21 November 1845 Aaron Stern, pioneer missionary, explorer and founder of Hebrew Christian Prayer Union tours of Persia #otdimjh


“On November 21 of the same year, the two missionaries embarked on the Tigris for the purpose of undertaking a second journey in Persia.”

Gidney gives several pages to the life and ministry of Aaron Stern – which are provided below.

Preaching regularly to audiences of 400-500 Jewish believers in the UK, Stern helped found what would become the Hebrew Christian Alliance (now British and International Messianic Jewish Alliance), was a key worker in the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity Amongst the Jews (CMJ), and a seasoned traveller and writer.


Prayer: Thank you, Lord for the life and faith of Aaron Stern. May his memory inspire others to share their faith, unite their brothers and sisters, and live out the Good News of Israel’s Messiah with all. In Yeshua’s name. Amen.


From Gidney

Stern, Dr. Henry A., was born of Jewish parents on April 11, 1820, at Unterreichenbach, in the Duchy of Hesse Cassel. Subsequently the family removed to Frankfort-on-the-Main, where they resided in the quaint old “Judengasse,” now a thing of the past. Though educated in this town with a view to the medical profession, Stern, when about seventeen years of age, decided to follow commerce, and to that end repaired to Hamburg. It was there, in the providence of God, that his attention was first drawn to Christianity, by noticing some Christian literature in a glass case near the house of the London Jews’ Society’s missionary, Mr. J. C. Moritz. The impression subsequently obtained by its perusal was increased when, on arrival in London, in 1839, Stern was induced by a fellow-lodger to attend a Sunday afternoon Hebrew service in Palestine Place, conducted by Dr. Alexander McCaul. Thoroughly awakened, Stern sought the missionary the next day, and, indeed, for many days, until he became a recognized enquirer, and was eventually admitted [477] into the Operative Jewish Converts’ Institution. There he was further carefully prepared in Christianity, and baptized on March 15, 1840. For two years longer he remained in the Institution, working at his trade, but it was very evident that Stern, by his learning and gifts, was eminently fitted to be a missionary, and consequently he was taken into the Society’s College for a further term of two years.

In 1844 Stern received his first missionary post, and was sent to Bagdad. He left London under the direction of the Rev. Murray Vickers, accompanied by three other young missionaries. They broke their journey at Jerusalem, where Stern was ordained deacon by Bishop Alexander, on July 14 of the same year. Arriving at Bagdad, Stern threw himself into his work with great zeal and ardour.

The Jewish population of Bagdad then consisted of about 16,000 souls. The whole trade of the town was in their hands, and they were supposed to be the most wealthy class of the community. They manifested the greatest anxiety to obtain the books published by the Society. Day after day the house of the missionaries was filled to overflowing with Jews of all ages, ranks and stations, and the streets near were crowded all day by numbers of Jews, Stern being constantly stopped as he walked along them. The bazaars, khans, and the Beth Hamedrash, were visited, and supplied frequent opportunities for proclaiming the Gospel. [478]

The eagerness manifested by the Jews of Bagdad to enter into discussion on the subject of Christianity, and more especially the application of two enquirers for regular instruction, stirred up active opposition on the part of the rabbis, and an excommunication was issued against all who should have intercourse with the missionaries. This had the desired effect. For six or seven months no Jew was seen in the mission house. Then, gradually, some ventured to come by stealth; and, soon, from twelve to twenty again visited the missionaries on Saturdays, several of whom were of the most respectable Jewish families in Bagdad. The Jewish authorities, however, did not relax their vigilance, but threatened to repeat the anathema.

In the winter of 1844 Stern made a journey to certain places on the banks of the Euphrates, going to Hillah, where he visited the synagogue and Jewish schools; the tomb of Ezekiel, greatly venerated by the Jews; Meshed-Ali, a Moslem town with a few Jews; Cufa; the tower of Belus (Babel) or Birs Nimroud; and the ruins of Babylon. In 1845 Stern and a fellow-labourer, the Rev. P. H. Sternchuss, improved the time during which missionary operations in Bagdad were suspended, in consequence of the cheremmentioned above, in making a missionary journey into the interior of Persia. They held much interesting intercourse with the Jews of Kermanshah and Hamadan. On November 21 of the same year, the two missionaries embarked on the Tigris for the purpose of undertaking a second [479] journey in Persia. They visited Bussorah, Bushire, Shiraz, and several other places where Jews resided. Both in synagogues and Jewish schools, and also at their lodgings, they proclaimed the unsearchable riches of Christ to considerable numbers of their Jewish brethren.

