Harry Burgen – personal testimony
Many times since I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ friends have asked me how I came to believe. Some have asked me to put the story in writing if I had not already done so. Having only brief accounts of my testimony in former issues of “The Chosen People,” I now humbly send forth this little booklet to the honor and glory of the Triune God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
My heart’s desire and prayer to God for the many sons and daughters of Abraham who may read these lines, is that the veil (II Cor. 3:14-16) shall be taken away from their hearts, and that the scales shall fall from their eyes (Acts 9:18), and that they shall come to a saving knowledge of Him of Whom it is written in the volume of the Book (Ps. 40:7). It is with a heart full of thanksgiving and praise to God our Father, through our blessed Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, Who loved me and washed me from my sins in His own precious blood, that I, unworthy as I am, set forth these, His dealings and leadings with me from my youth up.
I was born in 1893 in Malat, a little town in Lithuania. At that time it was under Russian rule. My people, I am thankful to say, were God-fearing and very pious Jews. They endeavored to live up to the teachings of the Law of Moses and all the man-made doctrines, precepts and burdens, grievous to be borne, placed upon the people by the Scribes and Pharisees. (Is. 29:13, Matt. 23:2-4.) In this teaching also they brought up their children. I am thankful to say that love for the Old Testament Scriptures and the expectation of the coming of the Messiah were also instilled into our lives. The New Testament was utterly unknown among us. We never heard of the existence of this blessed Book, nor of a Saviour Who died for our sins according to the Scriptures. We were in complete darkness as to God’s plan of salvation.
At the age of six we were sent to Hebrew School and continued there until we reached the age of thirteen. We then became members of the Congregation of Israel. My mother saw to it that we faithfully attended to our studies and to the synagogue services at the appointed hours. These were three times a day all the year around. From the time we learned to read Hebrew we repeated our prayers before going to bed and at rising. In addition to this there were other prayers and ceremonies before and after eating, feasting, fasting, etc. Such was the atmosphere of my home.
Ever since I can remember there were some things which greatly troubled me. As I grew older, the burdens became heavier. Some of these were, first, that with all of my prayers and religious living, I did not know that my sins were forgiven; second, I was dissatisfied at heart, had no joy and no hope. I longed for something, but did not know what was missing.
When I was about seventeen my older brother sent for me to come to America. He had come to this country some years before and was settled in Brooklyn, New York. This was a God-given opportunity for both of us. I reached the United States in the year 1910.
While on board the steamer bound for New York I found myself in possession of a coin. I did not know then what it was, but now know it was a five-cent piece. A Jewish man came to me with a Yiddish book in his hand. He said, “I will give you this book for the coin you have.” I thought as we had a long journey ahead, I would buy the book. Of course, I did not know the nature of it, but it was good looking and well bound. When I opened it I read the words in Hebrew, “The New Testament.” I had read but a few words when some of the Jews with whom I met for religious services, saw it. They raised almost an uproar, saying that it was an unlawful book for a Jew to possess or read. They insisted that it be destroyed. Among those with whom I had become acquainted while on board the steamer was a young Jew who begged me to let him read the book, but I in my ignorance and darkness, refused to let him have it, and the words of Isaiah (3:12; 9:16) were literally fulfilled. “The leaders of this people cause them to err and destroy the way of their paths.”
The Lord Who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working (Is. 28:29), with Whom there is forgiveness, and Who is plenteous in mercy (Ps. 86:5), continued to strive and deal with me by His Holy Spirit.
Like other young immigrants I soon obtained employment, as work in those days was not so scarce as it is now. Later I settled at the business of making smoking pipes. During this time I continued in my religious training of youthful days. I faithfully attended the synagogue services, etc. In spite of it all I was not happy nor satisfied. I began to seek happiness in the pleasures of the world.
My people were very poor. My father was a fisherman and it was hard to get necessities. We had no money for luxuries. I rarely had new clothes, being given what my older brother had outgrown or what came from more well-to-do families. The coat and trousers often did not match in color. White bread was such a luxury that we had it only on Sabbaths or Holy Days or in case of sickness. Much more could be said along these lines but this is enough to show our condition.
