(1798 - 1860)
Warder Cressons journey to Jerusalem,
and to Judaism, took a convoluted path. Born in
Philadelphia in 1798, Cresson was raised a Quaker. He became a wealthy farmer
in rural Pennsylvania, married and had a son. He also became a lifelong seeker
of religious truth. By the 1840s, Cresson had become, in turn, a Shaker, a
Mormon, a Seventh-Day Adventist and a Campbellite. The latter two
denominations believed that the Second Coming of Christ was close at hand.
Cresson became notorious in Philadelphia for religious "haranguing in the
streets," warning all within earshot of the approaching apocalypse.
In 1844, Cresson expressed his certainty that God was about
to gather the Jewish people in Jerusalem as a prelude to the "end of
days." Cresson wrote, "God must choose some medium to manifest and
act through, in order to bring about his designs and promises in this visible
world; …This medium or recipient is the present poor, despised, outcast Jew
… God is about gathering them again [in Jerusalem]." Cresson decided to
move to Jerusalem to witness the great event. His family stayed behind.
Before departing, Cresson volunteered to work as the first
American consul in Jerusalem, which was then a part of Syria. His Pennsylvania
congressman, Edward Joy Morris, lobbied the Sate Department to have him
appointed. Soon after Cresson sailed, however, a former cabinet official
informed John C. Calhoun, then Secretary of State, that Cresson was mentally
unstable. Calhoun dispatched a letter to Cresson, which reached him in
Jerusalem, informing him that his appointment had been rescinded.
Cresson decided to stay on in Jerusalem despite this
disappointment. He had come as an evangelical Christian to witness Gods
ingathering of the Jewish Diaspora. His time in Jerusalem, however, drew him
to become a Jew. The impoverished, deeply religious Jews he found in
Jerusalem, who were living with only the barest necessities, touched Cressons
heart. Cresson was offended by the "soul snatching" behavior of
Christian missionaries who attempted to bribe some Jews with food and clothing
into accepting conversion. He wrote, "The conversions which have been
reported . . . [by] the Protestant Episcopal Mission were owing to the wants
of the converts, not to their conviction." He expressed admiration for
those Jews who resisted conversion despite the material incentives.
As historian Abraham J. Karp notes, "By 1847 Cresson
already felt himself more Jew than Christian." In March 1848, Cresson
took the plunge and converted. "I became fully satisfied," he wrote,
"that I could never obtain Strength and Rest but by doing
as Ruth did, and saying to her Mother-in-Law: … ‘thy People shall be my people, and thy God my God … I was circumcised,
entered the Holy Covenant, and became a Jew."
To close his affairs in America, Cresson returned to
Philadelphia, where he was greeted by trouble. "Soon after my
return," Cresson wrote, "I found that there was a growing OPPOSITION
and ENMITY toward the course I had taken." Cressons wife and son
started a civil "Inquisition of Lunacy" to have Cresson declared
insane for choosing Judaism. The jury declared Cresson a lunatic. In 1850,
Cresson appealed the verdict and received a new trial. The press gave it
sensational coverage. More than 100 witnesses testified. The jury ultimately
found for Cresson. An editorial in the Philadelphia Public Ledger hailed
the verdict "as settling forever … the principle that a mans ‘religious
opinions never can be made the test of his sanity."
During the four years Cresson spent in Philadelphia waiting
for his trial to end, he worshipped at Congregation Mikveh Israel, lived
according to halachah and participated in Jewish communal life. At some point, he divorced. He also
took a new name: Michael Boaz Israel. In 1852, Cresson/Israel sailed for
Jerusalem, this time as a Jew. He brought with him a self-published plan
"for the Promotion of Agricultural Pursuits [and] for the Establishment
of a Soup-House for the Destitute Jews in Jerusalem." Cressons desire
for a soup house was to "prevent any attempts being made to take advantage of the necessities of our poor brethren" that would "FORCE
them into a pretended conversion."
His vision for agricultural development was far reaching,
anticipating later Zionist principles. Cresson
called for "the Restoration and Consolidation of all Israel to their own
land … because Unity and Consolidation is Strength." This
strength would come from agriculture, providing the ingathered Jewish people
with a sustenance denied it for hundreds of years. To prove his plan could
work, Cresson announced that he was starting a model farm in the Valley of
Rephaim, outside Jerusalem, "to introduce an improved system of English
and American Farming in Palestine." He hoped that a Jewish agricultural
Palestine "a great center to which all who rest may come and find rest to
their persecuted souls."
Cressons planned model farm never developed for want of
capital, but he continued to pray for its success. In the mid-1850s, he
married Rachel Moleano and became an honored member of Jerusalems Sephardic
community. When he died in 1860, he was buried on the Mount of Olives
"with such honors as are paid only to a prominent rabbi." After a
long journey, Warder Cresson found his spiritual home in Jerusalem as Michael
Sources: American Jewish
Historical Society in honor of Rabbi Abraham J. Karp.