The deadly scourge of cholera prevailed in Bagdad to an alarming extent in 1846, and in a very few weeks several thousands were suddenly taken off by it, and missionary work was consequently suspended. The Jews thought the visitation was owing to the fact that many of their brethren had imbibed the doctrines of Christianity, and their opposition became most violent. A second cherem was pronounced in the synagogues against the missionaries and all holding intercourse with them.

Notwithstanding the violence of the rabbis and the ignorance which prevailed, especially amongst Jewesses, the missionaries met with many to whom they were able to declare the love of the Redeemer, and several received regular instruction. Of the Bagdad Jews in general they said:—”A spirit of enquiry pervades all classes of Jews in Bagdad The rabbis are fully sensible of it, and endeavour to do everything in their power to check this extraordinary movement.”

In 1847 a temporary retreat to Persia was thought advisable, during which Stern preached the Gospel to many hundreds of Jews, both in Chaldæa and Persia, and extensively circulated the Scriptures in the Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and [480] Armenian languages. This was a great achievement in a region hitherto noted for intolerance, bigotry, poverty, fanaticism, and superstition.

On the arrival from home of fresh supplies of books, the lodgings of the missionaries were crowded for days together, from morning till evening, with eager applicants for the sacred treasure. The missionaries were now well known to many of the Jews in the surrounding countries, from the journeys which they undertook from time to time. They sent the Word of God to the wilds of Kurdistan, the deserts of Khorasan and Turkistan. They were privileged to admit two Israelites, one of Bagdad and the other from Bushire, into the Church of Christ by baptism. Others received instruction from them for a longer or a shorter period.

On their return to Bagdad, a room belonging to the mission was fitted up for Divine Service, and usually from twelve to fifteen Jews attended the daily morning service, at dawn of day; the instruction of enquirers taking place immediately afterwards. An English service was held on Sunday morning, and a Hebrew service in the afternoon during winter. An operative converts’ institution was opened.

In August, 1850, a Jewish doctor was baptized, which incident produced another severe anathema from the rabbis against all who should have any intercourse with the missionaries. “In order to make the interdict more impressive,” wrote Stern, “the horn was blown, and all the books of the law unrolled.” This was repeated several days. Jews, in large [481] numbers, however, began to call at the depôt which Stern opened; and he affirmed that there were many who had learned the Truth from reading the New Testament. In 1851 and 1853 two other baptisms were recorded. After eight or nine years spent in Mesopotamia, where Mrs. Stern’s health had greatly suffered from an attack of cholera, Stern was transferred to Constantinople in 1853.

There he found a larger and even more important sphere of work—totally different, as he had now to deal with Spanish instead of Eastern Jews. They were down-trodden and oppressed, and their pitiable state was not improved by the extensive conflagrations, which periodically devastated their quarter. Numbers, however, became enquirers, notwithstanding severe persecution, and some were baptized. The mission schools were well attended, and the medical mission, conducted by Dr. Leitner, did excellent service. Stern visited Adrianople, Salonica, and other towns with large Jewish populations.

The year 1856 was signalized by a visit to the Karaites and other Jews in the Crimea. At Baktchi-Serai, Stern was surrounded by Jews, “all anxious to buy Gospels,” and was the guest of the chief rabbi, who shewed him the cemetery of the Karaites—strangely called “The Valley of Jehoshaphat”—with its 40,000 sculptured tombs, and in which myriads more had been interred, to whose memory poverty or indifference had raised no monument. At Simpheropol, Stern preached in the synagogue and sold a number of New Testaments and Pentateuchs. On[482] one occasion he had the privilege of addressing British troops in their quarters in the Crimea.

Stern made a second journey in the same year—to Arabia.

The space at our command is totally inadequate to describe the incidents of that romantic and perilous journey, in the wake of Joseph Wolff who, just forty years before, had engaged in the same pioneer work. Stern had to take precautions for his safety, adopting native dress and passing as the “Dervish Abdallah.” At Safon, a beautiful mountain town, the report that a man who spoke Hebrew, and yet was no Jew, dressed like a Mohammedan and yet ignored the Koran, caused much sensation amongst the Jews, who flocked to see him, and to whom he preached in a synagogue. This was repeated at other places. At Sanaa he was occupied for twelve days, with very little rest at night, preaching to the multitudes who congregated wherever he went. The last day of his visit there he characterized as “the happiest of my life, the happiest of my missionary career.”

After a visit to England in 1857, Stern returned to Constantinople, taking up again the threads of his settled missionary work there.

