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  • Joseph Wolff (1795–1862)—The Making of an Englishman
  • Hilda Nissimi (bio)

Joseph Wolff, one of the most widely travelled missionaries of nineteenth-century Britain, was also one of many converted Jews who served as clergymen in the Anglican Church at that time, and was perhaps one of the most distinguished among them.1 Wolff was born in Bavaria in 1795, the son of a Jewish rabbi, but at the age of 18 he converted and became a Catholic monk. At 24, he arrived in England and enrolled as an Anglican missionary to the Jews. Soon afterwards he started his extensive missionary journeys (1821–1826, 1828–1834, and 1836–1838), and from 1843–1845, during his stay in northern Iran and Bukhara, he went in search of two British officers whom he learned had disappeared. During the course of his travels, he visited, among other places, the United States, Greece, Malta, the Crimea, Palestine, Egypt, Abyssinia, Yemen, Turkey, Central Asia and India.

Joseph Wolff is worthy of scholarly attention on many accounts. Yet, in contrast to the lively interest popular and religious audiences have shown, there is hardly any scholarly research on him.2 Following Todd Endelman's call to re-incorporate Jewish converts into Jewish history, this article focuses on the convergence of Wolff's Jewishness and Englishness.3 He presented himself and was identified by others as an Englishman, although he was not English either by birth or by domicile. Furthermore, his "Englishness," "as he himself expressed in his writings, was based on his claim to Jewishness. He believed that his engagement with his former religious community was closely linked to his contribution to the British imperial view and his writings were an articulation of the place of the empire in "Englishness," as he perceived it. Therefore, Wolff is a fascinating example of how a sense of belonging can be fashioned by an individual through his personal interpretation of the public discourse on Englishness and Jewishness, and his participation in that discourse.


Wolff identified himself as a Jew even after his conversion and during all his missionary travels; he always showed an ethnic affinity to Jews. [End Page 18] His pride in his Jewish origins was shared by other Jewish converts of the time, including Moses Margoliouth (1818–1881), Ridely Haim Herschell (1807–1864), and Stanislaus Hoga (1791–1860), who all extolled Jews.4 This feeling was not shared by all Jewish converts in England, some of whom expressed deep hatred, or at least preferred silence.5 Wolff closely linked the value of his Jewishness to his commitment to spreading Christianity. In his last book about his missionary works, Travels and Adventure of the Rev. Joseph Wolff, he wrote that in the publication of his books his object was not only advancing his new religion, but also showing pride in his ethnic Jewish origins:

to the Jewish nation that he is not ashamed of confessing to the world that he is of the seed of Abraham, of that Semitic race which has given light, the light of knowledge of GOD as it is in Christ Jesus, and the light of civilization, to the world…6

Thereby, he expressed something nearing the idea of Jewish ethnic superiority, even if it was in part due to its contribution to Christianity. When asked by Horatio Walpole, seventh Earl of Orford, about his family (Wolff was asking for Walpole's sister Georgiana's hand in marriage), Wolff claimed none other than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as his ancestors.7 He was known to have walked out on a lady who declared her persuasion that he could not be Jewish, but rather thought him the illegitimate son of a Christian nobleman.8 He expressed a sense of Jewishness that was not a religious affiliation, but rather a destiny. He told the Jews in Argostoli, "I am your brother according to the flesh."9 He exclaimed on one occasion, "But you are mistaken if you think that on account of my belief [in Christian theology –HN] I am less attached to my nation; yea, I am more attached to it than before …"10

Wolff repeatedly told his readers that he was accepted...


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pp. 18-41
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