John Nicolayson and the Beginning of the Jerusalem Mission in the 19th Century

By Kai Kjær-Hansen


Few Danes – if any – have inscribed themselves in the history of Jewish missions as John Nicolayson did. His original, Danish, name was Hans Nicolaysen. He was born in 1803. In June this year we can celebrate his bicentenary. He died in 1856, 53 years old, and was interred in the Protestant graveyard on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. His tombstone may still be seen there.

Dane or no Dane: About no one else can it be said: ”The history of Mr. Nicolayson’s life is simply the history of the first Protestant mission to Jerusalem, and more especially to the Jews of the Holy City.” Generally speaking, obituaries should be taken with a grain of salt. But the quoted words from the London Jews Society’s obituary of Nicolayson in 1857 reflect the historical reality. When the time comes for the history of the Protestant church in Jerusalem to be written, Nicolayson cannot be ignored.

Nicolayson is primarily remembered as the one who was in charge of the building of the first Protestant church in the Middle East, namely Christ Church in Jerusalem, consecrated in 1849. He is also remembered for his involvement in the establish-ment of a mission hospital for the Jews of Jerusalem. But first and foremost, he was a missionary and administrator of the mission society’s affairs. He had a similar Jesus-passion as that which characterized other Protestant missionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries, whether their mission was directed to Jews or non-Jews. With this Jesus-passion in their hearts they were willing to give their lives in order that people might receive life through faith in Jesus as the Messiah. So also with Nicolayson. His vision was to establish a Hebrew Christian congregation in Jerusalem. His employer was the English Jewish mission society the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, popularly known as the London Jews Society (LJS), founded in 1809. The inscription on his tombstone begins: “For twenty-three years a faithful watchman on the walls of Jerusalem ...” The word faithful is a precise characterization of Nicolayson as a missionary to the Jews.

Called to take the Gospel back to Zion
In this paper I will limit myself to a description of Nicolayson’s first two months as a missionary, after he had set foot on Syria’s soil in December 1825. A vast source material makes it possible to give a very detailed description. And details are important for an understanding of his faith-fulness to his calling to Jerusalem.

As a background for an understanding of the earlier stages of Nicolayson’s life, let me just say this: In 1820 he experienced a calling to become a missionary to the Gentiles. From 1821 to 1823 he was a student at Jänicke’s missionary college in Berlin. Here he was headhunted to a ministry as missionary to the Jews, and from 1823 to 1825 he studied at LJS’s newly established seminary or college at Stanstead Park, not far from Portsmouth, UK. On 25 August 1825 he set out from the docks of London with an appointment as lay missionary to Jews in Jerusalem.

Nicolayson – the Gentile – who had heard the Gospel from Zion had now been called to take the Gospel back to Zion.

Those before Nicolayson
Nicolayson was not the first Protestant missionary in Palestine. From 1815 some missionaries, with the island of Malta as their base, had come to Palestine to look into the possibilities of missionary work. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM) sent Levi Parsons and Pliny Fisk. The former arrived in Jerusalem in February 1821 and died on a journey, in Alexandria, February 1822. Fisk died in Beirut 1825.

The London Jews Society sent Melchior Tschoudy, who arrived in Palestine in 1821. He was a failure, seen with the London committee’s eyes. He did not write reports! The Jewish-born Joseph Wolff visited Jerusalem twice in the early 1820’s – supported by people connected with the LJS. Wolff was a fascinating person. But you cannot build up a new missionary organization with a leader-type like Wolff. With Wolff it is impossible to make binding decisions. One wealthy man, Lewis Way, came to Syria in 1823 with his entourage – among them LJS-missionary William Bucknor Lewis. Way falls ill and soon returns home. But then he was not expected to serve as a missionary. Lewis remains and in January 1824 he is joined by George E. Dalton, an LJS–colleague. But this period was to become a short one for Lewis. He left Palestine in the summer of 1825 and went back to England to get married. So the LJS could not build a Palestine Mission on him either. They wanted Lewis to return to Palestine, which he did not want to. He had his own agenda and wanted to do things at his own pace. So Dr Dalton is the only LJS–missionary left in the autumn of 1825. He is the one Nicolayson is going to assist.

From these somewhat summary statements about Nicolayson’s forerunners you cannot conclude that they had no importance. On the contrary, they had established relations to Christians and Jews which Nicolayson could use. But: In contrast to Tschoudy, Nicolayson wrote reports which the LJS-Committee in London could relate to. In contrast to Wolff, the LJS-Committee could make binding arrangements with Nicolayson. In contrast to Lewis, they could negotiate with Nicolayson. Nicolayson knew when to give in – for the sake of the cause. And then there were American missionaries in Beirut in whom Nicolayson could find support.

