Joseph Wolff. The two great missionary explorers of the nineteenth century were David Livingstone and Joseph Wolff. The labours of the former were chiefly confined to Negro races of the "Dark Continent"; whereas the latter made most extensive journeys amongst the various remnants of the tribes of Israel scattered throughout Africa and Asia. The lives of both these great men touch upon all that is romantic and of thrilling interest in the wide range of exploration, and none the less so because they consecrated themselves to their Master's service, and, with a consuming zeal for souls, went forth to seek and to save the lost.
Joseph Wolff was the pioneer missionary to Jews in the Orient. Like St. Paul, he, too, was "in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness." His almost superhuman efforts in the third and fourth decades of last century cast a halo of romance around Jewish missions, and laid the foundation for much subsequent work. Within the short period of sixteen years we find him visiting Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Asiatic Turkey, Persia, India, Bokhara, Abyssinia and Arabia—and some of these countries more than once. Verily, he compassed sea and land to make proselytes to the faith, of which he became such a doughty champion.
The life of this remarkable man naturally falls into three periods—his early years as a Jew; his missionary efforts amongst his brethren; and his last years quietly and uneventfully passed in country parishes in England. Our chief concern is with the middle period, to which, however, we can do but scant justice, as its constant and restless action and stirring adventures overwhelm us with an embarrassment of riches.
"Wolff," as he was simply called, after his grandfather, was born at Weilersbach, a small Bavarian village, in 1795, or 1796, of Jewish parents, his father, whose name was David, belonging to the tribe of Levi. He was the rabbi of the small Jewish community of the place, numbering fifteen families, but soon after the birth of his son he removed to Halle. In his very early years the boy received a strict Jewish education, and at the age of six recited the Hebrew prayer-book every day. He was then sent to a Christian school, but apparently only to learn German. When Wolff was eleven years old he was placed at the Protestant Lyceum at Stuttgart, but growing dissatisfied with it, he went to reside with his cousin, Moses Cohen, at Bamberg, and entered the Roman Catholic Lyceum of that place. He there made up his mind to become a Christian and a missionary like Francis Xavier. But he was unsettled in the extreme in his search after the truth, and wandered to Würzburg, Frankfort-on-the-Main, Halle, Prague, Vienna, Pressburg, back again to Vienna, Mölk, Munich, Anspach, Saxe Weimar, Heidelberg, Soleure, and finally arrived at Prague. There he was baptized by the Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery Emaus, in the year 1812, at the age of seventeen, receiving the name of "Joseph." At his confirmation shortly afterwards he received the two further names of "Stanilaus Wenceslaus," which, however, he never used.
Joseph Wolff was by this time proficient in the Latin, Persian, Chaldean, and Syriac languages, and entered the University of Vienna to study Arabic, Ecclesiastical History, and Divinity. There he remained two years. In 1814 he resided with Count Stollberg, and, like every one else, was much exercised at Napoleon's escape from Elba. In 1815 Wolff entered the Lutheran University of Tübingen to pursue his studies in Oriental languages and theology; but he left the next year on a pilgrimage to Rome, travelling on foot through Switzerland and Italy until he reached the Eternal City. Being introduced to Pope Pius VII., he shewed him a Hebrew Bible which had been the companion of his travels. Wolff entered the Collegio Romano, and in 1817 the Propaganda, from which his Protestant leanings, and neglect of scholastic divinity for the Bible, caused his expulsion in 1818. Wolff now returned to Vienna, lamenting that his missionary aspirations had been frustrated. In his distress of mind he wrote to Hoffbauer, Vicar-General of the Liguorians, who received him into his monastery. Wolff was not happy there for more than a few months, and leaving Vienna, travelled through Austria to the Benedictine monastery of Krems-Münster, where he was well received by the monks. Too restless to remain long in any place, Wolff travelled through Bavaria, Switzerland, and France, entering first this monastery and then that. At Paris he met with Robert Haldane, who exercised a powerful religious influence over him; and with whom he journeyed to London.