I said to myself, now that I earn my own money, I am going to make up for those things which were denied us in the old country. I started out in the pursuit of pleasure to satisfy my longing heart. I went on the broad way which leads to destruction. Many a time I came home late at night or in the early hours of the morning weary and worn, with a heavy heart and empty pockets, but no satisfaction. When I saw other young men with jewelry, I envied them. I thought if I had jewelry like that I would be happy. Within a short time I owned a gold ring, a set of gold cuff buttons and a gold necktie pin and holder. They were all made to order and had my initials on them. Very soon I was unhappy again. Such things do not satisfy the longing soul.
At the time I was working at the pipe factory a young Jewish man, with whom I worked, invited me to a Jewish Mission. It was known at that time as the Williamsburg Mission to the Jews. At first I refused to go. I had been hearing of the activities of this mission and I had also heard all sorts of “bad” reports about missionaries. Although this young man was an unbeliever himself he repeatedly spoke of the mission and urged me to go with him to some service.
At last the happy day came when I consented to go with him. I cannot describe the blessing that has come to my soul as a result of this. To my great amazement I heard and saw Jewish people who believed and preached that Jesus is the Jew’s Messiah, Friend and Saviour. I heard wonderful words of life proclaimed in sincerity and power. Such words I had never heard in all my life before. From that night on I became a steady visitor at the mission. Then a struggle began. I reasoned if Jesus is really our true Messiah according to our own Old Testament Scriptures, why do not our rabbis, teachers and leaders tell us so? At the same time there was the gentle striving of the Holy Spirit, the still small voice, saying, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” (Is. 30:21.)
At this time a group of Jewish young men banded together. They called themselves the “Builders of Israel.” In the true sense, they were the destroyers of Israel. They took it upon themselves to hinder the work of the mission. They disturbed the meetings; they destroyed Gospel literature; they persecuted the believers, and made havoc in other evil ways. Thinking they were doing God service (John 16:2) I became one of them. Although outwardly I opposed the Gospel, my heart had been won by its comfort and truth. I found myself looking forward from week to week to the meetings, for the blessed Gospel story filled my whole being with joy and gladness. In spite of myself I was drawn back week after week to the meetings without human invitation or reminder.
When we come to the Christ question, however, we cannot be neutral. We must either be for Him or against Him. In my ignorance and foolishness I continued with the other young men for a while, until one evening I was ordered out of the mission for misbehavior. If I ever experienced sorrow or regret, it was then. As I was leaving the building I was thoroughly ashamed of myself. Sorrow filled my heart. For I still had an intense desire to hear the Glad Tidings of the Son of God.
Gradually the thirst for worldly pleasure and amusement faded. It was losing all its attractions. More and more my heart and mind became occupied with the things I had heard at the mission. I longed to be there again. While at work I was often deep in thought concerning the truths presented. I often found myself humming the precious hymns heard there. I had never heard any Christian hymns before. Such hymns as “The Gospel Bells Are Ringing,” “Come to the Saviour, Make No Delay,” “Oh, What a Saviour is Jesus the Lord,” “There is a Green Hill Far Away,” “There is Life For a Look” and others were sweet music to my ears, and have been very precious to me ever since.
What was I to do? I was afraid to go back. I might get in wrong with the authorities and be dealt with according to my deserts. I stayed away for about six weeks. They were long and weary. I could not hold out any longer. I decided to go back to the mission, come what might. In a broken and penitent spirit and with a contrite heart, I started out. Upon arriving, I slipped in quietly as I wanted to be unnoticed. I had changed my hat to a cap. I took a seat in the back of the room thinking in case of any trouble I could get out easily. I did not sit with the old unruly crowd that night, but sat alone. I again heard the blessed Gospel story faithfully proclaimed. To my great surprise, nobody bothered me nor asked any questions. I was very thankful. After the meeting was over I took with me one of the tracts written by our dear brother, Leopold Cohn. It is a message that proves to any honest seeking heart that the Lord Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. I eagerly and earnestly read it, desiring to know the truth which is in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I continued to attend the meetings and I read more and more of the mission’s literature in the spirit of prayer and supplication. Gradually, I found myself moving closer and closer to the pulpit. Some noticed this and wondered if I could be the one who at the first used to be one of the persecutors. As I continued under the sound of the Word of God, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ came to my heart, the Holy Ghost revealing Him to me. He showed me my need of a Saviour and that the Lord Jesus Christ is the One upon Whom God has laid the sins of us all, of Whom Moses and the Prophets wrote. (John 1:45.)