Nicolayson’s arrival in Jerusalem 1826
On 3 January 1826 John Nicolayson and his mule-driver come riding to Jerusalem. Less than two weeks have passed since – after a long voyage from England – he disembarked in Beirut. The first two lines in his journal go like this:

1825. Dec. 21. Arrived in Beyrout John Nicolayson sent out by the London Society for promoting Christianity among [sic] the Jews as Missionary to that nation in these parts, with a special view to the German Jews.

It is one of Nicolayson’s characteristics that he does not waste time. He has been given an assignation by his missionary society, and therefore he does not waste time in Beirut either. He knows that he can receive help from the American missionary families there, and the first few days he is a guest in their homes. He had expected to meet, on his arrival, his future colleague, the medical doctor George Edward Dalton, the same Dr Dalton that Nicolayson was meant to work together with. This was part of the LJS’s plans for the establishment of the Palestine Mission – with Jerusalem as its centre. But he is informed that Dr Dalton has recently left for Jerusalem to explore the possibilities there. Having celebrated Christmas together with the American missionaries, Nicolayson hires beasts of burden, a guide and a mule-driver on 26 December and prepares to set out for his destination – Jerusalem, where he was designated to work.

So already on 27 December 1825, Nicolayson is on his way up to Jerusalem – less than a week after his arrival in Syria. He goes by the overland route: Beirut – Sidon – Tyrus – Acre. In these cities he contacts the British consuls. In Acre he has to hire new a mule-driver, and the journey continues along the Mediterranean Coast. Even though the first of January is a Sunday, and even though he slept badly the night before, Nicolayson decides to continue on this the Lord’s day from Acre to Jaffa, because – as he writes in his journal – he could not make himself understood to his fellow travellers when he explained that he wanted to rest on that day – in accordance with the directives of the LJS: Remember the Sabbath day!

Thus we set out [from Acre] at three o’clock in the morning. After having rode [sic] a while, I became so sleepy, that I was repeatedly in danger of falling from my mule. After riding two or three hours, we arrived at the ruins of the ancient Caesarea, which still attest its former greatness and splendour.

From Jaffa the journey goes via Ramle up to Jerusalem. On 3 January 1826, about four o’clock in the afternoon, Nicolayson rides through Jaffa Gate and continues to the Mar Michael convent, where he knows that Dalton is staying. Since Dalton is visiting somewhere in the town, Nicolayson has to wait in Dalton’s room before he can meet his missionary colleague.

Dalton’s second visit in Jerusalem
Dalton had begun his second visit in Jerusalem on 24 December 1825. He makes use of the connections which former missionaries have made, both among Greeks and Jews, people he was introduced to during his first visit in the spring of 1825. The purpose of his visit is to make arrangements for his own and his family’s impending taking up of residence in Jerusalem.

Among the Greeks, Dalton takes contact to Papas Isa, Caesar and Papas Yoel, the latter now Superior of Mar Michael – the convent which readily received the Protestant missionaries. They welcome him warmly, and he is allowed to use the vacant place in the now deceased Fisk’s rooms in the convent. In the days to follow he converses with them about spiritual matters. Dalton begins to teach Papas Isa Italian, and in return he receives instruction in modern Greek.

His medical practice is not at the centre although Dalton, as the first doctor in Jerusalem, takes up much space in the LJS history. It is confined to a few visits to a sick Greek bishop. On 1 January Dalton preaches in Italian with Papas Cesar interpreting into modern Greek; ”we were six in number”. The same day he gets a visit from the Superior of Mar Elias – the convent situated between Jerusalem and Bethlehem – ”whose foot I healed last year … he warmly pressed my hand, called me his friend, his benefactor; he now walks well, although one toe is gone, and a small sore still remains.” They agree that Dalton is to accompany him on a visit to the Mar Elias convent and Bethlehem.

On 2 January he approaches another convent in Jerusalem, where he can rent rooms from the Greeks and where he can stay with his family. In this way the housing situation for the Daltons’ impending taking up of residence in Jerusalem has been dealt with. The question of a residence permit also seems to have been solved. That Dalton could get one is usually explained by the fact that he was a trained doctor and there was a shortage of these in Jerusalem.

