Lessons from The Past: An Early Scottish Mission To The Jews

The tiny nation of Scotland has given the world many things – the sport of golf, the bagpipe, the Highland Games, and the poetry of Robert Burns. Unfortunately, one of Scotland’s greatest contributions is often overlooked. Scotland has probably produced more missionaries, in proportion to her population, than any other country on earth. David Livingstone, the man who blazed a trail through Africa, was a Scot, as was Mary Slessor. The famous runner, Eric Liddell, was the son of Scottish missionaries, and John Paton – also a Scot – loved the heather hills of Scotland almost as much as he did the South Sea island on which he ministered. And Manchuria – considered the farthest outpost of Christian conquest in 1868 – was manned by a Scot, William C. Burns.

With this kind of influence on world missions, it should come as no surprise that Scotland was the birthplace of one of the modern world’s first missions to the Jews. Although small in comparison to other missionary enterprises, the mission was used of God to lead some Jews to their Messiah and to prepare the way for the fulfillment of prophecy in the 20th century.

Interestingly, it was a Scot – Sir Walter Scott – who helped bring the persecution of the Jews to the attention of men of good will in the English-speaking world. While in Scott’s novel Ivanhoe his readers swooned over the exploits of Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, and the Black Knight, they also came to sympathize with the plight of Isaac the Jew and his daughter Rebecca. Because Scott tore away the veil of hypocrisy from the way Jews were treated, the publishing of Ivanhoe was a milestone in English literature. Rebecca the Jewess was no shylock or Rosencrantz.

But even before Ivanhoe was published, there was a movement afoot in Scotland to put Israel and the salvation of the Jews in biblical perspective. The Apostle Paul had indicated that he would give his life for the salvation of the Jews (Rom. 9:3), while the gospel was to go to “the Jew first” (Rom. 1:16). Yet Christendom had treated Jews like animals, placing them in ghettos, forbidding them to own land, and allowing them to engage only in pursuits that Christians considered immoral, such as money-lending, banking, and other related pursuits.

As missionary societies developed as a result of the revivals of the late 18th and 19th centuries, there came auxiliaries with special concern for the Jews. At a meeting of missions-minded people in Dundee, Scotland in 1811, Walter Tait preached on the importance of witnessing to Jews and why Christians should have a particular regard for the Jews. First, said Tait, the salvation of the Jews “must be particularly honoring to God.” Second, having a spiritual interest in the salvation of Jews is 0only making a “proper return for the spiritual advantages we enjoy by them.” Finally, “their final restoration must have a favorable aspect on the conversion of the whole Gentile world.” Soon leading commentaries – those of Robert Haldane and Thomas Chalmers – came to include eloquent passages on the importance of Jewish missions. Then in 1839 a book was published entitled The Conversion of the Jews. Written by a group of ministers from Glasgow, the book underscored a growing concern among godly Christians in Scotland for the salvation of God’s chosen people.1

It was also in 1839 that four Church of Scotland ministers were appointed to visit Palestine. As a Mission of Inquiry, it would be their job to look into the state of the Jews and report their findings to the Christian community in Scotland. The four that were chosen were Dr. Kieth, Dr. Black, Dr. Candlish, and Robert Murray M’Cheyne. Andrew Bonar was asked to go but was forced to decline because of commitments he had made to his church. It is interesting to note that in a time and place where Amillennialism held sway, Bonar – a driving force for Jewish missions – was a premillennialist, while M’Cheyne “saw no force in the arguments generally urged against it (Premillennialism).”2

M’Cheyne, although probably the youngest of the four missionaries, was doubtless the most remarkable. Born on May 21, 1813 in Edinburgh, M’Cheyne lived only 29 years. Yet into those 29 years he crammed a lifetime of work, accomplishing more for Christ during his brief sojourn on earth than most of us do in threescore and ten. While a minister at St. Peters in Dandee, M’Cheyne said, “This place hardens me for a foreign land.” Often he read missionary stories to his people at the weekly prayer meeting. Thus, when he was asked to go on the Mission of Inquiry, he accepted.3

I feel convinced that if we pray that the world may be converted in God’s way, we will seek the good of the Jews.