We naturally find our interest in this talented and eager youth increasing on his arrival in England, in 1819, at the age of twenty-four, when he came under the notice of Mr. Henry Drummond, the Rev. Charles Simeon, the Rev. Lewis Way, and other well-known friends of Israel. Wolff made his way, as almost every baptized or enquiring Jew did when first arriving in this country, to "Palestine Place," the missionary head-quarters of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, where all were sure of a hearty welcome. He attended the service in the Episcopal Jews' Chapel, conducted by the chaplain, the Rev. Charles Sleech Hawtrey, and, to use his own words, was "enchanted with the devotion and beauty of the ritual." Henceforth he considered himself a member of the Church of England. The Society sent him to Cambridge to be trained as a missionary, and to study theology under Simeon (himself of Jewish extraction), and other Oriental languages under Professor Lee. Two years' residence there, and a short course at the London Society's Seminary in Sussex, were sufficient for the zealous young convert who was longing for active missionary service abroad. Mr. Drummond sent him forth on his career. His feverish anxiety to be thus employed is seen in his selection of the words of Francis Xavier, "Who would not travel over land and sea to be instrumental in the salvation of one soul?" as the motto for the title page of his "Travels." Wolff left England in April, 1821, and with passing calls at Gibraltar, and Malta (where he baptized a Jew) in due time he reached Alexandria. He spent three months amongst the Jews of that city and of Cairo, preaching in their synagogues, and distributing New Testaments. A visit which he paid to the Convent of St. Catherine, Mount Sinai, is interesting from the fact that the monks promised to pray for the conversion of the Jews.
Wolffs eyes, however, were fixed on the Holy City, and his work in Egypt was regarded by himself as a "preparation for preaching the Gospel of Christ at Jerusalem." He did so first in the synagogue of the Karaites; and afterwards made daily efforts for three or four months to reach the Sephardim, Ashkenazim and Chassidim, both by word of mouth and circulation of the Holy Scriptures.
Towards the end of 1822, Wolff visited Antioch and Aleppo, just before the terrible earthquake visitation of the latter city, when hundreds of Jews confessed that the truth of the Gospel could not be denied. In the spring of 1823 he was again in Egypt following up his previous work, and going on to Jerusalem for Easter. His three months' labour there amongst the Jews, thus described by himself, "I lodged among them, and was engaged in preaching the Gospel from morning to night, and often all night," cleared the way for subsequent efforts.
In the same year Wolff visited Damascus, where the Jews eagerly accepted the Arabic Bibles which he had with him, and Aleppo, where he was again well received.
Wolff's account of his visit to Bagdad in 1824, and other cities of Mesopotamia, is most interesting reading. He seems to have visited the scattered communities of Jews, amongst all of whom he had easy access. At Mosul he was shewn a Hebrew translation of the New Testament which had been made by a rabbi a hundred years previously. Left as a precious heirloom to the rabbinical college, it had remained neglected until Wolff pointed out its priceless value. At Orfa, the ancient "Ur of the Chaldees," Wolff found about fifty Jewish families, and some Jacobites, or Syrian Christians, claiming to be lineally descended from Jews who received Christianity through the preaching of St. James at Jerusalem. Their peculiar ceremonies, as also their features, gave colour to their claim to be literal as well as spiritual children of Abraham.
In 1825 Wolff visited the various Jewish communities of Persia, who, perhaps, have better grounds than any other people to be regarded as descendants of the "Lost Ten Tribes." In 1827 and 1828 Wolff visited the Ionian Islands and Asia Minor. At Smyrna he awakened, as indeed he did everywhere, a widespread enquiry into Christianity on the part of the Jews.
