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Michael Solomon Alexander

ALEXANDER'S APOSTASY:

FIRST STEPS TO JERUSALEM


by BRIAN TAYLOR

 

THE synagogue in Bevis Marks in the city of London, 1700-1, is the oldest in this country. The second is in Plymouth, in Catherine Street. It was built in 1762, and is the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in the English-speaking world. It is noteworthy for its original furnishings, which are mainly austere - the deal benches, and plain turned balusters for the enclosures, with the eight brass candle-sticks, now electrified, round the bimah. The exception is the ornately carved wooden ark, towering almost to the ceiling, with large urns on the entablature, which is supported by Corinthian columns. 1 It is mortifying to the Hebrew congregation that its existence is mostly known not for its historic and architectural importance, but in connection with the defection of one of its ministers, Michael Solomon Alexander, in 1825. A little more than sixteen years later, Alexander was consecrated for the newly constituted Jerusalem bishopric, on 7 December 184I, in Lambeth Palace Chapel. Archbishop Howley was joined in the laying on of hands by Blomfield of London, Murray of Rochester, and Selwyn of New Zealand, who had been consecrated in thc same chapel three weeks before.

The Jerusalem bishopric scheme is mainly remembered for the stir it caused among Tractarian churchmen. In the official account of the scheme, published when it was all over, we read of Bunsen's visit to England in 1841. 'The mild and conciliatory Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Howley, the noble Archbishop of York, Dr. Vernon Harcourt, and the learned and energetic Bishop of London, Dr. Blomfield, warmly encouraged the plan, and Lord Ashley, now the venerable Earl of Shaftesbury, brought it the support of numerous friends.' 2 Looking back from 1864, however, Newman described it as one of 'three blows which broke me',3 leading to his departure from the Church of England. The bishopric did not have much significance in the Holy Land, nor did it have any lasting effect in promoting Christian unity. Only two Prussians were ordained under the scheme. When they returned to their own country the Prussian Evangelical Church neither recognized their orders nor found pastoral employment for them.4 After the death of the third bishop, in 1881, the bishopric was allowed to lapse, and the treaty between Prussia and England that enabled it was dissolved in 1886. P. J. Welch, in an article in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History in 1957, gave a detailed account of the political and constitutional events leading up to Alexander's consecration.5 The present paper deals principally with earlier stages in his life, leading to his baptism. If it sometimes seems diffuse, that is because I have thought it worth while to tie up some ends, and to answer some questions of identity that are sometimes left begging.

The main English sources for Alexander's early years are his own appendix to the printed sermon preached at his baptism,6 and a typed biography by Edith Wynne Willson and Michael Ransom, his descendants, in the archives of the Church Missionary Society at Partnership House, in London.7 There is also a popular biography, From Rabbi to Bishop by Muriel W. Corey.8

Michael Solomon Alexander was born on 1 May 1799 at Schonlanke, a small town in the grand duchy of Posen, in Prussia, land lost to Poland in the second partition of 1793. He was the second son of a rabbi from England, but none the less was educated 'principally in the Talmud, and in the strictest principles of Judaism'.9 The emancipation of the Jews in Prussia was not until 1869, and they lived as a race apart, Alexander knowing nothing of the New Testament in his early years, or even of its existence. At the age of sixteen he became a teacher of the Talmud, and of German language, but this study brought him growing dissatisfaction and unease. After his father's death, in 1817, his doubts led to a quarrel with his elder brother, and he decided to travel to England.

On arriving in London in 1819, Alexander introduced himself to Solomon Hirschel, who was the Chief Rabbi of the German and Polish Jews from 1802 to 1842. He hoped to find a position as a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, and he had prepared himself for this by special study before he came to England. As he was not at first successful, he was recommended to work as a tutor, and took a place at Colchester with a strict Jewish family.