“What if we should see the heavenly Jerusalem before the earthly?” M’cheyne wrote to a friend. “I am taking drawing materials, that I may carry away remembrances of the Mount of Olives, Tabor and the Sea of Galilee.” In a series of letters written just before he left, M’Cheyne said, “To seek the lost sheep of the house of Israel is an object very near to my heart….such an enterprise may probably draw down unspeakable blessings on the Church of Scotland, according to the promise, ‘they shall prosper who love thee.’…I now see plainly that all our views about the Jews being the chief object of missionary exertion are plain and sober truths, according to Scripture….I feel convinced that if we pray that the world may be converted in God’s way, we will seek the good of the Jews, and the more we do so, the happier we will be in our own soul.”4

One of the first attempts M’Cheyne made at witnessing to Jews was on the ship from Edinburgh to London. Unwilling to be recognized as a Jew, the young man was befriended by M’Cheyne who was able to chat with him. Before parting, they read Psalm 1 together. While in England, M’Cheyne visited Bethnal Green, a place where there were Jewish Christians. M’Cheyne noted in his diary that it was very sweet to hear the Jewish children sing a hymn to Jesus, the theme of which was “Slain for Us.” On the ship from England to the Mediterranean, M’Cheyne studied Andrew Bonar’s commentary on Leviticus. In this commentary Bonar asked, “What, if even some of the house of Israel may have their eye attracted to the Saviour, while giving heed to the signification of those ceremonies which to their fathers were signposts in the way of life?”5 M’Cheyne felt that Bonar’s notes on Leviticus would be “suitable for meditation for us while busy with Jewish minds.”

After reaching the Holy Land, M’Cheyne and his colleagues toured the length and breadth of the land. At the foot of Mount Lebanon, M’Cheyne led a prayer meeting of American Christians. Whenever he met a Jew, he would walk up thoughtfully, Hebrew Bible in hand, and draw the man’s attention to some statement in the Word of God. First he would try to talk in Italian (traditionally the language of trade in the Mediterranean), then in Hebrew, showing them texts such as Zechariah 13:1: “In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Unable to speak in Arabic, M’Cheyne lamented the fact that he could not witness to the many Moslems he met.6

On their way back to Scotland, M’Cheyne and his friends passed through Eastern Europe, where there were more Jews than in Palestine. From Tarnapol, Galacia, he wrote home, “We are in Tarnapol, a very nice clean town, prettily situated on a winding stream, with wooded hills around. I suppose you never heard its name before; neither did I till we were there among Jews. I know not whether it has been the birthplace of warriors, or poets, or orators; its flowers have hitherto been born to blush unseen, at least by us barbarians of the north; but if God revive the dry bones of Israel that are scattered over the world, there will arise from this place an exceeding great army.”7 While in a town called Pesth, on the Danube River, they visited a little-known mission to the Jews that had been blessed with many deep conversions.

When the four arrived back in Scotland, interest in missions to the Jews reached an all-time high. One of the results of the Mission of Inquiry was the establishment of a work among the Jews in Budapest led by John Duncan and four others. These men were the Church of Scotland’s first missionaries to the Jews. After Duncan was recalled to Scotland to teach in the Free Church’s New College, he continued to preach on the need for Jewish missions.

Even Scottish missionaries in India, while working among Hindus and Moslems, remembered the need for Jewish missions. John Anderson, John Braidwood, and Robert Johnston – all outstanding Free church missionaries in Madras – met together on the first Monday of each month “to plead for the world’s conversion.” Eventually Johnston wrote a tract entitled The Conversion of the Jews, and Its Bearing on the Conversion of the Gentiles. Published in Edinburgh in 1853, the book listed several reasons for giving priority to the conversion of the Jews.

