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New Horizons

"The Most Fruitful of All Missionary Work"

John S. Ross

The 1838 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland appointed a four-man team to investigate evangelistic opportunities among Jews in Europe and Palestine. The older men were Dr. Alexander Keith and Dr. Alexander Black, and the younger two ministers were Robert Murray M'Cheyne and Andrew Bonar. On their return, the General Assembly debated at length the question of the most suitable location—either Pesth (Budapest) or Palestine. Eventually it was agreed that the work should begin in Pesth, and a team of workers led by Dr. John Duncan was appointed.

John Duncan

John Duncan was born in Aberdeen in 1796, the son of a poor shoemaker. Despite the evangelical influences surrounding him in his formative years, Duncan became an atheist. His views, however, did not hinder him from undertaking theological studies in 1816. Under the influence of one of his tutors, Dr. Mearns, his skepticism fell away and he was able to believe in the existence of God. It happened suddenly when he was crossing one of the bridges in Aberdeen. He later recalled the emotional impact: "When I was convinced that there was a God, I danced on the Brig o'Dee with delight."[1]

Duncan enjoyed a particular genius for languages. He could claim not only an extensive knowledge of Hebrew and rabbinical literature, which earned him the nickname "Rabbi," but also competence in Syriac, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindustani, and Mahratti, as well as Greek and Latin.

Duncan at Budapest

The first missionary party arrived in Hungary on August 21, 1841, very conscious of the place they held in the hearts and prayers of the Scottish church. Duncan, though set apart for mission work to the Jews, understood that the mission could only prosper as the church generally prospered. In one of his earliest letters he wrote:

Certain I am, that if we are by the blessing of God to succeed in our aim in this place, it must be by pursuing it, as the main object indeed, but by no means as the sole object of our exertions. I am therefore very decidedly of the opinion that whoever shall be stationed here must ... labour for the revival of ... the Protestant Churches of the land; which, if it please the Lord to visit them graciously ... would then become ... the best instruments for carrying on the work of gathering in the lost sheep of the house of Israel to the Shepherd and Bishop of souls.[2]

Within three months of his arrival in Hungary, Duncan had mastered the Magyar language and understood its characteristics, but with typical modesty did not attempt to speak it in public. His friend and helper, Mr. Torok, the superintendent of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Pesth, bore testimony to his meticulous cultural sensitivity:

I must further speak of his wisdom, modesty, and judicious procedure. He thus won us all, and carefully and happily avoided every cause of offence—all conflict with the political and ecclesiastical authorities.[3]

A major part of Duncan's missionary strategy was to hold public services each Lord's Day in English, primarily for the British engineers building the chain bridge between Buda and Pesth. Among the Hungarians wanting to improve their English were many Jews, a number of whom began to regularly attend the services, where they were introduced to the claims of the Messiah.

Duncan became well known and greatly respected amongst Jewish teachers for his familiarity with rabbinic literature and the Hebrew language. He also cultivated close relations with people of influence in the Hungarian Jewish community, including the chief rabbi, with whom he had a particularly warm friendship.

Another strategy Duncan and his wife used was the open hospitality of their home. They were in the habit of spending whole days in receiving visitors, and he brought into play his marvelous conversational and persuasive powers. One writer recalls:

Their house in Pesth was thrown open to the Jews; they saw all their habits and ways, and had Christianity presented before them without being forced upon them. His very peculiarities seemed to suit them, and to attract rather than offend; and his truly Christian tact was so great that his opponents spoke of him as "a very cunning missionary."[4]

Conversions

The list of converts grew almost daily. It included the Saphir family, Alfred Edersheim, and Alexander Tomory.

Israel Saphir and his whole family were some of the first fruits of the mission. It was the custom of the missionaries to have communion in an upper room. On one occasion prior to his conversion, old Saphir, highly respected in the Hungarian Jewish community, attended the meeting as an observer, something he had done before. He brought with him his young son, Adolph.