In 1859 Stern embarked on the first of his most memorable journeys to Abyssinia. Mr. J. M. Flad had been working in that country as one of the “Pilgrim Missionaries” from St. Chrischona. More Christian labourers, however, were needed; and so Stern was despatched from Constantinople to found an English mission, if possible, amongst the Falashas [483]—some thousands of Jews dwelling in the highlands of the interior. Flad now joined Stern, and the two worked hand-in-hand together. The results of this preliminary visit were thus summed up by Stern, who, having accomplished his purpose, repaired to England in 1861:—”I visited, in company with Mr. Flad, the Bishop of Jerusalem’s Scripture Reader, upwards of thirty Falasha settlements, and saw the priests, and all those that could read, from more than fifty-five other places. The desire to obtain the Word of God exceeds all description; young and old, the man standing on the verge of the grave, and the youth just rushing into life’s happiest whirl, heedless and indifferent to the pain and difficulties of the road, followed us for days and days, till we yielded to their unwearied entreaties, and from our scanty stock supplied their communities with copies of the sacred volume.”

Speaking in Exeter Hall in May of the next year, Stern said, “During my stay in that country, I was amazed at the excitement created by our preaching through the various provinces we visited. Frequently, hundreds of Christians and Jews would meet together near our tent with the Word of God in their hands, converse and investigate those truths which we had been preaching.”

Flad and a fellow-labourer named Bronkhörst, who had joined him, continued to carry on the work with much success, and on July 21, 1861, the first fruits of the mission were gathered in, twenty-two Falashas receiving Holy Baptism. On August 4, nineteen [484] more were baptized. This encouraging success led to Stern going out again to Abyssinia in September, 1862, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Rosenthal. We cannot follow the details of the work for the next two years, but must sum them up in Stern’s own words:—”We have in the course of two years, without being allowed to form a separate community, rescued a considerable number of Falashas from their unbelief, and nominally, but not virtually, united them as a living, active and spiritual element, to the dead Church of the Amharas. We have circulated about one thousand whole copies and portions of Scriptures; we have given an impulse to the study of the written vernacular; and we have stirred up a spirit of enquiry among Jews and Amharas, which must either terminate in a spontaneous reform, or lead (which is far more probable) to our expulsion and a relentless persecution.” The latter surmise proved to be only too true.

The following circumstances eventually led to the imprisonment of the missionaries. King Theodore had despatched to the Queen of England, by Consul Cameron, a letter, to which, from some strange reason, no reply was vouchsafed. A similar letter to Napoleon III. was indeed answered, but the verbal message accompanying it gave dire offence. Theodore resolved to be revenged on all Europeans, and to “humble the pride of Europe,” as he said, meaning England and France.

Some expressions in Stern’s book, “Wanderings among the Falashas in Abyssinia,” as to Theodore’s [485]humble origin, also gave offence to the dusky monarch. When Stern paid him a visit, in order to ask permission to return home, the opportunity thus offered for revenge was seized. Stern had with him two servants. The hour of the visit was unfortunately ill chosen, and his servants’ knowledge of Arabic so limited, as to render their mode of interpreting so offensive to the King, that he ordered them to be beaten,—an order so effectually obeyed, that they died in the night. Stern, unable to endure the scene, turned round, and in his nervousness bit his finger,—unaware, or forgetful, that such a gesture was in Abyssinia indicative of revenge. At first, the King seemed inclined to overlook the matter, but subsequently, urged on by those around him, Stern was struck down insensible, and, on recovery, bound hand to foot and consigned to prison.

For four and a-half years Stern remained a prisoner. It is impossible to describe his terrible sufferings and perilous position during that long protracted “period of heart-rending and heart-breaking martyrdom.”

Rosenthal was the next victim; subsequently Consul Cameron, Flad and his wife, Mrs. Rosenthal, Consul Rassam, Lieutenant Prideaux, Blanc, Kerans, and others, were in turn imprisoned. Flad was shortly afterwards released, in order to be sent to England on an embassy to Queen Victoria, his wife and children being held as hostages for his return.

The prisoners remained in captivity—with a slight interval of freedom in the spring of 1866—first in one place, then in another, and subsequently at Magdala [486]—until Easter, 1868. An English expeditionary force, under Sir Robert Napier, had arrived to effect their deliverance. In answer to the demand of the English General, and perhaps in order to propitiate him, Theodore ordered the release of his prisoners. This tardy act of justice did not save him. A battle was fought on Good Friday between the English army and the hosts of Theodore, who was decisively beaten. On Easter Monday the stronghold of Magdala was stormed and captured, and Theodore fell by his own hand. Most graphic accounts of these stirring days were sent home by Stern and Flad, the latter of whom prefaced his remarks with the appropriate words, “The Lord has turned our captivity: we are like unto them that dream. Our mouth is filled with laughter, and our tongue with praise. We say, The Lord has done great things for us! The Lord has done great things, whereof we are glad.”