  1. The national restoration for the Jew, and its blessed effects on the world. For what have they been preserved, but for some wondrous end? If their lapse is the world’s wealth, and their loss the wealth of the Gentiles, how much more shall their replenishment be all this? (Rom. 11:12).
  2. The Jews are the whole world’s benefactors. Through Jewish hands and eyes God has sent his lively oracles of truth to us. They penned, and they preserved the Bible.
  3. Our Redeemer – the God-man – who has all power in heaven and earth, is their kinsman. “He took on Him the seed of Abraham.”
  4. Viewed nationally, the Jews are the most miserable of all nations. The Messiah wept over Jerusalem, their capital, before the curse fell on it: ought not we to weep over the accumulated progressive woe springing from the curse, and drinking up the nation’s spirit for eighteen centuries?
  5. Their covenant prospects are bright beyond all conception. On the grand day of their realization, will anyone of us all regret that we pitied Israel apostate and outcast?8

No one knows how much good Scottish missions to Jews accomplished or how many actual conversions took place. Very often some of the greatest acts go unrecorded in the annals of history. The worldly historian likes to chronicle the works of the flesh – the flash of a sword, the charge of the cavalry, or the building of an earthly empire – not the works of the Spirit. Only eternity will reveal the value of the 19th-century Scottish church’s interest in missions. One thing is certain: Such preaching and missionary activity helped to create an environment in the British Isles that was favorable to the idea of letting the Jews return to their homeland. It was the early British, more than anyone else, who were responsible for setting up a nation for the Jews.

An interest in any kind of mission…does not come out of a spiritual vacuum.

We may learn several lessons from Scotland’s early missions to the Jews. First, an interest in any kind of mission—including missions to the Jews—does not come out of a spiritual vacuum. Nothing great for God is going to be accomplished unless people – especially those who name the name of Christ – get serious and start applying the Scriptures to all aspects of their lives and all areas of life. Such an attitude comes about through spiritual revival, either individually or collectively. In the 19th century, Scotland had a heritage of vital Christianity and had recently been visited by revival. Out of this fertile soil came David Livingstone, Mary Slessor, Alexander Duff, and the Mission of Inquiry. Perhaps the most profound words on revival were spoken by Gipsy Smith, the famous 19th-century evangelist. When a minister asked Smith how he could start a revival in his church, Smith replied, “Go home, enter your study, and draw a circle on the floor. Get down on your knees inside that circle and pray for revival in your own heart. When that comes, you will begin to see a revival in your church.”

Another lesson that we may learn from this little chapter of church history is that once true Christians become familiar with the Bible, they realize that God places special importance on the conversion of the Jews. Robert Johnston was in India, yet he wrote a book on the conversion of the Jews. Robert Murray M’Cheyne lived to be only 29; yet in less than three decades he made a trip to Palestine – back in the days when such trips were long and arduous. What did both have in common? A strong commitment to Christ and the Bible. This led them to the conclusion that Jewish missions were indeed important.

Third, a true interest in missions comes from a life of prayer. It is no coincidence that Robert Murray M’Cheyne read missionary letters in prayer meetings; prayer and missions go hand in hand. If we would see an interest in missions today, it must come out of prayer.

Finally, we may gather inspiration for our own lives by studying the example of men like M’Cheyne, Duncan, and Johnston. Today such men are few and far between. Yet these are the kind of men God is looking for – not better methods, not better plans, but better men.

  1. Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1971), p. 175.
  2. Andrew Bonar, the Life of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, first pub., 1844, rep. 1978), p. 100.
  3. Bonar, pp. 99-102.
  4. Ibid., p. 104.
  5. Andrew Bonar, Leviticus.
  6. Bonar, M’Cheyne, pp. 106-109.
  7. Ibid., p. 130.
  8. Murray, p. 177.


Robert Peterson is the Headmaster of the Pilgrim Academy in Egg Harbor, New Jersey.

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