His contact with Jews is limited, although it is there. Among them are individuals that earlier missionaries also had connection with. Through the English Jew Joseph Amzalag a contact is made to a Sephardic Jew who is to teach Dalton Hebrew and Spanish on a daily basis – two hours per language – when he returns from Bethlehem. The contact with Rabbi Menachem Mendel is also maintained. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov was the leader of the Perushim in Jerusalem (the Perushim being the ideological opponents of the Hasidim).

Dalton writes on 29 December: ”I called on Rabbi M.; as usual, he was buried in his Talmud, over a charcoal fire; he gave me a hearty welcome.“ Mendel is eager to hear if Dalton has done something to get Jewish people political protection. Dalton writes: ”Rabbi M. invited me to come often to see him; asked if I came empowered by the Consul to protect them. I answered, that this was impossible, but I should feel happy in serving the Jews in any way I could.” The words show that Rabbi Mendel needs the Protestant missionaries – not because he appreciates their mission – but because he hopes that they may help to provide better political conditions for Jewish people.

Since the Superior of Mar Elias has postponed his journey, Dalton begins to read Arabic with Papas Isa from the Mar Michael convent; later in the day he pays a visit to the above-mentioned sick bishop. And it is during this visit that he receives the message that Nicolayson has arrived. In Dalton’s own words – which were to be the last which he entered in his journal:

Whilst with him [the bishop], news came to me of a ”new Englishman” from Beyrouth, having arrived at Mar Michael. It rejoiced my heart to find my fellow-labourer Mr. Nicolayson the person. O Lord, how great are thy mercies; dwelling here alone, a companion has been sent to supply the place of my dear departed brother Fisk, and bring intelligence from my near and dear ties of health, preservation, and peace!

Dalton and Nicolayson on sightseeing

About his first encounter with Dalton Nicolayson writes this in his journal, 3 January 1826:
I had the joy of seeing and saluting this dear brother in the Lord, with whom I hope, through the grace of God, to spend many happy days in labouring jointly with him in the vineyard of the Lord. The rest of the day was spent in conversation as to the nature and importance of our work, and upon various subjects connected with it; and we concluded with reading the Scriptures, and with prayer.
The number has gone up from one to two, a one hundred percent increase of the LJS’s missionary staff! The joy and optimism of the two missionaries is great. However, they were not to have ”many happy days” together ”in the vineyard of the Lord”.

When Nicolayson hears about Dalton’s appointment with his friend, the Greek priest, he is not slow to seize the chance to see the town of David, Bethlehem, on the very day after his arrival in Jerusalem. Together they set out from Jerusalem on 4 January 1826 in order to visit Bethlehem after a refreshment at the Mar Elias convent.

But already on 5 January, after a visit to, among other places, Salomon’s pools, Dalton is seized with fever in Bethlehem – ”perhaps in consequence of having drunk more than he ought of the springs on the road,” Nicolayson writes. On 5 January the fever subsides and the rain stops so that they can leave Bethlehem and on the same day reach Jerusalem with Dalton ”riding on a horseback … and then we reach home, and have come within reach of means, which, by the Lord’s blessing, will soon, I hope, restore this valuable servant of the Lord to his missionary labours”. But this fever was to be a sickness unto death for Dr Dalton.

Dalton’s illness and death – January 1826

The following days – after their return from Bethlehem – hope alternates with fear. Dalton’s fever falls and rises. On 13 January Dalton writes a short letter to his wife in Beirut, and – writes Nicolayson in his journal – ”I wrote one to Mr. Goodell, informing them of the doctor’s illness, yet, at the same time giving them hopes of his recovery having commenced to-day.” On 16 January the sick Dalton imagines that he is strong enough to go to Jaffa and from there go by sea to Beirut – a plan that Nicolayson does not think feasible in view of Dalton’s condition.

On 19 January Dalton is fully aware that his death is imminent. To Nicolayson he says, ”I believe I am near my home.” Nicolayson writes this about the ensuing conversation:

I asked him [Dalton] whether he had any particulars to mention respecting the mission in this country, or the cause in general? To which he replied, “Tell the Committee that the friends of the cause in England have too high an opinion of what has been done here, for as to the establishing of a mission in Jerusalem, or any other places in the country, nothing has been done as yet.”

These words may be seen as a signal from the dying Dalton to the committee in London that, for example, Joseph Wolff’s optimistic reports on the conditions in Jerusalem about the dissemination of the Gospel should be taken with some reservations. Earlier Dalton had touched on the same theme in his journal, and later on a similar realism will be expressed through Nicolayson’s journals and letters.