One day he saw a poster advertising a meeting of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. He asked his employer what it meant, and was warned that in England there were vigorous efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. The interdenominational LSPCJ had been formed in 1809 for that purpose - the first organized mission to Jews outside Germany. Alexander was told that he should read the New Testament 'in order thereby to be convinced the more fully of the errors of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth' - as the preacher at his baptism later recounted.10 He did not know about the book, and could not read it in English, so he acquired a German translation. He was surprised that Christians should know about the Patriarchs, and he was much impressed by chapter I of the Gospel according to St Matthew. 'I was still more struck with the character of Christ, and the excellent morals that he taught; but having gone no further than merely to admire them, it produced no particular effect upon my mind though it considerably lessened my prejudices.'11

One of the keenest supporters of LSPCJ was William Marsh, ' Millennial Marsh' as he was later called when he was Rector of St Thomas's Birmingham. He was Rector of St Peter's Colchester from 1814 to 1829. He was a friend of Charles Simeon. They were both Reading men, and this connection with the town no doubt led to the gifts to Alexander in due course of a complete set of episcopal robes from the Mayor of Reading, Thomas Rickford, and a set of communion plate from the ladies of the town.12 Simeon encouraged Marsh to be interested in the Jews, and in 1818 they went together to the Netherlands, to learn about their life in that country. In her biography of her father, Catherine Marsh states that he brought about the conversion of two young Jewish cousins and baptised them at St Peter's. One of them, after being disowned by his family, was assisted financially by Marsh, and after a distinguished career at Cambridge was ordained in Dublin, she wrote, but a bright career of usefulness . . . was suddenly brought to an end by an illness affecting his mental powers, from which he never recovered.'13 The writer coyly refrained from naming the cousins, but they can be identified as John Michael Mayers, sometimes known as Michael John, and William Michael Mayers. Little seems to be known about them, but something can be pieced together, even though Catherine Marsh's account is not proved reliable. Their baptisms do not appear in the registers of St Peter's. William Michael was at St Catharine's, Cambridge, and took the Hulsean prize in 1826 and the Norrisian in 1827. He was ordained by the Bishop of Cloyne, deacon in 1827 and priest in 1828. The only office that I can find that he held was the prebend of Mulhuddart in St Patrick's, Dublin, from 1830 until his death in 1868. Perhaps that was given to him after his mental illness. John Michael was Vicar of Langham Bishops, in Norfolk, from 1845 to 1850, British chaplain at Marseilles from 1852 to 1864, and Rector of St Peter Chesil, Winchester, from I865 until his death early in 1881. All this followed his ordination as a deacon by Archbishop Magee of Dublin on 10 June 1827; and at that same ceremony Alexander was also ordained. The Colchester connection was maintained. Marsh did meet Alexander during his months in Colchester, and he was one who encouraged him to study the New Testament.14

Alexander left Essex for another appointment, in Norwich, this time as a rabbi, with leisure to give lessons in Hebrew and German. His English was improving, and he met many Christians, and learnt more about their faith. As he read the New Testament, he saw how prophecies in the Scriptures that he knew so well were fulfilled. He grew more perplexed, 'but endeavoured to shrink and turn away from the divine light.'15

In I823 Alexander was recommended by the Chief Rabbi in London to the Jewish congregation in Plymouth, and he was appointed prayer-reader and shohet. He went there, as he recalled, to make a new start, 'to regain my peace of mind, with a full determination to have no intercourse with Christians'.16

After the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, some quietly remained, and others returned, and there were some in Plymouth, working at seaport trades. After they were permitted to live openly in this country from 1655, settlement in the south-west was slow. Services were held in Exeter by 1734, where a synagogue was built in 1763 17 and in Plymouth by I745. The synagogue was built seventeen years later, and land for a cemetery was bought in 1811.18

There was no regular minister between 1815 and 1829. In 1822 a shohet was appointed by a general meeting of the congregation; presumably he was Alexander's predecessor. He was paid four guineas a month, with extra fees of ten shillings for each beast slaughtered, and a shilling for each birth registered. He probably received part of the guinea paid to the synagogue at the time of a wedding. With the hazzan, or reader, he taught children for two hours on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday mornings.19 We may imagine that Alexander's terms of employment were similar.

