Saturday, August 27, 2011


Joseph Wolff: missionary extraordinaire

  • Saturday, August 27, 2011
  • Samuel Kadyakale
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  • by C. Mervyn Maxwell

    Mr. Wolffe, sir, 10 men have been commissioned to assassinate you tonight after you reach your first destination. Here is a list of their names. May Allah defend you.”

    With such words as these ringing in his ears, Joseph Wolffe bade farewell in 1844 to the city of Bokhara, in southwest Uzbekistan.

    Joseph Wolff! His name has intrigued me since my childhood, this man who could speak so many languages, who survived so many adventures, and who preached the Second Coming of Christ in so many places in Africa and the Middle East at the time when William Miller was preaching it in America. Ellen G. White devoted five pages (357-362) to him in The Great Controversy.

    “Through the labors,” Mrs. White wrote once, “of William Miller and many others in America, of seven hundred ministers in England, of Bengel and others in Germany, of Gaussen and his followers in France and Switzerland, of many ministers in Scandinavia, of a converted Jesuit in South America, and of Dr. Joseph Wolff in many Oriental and African countries, the advent message was carried to a large part of the habitable globe.”1

    But, back to Bokhara. Wolff, we are glad to learn, was not murdered after he left the city. Two years earlier, he had set out from England in an effort to determine the precise fate of two British army officers reported to have been killed. He ultimately reached Bokhara and learned beyond doubt not only that they had been murdered but also who the murderer was—one of the head men in the town. Although he made many friends among the city’s leaders, he came within days of being executed himself under orders from the same head man. A letter from the Shah of Persia arrived just in time to save his life. Even then, as he left the city, he was informed that he wasn’t safe yet. After a day’s travel toward home, he was to be assassinated when he settled down for the night.

    But he wasn’t killed that night. At the end of the day’s travel, Wolff sent out a call for a public meeting. After people had gathered, he announced publicly the details of the plot against him. The fact that he could speak the local language was a distinct advantage. The people of the area rallied to protect this religious leader from the West, this “dervish from England and America.” The would-be assassins were arrested in due course and appropriately punished.

    During his momentous career, Wolff encountered almost innumerable perils. He was starved, beset by robbers, and three times condemned to death. He was tied to a donkey’s tail, and was offered for sale as a slave for “two pounds, ten shillings.” A thief swam out to the river boat he was riding on, reached up and grabbed his coat that was folded up behind him. Friends hustled him hastily out of a city 30 minutes before a mob arrived, hoping to tear him to pieces. He was given 200 blows to his bare feet and then, before his feet had healed, was forced to walk 15 hours without water on an intensely hot day. In exchange for his life, he was required to hand over to brigands everything he had with him: money, Bibles, tracts, food, and even his clothes, leaving him to walk hundreds of miles in frigid mountains with practically nothing on.

    Wolff survived partly because he possessed a natural charm and partly because he could speak the languages—14 or so—of the different people among whom he moved. He made a careful point of carrying official papers, and sometimes officers of friendly governments arrived when most needed. No doubt, as a deeply dedicated missionary, he owed his survival to God’s intervention. Once shipboard friends prevented him from riding into port in the ship’s rowboat. As the boat returned to the ship later, shots rang out and a bullet was heard to whiz above the very seat Wolff would have occupied. Wolff believed God had protected him.

    A sense of humor also helped at times. A troublemaker with a prison record once tried to disturb a meeting by demanding “mathematical” proof of Christianity. The man prided himself on being a mathematician. Wolff asked the mathematician-troublemaker whether he ever ate food. When the man admitted that of course he did, Wolff asked him why he did so. The man, no doubt bewildered, answered that he ate because he got hungry, to which Wolff responded: “Can you give a mathematical proof of hunger?”

    Missionary to the Jews

    Wolff was born a Jew in Germany (in 1795) and died in Britain (in 1862) as a priest of the Church of England. As a child he was known simply as “Wolff,” not taking the name “Joseph” until he became a Catholic at the age of 17. Young Wolff’s father, a Jewish rabbi, was determined that his son should not be contaminated by the predominantly Christian society. To make certain that nothing that wasn’t kosher fell into the family’s milk supply, his father commissioned the 7-year-old boy to watch closely as a neighbor milked his cow. The neighbor, who was a Lutheran, engaged Wolff in conversation about the Messiah, calling his attention to Isaiah 53. Wolff never forgot what he learned from the neighbor, but he quickly learned not to ask his father about it.