Although at heart I already believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, but realizing what a serious matter it is to confess faith in Christ when the whole nation is against you, I went to a Jewish Book store dealing in religious articles which is called in Hebrew “Moicher Sforim,” and told of the new and interestings things I heard (not daring to tell the clerk what or where I heard it). “What, then, do you want?” he rather sternly asked me. “An Old Testament in Hebrew and Yiddish,” I replied. “Three dollars,” he pronounced, which I readily and gladly paid.
Now that I was in possession of the Scriptures, I began to search them and compare with what I had heard preached at the Mission and what I read in the tracts written by Brother Leopold Cohn. I was strengthened in my faith in Christ when I saw without the shadow of a doubt that what God had promised in the Old Testament concerning the Messiah, Who is the Lord Jesus Christ, He has also fulfilled in the New Testament when Christ first came and other Scriptures will be fulfilled when He comes again.
Reports came to my uncle, with whom I lived, that I had become a “regular attendant at the mission, singing and taking part with them in the services,” etc. This met with my relative’s sore displeasure and disapproval.
Again the Lord graciously led. He brought into my possession a Yiddish New Testament. I still have it. I obtained it in the mission. I read it secretly under very trying circumstances. I had to guard it continually for fear it might be destroyed. At night I kept it under my pillow. In the daytime I hid it away in the corner of a closet shelf.
Members of my family spoke to me numbers of times about my interest in the mission. They tried to hinder me from attending the meetings. When they found that they could not persuade me to give it up they decided on harsher methods.
One Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1913 my uncle met me as I returned home from work. In the presence of a number of my family he said that I must make my decision that day. He said, “It will have to be your family or the mission. You may stay with us, but you will have to discontinue your attendance at the mission. If you continue at the mission you will have to get out of our house and also stay away from this neighborhood.” Of course, I could not allow my uncle nor anyone else to interfere in this all-important matter, a matter so important that it meant life or death, salvation or condemnation. Determined, by the grace of God, to “obey Him rather than man” (Acts 5:29) and to go all the way with Him, I moved out that very afternoon. I settled with a Jewish family many blocks away. I found many opportunities of confessing the Lord Jesus to them.
The public confession of my personal faith in our blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ took place on Monday, October 20, 1913. In company with two other young Jewish believers I was baptized by our dear brother, Leopold Cohn. Some weeks before this I had attended a similar service. At that time our brother, Moses Gitlin, was baptized. How I envied him. I said to myself, “I wish I had the courage that that young man has.” Three weeks later I was at the same place. The joy and gladness that have come to me since I received the Lord Jesus Christ as my own personal Saviour are beyond anything one can describe with pen and ink. He has completely changed my life and He has become my satisfying portion. Blessed be His name. I was confident that since He had saved me He
also had a plan and purpose for my life. I believe He has a plan and purpose for the lives of all His people. “He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
I continued at the factory until January, 1914, waiting patiently for Him. I was then sent to work on a farm in Connecticut. I knew nothing about farm work, but believing God was leading, I went. On that farm there were twenty-seven cows which had to be milked twice a day. I was taken into the barn for assignments and instructions in milking cows. This was a work which neither I nor my forefathers had ever done. Nor had I ever seen a man do it. In my native land only women do this work. It took me nearly a whole week to learn to milk a cow. The lessons were certainly painful experiences. In the morning I could hardly open my hands. They felt as if the fingers were out of joint. At last, however, I met with success and the task was accomplished. I wondered within myself, “Why must I go through all this? What has my faith in Christ to do with working on a farm, milking cows?” I could not solve this at this time, but it was made plain later on. It was the Lord’s leading and it was all for a purpose. After having my “training” on the farm, my stay was short. I returned to Brooklyn and remained there for a while. We had blessed fellowship in Christ never to be forgotten.
