. Nicolayson reading the service. Funeral sermons were preached by him in Jerusalem the next day, and in the Episcopal Jews’ Chapel, London, on December 28, by the Rev. J. B. Cartwright.

A letter of condolence to Mrs. Alexander, signed by thirty-one Jewish converts at Jerusalem, was the most eloquent testimony to the blessing which had followed the successful labours of the Bishop. The signatories said: “Next to yourself and your dear family, we consider ourselves the chief mourners; for we feel both collectively and individually that we have lost not only a true Father in Christ, but also a loving brother and a most kind friend. The suavity and benignity of his manner, which so greatly endeared him to all, and which gained him the highest and most entire filial confidence of every one of us, tend much to increase the keen sense we feel of our loss. The affectionate love he bore to Israel, which peculiarly characterized him, could not fail to render him beloved by every one who had the privilege of being acquainted with him: while his exalted piety, and most exemplary life and conversation, inspires the highest reverential esteem. He was a burning and a shining light; and when he was raised to the highest dignity in the Church, he conferred the most conspicuous honour on our whole nation, but especially on the little band of Jewish believers. With him captive Judah’s brightest earthly start has set, and the top stone has been taken away from the rising Hebrew Church.”

We do not think that any more expressive words of the sterling quality of the Bishop’s character could have been penned than these. And yet we should like to supplement them.

Many friends testified their love and esteem for the Bishop by raising a most gratifying testimonial to his memory, amounting to over £3,000, which was handed to his widow and family. It is interesting to glance at the list of contributors after this lapse of time, for it reveals the fact that the Bishop was highly esteemed by rich and poor alike. Amongst the former we notice the names of the Dowager Queen Adelaide, the then Archbishops of Canterbury and Armagh, and the Bishops of London, Winchester, Ripon, Lichfield, Lincoln, Peterborough, Llandaff, Sodor and Man, and Madras. The Primate of All England spoke of Alexander having conducted the affairs of his Church with so much discretion and prudence, as to give no cause of complaint to the heads of other communions residing in the same city, and to win their respect and esteem by his piety and beneficence, and by his persevering yet temperate zeal in prosecuting the objects of his mission.

He lived and worked in constant dependence upon the Holy Spirit whose power he conspicuously honoured. It was his invariable practice to impress upon those whom he was about to teach the absolute impossibility of their understanding divine things without His aid. This was as noticeable in his earlier years as missionary, as in his later ones as bishop. His conciliatory manner in dealing with Jews, his transparent love for his brethren, his calmness amidst opposition, did much to disarm the excited assembly at the Conferences in Aldermanbury, and the violent attitude of the mob when he revisited his Jewish relative at Schönlanke. He was bold and fearless in the delivery of his message, faithful in everything, anxious above all things to bear testimony to the name and glory of his Master, and to make full proof of his ministry, whether as missionary or bishop.

His friends, and those who worked under him at Jerusalem, loved him for his kind nature – for he had an ear, heart, and purse open to all – and for his simple-hearted piety. He was an Israelite indeed in whom there was no guile. He had a ripeness of Christian experience, and unaffected earnestness of purpose. His was a strikingly interesting personality, rendered doubly so in that he was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, and in his episcopal dignity a link with the primitive Hebrew Christian church in the Mother City of Christendom.

The Bishop published: “The Hope of Israel,” 1831; The “Glory of Mount Zion,” 1839; “The Flower that Fadeth,” “Memoir of Sarah Alexander,” 1841.

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