Southern Presbyterians and the Roots of American Philosemitism

Southern Presbyterians and the Roots of American Philosemitism

Like other southern Presbyterians—James Henley Thornwell, Daniel Baker, and John B. Adger among others all recorded marked sympathy for Jews in their writings—Palmer displayed noticeable philosemitism in an era when Jews were still routinely persecuted in Roman Catholic and Islamic societies, as well as in Lutheran monarchies in Europe. 

In the inaugural volume of The Southern Presbyterian Review published in December, 1847, Benjamin Morgan Palmer the younger reviewed Andrew Bonar and Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews from the Church of Scotland in 1839. The Presbyterian Board of Publications initially published the work soon after its completion in 1839. A second edition made its way to North America in 1845.

Palmer’s review of the work made it clear that he thought the work not what he had hoped. He thought the two Scots had not provided enough background on Jewish history to give appropriate context for the Church of Scotland’s specific missionary efforts. As a “directory” of Jewish life and as justification for Protestant and particularly Presbyterian missionary efforts Palmer found the work “as unsatisfactory as the works of which it was intended to be the supplement.”

The actual review of Bonar and M’Cheyne’s work was less important than Palmer’s own views on Jews in general. Southern Presbyterians displayed an early and pronounced streak of philosemitism in an era when Jewish life in the United States could still be precarious. Palmer, and South Carolina Presbyterians in general, lived and worked among Charleston’s sizable and vibrant Jewish population. James W. Hagy’s This Happy Land: the Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston explained how Jews in the South enjoyed relative inclusion compared to northern cities of the same eras. In 1800, More Jews lived in South Carolina than anywhere else in North America. Philip Morgan of Johns Hopkins, in an endorsement of Theodore and Dale Rosengarten’s A Portion of the People Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life, reminded audiences that “until 1830 Charleston was the capital of American Jewry; Christians in South Carolina elected the first professing Jew to office; Reform Judaism first came to the United States in the Palmetto State.”

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