    As a teenager he gained his education in many places, including some of the finest schools available in Europe. Some were liberal, some conservative, some Catholic, some Protestant. Often he supplemented his income by teaching Hebrew. At times he secured his main support from noble families and other upper-class people.

    At age 17 he adopted Roman Catholicism. He took “Joseph” for his first (or Christian) name. Not long afterward, he set out for Rome. Born a Jew, he had found enormous joy in discovering the true Messiah, and he longed to share his joy with Jews everywhere. In Rome he hoped to be trained as a missionary at the College of the Propaganda.

    But his experience in Rome was not encouraging. He became appalled by the emphasis on the papal claim to infallibility, among other matters, and he began arguing openly “and not always politely” in class. His teachers, who were not amused, eventually secured an order for him to leave the city. He was not compelled to leave, however, until in God’s providence, the wealthy English banker, Henry Drummond, in Rome apparently on business, heard about this courageous student and got in touch with him. He invited Joseph to England, where, he promised, fellow Christians would sponsor his further studies. A year later Joseph left for England.

    In England, Joseph was warmly welcomed by Drummond, who helped him continue his education, now under Protestant teachers. As part of his Protestant education, he was given specific instruction in how to win Jewish people to Christ.

    Joseph Wolff made three extensive missionary journeys, 1821-1826, 1828-1834, and 1836-1838, in addition to his trip to Bokhara (1843-1845) in search of the two British soldiers. In the process he visited Greece, Malta, the Crimea, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt, Central Asia, Abyssinia, Yemen, India, and other lands, including even the United States of America.

    He came to America on the advice of physicians in Bombay. His plan was to preach Christ in India, but his health at the time was so precarious that the doctors said he would die if he tried it. They recommended instead that he sail for America. He did—and was welcomed like a hero. On a motion by former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, he was invited to preach in the Congressional building to a joint meeting of both houses of Congress. He was invited also to address the legislators of the states of New Jersey and of Pennsylvania. He says that he lectured on his researches in Asia and also on the personal reign of Jesus Christ.2 While in America, he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England and served for one month as a pastor before returning to Britain.

    Support for his journeys

    How did he finance his journeys? Mainly through the largess of Henry Drummond and Drummond’s friends. Henry Drummond (1786-1860) was both an expert in scientific agriculture and a banker. For many years he served as a highly respected member of Parliament. For his second and third journeys, Wolff was sponsored by the Society to Promote Christianity Amongst the Jews, which in turn was sponsored by Henry Drummond.

    Wolff was financed also through his relatives by marriage. His wife, whom in his books he usually refers to as “Lady Georgiana,” belonged to a noble family. This loving lady occasionally accompanied her husband on his hazardous travels. In the dark hours when Wolff thought he was about to be executed in Bokhara, he wrote a note in his Bible: “My dearest Georgiana. I have loved you unto death. Bokhara 1844.”

    The Jews lived in scattered places. Moslems, who made up the bulk of the population in many areas, were not automatically hostile to a Christian Jew. Wolff, who rarely stayed long in one place, spoke privately and publicly with both Jews and Moslems as well as peoples of other religions, distributing copies of the Scriptures in local languages. He also visited with Europeans who were serving on diplomatic or business assignments far from home. Very often he was given a warm and friendly hearing. How many converts he made is hard to ascertain, inasmuch as he didn’t try to institutionalize his work other than by starting a few small schools.

    Appeal based on prophecy

    As we have seen, Wolff’s greatest passion, as a Christian Jew, was to win other Jews to Jesus. Three of his four journeys to the Middle East were undertaken to find and win Jews to Christ. In the process, he also preached to many fellow Christians and to many Moslems, Hindus, Parsees, and others.

