Isidor Loewenthal 1827-1864
Isidore was a remarkable man, a profound scholar, a master of the classical languages of Europe as well as of Hebrew and its cognate languages Arabic and Chaldee. He had fled Europe for New York after involvement with politically liberal intellectuals led to disfavour with the authorities.
In the USA, he met a minister, Mr. Gayley, whose conduct and witness brought him to his Messiah. This man found him on a cold, wet night and took him in. Upon inquiring as to his home and occupation, Gayley discovered that he was well acquainted with the ancient classics—also Hebrew—several modern languages, andthat he had studied some philosophy and mathematics. He persuaded him to remain at his house until he would make an effort to obtain employment for him more congenial to his tastes and wishes than his present one. He secured for him a post as a tutor at Lafayette college and gave him room and board, understanding that he had nowhere to go and no family nearby. Lowenthal lived with him for six or seven weeks, and the resulting friendship lasted a lifetime. But during all that time, Gayley was unaware that Lowenthal was Jewish. It was only some weeks later that Isidor wrote to tell him that during the time he had lived at his house, “the veil was taken away” from his mind—that he had become convinced of the truth of Christianity, and after much mental conflict and deep sorrow for sin, had found peace in believing on Jesus.
“It was at your house, by your earnest prayers (at family worship,)—to which I first went, half from curiosity—half from politeness—by your humble supplications, that I was awakened to apprehend my danger, to consider that I had an immortal soul. I began to open the Bible. I was astonished. I waited with eagerness, morning and evening, for the summons to family worship, to hear you pray; I was more and more convinced that I was on the wrong path.”
Lowenthal made a public profession of his faith and was baptised. He pursued studies at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey and became an Evangelist missionary in Peshawar under the auspices of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. His eminent linguistic acquirements had become known among the colleges of this country prior to his sailing for India; and several of them endeavoured to secure his services – all of which he declined. As a linguist he had few if any equals. In mathematics and philosophy he was equally proficient. But all his talents were unreservedly given to God.
He could preach with facility in the Pushtu, Persian, Hindustani and Arabic languages and was also an accomplished musician and a mathematician. It has been said that probably no other foreigner at that time in India, had so thorough a knowledge of Asiatic literature and so intimate an acquaintance with the manners and customs of the people of the land and with Oriental politics as he. He had a thorough knowledge of the religious system of the people, and as a disputant with Mohammedans and other religionists he was a master. His library, which filled the four sides of his study, the higher shelves reached by a ladder, contained the rarest books and most ancient manuscripts to be found in any private library in India.
The question arose whether it were worth while to produce a new version of the Bible in Pashtu. Some missionaries thought that the Persian language would be the best medium by which the literate people of Afghanistan might be reached. Mr. Loewenthal’s investigation led him to an entirely different conclusion. He discovered the existence of an extensive literature in the vernacular (Pashtu), “consisting not only of original compositions, but also numerous translations of various popular Persian and Arabic authors.” He also made known the fact that at that time nearly all the women were able to read Pashtu, and Pashtu only. The need of a vernacular version of the scriptures was therefore very evident.
A serious difficulty had now to be faced. The vernaculars of Afghanistan differ greatly, so that a man who speaks Pashtu in one quarter can hardly understand the people in another. For this reason it was most important that the translation of the Bible should be made in that dialect which could be used by at least a considerable number of people.
Mr. Loewenthal constantly yearned for an opportunity to travel in Afghanistan. He made earnest appeals to his mission for permission to undertake such a journey, but the permission was refused. He, however, set himself to learn the language and became proficient in its use. He then undertook the translation of the New Testament from the original Greek in which he was an adept. In this work he was in no way hindered by the Sepoy rebellion. He preached in the bazars of Peshawur and sometimes visited villages in the regions nearby. Mr. Loewenthal had made a study of the problems which confronted the men who would evangelize the Muslims of Afghanistan. I shall here quote a passage from one of his reports dealing with this subject.
