From the Archives: Proselytizing and Doubtful Conversions

While in the midst of research, it’s always exciting when you find a connection that you suspected, but did not know existed for certain.  I have spent the last week or so as a research fellow at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio, conducting research for the chapter of my dissertation focusing on early American Jewish educators, specifically Isaac Leeser.  Isaac Leeser (1806-1868) was the hazan, or cantor, of Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia’s oldest synagogue.  He also commanded a position of national prominence as an advocate for Jews, the Jewish faith, and Jewish education, in part by means of his periodical, The Occident and American Jewish Advocate.

Isaac Leeser

Isaac Leeser

Since I started researching Leeser, I have wondered if he knew Frederick A. Packard, one of my other research subjects, a Protestant evangelical who served as Secretary of the American Sunday-School Union in Philadelphia.  Today, I was excited to find proof that Packard at least knew of Leeser and felt comfortable asking him for a favor.

I discovered two letters from Packard to Leeser in the Gershwind-Bennett Isaac Leeser Digital Repository.  In one of the letters, Packard asked Leeser his opinion of the moral character of a Mr. Berk, “said to be a Polish Jew converted to Christianity.”  Packard had been asked to arrange for Mr. Berk to give a lecture and did not want to promote the man “if his moral character & standing are not irreproachable.”

Frederick A. Packard to Isaac Leeser, March 3, 1849

Frederick A. Packard to Isaac Leeser, March 3, 1849 (

In addition to evidence that Packard and Leeser corresponded, I found this letter interesting because it brought into relief an issue that preoccupied Leeser a great deal, as revealed in several Occident essays that I read this week.  In the early nineteenth century, Protestant evangelicals launched several efforts aimed to convert American Jews to Christianity, such as the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews.  Many Jews, including Isaac Leeser, resented what they viewed as missionaries’ presumption that they could not manage their own spiritual affairs.  Leeser also viewed efforts to convert the Jews as standing in stark contradiction to the American ideal of freedom of religion.  In the pages of the Occident and in letters to the editors of other newspapers, he vehemently denied that American Jews needed spiritual or material aid from Christians and encouraged those of his faith to firmly rebuff missionaries.  He also frequently challenged missionaries’ statements that they had achieved as many conversions as they claimed (in fact, almost no Jews converted to Christianity as a result of early nineteenth-century American Protestant efforts).

I would very much like to find Leeser’s response to Packard; I suspect that he would have questioned Berk’s conversion.  Leeser believed that most conversions of Jews occurred only as a result of ignorance, hence his strong belief in the importance of Jewish education.  With a good education, “armed with knowledge of what is demanded of Israelites, and imbued with a firm reliance of Providence, our young men and our maidens might be exposed to the siren notes of proselyte-hunters without falling into the snare laid for their feet.”*  Leeser believed that education and the development of young people’s powers of reason would only attach them more strongly to the Jewish faith.  Packard believed that education and the use of reason would similarly draw individuals closer to evangelical Christianity.  My dissertation will ultimately examine the conflicting religious views of these individuals, and several other nineteenth-century religious educators, who yet all had very similar ideas about the supportive role of reason with respect to faith.

* Leeser made this comment in a footnote he wrote in Grace Aguilar, The Spirit of Judaism, Third Edition, ed. Isaac Leeser (Philadelphia, 5624 [1864]), 180.


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