    His basic method with Jews was first to assert that the Messiah was coming soon to set up His kingdom in Jerusalem. Next, he showed from Isaiah 53, Micah 5:2, and other “Messianic” texts, that the Messiah is to be identified with Jesus Christ. To clinch his identification of the Messiah as Jesus, he employed the 70-week prophecy of Daniel 9, tracing its precise fulfillment in Christ’s life and ministry. With Daniel 9 nailed down, he proceeded to expound the 2300 days of Daniel 8:14, showing that they would end in 1847 with the coming of the Messiah in power and glory. Having established in his hearers’ minds that the Messiah would be returning to re-establish the Jewish kingdom within a few years, Wolff called for belief in Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

    Notice that 1847, not 1844, was Wolff’s termination date for the 2300 days. We needn’t worry much about the difference, as it was only technical, based on the information he had respecting the date of the decree of Artaxerxes in Ezra 7.

    Miller not first with the 2300 days

    Many people today think that the current understanding of the 2300-day prophecy was developed by William Miller. But the first person to see the 2300 days (the “2300 evening-morning”) of Daniel 8:14 as 2300 years was a Jewish rabbi, Nahawendi by name, who lived in the ninth century. As a rabbi, Nahawendi was an expert in Hebrew. Indeed, in the ninth and 10th centuries, rabbis (all of them experts in Hebrew) in Persia, Palestine, France, Spain, and Portugal were teaching that the 2300 days were 2300 years.

    Down through the centuries, other notable Bible students made the same discovery, not the least of whom was Arnold of Villanova, physician to a number of popes. Around the time Miller was born, Johannes Petri in Germany was showing that the 2300 days were linked to the 70 weeks, with the result that, because you can date the 70 weeks to 457 B.C., you can show that the 2300 days or years were to end in the 1840s.

    Miller discovered the 2300-year prophecy in 1818, but he didn’t start preaching about it until 1831. Meanwhile, far away to the east, Joseph Wolff, who had never heard of Miller and who knew Hebrew well enough to teach classes in it, had also discovered the same prophecy and had already begun preaching about it.

    Wolff felt confirmed in his understanding of the 2300 days as 2300 years when he visited the monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai. There to his delight he found a book by Johannes Stauros, a Bulgarian Jew of two centuries earlier, who also had taught that the 2300 days of Daniel 8 and the 1260 days of Daniel 12 were symbols of so many years.

    As the years passed and 1847 loomed close, people asked Wolff what he would say if 1847 passed without the return of the Messiah. He answered simply that he would admit that he had been wrong. Wolff was a very brave, active, creative, and intelligent Christian missionary. In preaching the 2300-day prophecy he was doing something that God wanted done, something whose time had come. The 2300 days did end in the 1840s, and the Messiah did do something then in connection with His kingdom. Daniel 7:9-14 shows that at that time “the Son of man” came “on the clouds of heaven” to the “Ancient of days” (not to the earth) to begin the judgment scene in heaven, where He was to receive “dominion and power and might and glory” (Daniel 2:37, NIV). Wolff was far more nearly right than he knew.

    He didn’t discover his mistake until 1847. We can wish that he had been in closer contact with his Advent brethren in North America. Already by 1847, the understanding was clearly conceived in North America that the coming of Christ in 1844 was not to the earth but “to the Ancient of days” in heaven for the commencement of the judgment there, and, as we just noted, for the reception of His kingdom there.

    Later years

    In his later years, Wolff served as the pastor of a Church of England parish in southwest England. He was immensely popular as a preacher. He was invited to speak in many British churches. From the friends whom he made everywhere, he was able to raise funds enough to build a new church for his poor, rural congregation. He also managed to provide each family in his church with food and fuel during the winter months each year. He was much loved.

    Joseph Wolff’s astonishing career is in itself fascinating, but for Seventh-day Adventists it holds unique interest, for in all his dangerous journeying he announced the second coming of Christ on the basis of the 2300-year prophecy. He was perhaps the most colorful of the large number of spokesmen who heralded the Second Coming in much of the world during the Great Second Advent Awakening of the 1830s and 1840s.

    C. Mervyn Maxwell (Ph.D.,University of Chicago) taught church history for many years at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, where he is now professor emeritus. He has authored numerous articles and books. His address: 4707 Kimber Lane, Berrien Springs, Michigan 49103, U.S.A.

    Notes and references

    1. Ellen G. White, Southern Watchman (January 24, 1905), p. 4, Emphasis supplied.

    2. Quoted in The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1911), p. 361.

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