The release of the missionaries by the military expedition sent out to vindicate the honour of the British nation, and to recover the person of its official representatives, was a wonderful answer to believing and persevering prayer. The missionaries returned to England in June, 1868; and, on July 3, a special meeting for prayer and thanksgiving was held at the Freemasons’ Hall, the Earl of Shaftesbury, K.G., in the chair, when all the released missionaries, with their wives, were present, and in a few words told of their wonderful deliverance, and the Almighty arm which had wrought it.

It may here be mentioned that though since 1869, no European missionary has been allowed in [487] Abyssinia, the London Society’s mission has never once been suspended, notwithstanding overwhelming odds and almost insuperable obstacles! Other missions have been given up for a time when dangers threatened—this has held on its way through the fostering care of Mr. J. M. Flad, who has supervised it from a distance, and the indomitable courage of the native missionaries. Like the early Christians, they have overcome by “the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony: and they loved not their lives unto the death” (Rev. xii. 11). Famine, war, bloodshed, imprisonment, ecclesiastical jealousy, civil strife, the Dervish invasion, the coming of the Italians, have been potent enemies—powerful enough to harass and to impede, but not to stop the work. Indeed, it has flourished beyond expectation, and, in spite of ignorance and want of freedom, the Gospel has spread amongst the Falashas, 2,000 of whom have been baptized.

We now come to the last period of Stern’s life (1870-1885) which, though free from stirring adventures and dangerous situations, was none the less active and full.

For some time after his return Stern was incessantly and altogether engaged in narrating his experiences to crowded audiences in every part of the country, who hung, with breathless interest, upon the terrible yet fascinating story of the Abyssinian mission. In subsequent years Stern could very rarely be persuaded to recount the horrors of the past. On one occasion, and that only, in response to[488] the persuasive entreaty of friends in a south-coast town, did he ever tell the wonderful story of his sufferings and achievements in that far-off land. Either the innate humility and modesty of the man, or painful memories, made it most distasteful to unlock the door of the past.

In 1870 Dr. Ewald resigned his work as senior missionary in London. It was no easy matter to find a man qualified to succeed him. Only one seemed possible, and that was Stern, whose health, undermined by his unparalleled sufferings in Abyssinia, no longer permitted him to serve the Society in the East. He was appointed Ewald’s successor from the 1st of January, 1871, and brought to his new sphere a ripe and unrivalled experience in Jewish missionary work, gained, as we have seen, in Persia, Turkey, Arabia, and Abyssinia; and an acquaintance with a dozen or more languages, an invaluable possession for a missionary in the metropolis, who has by personal intercourse and correspondence to deal with Jews of different nationalities. Though Stern missed in England the refined courtesy of the German, and the religious gravity of the Oriental Jew, and consequently those winning qualities which helped on friendly intercourse and mutual interchange of convictions between missionary and Jew, he yet found that most of the Jews in England were able to discuss religious questions calmly and dispassionately. The three chief means which Stern relied upon to win his way amongst the Jews were circulation of tracts, domiciliary visitation, and special sermons in [489] Spitalfields and Whitechapel. The last were highly successful. Jews attended in large numbers, attracted by the fame of the preacher, and the glowing and burning eloquence which flowed from his lips as he pointed them to the Messiah. An attendance of from 400 to 500 Jews was of frequent occurrence. A German prayer meeting was substituted for the service hitherto held on Friday evenings, in order to draw together some of the 2,000 proselytes, and numerous enquirers then in London. This paved the way for the establishment, later on, of the “Hebrew Christian Prayer Union.”

Thousands of Jews were addressed in public and in private, in streets, houses, shops, churches and mission halls.

