Saturday, September 8, 2007

In League With Israel; A Tale of the Chattanooga Conference

Annie Fellows Johnston, born in 1863, was a teacher and the daughter of a Methodist minister. She was born, grew up, and spent much of her life in rural Indiana. Johnston died in 1931. Published in 1896, In League With Israel; A Tale of the Chattanooga Conference was not Johnston's only literary endeavor. She was also the author of "The Little Colonel," which was later made into a film with Shirley Temple.

This novel with the strange title introduces us to the following cast of characters: Ezra Barthold, an old rabbi; David Herschel, his protege, who is a young (23 years old) lawyer; and Marta, David's sister, 16 years old, (who has been spending time with Major Frances Herrick and his family, including Albert Herrick, his son). David and Marta are orphans with no living relatives; David calls Ezra "Uncle," apparently not implying a blood relationship.

The rabbi is concerned about Marta's spiritual moorings, which is often a harbinger of a coming apostasy in conversionist novels. He says to David: "I tell you there is great danger of the child's being led away from the faith... You must heed my warning, and discourage such intimacy with a Gentile family." (p.11). ... "... never for a moment let her forget that she is a Jewess. Kindle her pride in her race. Teach her loyalty to her people, and love for all that is Hebrew" (p. 13).

Rabbi Barthold "had been trained according to the most strictly orthodox system of Judaism... In the new world he had cast aside the shackles of tradition for the larger liberty of the Reformed Jew" (p. 17). He loves music and literature, and he seeks a balance between tradition and liberalism. [I can't decide who fares worse in conversionary literature: Orthodox rabbis, who are portrayed as rigid fundamentalists, or Reform rabbis, who are characterized as so open minded that their brains are falling out of their heads. Rabbi Barthold is one of the few rabbis in Christian fiction who seeks a balance between orthodox practice and the broader culture].

Frank Marion is a Methodist layman (actually a shoe salesman) who has a very good reputation in the community. We learn that there will be a conference ("the Epworth League") in Chattanooga, Tennessee that Frank is going to attend, along with several others from the local Methodist church. Using his charm, persistence, and warmth, he persuades young David to go to the conference with him. On the train to the conference we meet Bethany Hallam, a cousin of Frank Marion. Like David, she is an orphan and has a younger sibling to care for. She is somewhat embittered and depressed by her father's recent death and by her brother's illness.

Frank admits that until about 10 years earlier, he had been anti-semitic. "I took Fagin and Shylock as fair specimens of the whole race. It was, really, a most unaccountable hatred I had for them.... I know it to be a fact that there are hundreds and hundreds of Church members today that have the same inexplicable antipathy" (p. 32). Bethany responds, with embarrassing candor, that she has "a great admiration and respect for Jews in the abstract.... but in the concrete, I must say I like to have as little intercourse with them as possible. And as to modern Israelites, all I know of them personally is the almost cringing obsequiousness of a few wealthy merchants with whom I have dealt, and the dirty swarm of repulsive creatures that infest the tenement districts" (p. 33). Frank gently explains to Bethany how he came to love the Jews, and how many Jews are not bad people. "We forget, sometimes, that the Savior himself belonged to that race we so reproach" (p. 35).

A young Methodist minister, George Cragmore, is also on the train. He engages in a "preachable moment" with David and this bit of earnest proselytizing results in some awkwardness. But then they arrive in Chattanooga, where David meets Marta who is also coming to the conference. David also meets a Jewish Christian by the name of Isaac Lessing, who gives in great detail his testimony of coming to faith in Christ (pp. 64-71), including the desertion of his wife after his conversion and the rejection of his family (and indeed, of the entire Jewish community). Isaac encourages Bethany to evangelize any Jews that she might meet. The conference ends and David goes back home, but Marta stays nearby with the Herrick family (they live in Chattanooga).

