Chapter 1: The Committee On The Christian Approach To The Jews
The 1910 missionary conference at Edinburgh set the tone and agenda for the
ecumenical movement that was to come. Such was its impact upon the participants
and upon the churchmen and their churches that it would have been astounding
if a Continuing Committee had not been formed to maintain the conference's
momentum. That the Continuing Committee was successful in doing so, even through
the years of the Great War, is evidenced by the fact that the International
Missionary Council was formally founded at Lake Mohonk, New York, in 1921.
By the early to mid-1920s, the International Missionary Council, in cooperation with its constituent members, had established study centers in various parts of the world that related to the major world religions, specifically Buddhism (Ceylon, Burma), Islam (India, Jordan), and Hinduism (India). But the IMC as such had done nothing at all about evangelizing Jews. Nevertheless, "British friends insisted that the International Missionary Council...must at some early date face the question of Jewish missions."
And thus it was that a resolution adopted by the IMC at its meeting in Oxford in 1923 set in motion what was to be a series of extraordinary conferences:
"That, having regard to the opportunities in the present situation throughout
the world for the evangelisation of the Jews, and of the impossibility of
dealing adequately with this subject in the projected series of Conferences
in the Near East organized mainly to deal with Moslem problems, the International
Missionary Council would welcome, and assist in, a series of field conferences
in various areas for the advancement of missionary work among Jews, provided
the Committee of the Conference of British Societies working among the Jews
after consultation with the other societies in Europe and America, considers
the time is opportune.
"That if such field conferences can be held in 1925, and it is possible for Dr. Mott to preside, the Council wishes him to do so."
The "field conferences" requested did not take place in 1925, though plans for them were well under way when the Committee of the IMC met in Rättvik, Sweden in 1926:
"The Committee of the Council learns with satisfaction that in accordance with
the suggestion made by the Council at its Oxford meeting, arrangements have
been initiated by the Committee on Work among Jews of the Conference of British
Missionary Societies in consultation with other societies in Europe and America,
for holding, at Budapest and Warsaw respectively before and after Easter 1927,
two conferences to be under the auspices of the International Missionary Council.
The Committee is glad to learn that Dr. Mott, Chairman of the Council, will
be able to preside at these conferences...."
That these conferences were instigated by the British societies should come as no surprise because concern for Jews was preeminently a British interest. But it is evidence of the strategic importance of meeting where Jews actually lived that they should have been held, not in Britain, but in two Jewish population centers of central Europe: Hungary and Poland.
These two conferences, held within weeks of each other in 1927 on the theme, "The Christian Approach to the Jew" (along with the follow-up North American conference on the same theme held in 1931 at Atlantic City, New Jersey), developed both the theology and the methodology of the Jewish mission that was to prevail in the IMC for the next thirty or so years. They are, therefore, well worth extended examination.
Budapest and Warsaw, 1927
In his introductory essay to the report of the conferences (which was published almost immediately at their conclusion), Rev. James M. Black, minister of United Free St. George's Church, Edinburgh, painted a picture of "the Jew" as ripe for conversion, reflecting the perception of target peoples held by the missionary movement in general. The time was propitious for the proclamation of the gospel, for Jews everywhere were seen as eager to hear and accept the gospel.
Black attributed this Jewish readiness to accept the Christian faith to four interrelated factors "which are in public evidence everywhere":
"The Ghetto and all the deplorable things it represented are things of the past." At first glance it would appear that Black was unaware of the Emancipation, which had been in progress for well over a century in virtually all European countries, when he attributed the dismantling of the ghettoes to the effect of the Great War, but actually his reference was not to western countries such as Germany, France, or England but to those of eastern Europe. Whatever its cause, Black was certain that, in 1927, "the closed mind, which was the product of the fixed unchanging life of the Ghetto itself, is quickly passing. In this modern dispersion, [the Jews] are thinking and reading freely--a matter of mingled promise and danger. But the point is, for their own good or ill, they are out in the open....All evidence shows that they are inquiring, constantly inquiring. This is Christ's great chance."
"The miracle of the dismantled Ghetto...means that the world of Jewry, once so solid, is now fluid. Literally, as well as figuratively, the Jews are 'on the move.'" Black seemed to have been unaware of the mass migrations of Jews that took place in the nineteenth century or even in the years prior to World War I, for he asserted that "during the plastic post-war years, [Jews] have migrated in larger numbers than at any time since they tramped into captivity to Babylon, or since they were outlawed from the Spanish empire."5
In the ghetto, Jews "were held in the grip of precise Talmudic teaching; and their natural loyalty to their own religion was stiffened by an intense corporate resistance to the unfriendly world that either slandered or shunned them....And one must admit that Jewry's fidelity to its religion has been one of the seven wonders of the world."