A mission hall, situated in Whitechapel, was made a useful centre, where meetings on Saturdays and other days were generally well attended. There was a daily Bible Class held for Jews. Conversions and baptisms were numerous; but, as Stern said in 1876, when speaking of results, and his words are true for all time, and in every place as well as London:—”Conversions, however few or many they may be, are not the gauge by which the progress of mission work amongst the Jews can be ascertained. A man may be thoroughly convinced of the truth of the Gospel, and yet hesitate to take the final and decisive step. He may shrink from the persecution, the trials, the troubles, and the sacrifices a public profession of his faith would entail. Of course no one, who is truly concerned for his soul’s eternal welfare, should be [490] ashamed to avow his convictions. Nevertheless, a strong faith and ardent love are indispensably necessary to enable a catechumen to break through the ties of cherished affection and friendship for the Gospel’s sake. That all are not destitute of these heavenly gifts, ever-recurring instances testify. The greater majority, however, prefer to conceal their religious sentiments. They go to church, join in the services, and even contribute to missionary societies, and yet nominally profess to be Jews.”

Stern not only worked in London, but also held special services for Jews in many other towns. He combined with his mission work the supervision of the “Wanderers’ Home,” a most useful institution for the reception of converts and enquirers.

In 1874, on the thirtieth anniversary of his ordination, his Hebrew Christian and other friends presented him with a testimonial—a silver tea and coffee service—as a slight token of their esteem; and in 1881 the Archbishop of Canterbury conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity. In 1884 he was elected a member of the Committee of the L.J.S., where his vast and varied experience was of the utmost use; and he was also elected an Associate of the Victoria Institute.

Stern’s work in London was carried on to the time of his death, which occurred, after much suffering, on May 13, 1885. The funeral service was held in the Episcopal Jews’ Chapel, Palestine Place, on May 18, in the presence of a large and sorrowing congregation, and his mortal remains laid to rest in Ilford Cemetery. [491]He was twice married: first, in 1850, to Miss Charlotte Elizabeth Purday, who died in 1874; and secondly, in 1883, to Miss Rebecca Goff, daughter of S. D. Goff, Esq., of Horetown, Co. Wexford.

As a preacher Stern was eloquence itself; as a writer he had a most charming and picturesque diction. His published journals and books, like those of Dr. Wolff, are full of the most romantic incidents of missionary experience. His published works were: “Dawning of Light in the East” (1854), being an account of his work in Persia, Kurdistan and Mesopotamia; “Wanderings amongst the Falashas in Abyssinia” (1862); and “The Captive Missionary” (1868), both narratives of his Abyssinian experiences.

That he was of the spirit of which martyrs are made, the following extracts from his letters, written during the long and dreary days of his captivity in Abyssinia, clearly demonstrate:—

“Thank God, in the midst of my troubles, cares and anxieties, I enjoy the profoundest calm and resignation. It is true there are days when the heart pulsates with gratitude and joy, and there are days when it throbs beneath the mortifying agonies of despondency. Sometimes I feel as if I could not endure another week the fetters which encircle my limbs, and confine me in painful inactivity to this desolate rock. Such rebellious sentiments I generally try to suppress, and if this is impossible, I seek comfort in the thought, that all is ordered in wisdom and infinite love. Our heavenly Father hath, no doubt, an object in this protracted captivity, and[492] when once the veil of mystery is lifted up, every incident and circumstance which hath wrung a prayer or extorted a groan from the grieved soul, will prove to have been in harmony with the designs of a gracious Providence, and fraught with inestimable blessings.”

And again, “Our nerves were horrible shattered, and our minds, too, would have been unhinged, had not religion, with her solacing influence, soothed the asperities and hardships of our existence. The Bible, prayers, and a morning and evening exposition of an appropriate passage were the exercises in which we regularly engaged. No bitter gibes, no harsh expressions, no unbecoming word characterised our intercourse; religion formed a wonderful bond of harmony, and when I looked on the devout countenances that there hung over the inspired page, as I commented on the selected text, I cherished the pleasing hope that the clouds, so big with wrath, had been charged with showers of everlasting mercy. At such a period—I say it solemnly—the punctured head, the riven side, the pierced feet, and the heavy cross of redeeming love, is a sight that nerves and supports the drooping and desponding spirit. In my distress and sorrow, I threw myself on the bosom of a sympathizing Saviour, and if I was not happy, I was at least resigned.”

No one can estimate the abundance of spiritual harvest from the long life of toil and labour which Stern spent to the honour and glory of his Master. He sowed in tears, he led captivity captive, he turned[493] many to righteousness, and of him it may confidently be said, that he will shine as a star for ever and ever.[23]

About richardsh

Messianic Jewish teacher in UK
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2 Responses to 21 November 1845 Aaron Stern, pioneer missionary, explorer and founder of Hebrew Christian Prayer Union tours of Persia #otdimjh

  1. Pingback: On This Day In Messianic Jewish History blog | Brit In Jerusalem

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