Probably the most romantic and thrilling of all Wolff's experiences were those which he encountered at Bokhara in 1832. "Adventures to the adventurous" is a truism, and Wolff was bold and daring to the last degree, otherwise he would not have accomplished his purpose. He dressed as a Turkoman, and so obtained an audience of the king, when he was denounced as a Russian spy by the Jews. By his wonderful adroitness he overcame all opposition, and received permission to evangelize the Jews, but was forbidden to hold religious converse with Moslems. He took lodgings at the house of a Jew, and was visited by his brethren, who asserted that their forefathers had been carried from Samaria by the Kings of Assyria and brought to Haran (Isa. xxxvii. 12), i.e., Bokhara. The three months spent there by Wolff, especially amongst the learned class, were fruitful, and he baptized as many as twenty. These men had all remained faithful when he visited Bokhara again in 1844. That second visit, more hazardous even than the first, was made with the purpose of ascertaining the fate of Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly,—two Englishmen, who, as subsequently transpired, had been murdered. Wolff's arrival in the city was witnessed by 20,000 persons shouting "welcome" to the enterprising traveller, whose costume—gown, hood, and shovel-hat—roused no small astonishment. Wolff obtained permission from the king for the Jews to repair their ancient synagogue.
In 1833 we find Wolff in India, visiting the white and the black Jews of Cochin, and the Beni-Israel of Poona, Calcutta and Bombay. This was not an unexplored field, as the L.J.S. missionaries had been working there from 1820 to 1830. Wolff found plenty to do, and at Calcutta, for six successive days, talked twelve hours on end to all who came to his "retreat."
Hitherto Asia had been the principal scene of Wolff's labours, but in 1835 he was in Abyssinia and in 1836 in Arabia, visiting the Yemen. At Sanaa he expounded Isaiah liii. to the Jews, and subsequently baptized four with their families. The Jews were polygamists, but apparently dissatisfied with the state of things thus entailed.
Lack of space prohibits us from enlarging on Wolff's labours in the East. His own descriptions remain to this day the most entertaining of missionary annals, and bear witness to the wonderful activity of the man whose striking personality, not unmixed with a harmless and naive egotism, carried him through numberless dangers, and extricated him from perilous situations. The restlessness of his nature, which in early life impelled him to wander over Europe in search of light and learning, developed in succeeding years into that consecrated fiery energy and impulse which made him so peculiarly fitted to play the rôle of pioneer missionary. Many of his friends, as he said, "believed him to be Elijah," though he archly added, "he always believed himself to be Joseph Wolff!" But a pioneer he was in every sense of the word, and as such rendered yeoman service to a cause, which more than all others, perhaps, needs all the glamour and romance it can call to its aid. So great was his dramatic power in describing his travels that Archbishop Whately proclaimed him to be "a missionary Shakespeare."
Wolff had an iron constitution and a powerful frame, absolutely impervious to matters of climate, and privations, however severe and enduring. He records that, when travelling in India in 1832, he was stripped of everything, and in danger of being "made into sausages," and "had to walk without a rag of clothing on for 600 miles from the Hindu Koosh to the Punjaub, through storms and snow!" He was relieved and clothed at Cabul by Lieutenant Burnes. Wolff's character, wonderful activity, and resources, were thus caustically summed up by one who knew him:—
"He appears to me to be a comet without any perihelion, and capable of setting a whole system on fire. When I should have addressed him in Syria, I heard of him at Malta, and when I supposed he was gone to England, he was riding like a ruling angel in the whirlwinds of Antioch, or standing unappalled among the crumbling towers of Aleppo. A man who at Rome calls the Pope 'the dust of the earth,' and at Jerusalem tells the Jews that the 'Gemara is a lie'; who passes his days in disputation, and his nights in digging in the Talmud; to whom a floor of brick is a feather-bed and a box is a bolster; who makes or finds a friend alike in the persecutor of his former or of his present faith; who can conciliate a Pasha or confute a patriarch; who travels without a guide, speaks without an interpreter, can live without food, and pay without money, forgiving all the insults lie meets with, and forgetting all the flattery he receives; who knows little of worldly conduct, and yet accommodates himself to all men without giving offence to any—such a man (and such and more is Wolff) must excite no ordinary degree of attention in a country and among a people whose monotony of manners and habits has remained undisturbed for centuries. As a pioneer I deem him matchless, aut inveniet viam, aut faciet; but, if order is to be established or arrangements made, trouble not Wolff. He knows of no church but his heart, no calling but that of zeal, no dispensation but that of preaching. He is devoid of enmity towards man, and full of the love of God. By such an instrument, whom no school hath taught, whom no college could hold, is the way of the Judæan wilderness preparing... Thus are his brethren provoked to emulation and stirred up to inquiry. They all perceive, as everyone must, that whatever he is, he is in earnest; they acknowledge him to be a sincere believer in Jesus of Nazareth, and that is a great point gained with them, for the mass of the ignorant and unconverted Jews deny the possibility of real conversion from Judaism."