In April, 1914, I was sent to the “Practical Bible Training School,” Bible School Park, N. Y. The school is located in a beautiful spot of thirty-eight acres on the banks of the Susquehanna River. The school prepares young lives for the Lord’s service and is faithful to the Word of God. To those who attend it, it is a little heaven on earth.
I had only been there a few days when I became discouraged, allowing trifles to annoy and upset me. The fact that my trunk with the necessary safety razor did not arrive on time was used by the Evil One to upset and depress me. I was the first Jewish student enrolled at the school. Everyone was kind and interested in my welfare. Miss Mary Scotten was like a devoted sister to the students.
Other helpful friends were Mr. Keith L. Brooks and James Allen. Their kindness and helpfulness during my life at the school have left many happy memories of the P. B. T. S. which was my Christian cradle.
In spite of all the kindness shown to me both by faculty and students I determined to return to New York, but having only $1.50 in money, I needed carfare and I wrote a letter to Brother L. Cohn telling him although the place was beautiful and everyone kind, still I wanted to go back to New York. I asked him to send me the necessary funds. In my letter I told him if he did not help me I intended to leave the school anyway and would try to secure employment in one of the Endicott-Johnson shoe factories which were located near the school. In this way I hoped to earn enough money to take me back to New York.
I received a letter immediately from Brother Cohn, saying he was sending me a check for ten dollars, twice what I asked for. He advised me to remain at the school and not to run away from the place where the Lord had put me. He said, “Be like the Prophet Habakkuk, chapter 2, verse 1.” He said, too, that he knew God had many blessings in store for me if I only remained.
After this letter I was more confused than ever, saying to myself, “Yesterday if I had had this money I would have hurried back as fast as I could go to New York. Now with twice as much money as I need to take me back, here I am and do not know what to do.” I rejoice in the Lord and bless Him that I took Brother Cohn’s advice and stayed on in the school. I was there two years and three months.
The next discouragement that met me was a lack of money again. I had no funds with which to pay my room rent or board. But the All Sufficient One Who is interested in every detail in the lives of His children provided the way. The school had cattle and farm land. A young man, John Slocum, who was in charge of this work was preparing to go home at the end of the term. I was selected to take up his work. How thankful I was for the farm training I had received in Connecticut some months before I came to the school. Thus, I worked my way through school.
After leaving the school I returned to the mission in Brooklyn where I had once in blindness and ignorance tried to destroy and hinder the preaching of the blessed Gospel of our crucified, risen and coming Saviour. Through His grace I became a fellow worker with those who were holding forth the Word of Life in that part of His vineyard. Because He first loved me and had forgiven me much, I wanted to love and serve Him. From the day He revealed Himself to me unto this day, it has been my blessed privilege to confess His precious name to many Jews both in this country and in other countries by sending the Good News through the mail. I praise Him for the knowledge that our labors are not in vain in Him. (II Chr. 15:7, 1 Cor. 15:58.)
In the year 1921 I became engaged to marry Rebecca Young, a Christian Jewess, who had confessed Christ and had been baptized by Brother Leopold Cohn at the mission. We met at a conference of the Hebrew-Christian Alliance of America. In August of that year we were married at the mission.
I had been with the Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath School Work at that time, and continued with them for seven years and three months.
Making our home in Philadelphia, we had the blessed opportunity of magnifying the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ to many Jews who came to our home, whom I had met in my daily work.
After the period of time with the Presbyterian Board as mentioned above, I returned to the Mission now known as the “American Board of Missions to the Jews” through which I first heard the blessed Gospel message of God’s redeeming love in Christ Jesus and have and am continuing by His help with this God-appointed witness to Israel.
To any of our unbelieving people who may read this story of God’s gracious dealings with one who was a lost sinner, undeserving of His love and great mercy, I would point you to some of our Saviour’s words, and His statement “Had you (Jews) believed Moses, you would have believed Me, for he (Moses) wrote of Me (Jesus).” But He also invites you saying “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” There is no rest without Him. “To Him (Christ) give all the prophets witness that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins. Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him.”
To any of God’s people who may read this humble testimony, I would invite your prayers and fellowship in sending out the Good News of Him Who is our Light, our Salvation, our All in All.
Yours in His glad service,
HARRY J. BURGEN