The synagogue records have no mention at all of M. S. Alexander. The present president of the Plymouth Hebrew congregation considers that the elders probably expunged all references to him from their books after his apostasy.20

Very soon after taking up his appointment in Plymouth, Alexander met Deborah Levy, the daughter of a widow at Stonehouse, and about three months later, in September, they were engaged to be married. Early in 1824 he was approached by the curate of Stonehouse, Benjamin Bass Golding, asking for Hebrew lessons. It did not take long for the pupil to become a 'spiritual preceptor', and when Alexander compared the Old Testament with the New, he 'came almost to the conviction that Jesus was the Messiah.' 21 He told Deborah Levy of the possibility of his becoming a

Christian. She was astonished, but trusted him. Although the engagement was broken off five times by the in influence of friends, the notice appeared in the Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal of 11 November 1824 that the wedding had taken place at the Crown Hotel Devonport of the Reverend M. S. Alexander and Miss Deborah Levy, late of Stonehouse. That was on 3 November. At that time Jewish weddings did not take place in synagogues, but where the family festivities were held. Before the Marriage Act of 1836, and the first civil registers of 1837, Jewish weddings were not registered. It has not been possible so far to identify which of Plymouth's Levy families Deborah belonged to.

The Jewish teacher's friendship with Christians, and his rising doubts could not be kept secret. The elders of the Hebrew congregation came to hear of it, and consulted the Chief Rabbi, Solomon Hirschel, who ordered a temporary suspension from duty. Alexander was faced with the loss of his income, and with the pleas of his friends, but the attraction of the Gospel was too great. He could not return to his duties at the synagogue, and after more 'immediate connection with many Christian friends' 22 his mind was made up.

Alexander was baptized at St Andrew's parish church on Wednesday 22 June 1825. A new vicar had arrived at StAndrew's in August 1824, John Hatchard, the son of the founder of the publishing and bookselling firm. He was a strict Evangelical, and his memorial by H. H. Armstead in the south-east aisle displays his mutton-chop whiskers, and draws attention to his courage in the cholera epidemic of 1832, and to his part in founding new churches and the South Devon and East Cornwall Hospital. The baptism was not quiet or private. Alexander was well known, and St Andrew's is only fifty yards north of the synagogue. The Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal reported 23 that 'Mr Alexander, late Reader to the Jewish congregation in this town, and who has held other offices of character and respectability among theJews, was baptized in the Christian Faith, by the Rev. Mr. Hatchard, in the presence of an immense congregation who appeared to take a great interest in the ceremony.' The prayers were read by Robert Lampen, the first perpetual curate of St Andrew's chapel, and the witnesses were Golding, Mrs Hatchard, and Captain Thicknesse, R.N. As well as administering the sacrament of baptism, Hatchard preached a substantial sermon on Hosea 3. 4-5: The children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince, and without a sacrifice, and without an image, and without an ephod, and without teraphim. Afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the LORD their God, and David their king; and shall fear the LORD and his goodness in the latter days.

He dwelt at length on the persistent stubbornness of the Jews. 'The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider (Isaiah 1. 3).' He considered the prophecies of return, including those in Ezekiel 7, and continued:

If the conversion of a soul from the ways of sin to the ways of righteousness is a matter upon which there isjoy among the angels in heaven, surely when the vail which remaineth upon the children of Israel is done away in Christ, it is a cause for peculiar thankfulness unto him . . . Such an event, my Christian brethren, I have this day the delight to announce to you &emdash; A member of the house of Israel, will at this time 'Subscribe with his hand unto the Lord, and surname himself by the name of Israel [Isaiah 5. 5]'.