There is a fair amount of discussion in this book about subtle anti-semitism and how Christians are often guilty of it. The more enlightened characters in the novel try to get the more prejudiced ones to see that Jews are like everyone else, some good, some bad, most in the middle. But mostly we are told that the stereotypes of Jews are just that: stereotypes, and not necessarily true, and certainly not cause to keep away from Jews. And how much more should one share the Gospel with the Jews! Bethany and Jack (her wheelchair bound younger brother) start to study about Jews and read books like Children of the Ghetto by Israel Zangwill and History of the Jews by Graetz. This improves their views of the Jewish people (they had nowhere to go but up!), and also provides them impetus to share the Gospel with Jews.

Bethany gets a job as a stenographer in a law office, and soon after David gets a job there in the same office as a lawyer. Jack comes to the office sometimes and David, in an interesting turn of events, agrees to teach him Hebrew. Frank Marion sees this one day and asks David to teach Hebrew to his church's Sunday school teachers. David declines because of the distance but volunteers Rabbi Barthold. (I should mention that throughout the book, various characters laud the merits of the Methodist Church, including their service to the poor, their organizational skills, etc. Hmm. I wonder if Shirley Temple was a Methodist?)

David Herschel, upon learning (and seeing) the Methodist's work among the poor, remarks: "What was there in this man of Nazareth to inspire such devotion after such a lapse of time? I understand how one might admire his ethical teaching... but how he can inspire such sublime annihilation of self, surpasses my comprehension. He was no greater lawgiver than Moses, yet who makes such sacrifices for the love of Moses?" (p. 170).

[Uh, I can think of a few Jews that would fit this bill, but let's not turn this into a spitting contest!]

Frank and David admire the character of Rabbi Barthold: "He is trying to rekindle the pride and zeal and hope of an ancient day. Excuse me for saying it, Herschel, but there are few in his congregation who understand him. Their vision is so obscured by this dense fog of modern indifference that they fail to appreciate his aims. They are still in the outer courts, among the tables of the money-changers, and those who sell doves. They have never entered the inner sanctuary of a spiritual life" (p. 187).

Both Frank Marion and George Cragmore are invited to attend Yom Kippur services at Rabbi Barthold's synagogue, and they both come. [I've never thought it a good idea for Christians to attend high holiday services, especially Yom Kippur. For one thing, seats are often scarce; why fill up the seats with non-adherents? But more importantly, everyone else is trying to have a spiritual experience, and most attendees are fasting. Do you really want a Christian who wants you converted to Christianity to be sitting next to you, with a full stomach no doubt, while you are trying to make it through the day without fainting? Ah, maybe it's just me and my own prejudices, but there must be a better day to invite non-Jewish guests to synagogue than Yom Kippur].

Back to the story. Our young protagonist David Herschel admires the sermons during the Days of Awe but he senses a difference between these services and the Christian services he had attended on Lookout Mountain at the Chattanooga conference. Cragmore is absorbed by the beautiful liturgy and the music makes him hearken back to the Temple of old (what he thinks it must have been like). "His whole soul seemed to go out in reverent adoration to this great Jehovah, worshiped by both Hebrew and Christian" (p. 192).

After services Frank and George discuss matters. They both admire the "mission of Israel" to be a light to the nations. Cragmore says, "And yet do you know, Frank, I am becoming more and more sure that Israel has some great part ot play in the conversion of humanity? Any one must see that nothing short of Divine power could have kept them intact as a race" (p. 197). He continues: "The old thorny stem of Judaism shall yet bud and blossom into the perfect flower of Christianity!" (p. 198).

While I don't really have time to go into details, I should mention that there is lots of drama in this book unrelated to David or Rabbi Barthold, or to Judaism for that matter. People get sick, die, etc.

Bethany tries to think of ways to convert David. She invites him to church one Sunday evening, and he is impressed by two things: the testimony of a respected lawyer, and the joyful expression on the minister's face.

