Saving the Jews: Religious Toleration and the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews
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Saving the Jews
Religious Toleration and the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews
Abstract

In 1820, a prominent group of clergymen and laymen from a host of Protestant denominations founded the American Society to Meliorate the Condition of the Jews. The Society hoped to usher in a new era of cooperation based on the principles of liberality, open-mindedness, and a lack of prejudice. Headquartered in New York and with auxiliaries from Maine to Georgia, the Society raised money to support a colony where European Jewish converts to Christianity could assimilate into American life. Though the colony was neither very large nor very successful, it exemplified Americans’ conflicted embrace of religious freedom. Protestants were deeply fractured within and among their congregations about how to worship and how to organize their communities in a pluralist society. Projects such as the American Society to Meliorate the Condition of the Jews gave battling factions a common mission and allowed Protestants to maintain that the essentials that united them were more significant than their differences. Just as importantly, many American Jews used the same approach. They established their own place in the polity by focusing on the fundamental commonalities between Protestants and Jews. In this way, Americans across a spectrum of faith traditions perpetuated tolerance’s limits and internal contradictions. Participants in and observers of the Society reinforced a model of accommodation where tolerance meant the freedom from pluralism, not the freedom for pluralism.

Keywords

American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews, Israel’s Advocate, American Judaism, American Protestantism, Hebrew Christians, Ecumenism, Evangelicalism, Pluralism, Benevolent Society, Second Great Awakening, Religious toleration, Religious liberty, New York, Early republic, Early national, Antebellum, Mordecai Noah, Solomon Henry Jackson, George Houston, Gardiner Spring, Joseph Samuel Christian Frederick Frey

In February of 1820, a cohort of clergymen and lay leaders gathered in New York City to launch a new, multidenominational, nationwide missionary project called ‘‘The American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews.’’ The Society was spearheaded by Joseph Samuel Christian Frederick Frey, a former rabbinical student who had converted to Christianity as a young man in his native Germany. Before immigrating to the United States, Frey had spent some time as a missionary in England where he helped to found the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. As the group’s popularity grew among the Lutheran and Reformed communities who had built the organization, Anglican members wrested control of the leadership and expelled nonconformists. Rejected from his life’s work, Frey traveled to the United States to start again.1 [End Page 625]

In New York, Frey became involved with the city’s Presbyterian community and began preaching in a city church. Once settled in the community and with the urging of friends and local clergymen, he revisited his pet project to evangelize Jews. Frey’s idea to build an organization to preach to Jews appealed to his American Presbyterian colleagues and quickly attracted interest from members of other Protestant denominations, including a number of influential political and religious leaders such as John Quincy Adams, Peter Jay, and the presidents of Yale, Princeton, and Rutgers: Jeremiah Day, Ashbel Green, and Philip Milledoler.2

Members of the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews believed that they were in a unique position to usher in a new era of cooperation between Christians and Jews. While Europe was still riddled with dogmatism, participants in the society mused that Americans ‘‘heartily rejoice[d] in every triumph of real liberality,’’ and were truly ‘‘open-minded’’ and ‘‘free from prejudice.’’ They viewed their enthusiasm as evidence that ‘‘bigotry had no power, and even toleration [was] not an appropriate term’’ to describe the environment of religious freedom in the United States. To realize its vision, the Society partnered with a German nobleman, Count Adelbert Von der Reke, who promised to recruit converts for the colony from among the thousands of European Jews he claimed had already embraced, or wanted to embrace, Christianity. On the American side, the Society—an executive board based in New York, a network of auxiliary societies spanning from Maine to Georgia, and a small group of converts...