Rev. John Neander

Rev. John Neander, thus wrote of his conversion to a sincere acquaintance:

My dear friend, cheerfully do I respond to your call, and as briefly as possible will I relate to you, how wonderfully God has dealt with me; how He, the Almighty God, looked down upon me while I was yet deeply sunk; how He called me, and lifted me up from the dust; and how He brought me out of darkness into His marvelous light; praise be His name. Amen.

I was born in the year 1811 at Neubrûck, in the province of Posen. My parents were strict Talmudical Jews, my father especially, a zealous, learned Talmudist. They had consecrated me to the office of a rabbi, even while I was at my mother’s breast; which office being considered then, as it still is, a most holy vocation. On my having attained my eighth year, and being able to read Hebrew, my father engaged for me a teacher of the Talmud, who resided in the house, and from early in the morning until late at night he laboured with me in the Talmud; now and then he also read the Pentateuch and Jarchi’s Commentary with me.

Until I was twenty-three years old, I studied at different Talmudical schools in Posen, and having attained to that degree which qualified me for the office of a rabbi, I returned to my father’s house, where I devoted myself entirely to the study of the Talmud. You are well acquainted with the course of life led at rabbinical schools; I have therefore no occasion to give you here an account thereof. I lived earnestly engaged in this study, because it was my parents’ warmest wish; and I moreover hoped thereby to attain to a high position amongst my nation; and flattered myself that I should hereby be qualified for the community of the Chassidim, and consequently to reach the presence of God.

I plunged myself into the deep labyrinth of rabbinical subtleties and sophistry; entangled myself in a chain, composed of thousands of links of trivialities; exhausted myself in endeavouring to be enlightened on this, or on that matter; but I only got deeper and deeper into the labyrinth; not a ray of light penetrated its dark recesses. At length the employment became exceedingly disagreeable to me; the zeal which was so ardent in my youth (alas! it was a blind zeal), cooled more and more in proportion as it became clear to me that the words of the different rabbis, the former and latter, are truly not agreeable to God’s most Holy Word; and I discovered, that the persuasion that their ways lead to the truth is a vain persuasion.

I was about twenty-five, when with a painful heart, I perceived this. I had no firm foundation to rest upon; nothing on which to lay hold. I stood as on broke ground; my heart torn, and nigh to perish with anguish. About this time I was teacher in a town in Germany, where I had above twenty pupils, whom I had to educate, and bring up as men and Israelites; and every Saturday I had to deliver a public lecture on portions of the Old Testament. All this placed me in a terrible condition; I had to preach up and defend that, against which my heart revolted; dissemble I would not, yea, I could not.

In the early period of my life as a teacher, I was zealous for the rabbinical Judaism of the present day. I tormented and exhausted myself endeavouring, by the works of the law, to lead a life pure and holy before my God; for even when a child I conceived sin to be an abhorrence to God; the thunders of Sinai sounded and resounded in my heart; the mighty word proceeding out of the mouth of the Almighty God, ‘curse is he who does not keep my law,’ pressed me down to the ground a that early period of my life; as with flaming letters it was written in my heart, ‘God is a holy God! God is a righteous God! who abhors sin; in whose presence, none but those who are pure, and free from sin, and who live for him only, can abide.’ From all my toil, however, I found no peace; far, far from me was the rest for which I so much longed.

I had intercourse with a few individuals who called themselves Christians. I sought them out for the purpose of discussing with them scientific subjects, and now and then to study the Old Testament with them; of these some were students in theology, and others teachers; they used to assail the revealed word of God most terribly. Through them I became acquainted with the criticisms of de Wette, Eichhorn, Dinter, and others, and it was not long that I stood up a zealous defender of modern Judaism; I became a rationalist. We are deceived! exclaimed I to my community, terribly deceived! the Talmud and the Psakim are a tissue of errors, and so forth. Still the storm in my heart did not subside; it continued to roar and to rage; I was not free, before it was chains of superstition that shackled my heart, now those of unbelief; chains forged by profane hands, by such fools as say, ‘There is no God.’

As I looked on these contradictions, and on this work of ungodly men, I trembled, and entered the field against these impudent deniers of God; but with weapons, alas! I knew not at that time, and so I was in a terrible condition. I felt as if closed in by a wall; I panted after the breath of life; I longed after liberty, and hoped that the enigma would solve itself; but far off appeared to me the hand which should lead me into the haven of peace; and the light which I searched after in all the writings of men, proved but darkness; they were broken cisterns, and my soul, which was languishing and nigh to perishing, did not find the water of life. I lay at times the whole night on the hard floor, chastised my body, yearned and cried aloud. The old Jews, to whose knowledge these austerities came, held me for a saint; and the modern Jews said to me: ‘Don’t be a fool.’ Oh! these were years of anguish and terror; I was often nigh to despair. The compassion and grace of God, whom I did not know at that time, alone held me up; the hand of the mighty covenanted God of my forefathers covered me, and it was His eternal love that preserved me from sinking.

I tore myself with force from the circle of those who surrounded me, and I was chiefly alone and secluded. I betook myself, as it were, to a desert of books. Alas! the speculations of men only filled my head, while my heart remained empty. My thirst after the truth, after God’s truth, was not quenched; I read now and then in the Pentateuch; but the books of the Old Testament were locked up to me, and the old and new commentaries of the rabbis did not satisfy me. That the New Testament is a key to the Old I had not the least conception at that time; and as I was then an enemy to Christianity, I never read the New Testament.

