Among the pioneers of the modern Messianic Jewish movement was 19th century non-Conformist minister Ridley Herschell.
The Polish-born Jew made his way to London as a student (as I did) and, in time, became a much-celebrated cleric moving in high society circles. But his greatest passion was preaching the gospel, especially among his own people.
Yet ironically, it was while he was living it up in Paris that, almost accidentally, he encountered the truth about Jesus by reading a passage from the book generally considered forbidden to his people – the New Testament.
Some purchases he had made at a shop were, somewhat irreverently, wrapped up in a page torn out of a large Bible which contained an excerpt from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, specifically the phrase “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5.4)
It just so happened that Haim, as he was known at the time, was in great need of comfort, having lost his beloved mother far from home and being unable to witness her burial.
But when news of his supposed apostasy reached his family, he was promptly disowned. Over the years, however, with the help of his Scottish wife Helen, there was a significant reconciliation, even to the extent that several of his brothers not only followed his spiritual path, but were also ordained into gospel ministry.
Helen, who had herself paid dearly for her relationship with the Jewish ‘rabbi’, became fluent in Hebrew and duly softened the heart of Ridley’s father by writing to him and explaining the Messianic faith in the Jews’ ancient language.
Success at the pulpit
At times influenced by controversial preacher Edward Irving – considered a forerunner of the modern Pentecostal movement – as well as spiritual giants like Robert Murray McCheyne, Ridley built up a great reputation, both for preaching and writing, and was helpfully sponsored by wealthy admirers.
He led congregations in Brampton, Huntingdonshire, and Leigh-on-Sea, near Southend, as well as various parts of London, finally settling in Marylebone, where he pastored Trinity Chapel, at John Street, off the Edgware Road.
He was among the founders of the Evangelical Alliance and of Christian Witness to Israel. One of their five children became an MP – not long after Jews were first allowed to enter Parliament – and eventually Lord Chancellor of England and the first Baron Herschell of Durham. But his most precious legacy was the fruit of his gospel preaching.
Fisher of men
Significantly, for a ‘fisher of men’ in the mould of Jesus’ first disciples, he made a lasting impact on the Essex fishing village of Leigh. Its hardened fishermen weren’t expected to react kindly to this smart and gentle Jew, but he won them over – in particular, a burly giant of a man called Michael Tomlin, whose heart was melted by the message of Jesus, and who went on to pastor the local Methodist church.
He became the great, great grandfather of Geoffrey Henderson, the man responsible for unearthing the facts upon which this article is based and whose biography of Ridley – All Love – was published in 2006.
Looking beyond Christian antisemitism
Ridley’s embrace of Christianity – still perceived by many Jews as heresy – was all the more surprising in view of the antisemitism he witnessed growing up in Poland. A cousin was effectively kidnapped by nuns to whom she had been sent to learn needlework; they persuaded her to be baptised a Christian and refused to return her to her parents!
Ridley twice visited the Holy Land despite the difficulties of travel and the inhospitable nature of their destination in those days. While there he befriended the new Bishop of Jerusalem, Michael Solomon Alexander, representing the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, now known as CMJ (Church’s Ministry among the Jews).
In fact, he saw it as a remarkable sign of the times “that a Jew should be sent out as bishop to Jerusalem by the most powerful nation on earth”. And he returned to England “full of hope and expectation for his people”. He also played a part in the establishment of a CMJ centre in Jaffa, Beit Immanuel, still a focus for effective gospel activity today.
Reestablishing a Jewish foundation of faith
Ridley’s trips deepened both his love for the Jewish people and his belief in the restoration of Israel, and he set the tone for modern Messianic Jewish thinking when, in 1857, he told the third Evangelical Alliance conference in Berlin:
“I believe there is nothing that we Christian Israelites ought more earnestly to seek to maintain than our distinct nationality. We must show our brethren that in becoming Christians we have not ceased to be Jews. Our national life and expectations are based upon the word and promise of God, and can never be abandoned.”
His view clearly reflects the thinking of those who have followed him – that many Christians have lost track of their Jewish roots [Editor’s note: Sadly, the same is happening among many Israeli Jewish believers. See: “Is the Future of Messianics Jewish?”]. And the author of this biography makes the further point that, even by the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, none of the 318 bishops who attended had Jewish origins!
Ridley was left broken-hearted when Helen, ten years his senior, died at the age of 56, but he nevertheless remarried a wealthy spinster called Esther, after which he moved in yet loftier circles, even being received by the King and Queen of Prussia during their honeymoon.
For all that, he was a humble servant of God – even taking a special pastoral interest in the police. And the esteem in which he was held can be measured by the fact that 300 policemen of the Metropolitan Force’s D Division – all that could be spared – followed his funeral cortege when he died in 1864, aged 57.
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon; Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com; and A Nation Reborn, available from Christian Publications International