Aaron Stern 1820-1885
A Prisoner for Jesus Christ
Aaron Stern was born to Jewish parents on Aprill 11, 1820, at Unterreichenbach in the former Duchy of Hesse Cassel. When he was still a child his parents moved to Frankfurt on the River Main and here he was brought up in the quaint old “Judengass”. It was the hope of his paernts that he would become a doctor but in his early teens he developed a taste for commerce and when about 17 went to Hamburg to follow a business career.
While in Hamburg his attention was caught by a glass case exhibited outside the house of J. C. Moritz, missionary of what was then known as the London Jews Society. His interest was already aroused and, when in London in 1829, he needed little persuasion to accompany a fellow lodger to teh Society’s Chapel in Palestine Place where he was greatly impressed by the Hebrew service conducted by the eminent scholar-missionary, Dr. Alexander McCaul.
The very next day Stern called on McCaul and began to question him about the Christian faith. This visit was to be the first of many and in the end Stern was admitted to the Operative Jewish Converts’ Institution for converts and enquirers who found it difficult to work for their former Jewish employers. Here Stern was carefully instructed in the Christian faith and eventually, having confessed his faith in Christ, was baptised on March 15th, 1840. He spent a further two years at the Institute but, his outstanding gifts having been notticed, he was then received into the College the Society maintained at that time for the training of missionaries.
In 1844 he sailed for Baghdad, breaking his journey at Jerusalem to be ordained deacon by Bishop Alexander. On arriving at Baghdad Stern began to work with great zeal and energy among the 16,000 Jews who lived in the city. Great interest was aroused and the missionary’s house was filled day after day with Jews of all ages anxious to purchase, read and discuss the publications of the Society. Not content with those who came, Stern visited the Khans and bazaars seeking to get into conversation with his fellow Jews. So great was the intrest that the Rabbis became alarmed and issued an edict of excommunication against all those who had intercourse with the missionaries. For six or seven months no Jew dared come to the house. Then some began to come again secretly.
During the barren months Stern visited Ezekiel’s tomb on the banks of the Euphrates, the ruins of Babylon and also made a journey to Persia which was to have far reaching consequences in days to come. An outbreak of cholera in Baghdad in 1846 was regarded as a judgment on the Jews for visiting Stern and his friends, and on this occasion feeling was so intesne that a temporary retreat to Persia in 1847 was thought advisable. It was during this visit that Stern was able to leave behind the New Testaments and Gospels which were to prove effective silent missionaries after his departure.[note: see the biography of Mirza Norollah.]
Stern was able to return to Baghdad after a while, but the baptism of a Jewish doctor in 1850 produced another Rabbinical anathema accompanied this time by the blowing of the horn and the unrolling of the scroll of the law. None of this, however, kept the enquiring Jews away from the book depot which Stern opened.
In 1853 Stern was transferred to Constantinople where he carried on an effective work until 1859 when, after further journeys to teh Crimea and Arabia, he set out for Ethiopia. Here he joined J. M. Flad who had begun work among the Falasha Jews. These people knew nothing of te later Rabbinical traditions and were very much in the position of Old Testament believers before the time of Christ, although surrounded by much superstition. From the first they responded readily to teh preaching of the Gospel and on July 21st, 1861, twenty-two Falashas were baptised, representing the first-fruits of the work.
About a year later Stern fell foul of the eccentric King Theodore. This monarch was offended and prejudiced against Europeans because Queen Victoria had failed to reply to a letter he had addressed to her, and in his reply to a similar letter Napoleon III had used expressions which upset his dignity. Stern approached the royal tent to sk permission to return to England. The monarch flew into a rage with the two servants who announced Stern’s arrival and ordered them to be beaten. This was done so effectively that they died during the night.
Stern had never found it easy to watch the sufferings of others and in the stress of emotion bit his finger, a gesture unfortunately used in Ethiopia as a sign of revengs. Theodore ordered him to be struck down on the spot and on recovering consciousness he was bound hand and foot and thrown into prison where he remained for four and a half years in terrible conditions. Soon Flad, the Consul, and all other Europeans resident in the capital were imprisoned also and the shackles with which they were bound can still be seen at the headquarters of the London Society in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Eventually Flad persuaded the Emperor to release him so that he might take a message to Queen Victoria but he was oblged to leave his wife and children behind as hostages. At last, Flad having been able to convince the British authorities of the seriousness of the position, an expeditionary force was despatched under Sir Robert Napier and arrived just before Easter in 1868. A battle was fought on Good Friday after which Theodore, seeing he was defeated, committed suicide. The released prisoners returned to England and attended a great meeting for thanksgiving held in the Exeter Hall on July 3rd, 1868, presided over by the famous Earl of Shaftesbury.
For many years after these events no European missionaries were allowed into Ethiopia but the work was carried on by faithful converts, visited annually by Flad on the borders of their land, who prepared the way for the resumption of the work in the twentieth century. Many died as martyrs during the invation by the fanatical Mahdi.
The last years of Stern’s active ministry were spent in London where he wrote and distributed much literature among the Jews and became famous for his missionary sermons in Spitalfields and Whitechapel. It was not uncommon for as many as 400 or 500 Jews to be present when he preached and the “Hebrew Christian Prayer Union” was formed to draw together some of the 2,000 converts and many enquirers who had been impressed by the faithful preaching of Aaron Stern.
In 1874, on the thirtieth anniversary of his ordination, his Hebrew, Christian and other friends presented him with a silver tea and coffee service as a token of their esteem, and in 1881 the Archbishop of Canterbury conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity. None of htese things however, disturbed his humble gratitude to God for having allowed him the privilege of suffering, like Paul of old, as a “prisoner of Jesus Christ”.
Aaron Stern married Rebecca Davis,daughter of Strangman Davis-Goff and Susan Maxwell Ussher, on 5 March 1883.
Dawning of LIght in the East. 1854 to read online
Wanderings Among the Falashas in Abyssinia. London, 1862. to read online
The Captive Missionary to read online
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Crombie, Kelvin. Restoring Israel: 200 Years of the CMJ Story. Nicolayson’s Ltd., Jerusalem 2008
Dawson, Edwin Collas. Henry A. Stern: Missionary Traveller and Abyssianian Captive. Ondon, Sunday School Union (Splendid Lives Series) n.d., circa 1900 (rare book).
Gartenhaus, Jacob. Famous Jewish Christians. Baker Book House, 1979.
Isaacs, Albert Augustus. Biography of the Rev. Henry Aaron Stern, D.D.: for more than forty years
a missionary amongst the Jews: containing an account of his labours and travels in
Mesopotamia, Persia, Arabia, Turkey, Abyssinia, and England. Illustrated from photographs
taken chiefly by himself. J. Nisbet & Co. 1886 to read online
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