General Sir Charles Napier said that Wolff had "worked harder for religion, and had gone through more dangers for it, with a brave heart, than any man living."
Of his life in England as a parochial clergyman, but little can be said in this biography. He married, when a young man, the daughter of the Earl of Orford, Lady Georgiana Walpole, with whom he lived happily for thirty years, and whose son was Sir Henry Drummond Wolff. When he settled in England, he became vicar of Linthwaite, a small village in Yorkshire. His friend, Henry Drummond, after whom he had named his son, wrote, "Your call is to be an evangelist for all the nations of the earth, and for this you are fit; but, to use your own simile, you are as fit for a parish priest as I am for a dancing-master." Wolff shortly afterwards removed, on account of his wife's health, to the sole charge of High Hoyland, another Yorkshire village, with about 120 souls. There, too, he must have felt like a lion in a cage; and when, five years later, he resigned his charge on the ground of not being able to meet his expenses, and undertook his second journey to Bokhara, he must indeed have rejoiced in an aftermath of the freedom and action of his earlier career. One little incident is too good to be omitted. Before Wolff entered upon the curacy, his predecessor, doubting the sentiments of his successor, preached his farewell sermon from the text, "After my departure shall grievous wolves enter in among you." Wolff remarks, "However, he was very merciful, and made no allusion to the coming 'Wolff' in his sermon!"
On his return from Bokhara, Wolff was appointed to the living of Isle-Brewers, in Somersetshire, with a population of 300, amongst whom were two farmers, all the rest being peasants. There Wolff remained for the remainder of his life, his talents and brilliant gifts being wasted in such retirement, but his energy knowing no diminution. He built a new parsonage and schools, defraying a portion of the expense from the proceeds of his works and lectures; and erected a new church, for the cost of which he laid all his numerous friends and everybody else, under contribution by incessant correspondence and personal applications. He was a father to his poor, and every winter supported thirty-five families with the necessities of life. Wolff was the neighbour and firm friend of George Anthony Denison, "dearer to him than any," although theologically in the opposite camp. Amongst Wolffs other numerous friends and acquaintances, we may mention the names of Sir Walter Scott, Dean Stanley, Dean Hook, Alfred Tennyson, and Alfred and Margaret Gatty.
Wolff died in 1862, at the age of 66 or 67 years—a long life, when the restless activity of brain and body is taken into account, and a full life, in every sense of the word. He exemplified in his person the saying, "It is better to wear out than to rust out." And his epitaph might well have been, "The zeal of Thine house hath eaten me up."
- ↑ Wolff himself is responsible for this uncertainty, having supplied these two different dates. "Travels and Adventures," vol. 1, p. 2, and "Missionary Journal and Memoir," p. 1.
- ↑ "Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara."
- ↑ The Rev. Lewis Way, quoted in "Travels and Adventures of Dr. Wolff," vol. i., p. 287.