He encouraged anyJews who were present to follow Alexander's example. 'Let me entreat you not with wilful blindness and obduracy, to reject without due enquiry, the claims of him whom your forefathers have crucified and slain.' He begged Christians to pray for the conversion of Jews.

Is there anything in the formation of the Jewish mind, is there anything in the Jewish heart, which renders it impossible that God can have access there? Are there prejudices so deeply rooted, is the curse of God so irremediably upon them, that the voice of prayer, that the cry of faith cannot be heard, or will not be answered? - God forbid.

He urged the convert to pray for his 'brethren after the flesh'. 24 I have quoted Hatchard's rhetoric at length to illustrate the feelings of the time, and also the length of the step that Alexander took. In his own account Alexander promised to pray for his own people, and recorded his gratitude to his Jewish friends, 'though I am conscious of being an outcast from them.' 25

The newspaper report continued, 'We ought perhaps to suffer Mr. A!exander to carry into private life the precepts and consolations of that religion which he has thus openly embraced, as it may not be grateful to his feelings to be dragged into notoriety.' Some had attempted to belittle

his sacrifice, saying that he was of low rank, and the paper admitted that it had erred in this respect. Enquiry had revealed that Alexander had always been known as 'Rabbi', that he was a qualified reader, who deputized as reader, and 'also held the office of Shochet or Inspector of Meat, which is an honourable office, and bestowed only on Priests of unblemished reputation.'

It would have been difficult for Alexander to remain in Plymouth, and even more difficult for his wife. Another report of the baptism, in the Westem Flying Post and Yeovil Mercury, stated, 'He is about to go abroad as a missionary.' 26 The day after the baptism, Alexander moved to Exeter, and there Deborah was baptized on 9 November at All Hallows Goldsmith Street. John Hatchard came from Plymouth to administer the baptism. In the register she appears as Deborah Mary, and seems to have taken the second name when she became a Christian.

This is not the place to describe Alexander's career in Ireland, where he was ordained; with the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, which sent him to Prussia, where he met members of his family amicably, and in London; or his episcopate, ending abruptly with his death on 23 November 1845, as he camped at Bilbeis on his way to Cairo. l will, however, attempt to shed a little light on some of the lines that led from the events in Plymouth that I have described.

The Hatchard connection was maintained and strengthened. The vicar of St Andrew's had a younger brother, Thomas, who was the partner of his father, and who was to inherit the publishing and bookselling business in 1849. His son, Thomas Goodwin Hatchard, was a clergyman. He visited the Alexanders in the Holy Land, and according to tradition proposed marriage to Fanny - the oldest surviving child, who had been born in Danzig in 1828 - under Abraham's oak at Hebron. She was little more than a child at that time. They were married on 9 February 1846. The first ten years of their married life were spent at Havant Rectory, then in 1856 Hatchard became rector of Guildford St Nicolas'. His father died in 1858, and the family and friends built St Catherine's infants school at the end of the garden in his memory. The building, designed by Charles Henry Howell still stands, though it has not been a school since 1932. In 1857 they lost an 8-year-old daughter, Adelaide Charlotte, who was buried in the new municipal cemetery, just above the garden of the mansion that was then the rectory. On 4 February 1869 Hatchard was consecrated Bishop of Mauritius in Westminster Abbey. Fanny was a bishop's wife for less time even than her mother, for Hatchard died of fever on 28 February 1870, only a few months after reaching the island. Fanny returned to live in London, but died in December 1880 in the Hotel

Beau Site in Cannes, where she was buried at Christ Church. She was only 52 years old. Her memorial in St Nicolas' is four very dull windows of the Evangelists by Clayton and Bell. The Bishop was already commemorated there by a sturdy pulpit, carved by Thomas Earp of Lambeth.

Another daughter of the Alexanders, Mary Ann, or Minnie, married William Wynne Willson, a fellow of St John's, Oxford, and Rector of Codford St Mary, in Wiltshire. Their son, St John Basil Wynne Willson, became Dean of Bristol, 1916-21, and Bishop of Bath and Wells, 1921-37, and as such was one of the supporters of King George Vl at the coronation in 1937.