"The fall of the Ghetto," he went on, "has meant the end of this cloistral seclusion. They are out in the open, living the normal life of other people, and joining in the free market of formative ideas. Needless to say, there lie in this some splendid possibilities and many perils, for the change means not only political but spiritual enfranchisement. So far as their ancient faith is concerned, they have embarked on a spiritual adventure."1
"A direct outcome of this widespread political and social liberation is that the Jews have come into closer touch with modern scientific ideas."2 Black noted that young Jews, particularly, were eagerly adopting new scientific ideas, throwing away long-standing religious beliefs and practices, and embracing revolutionism in both religion and politics. It was no wonder that they should do so for "after years of prison, it is hard to distinguish between liberty and license!...thousands of young Jews have found a substitute religion in sweeping forms of socialistic idealism and universal brotherhood."3
"As a natural result of this upheaval, there has been a wide departure from the synagogues. Leaders of Judaism have complained bitterly of a desertion of worship and a disregard of authority."4 This phenomenon, however, according to Black, should be no cause of rejoicing on the part of Christians. "There is no finer type of citizen than a strict Jew who loves God's will, obeys His commandments, and is under the sanctions and inhibitions of a great religion. But we have to face facts; and one alarming fact to-day seems to be the drift from the synagogue and a lapse from Judaism as an outworn creed, no longer able to satisfy the inquiring Hebrew youth amid the puzzles and problems of modern thought."
Thus, the recorder of the 1927 conferences presented the Jews as "a people, long cooped up in prison and in the bonds of a stereotyped system, now free and moving and inquiring; a people who have seen the shallowness of their faith and, for want of a better, are now turning to materialism, agnosticism or communism; and finally, a people who offer a new chance for the traduced Saviour of their race."
Dr. John Stuart Conning, of the Department of Jewish Evangelism of the Presbyterian Church, USA, and vice-chairman of the IMCCAJ, published an essay after the Budapest and Warsaw conferences that went into considerably more detail about Judaism from the missionaries' perspective. Later, when he addressed the 1931 Atlantic City conference, Conning would be more circumspect, but earlier he had observed that the 613 precepts of the Law, as codified by Joseph Caro in the Shulchan Aruch (16th century), were the regulations obedience to which constituted the religion of the Jew. "The orthodox Jew," Conning wrote, "believes that obedience to these obligations ensures the favor of God, that every observance or neglect is recorded in God's book, and that his fate in the life to come depends upon whether the balance is on the debit or credit side of his account. In this form Judaism does not rank high as a religion.... When the mere observance of traditional rites is believed to be the channel of secret benefits there is little to distinguish such acts from rank superstition....it must be remembered that as a way of life the religion of Moses is just as defective to-day as it was nineteen centuries ago. Everything that Christ had to say about it then He says today."
"Orthodox Judaism is a religion of the ghetto," he went on. "It needs the shelter of the ghetto for its maintenance. Today the ghetto is largely a memory. Its walls have fallen, and Jews, everywhere emancipated, share the common life of the world. The ancient faith is no longer secluded from Gentile influences."
This understanding of Jews and Judaism was supported by J. Macdonald Webster, who was to become the principal organizer of the 1927 conferences. In 1925 he wrote about two ways in which he considered eastern European Jews to have been held in bondage, a bondage from which the War had released them: "Prior to 1914, the great majority who live in Eastern Europe were in political servitude, confined, oppressed, denied freedom in any true sense.... But the vast mass of the Jews of Eastern Europe and many of them elsewhere were held under bondage of another sort--rabbinical tyranny with its hide-bound superstitions, a bondage of mind and spirit. At one stroke, the world war has set all free."2
Webster, who had spent seventeen years in Budapest for the Jewish Mission Committee of the United Free Church of Scotland and, in 1918, had taken over as Secretary of the Jewish Mission and the Colonial and Continental Committees of his church, also noted themes that were to be developed in the 1927 conferences and the coordinated missionary activities that followed them:
"World-wide emancipation of the Jews, the new race consciousness awakened among them, the power they wield, will not be used to serve Christian ends, probably not any religious end. The Jew emancipated but unredeemed, the Jew unsynagogued and adrift from his old restraints, becomes a disintegrating element in the community where he settles."
