Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Memoir of Maria, A Converted Jewess

Dying Hours or Narratives Illustrative of the Grace of God to Dying Sinners was published anonymously in 1843 (in Philadelphia) by the Presbyterian Board of Publication. If there was an earlier edition I'm not aware of it. The book contains several conversion stories; the final chapter is entitled "Memoir of Maria, A Converted Jewess." (This chapter has also been published in book form by various publishers as The Converted Jewess: A Memoir of Maria).

A Jewish woman with the unlikely name of Maria suffers a bad fall down a staircase and is laid up in bed. A Christian neighbor tends to her needs and starts to evangelize her. The neighbor reads to her Isaiah 53 and other messianic prophecies, and encourages Maria to believe and acknowledge that these passages refer to Jesus. However, initially Maria remains unconvinced, though she is not opposed to conversing about it and generally not irritated by the Christian's attempt at proselytizing. But later, after more conversations and some soul searching on Maria's part, our heroine comes to believe in Christ.

The rest of the story is taken up in attempts by some Jews to "unconvert" Maria (unsuccessful of course). We also get to witness Maria's baptism, and finally her death. Before she is baptized she tells her father about her newfound beliefs and asks his permission to get baptized. [Why would she ever think that he would give his permission for her baptism??] He of course is upset and tells her that she was born a Jew and will die a Jew. She replies, "I have not forsaken my religion, it is the poor Jews who forsake it. [Yeah, right]. If they would read their Scriptures, they would then know that Jesus is their Messiah! He saves from sin. He alone has made me happy under all my pains. He died for me. It is my dying request" (p. 134).

But she's not dead yet! The final pages of the book are taken up in Maria preaching to the rest of her family (sister, mother, grandmother) before she dies. The author is careful to mention that "the memoir is in no degree a fiction" (p. 142) but is a true narrative, having occurred a short time earlier in a small town in England. The author states that the last name of the family is not mentioned due to concern for their feelings since they continue to adhere to Judaism.

Michael Ragussis comments on the story of Maria in his book Figures of Conversion:

"As with so many other popular forms of nonfiction, the memoir of the Jewish convert was soon translated into novelistic form. Such translations often masqueraded as the original, announcing their autobiographical status in their titles The Converted Jewess A Memoir of Maria -- or Leila Ada, The Jewish Convert: An Authentic Memoir. While both of these texts are written in the third person of novelistic discourse, they go to great lengths to legitimize their claim to the status of memoir. The author of Leila Ada asserts that he uses extracts from diaries and journals which the young heroine composed herself, so that the third-person narrative is interspersed with long passages from the writings of Leila Ada in the first person. In both cases the authors claim to have heard the events of the young woman's life from people who knew her intimately. The authenticity of the account becomes a typical refrain..." (p. 36).

"In these two texts a sick young woman is the focus of the conversion plot.... The theme of illness is used for several purposes. First, it allows the writer to illustrate the fortitude and peace with which the Christian dies, a popular idea in the conversionist novel.... Second, the illness of the young woman makes her sexless, without bodily wishes, entirely devoted to the realm of the spirit.... In each of these novels the reading of Scripture thoroughly occupies the immobilized heroine" (p. 37).

"The last stage of each heroine's illness turns her into a quasi-missionary.... Maria exemplifies the idea that the proof of one's own conversion was realized in nothing less than the desire to evangelize the globe" (p. 38).