On 25 January 1826 Dalton dies: ”He had anticipated death without the least fear, and was entirely resigned to the will of his Master,” Nicolayson writes – and continues: “The Greek priests, who have shown us great kindness during the illness of my deceased brother, have kindly offered a place in their burial-ground for the interment of his remains.” The same evening Nicolayson writes a letter about Dalton’s death hoping that it may be conveyed to Beirut with a courier the following day.

The next day, 26 January 1826, Dalton is buried in the presence of approx. 50 persons ”notwithstanding the bad weather”. “The Superior of Mar Michael, Papas Yoel, Papas Ysa [= Isa], Papas Cesare, and another priest, honoured us with their presence also. The place of interment is on Mount Zion.” In accordance with English custom – but unlike Greek or Oriental custom – Dalton is buried in a coffin, but the English Anglican ritual is not used.

Nicolayson in Jerusalem after Dalton’s death
With Dalton’s death Nicolayson is now LJS’s only representative in Palestine. Just 22 years old. The LJS-staff of missionaries has once again been reduced to one. And what is worse: Nicolayson has no Firman, i.e. Imperial edict, which permits him to settle in Jerusalem. If LJS in London more or less naively imagined that Nicolayson, as assistant to Dr Dalton, could get one if the latter had been able to practise medicine in Jerusalem, is hard to tell.

Having taken care of the practical arrangements in connection with Dr Dalton’s burial, Nicolayson also needed to have the authorities to annul the seal which they had placed on the room in the Mar Michael convent where Dalton had died. For this he needed help from the English vice-consul in Jaffa.

In the days after the burial, Nicolayson conducts talks with the priests of the convent

”on the nature of true Christianity”. Papas Joel is his guide at a visit to the Holy Sepulchre on 5 February, and a few days later he also visits Gethsemane together with him. Besides that he makes contact to some Jews, for example, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, whom he unsuccessfully tries to engage in a conversation ”on the subject of the Messiahship of Jesus”. Mendel nevertheless invites him to call again. What boldness of a 22-year-old Gentile – to challenge an authority like Mendel about this issue!

As soon as 11 February, Nicolayson is ready to leave Jerusalem but is prevented from doing so due to rain and snow, so the departure has to be postponed to 17 February. He leaves, as he writes – ”by the same route I came ” – and arrives in Beirut on 25 February 1826, where he “was much comforted by seeing the power of divine grace so eminently exemplified in the resignation of Mrs. Dalton to the will of God under her deep affliction”. Having stayed a few days at the Goodells’, Nicolayson moves in with the American missionaries Bird on 27 February. The young widower Dalton was still staying with this family together with her two young children. The reason why it is mentioned here is that Mrs Dalton two years later was to become Mrs Nicolayson. But that story will have to wait till some other time.

From Nicolayson’s autobiographical ”Sketch”
By way of conclusion I am going to let Nicolayson give a summary of these two first months as a lay missionary. The summary is taken from an autobiographical ”Sketch” which he was encouraged to make in 1853 – three years before his death. He writes:

After spending Christmas here with the American Missionaries, then resident here, I hastened on towards Jerusalem, where I arrived on the 3th of Jany 1826. Almost immediately after, Dr. Dalton, in whom I had found at once a Christian friend and an experienced guide in the work, was taken ill; and on the 26th his “departure home to be with the Lord” left me absolutely alone, a stranger in the country and utterly unexperiened in the work. The two months I then passed in Jerusalem was a time of intense trial and testing to myself rather than of actual labour among the Jews in that as yet barely attempted and then still quite unopened field of Missionary operation.

In conclusion I would like to make two observations about Nicolayson’s faithfulness to his calling to serve in Jerusalem:

1) Nicolayson believed that God had called him to begin missionary work in Jerusalem in January 1826. Not until the end of 1833 can he settle there. Faithfulness to God’s call – for Nicolayson it means having to wait for almost eight years.

2) Nicolayson had great expectations that Jews would accept the Gospel and be baptized. The first baptism of a Jewish family – performed by him – takes place in April 1839. Faithfulness to God’s call – for Nicolayson it means having to wait for more that thirteen years before he saw results of his work.

If anyone asks whether or not Nicolayson was successful, I just want to point out that he – if any – was faithful. To be faithful – when we are talking about mission – is more important than to be successful.

This is not least true about Jewish evangelism. In the 19th century as well as at the beginning of the third millennium.