"Moreover, the Church at large has acted as if there were no call of Christ to bring the Gospel to His own. Although millions of this non-Christian people are at her doors and affect her life and work on every side, she has not allowed their case to grip her mind and imagination."4
It is noteworthy that nowhere in the report of the Budapest and Warsaw conferences was the premillennianist doctrine that the Second Coming of Christ depended upon the conversion of the Jewish people particularly emphasized as a rationale for mission to Jews--and that despite its prominence at the time of the Evangelical Awakening. Instead, as the Findings of the Warsaw conference put it: "The basis and authority of Missions to the Jews rest primarily on the special command and love of our Lord Jesus. It is an undoubted fact that neglect of Jewish Missions would deprive the Church of the great spiritual gifts latent in the Jewish people and result in spiritual dearth for the Church Universal."
As was the case with virtually all the conferences of the IMC, the Budapest and Warsaw meetings were extremely well prepared. Preparatory papers were commissioned, written, and distributed in advance, and an extensive questionnaire was circulated among the Jewish missionary societies. Answers to the questionnaire concerning "The Present Situation in Jewry" offer more detail to Black's depiction:
On the religious side, from country to country it is reported that the majority
of educated Jews have turned to agnosticism or atheism. Religious apathy or
indifference grows apace, morals have suffered in many parts since the War,
decadence is apparent almost everywhere, even in Palestine old-fashioned Orthodoxy
is being rapidly undermined, materialism gains ground rapidly, and already
drift from Judaism and the Synagogue has set in. It is stated that in America
80 per cent of the Jews are outside the Synagogue, while in the city of Berlin
approximately 64 per cent have given up Judaism, and in many other large cities
similar lapsing is seen, although the ratio may not be so high. Younger people
in particular seem to have less and less regard for the tenets of their traditional
faith and seek stimulus in Socialism and Labour Movements. A considerable
number in America has turned to "Christian Science," in Hungary to Theosophy
and Spiritualism, in many lands to Zionism and Nationalism. Indeed, with no
small proportion of Jews, Zionism and Nationalism are taking the place of
The implication drawn from these statistics, as we have seen, was that, perhaps for the first time in history, Jews were receptive to the Christian message. "That a new spirit of inquiry is...abroad need not be doubted," respondents to the questionnaire declared. "It would be too much to say that the majority of Jews are ready to accept the Gospel, but there is no question that very large numbers of them now show an open-mindedness heretofore unknown."
What made the situation "new" was the conviction that Jews were abandoning Judaism in large numbers. As a consequence of their being loosed from the ghetto, where they had been held in the grip of precise Talmudic teaching, they were out in the open where they could live the normal life of other people, which meant that they now enjoyed spiritual enfranchisement. Thus, after years in prison, they were leaving the synagogue in droves, lapsing from Judaism as an outworn creed, and substituting for it cults such as Christian Science, Theosophy, and Spiritualism, not to mention Zionism and Nationalism.
It is clear that the missionaries took for granted the hoary persuasion that Judaism was a "fossil" religion, in which Jews continued to believe only because of their isolation from the larger, Christian, society. Once they were physically freed from such isolation and able to engage in direct encounter with the "outside world," they would see the error of their ways. It only remained for Christians to present the gospel as the best and most viable alternative to the secular alternatives society offered.
Almost exactly one year after the April 1927 conferences on "The Christian Approach to the Jew" the International Missionary Council met in an enlarged meeting at Jerusalem (24 March-8 April 1928).2 Dr. James Black and others reported on the Budapest and Warsaw conferences and called attention to the Findings requesting the IMC to "consider at its first meeting how it can draw more closely together in co-operative action the various Societies, and how it can make the work among Jews more central in the plans and sacrificial devotion of the Churches." As a result, the Jerusalem meeting instructed its officers to "consult with the committees in the various countries which were appointed to arrange for the conferences in Warsaw and Budapest with a view to the appointment of a small committee to co-operate with the officers in carrying out the recommendations of these two conferences."4
That "small committee" was duly appointed at the meeting of the IMC's Committee in Williamstown, Massachusetts, during July 1929.5 Named "The International Committee on the Christian Approach to the Jews," it was composed of seven British and four North American members with Dr. James Black, who was given authority to add others from Europe if he desired, as chairman. It was more than a simple committee, however, for the constituting resolution provided for regional sections, a central office, and an employed executive secretary. The finances necessary to do all of this became the responsibility of the IMC's finance committee.
A secretary was soon located--Dr. Conrad Hoffmann, a former bacteriology professor from Wisconsin who had performed invaluable service through the YMCA for prisoners of war in England and Germany. Hoffmann, who remained as secretary until his retirement in 1951, began his work in September 1930 and immediately, even before the IMCCAJ could hold its first formal meeting, set about preparing the North American counterpart to the Budapest and Warsaw conferences, which was held at Atlantic City, New Jersey, in May 1931.
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