The boy, standing, was between his knees, the young head reaching nearly to the aged face, the face nearly resting on the youthful head. We had ended the Supper. Dr Duncan gave out the sixty-fourth paraphrase, "To Him that loved the souls of men." To our surprise the voice of the old Hebrew rose above our voices, and when we looked to him the tears were falling plentifully on the head of Adolph. These are days to be remembered.[5]

The boy on whose head his old father's tears fell became a highly respected Presbyterian minister. He was ordained to the ministry of the Irish Presbyterian Church in 1854.

When Alexander Tomory first began to show an interest in Christian teaching, he approached both liberal Protestant theological professors and Roman Catholic bishops, but they had nothing to say that could help him. Then one bishop suggested he go to Pesth and see John Duncan:

Three days later I was introduced to the dear man. In a most syllogistic way, and in fluent Latin, he brought out the truth of the gospel, and urged me to accept Christ as my Saviour.... But quite in keeping with the character of the doctor, ... in the same breath he began to teach me in English. While the tears were yet in my eyes and his, he began to conjugate an English verb, and made me repeat it. After that I saw him almost daily till he left for Italy. This was in the year 1842. He left, but the blessing remained behind.[6]

Duncan's ministry was interrupted after about a year by ill health, and though he did return to the mission in Pesth, it was for a very short visit before being recalled to Scotland in 1843 to become the first professor of Hebrew for the newly established Free Church of Scotland.

Blessings Abound

The blessing Duncan experienced did not fade with his removal to Scotland. Indeed, from the dawning of the new year, the little missionary group became even more deeply aware of the Lord's presence with them. On Sunday, January 1, they had arranged a communion service in an upper room:

... for fear of the Jews, and to escape the eye of an intolerant Government. From the moment the service began, the place where we were assembled seemed filled with a mysterious presence. Indeed, the risen Lord had entered by the closed door, and stood, as at Jerusalem, in the midst of His disciples. Deep silence fell on the little company as they realised his nearness, a silence interrupted only at intervals by the deep-drawn sigh of some bursting heart. The dividing wall which separated heaven and earth seemed for a time removed, and the fellowship between both was experienced which is the fullest blessedness of earth, and anticipates the glory of heaven.[7]

This blessing overflowed from the missionaries into the Jewish community and created new opportunities for service, so that the work went from strength to strength. The Jewish Missionary Herald of November 1846 reported:

This favoured station continues to manifest every encouraging appearance: the little church at Pesth, chiefly gathered out from among the lost sheep of the house of Israel, still gives evidence of its Divine birth by its faith, love, zeal and patience in many trials from within and without. The list of inquirers, or catechumens, numbers twenty-three adults; among these are fathers of families, whose wives and children will all be instructed as soon as family arrangements can be made for it.[8]

Reviewing the period from the 1839 Mission of Inquiry up to 1932, Professor Moore of the Free Church of Scotland college concluded that no field of missionary activity had been more effective than the work among the Jews: "It is ... in proportion to the effort expended, the most fruitful of all missionary work undertaken by the Christian Church."[9]

Perhaps the most fruitful center of all was Budapest. Gavin Carlyle's assessment is:

Few missions, either Jewish or other, have had so remarkable a history or so widespread an influence as that of Pesth. It gave an impetus to Jewish missions, the effect of which will never pass away.[10]

In our own day, that influence is still generating in the Hungarian church a powerful motivation for missions both to Jews and Gentiles.

Endnotes

[1] David Brown, The Life of Rabbi Duncan (Edinburgh, 1872), p. 76.

[2] Ibid., p. 319.

[3] Ibid., p. 317.

[4] Gavin Carlyle, Mighty in the Scriptures: A Memoir of Adolph Saphir, D.D. (London, 1894), p. 437.

[5] Brown, p. 440.

[6] Ibid., p. 441.

[7] Brown, p. 335.

[8] The Jewish Missionary Herald, November 1846.

[9] Professor Moore, The Challenge of Our Heritage (Edinburgh, 1932), p. 37.

[10] Carlyle, p. 57.

Mr. Ross, a minister in the Free Church of Scotland, is the chief executive of Christian Witness to Israel. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 1996.

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