Deborah Mary Alexander lived at St Leonards-on-Sea, blind at the end, and died there on 3 May 1872, aged 68. She was buried at Churt, Surrey, where her son Alexander Benjamin Alexander was vicar. The grave, near the north-east corner of the chancel, is marked with a plain stone Latin cross, and the inscription ends, 'THINE EYES SHALL SEE THE KING IN HIS BEAUTY'. 27 The oldest of Benny's children who were born at Churt was Ronald Percy Goodwin Alexander. He studied at St Augustine's College, Canterbury, and then farmed in Ontario and Manitoba from 1888 to 1894. He then went as a lay SPG missionary to the diocese of Mashonaland, in British South Africa, where he was ordained deacon in 1899 and priest in 1901, serving as curate at St Augustine's, Penhalonga, and then Gwelo. He returned to England and lived with the Cowley Fathers in Oxford. It is not clear whether he sought to join the Society, as the novices' register has been lost, but he held a general licence in the diocese of Oxford, and also had some association with Holy Trinity, Winchester. In 1913 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. In 1914 he entered the Benedictine abbey of Fort Augustus, in Invernessshire, and was professed in 1915 as Dom Romuald, and ordained priest in 1920. He held pastoral positions in Scotland, England, and Wales. When he died, on 21 May 1948, it was recorded that he 'was something of a poet and wrote verses with facility; some of these he sang, accompanying them on an auto-harp; these were of a humorous kind and were sung for the entertainment of his brethren, parishioners and friends.' All this is a very long way from the rabbi's son in Schonlanke.

 

Guildford St Nicolas'

 

1. The synagogue is described in B. Susser s leaflet, Plymouth's Historic Synagogue built in 1762 (1982), and more briefly in Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner, Devon - The Buildings of England, 2nd edn (London, 1989), p. 648.

2. William H. Hechler, ed., The Jerusalem Bishopric, Documents with Translations . . . published by command of His Majesty Frederick William IV King of Prussia (London, 1883), p. 29.

3. Apologia pro Vita Sua, Everyman edn (London, n. d.), pp. 139 -47.

4. S. L. Ollard in Ollard, G. Crosse, and M. F. Bond, A Dictionary of English Church History, 3rd edn (London, 1948), p. 308.

5. P.J. Welch, 'Anglican Churchrnen and the Jerusalem Bishopric', JEH, 8 , (1957), pp. 193-204.

6. J. Hatchard, The Predictions and Promises of God Respecting Israel (PIymouth, 1825). Alexander's account occupies pp. 37-40 [hereafter Appendix].

7. E. W. Willson and M. Ransom, Life of Michael Solomon Alexander First Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem [typescript] (n.d.).

8. Muriel W. Corey, From Rabbi to Bishop (London, n.d.).

9. Appendix, p. 38.

10. Hatchard, Predictions. p. 23.

11. Appendix, p. 38.

12. Willson and Ransom, Life, p. 27.

13. [Catherine Marsh], The Life of the Rev. William Marsh, DD. (London, 1869), pp. 60-3.

14. Willson and Ransom, Life, p. 1.

15. Appendix, p. 38.

16. Ibid.

17. The present Exeter synagogue dates from 1835.

18. Short accounts are given in Doris Black, The Plymouth Synagogue 1761-1961 (5521-5721), n. p., n.d.), and in B. Susser, An Account of the Old Jewish Cemetery on Plymouth Hoe (Pl ymouth, 1972).

19. Black, Plymouth Synagogue. p. 9.

20. P. R. Aloof to the author, 29 October 1990.

21. Appendix, p. 39.

22. Appendix, p.39.

23. Ibid., p. 40.

24. Hatchard, Predictions, p. 34.

25. Appendix, p. 40.

26. 27 June 1825.

27 Isaiah 33.17.

28. Benedictine AImanack (1949), p. 19.

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