“He who would undertake the glorious task of giving the Afghans the beginning of a real literature, of a Christian literature, who would undertake to translate the Bible for them, would first have to ascertain the most prevalent, the purest, intrinsically and extrinsically the most worthy, the best understood dialect, and not rest satisfied with translating into the language of the frontier. Frontier dialects are always mongrel and inferior. “An additional task will be his, who shall endeavor to bring the Afghans to Christ, through the instrumentality of religious treatises or tracts. He will probably find it highly advisable, if not actually necessary, to compose them in the form of verse and rhyme. There seems to be a period in the history of every nation, when prose cannot live, when the distinction between prose and poetry is unknown, and the instructors of a people can only speak to them in measured language; when prose to them is prosy and rhyme reason. So it is with the Afghans of this day: there are prose works in their language, historical and religious, but while these are merely read by some learned men here and there, the works in verse are extremely popular among all classes, and are recited and sung on roads and streets by old and young.”
Viewing the peculiar nature of this enterprise it is impossible to resist the conviction how entirely the work of missions is the work of the Lord. He must appoint the men for it; He must endue them with the needed qualifications; and He must open the door of faith.”
“The peculiar nature of the difficulties with which this mission for some time to come will have to contend, appears to demand two men at least, of robust health and strong constitution; health and constitution that have been tried and found full weight; with mind not dried up in the study and spirits not evaporated by high pressure; let the system be but sound, and the theology need not be so profound. They must be able to stand the scorching sun and the stifling simoon, as well as intense cold; they must be able to make daily marches of from 25 to 30 miles either on foot or on camels, as water is scarce; and they could not well travel except with caravans of merchants, who do not make such long marches; they must be willing to live for weeks with no other protection from atmospheric influences but the canvas walls and roof of their tents; they must be willing to forego that prime luxury of Christian civilization cleanliness, and not wash more than once a week, nor be of a sanguinary disposition towards the lower orders of creation; for nothing alienates an Afghan so much, nothing seems to make him more inaccessible, than customs different from his own, especially if they be harmless, or still more, if they be good and useful. Let them be able to handle a gun, for often their dinner will depend upon their skill as sportsmen; and an Afghan respects an armed man much more than an unarmed one. Let them possess some knowledge of medicine and carry with them a good supply of the commonest remedies. And finally, to their love of souls and zeal for God, they must add an entire willingness to lay down their lives ; and that not merely in that general sense in which missionaries are said to go forth with their lives in their hands; for having once left the British territory, surrounded as they then will be by political fanatics, religious zealots, and the most blood-thirsty robbers, the likelihood, humanly speaking, is small of their ever seeing their friends again.”
These words set forth the ideal of the man whom Loewenthal set before himself. He had deliberately entered upon the mission of a dangerous service, more than once he sought permission to go beyond the border line. His visits to the Peshawur Bazar and the near by villages were always made in peril of his life. More than one European fell a victim to the fanatic’s knife.
In Pashawar, Isidor Loewenthal translated the New Testament in Pashto and embarked upon compiling a Pashto dictionary before his death in 1864. He was tragically killed by his servant (chaukedar, or night watchman) when he was only 37 years old and in the process of translating the Old Testament into Pashtu. He had stepped outside the house to the veranda for fresh air in the early hours of the morning, when his servant shot and killed him, claiming he had taken him to be an intruder. It is not known till today if his death was an honest mistake, or a murder sought by religious fanatics. For lack of evidence to the contrary, the servant was released. In any case, his death was a severe blow to the mission, which had to give up their attempt to bring the gospel to that area of the world for the time. It is thought that if Lowenthal had lived he would have been enabled to carry the gospel to Kabul and on to Persia.
His grave is in the Old English Cemetery Peshawar where he was buried. His tombstone bears the following inscription:
To the memory of the Rev. Isidor Loewenthal, missionary of the American Presbyterian Mission, who translated the New Testament into Pashtu and was shot by his chaukedar April 27th 1864.
“I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the Power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.”
Rom. 1: 16.
Presbyterian foreign missions: an account of the foreign missions of the Presbyterian Church in the USA,
Bernstein, A. Jewish Witnesses for Christ
Rice, Laura Wade. A Trail Blazer of Afghanistan. in Would I Would You? Einspruch, H.; Lederer Foundation, 1970
Speer, Robert E. 1901, Presbyterian Boad of Publication and Sabbath School work
Wherry, E. M. The First American Mission to Afghanistan; 1918, in the Muslim World Review