At this time of severe struggle, I received a visit from my father, to whom I communicated my distress of mind; it pained him deeply, and he pressed me to return home with him immediately. To my question ‘What shall I do then?’ he replied, ‘You shall do nothing else but learn the Torah, you have no occasion to trouble yourself about earthly things, and as soon as you shall be seated in the circle of the Chassidim and students of the law, it will be well with you.’ Family matters obliged my father to return quickly, and I begged him to allow me to remain for a short time longer in Germany, until I should be enlightened on that which distressed me so much. Shortly after that I was sent for by a Jewish community, in the north of Germany. I hurried thither with joy, where I took possession of a very pleasant post.

My heart, however, remained wounded, and peace was far from me. The Jews of that place were very indifferent about religion, and it was not required that I should deliver a public lecture on the Sabbath. I looked for religious men, but amongst the Jews there was not one in whom there was a striving after the only good; my exhortation to them to elevate themselves to the fullness which cometh from God, and my admonitions, were all in vain; nevertheless, the pupils cling to me with much love; and they listened to me attentively when I related to them the history of the kingdom of God in the time of the Old Testament dispensation.

But my heart continues cold even here; the great deeds of God filled me with awe, and the history of our people, as well as my own course of life, only opened more the wounds of my heart. ‘The Balm of Gilead’ I knew not, and the instruction I imparted was only mechanical, without life, and without warmth.

I visited the clergymen of this town, and I found some of them different from any I had seen before; they talked of the revealed word of the Old Testament, with warmth of heart and enthusiasm, and I heard for the first time a powerful testimony to the Christian doctrine; my whole heart was stirred up against it, the ground burned under my feet, and I hurried away purposing never to return again.

Still there remained a thorn in my heart. The fifty-third chapter of Isaiah as well others in the Old Testament, to which my attention was drawn, were too strong for me; doubt raged in me, and the questions, What if it be really true? What if the Christians are right? left me no peace.

A few weeks elapsed, and I could no longer endure my trouble; I greatly desired to be enlightened, and that, by means of the common medium of all truth, Holy Writ alone.

I began to read the New Testament, and to compare it with the Old, and it wonderfully unfolded itself to me; more and more I discovered the great mystery of redemption. In the Old Testament, in all God’s contrivances, a voice called to me, and I heard the voice of God, through Moses and the prophets, saying: Jesus Christ the crucified, is the true Messiah, the true Saviour, whose name is Jehovah Tsidkenu, the Lord our Righteousness. I was roused especially by the ninth chapter of the Acts; I was made acquainted, after much wrestling and fervent prayer, that Jesus is the source of salvation, and of eternal life to all, who, by the efficacy of His blood, are cleansed from the guilt and pollution of sin, and through Him can call God, Abba, Father. I perceived that faith in the triune God is the victory which vanquishes the world.

I could not remain silent about this; my heart was filled with it; I tasted the friendship of God, I rejoiced and was constrained to exclaim, ‘My Redeemer liveth;’ and this I announced to my pupils, talked of it in the circles of Jewish families, and publicly and aloud gloried in the ground of my hope in the rich promise vouchsafed to me, by the mouth of a mighty covenant God: Be comforted, all thy sins are forgiven thee, thy debt is paid and annulled, through the great and only atoning sacrifice, through ‘the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world.’

There was a tremendous tumult among the Jews; some of them came to me, and gave themselves much trouble by various means to turn me away from the Lord, mine and my father’s God. The community wrote all about it to my father, from whom I received a letter which placed me in a most painful position. He prayed and cried, ‘Come to us, and remain a Jew.’ My mother received from this news a severe blow, and she was laid on a bed of sickness, and great were her sufferings; my sisters, brothers, and relatives mourned in secret. It was a hard struggle – life and death depended on my decision.

I cried and wept bitterly, and riveted myself firmly to the word of life, that alone should be my guide, my stay, and my staff; and praise be God, the Sun of Righteousness lighted me, and His beams fell warm and full of life on my heart.

‘Whoso loveth father and mother more than Me, is not worthy of Me.’ This was spoken by Him who has power to save and to condemn. I could not do otherwise than to obey Him, who once said to the patriarch Abraham, ‘Get thee out of my country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee.’ I was obliged to tear asunder the ties which bound me to my beloved relatives, who still remain dear to me; painful as it is to flesh and blood, I was constrained to do so for the Lord’s sake; and I exclaimed aloud in the presence of the Jews who at this time surrounded me, and who, not knowing what they did, endeavoured to hurl me down to the abyss of destruction: ‘I cannot do otherwise, I must acknowledge Him, I must believe on Him, who is my Redeemer and Saviour; His name is Jesus Jehovah; I cannot do otherwise, should they on account of it cut me in pieces. Woe unto me, if I deny Him, the Lord Jesus, therefore it is well with me, that I perceived through the grace of God, that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, praised be His name. Amen.’

Now was I able to rejoice, and with David to exclaim, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits’ (Psalm ciii.2).

After I had been duly instructed in the saving truth of the Gospel, I was publicly baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, on December 9th, 1839, by the Rev. Mr. Müller.”