Cragmore mentions that a person will be speaking at the local Hebrew mission named "Sigmund Ragolsky," who was a "rabbi in Glasgow for a long time, and is now a Baptist preacher, converted after a fourteen years' struggle against a growing belief in the truth of Christianity" (p. 272). [I don't think this is a real historical character, although it's possible that it is based on a real person and the name has been changed]. Cragmore continues:

"I should like to hear the two men debate. He [Ragolsky] says the Reform Jews are no Jews at all -- that they are the hardest people in the world to convert, because they look for no Messiah, accept only the Scripture that suits them, and are so well satisfied with themselves that they feel no need of any mediator between them and eternal holiness. They feel fully equal to the task of making their own atonement. Rabbi Barthold says that the Orthodox are narrow fanatics, and that the majority of them live two lives -- one toward God, of slavish religious observances; the other towards man, of sharp practices and double-dealing" (p. 273).

Finally Bethany gets a chance to clearly present the gospel to David: "And I want to tell you, Mr. Herschel, that I have not only been wishing, but praying earnestly, that in this new year you may find the greatest happiness earth holds -- the peace that comes in accepting Christ as a Savior" (p. 276). David responds: "I seem to be pursued. Every way I turn, the same thing is thrust at me. For weeks I have been fighting against it -- O, longer than that -- since I first talked to Lessing.... I can answer arguments, but I can't answer such lives and faith as theirs" (p. 277). Later Bethany says to David: "You have no personal knowledge of Christ because you have never sought for it" (p. 279). But David is not yet ready to profess Christ, so Bethany gives him a New Testament to read, and she promises to pray for him.

George Cragmore devotes a special prayer service just to pray for David and his salvation. Later that night, David reads the New Testament, and ponders his situation:

"He loved the faith of his fathers. He was proud of every drop of Israelitish blood that coursed through his veins. He felt that nothing could induce him to renounce Judaism -- nothing! Yet his heart went out lovingly toward the Christ that had been so wonderfully revealed to him as he read. The conviction was slowly forcing itself on his mind that in accepting him he would not be giving up Judaism, that he would only be accepting the Messiah long promised to his own people -- only believing fulfilled prophecy. He wanted him so -- this Christ who seemed able to satisfy every longing of his heart, which just now was 'hungering and thirsting after righteousness;' this Christ who had so loved the world that he had given himself a willing sacrifice to make propitiation for its sins -- for his -- David Herschel's sins" (p. 289).

"The old questions of the Trinity and the Incarnation came back to perplex him, and he put them resolutely away, remembering the words that Bethany had quoted, that when Israel should turn to the Lord, the veil should be taken from its heart. Suddenly he started to his feet, and with his hands clasped above his head, cried out: "O Thou Eternal, take away the veil! Show me Christ! I will give up anything -- everything that stands in the way of my accepting him, if thou wilt but make him manifest!" (p. 290).

"I do believe it," he said aloud. "And I will confess it the first opportunity I have. Yes, I will go right now and tell Uncle Ezra -- no matter what it may cause him to say to me" (p. 291). And realizing that the rabbi would be asleep, he goes instead to the church where they are praying for him. "I have come to confess before you the belief that your Jesus is the Christ, and that through him I shall be saved" (p. 292). That night he decides to give up the practice of law and to become a missionary to his people, the Jews.

And thus the story ends. As anticipated, our main character has converted from Judaism to Christianity. Like many other fictional converts, he also becomes a missionary to the Jews.

As you will remember from the beginning of this little summary, the author of our story also wrote The Little Colonel, from which was born the movie version starring Shirley Temple, Lionel Barrymore, Hattie McDaniel, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Imagine, if you will (humor me, please), that In League with Israel has been made into a Hollywood production with the same cast of characters. Shirley Temple can play a younger version of Bethany. Lionel Barrymore will play Rabbi Barthold. Perhaps we can get Leslie Howard to take on the role of David Herschel. Hattie McDaniel will play.... OK, never mind. I don't like where this is going. Let's just forget the whole thing, shall we?

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