Annie Jonas Wells: Jewish Daughter, Episcopal Wife, Independent Intellectual
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Annie Jonas Wells:
Jewish Daughter, Episcopal Wife, Independent Intellectual
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Annie Jonas Wells (Courtesy Wendy Wells)

Three days before Good Friday, 1870, 28-year old Annie Elizabeth Jonas Wells was baptized at St. James Episcopal Church in Painesville, Ohio.1 She was led to the baptismal font by her husband of eight months, the Rev. Thomas B. Wells. For the rest of her life, Annie Jonas Wells was [End Page 83] an exemplary Episcopalian. When she died at 84, her church declared it “difficult to separate her ministry from [her husband’s] . . . that ministry was a blended one.” 2 Wells’ adult life was extraordinary for the daughter of Abraham Jonas, the Jewish politician whom Abraham Lincoln called “one of my most valued friends.”3

Nineteenth-Century Intermarriage and Conversion

Wells’ unquestionable devotion to her adopted faith raises a question. What led her to take such a bold step? While nineteenth-century American religious life was fluid, with Jews free to disassociate from the Jewish community, marry outside the faith, and convert, relatively few Jewish women did so.4 Nineteen years after Annie Jonas’ wedding, when Jewish women in Kansas City discussed intermarriage, one declared that if she had married outside the faith, she would have been spurned by the “best Jewish society,” but not “received by Christians” either.5

American rabbis rarely performed interfaith marriages, and debate raged: Should Jewish men who married out be admitted as members of synagogues?6 But this discussion centered on the fairly common case of [End Page 84] a Jewish man who had married a Christian woman while never formally embracing Christianity. The case of Annie Jonas was different.

In the nineteenth century, Jewish women were less likely than men to become radically assimilated, because, in general, women retained meaningful ties to Judaism longer and female society was more sequestered.7 Nineteenth-century Jewish men severed ties to the Jewish community primarily for pragmatic reasons: in Europe, converting for better careers and, in America, marrying Christians because of the paucity of Jewish women outside the large cities of the Eastern seaboard.8

Prevailing Victorian attitudes held that women were the more religiously and spiritually oriented of the sexes. In America and Western Europe, most economically secure women concentrated on motherhood and on creating a refined domestic refuge for their families. Outside the home, they most often engaged in worship and sectarian philanthropy and study. Although most American Jewish women probably knew little about Christianity, some — established Americans, those of the highest social standing and those living in the West or in small towns — mingled with Christian women.9 Because religiosity played such a vital role in the lives of Victorian women, Jewish women who socialized with Christians could not avoid the topic of religion, and some thus exposed felt the lure of the majority religion. For a brief period around 1800, for instance, Jewish women in Berlin gained entrée to the “new social universe of salons, theaters, and reading and discussion groups” and left Judaism in larger numbers than their male counterparts.10 Their experience, attributed by Todd Endelman to the “cultural precocity of [End Page 85] Jewish women in the earliest stages of acculturation and integration in Germany,” foreshadows that of Annie Jonas.11

Scholars argue that while few American Jewish women converted at this time, those who did converted for an advantageous marriage, to gain social acceptance from the non-Jewish community, or out of sincere belief.12 Annie Jonas’ rare case — conversion coupled with marriage to a clergyman — tends to be most clearly associated with sincere belief. As a young woman, she had the unusual opportunity to gain entrée to circles of educated, introspective Christian women who joined together for social and intellectual improvement. Women’s networks like these were devoted to religiously justified activities and were permeated with religion and religious rhetoric. The influence of Christian female companionship, together with Annie’s own powerful quest for knowledge and social action, brought her to the dramatic turning point of conversion. While her brothers were able to achieve prominence in politics, journalism and business without renouncing Judaism, Annie’s path...