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Joseph Wolff (1795 - 2 May 1862), Jewish Christian missionary, was born at Weilersbach, near Bamberg, Germany. He travelled widely, and was known as the Eccentric Missionary, according to Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches. He published several journals of his expeditions, especially Travels and Adventures of Joseph Wolff (2 vols, London, 1860).
His father became rabbi at Württemberg in 1806, and sent his son to the Protestant lyceum at Stuttgart. He was converted to Christianity through reading the books of Johann Michael von Sailer, bishop of Regensburg, and was baptized in 1812 by the Benedictine abbot of Emaus, near Prague. In his writings the following story is told of his early conviction that Jesus is the Messiah:
When only seven years old, he was boasting to an aged Christian neighbor of the future triumph of Israel at the advent of the Messiah, when the old man said kindly, “Dear boy, I will tell you who the real Messiah was: he was Jesus of Nazareth, whom your ancestors crucified, as they slew the prophets of old. Go home and read the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, and you will be convinced that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Conviction at once fastened upon him. He went home and read the scripture, wondering to see how perfectly it had been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. Were the words of the Christian true? The boy asked of his father an explanation of the prophecy, but was met with a silence so stern that he never again dared to refer to the subject. This however only increased his desire to know more of the Christian religion.
Wolff was a keen Oriental scholar and pursued his studies at Tübingen and at Rome, where he was expelled from the Collegio di Propaganda in 1818 for attacking the doctrine of infallibility and criticizing his tutors. After a short stay in the monastery of the Redemptorists at Val Sainte near Fribourg, Switzerland, he went to London, entered the Anglican Church, and resumed his Oriental and theological studies at Cambridge.
In 1828 Wolff set out to search for the Lost Tribes of Israel, travelling through Anatolia, Armenia, Turkestan and Afghanistan to Simla and Calcutta, suffering many hardships but preaching with enthusiasm. He visited Madras, Pondicherry, Tinnevelly, Goa and Bombay, travelling home by Egypt and Malta.
In 1836 he found Samuel Gobat in Ethiopia, took him to Jeddah, and himself visited Yemen and Bombay, going on to the United States, where he was ordained deacon on 26 September 1837 at Newark, New Jersey. Trinity College Dublin awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Laws. He was ordained priest in 1838 by Richard Mant, Bishop of Down and Connor. In the same year he was given the rectory of Linthwaite in Yorkshire.
In his travels in Bokhara he found the doctrine of the Lord’s soon coming held by a remote and isolated people. The Arabs of Yemen, he says, “are in possession of a book called ‘Seera,’ which gives notice of the coming of Christ and His reign in glory, and they expect great events to take place in the year 1840.” “In Yemen I spent six days with the Rechabites. They drink no wine, plant no vineyards, sow no seed, live in tents, and remember the words of Jonadab, the son of Rechab. With them were the children of Israel of the tribe of Dan, . . . who expect, in common with the children of Rechab, the speedy arrival of the Messiah in the clouds of heaven.”
In 1843 Wolff went to Bukhara (home of the Bukharan Jews) to seek two British officers, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly who had been captured by the Emir, Nasrullah Khan in June 1842. They had in fact been executed, and as Wolff later described, he was only spared death himself because the Emir laughed uncontrollably at Wolff's appearance in full canonical garb. His Narrative of this mission went through seven editions between 1845 and 1852. This trip was retraced in 1938 by Fitzroy Maclean, then a junior diplomat travelling in cognito. He wrote of Wolff in his memoir Eastern Approaches and almost fifty years later contributed a foreword to a biography of the missionary.
Personal life and legacy
He met his first wife in 1826 through Edward Irving, who introduced him to Lady Georgiana Mary Walpole, a descendant of Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of Great Britain; the couple were married on 26 February 1827 at St George's, Hanover Square.
In 1845 he was presented to the vicarage of Isle Brewers, Somerset. After the death of his first wife, in 1861 he married Louisa Decima, daughter of James King, rector of St. Peter-le-Poer, London. He was planning another great missionary tour when he died at Isle Brewers on 2 May, 1862.
A patron when he was a young man was the eccentric politician, Henry Drummond, one of the apostles of the Catholic Apostolic Church. Wolff named his son Henry Drummond-Wolff; the boy grew up to be a noted diplomat and Conservative politician who founded the Primrose League.
- Missionary journal and memoir of the Rev. Joseph Wolff, written by himself; revised and edited by John Bayford. London, J. Duncan, 1824. Further editions: 1827, 1829.
- Researches and missionary labours among the Jews, Mohammedans, and other sects. London, J. Nisbet & Co., 1835. Reprints:
- Philadelphia, O. Rogers, 1837
- Narrative of a mission to Bokhara, in the years 1843-1845, to ascertain the fate of Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly. London, J.W. Parker, 1845. First and second (revised) edition both came out in 1845. Reprints:
- New York, Harper & Bros., 1845
- Edinburgh and London, William Blackwood & Sons, 1848
- New York, Arno Press, 1970 ISBN 0-405-03072-X
- Elibron Classics, 2001, ISBN 1-4021-6116-6
- A mission to Bokhara. Edited and abridged with an introduction by Guy Wint. London, Routledge & K. Paul, 1969. ISBN 0-7100-6456-X
- Travels and adventures of the Rev. Joseph Wolff, D.D., LL. D: Vicar of Ile Brewers, near Taunton; and late missionary to the Jews and Muhammadans in Persia, Bokhara, Cashmeer, etc. London, Saunders, Otley and Co., 1861.
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- Biography at the Jewish Encyclopedia
- Hopkins, Hugh Evan, Sublime vagabond: the life of Joseph Wolff - missionary extraordinary, foreword by Sir Fitzroy Maclean, Worthing: Churchman, 1984, ISBN 1-85093-002-3
- Dr Wolff's new mission: being the Rev. Wolff's determination to set out again on a missionary tour in Armenia, and Yarkand in Chinese Tartary, returning to England via Kamtschatka and Moscow, as soon as his church, now building at Ile-Brewers, is completed, and his autobiography, now in course of publication is finished, London: Saunders, Otley, and Co., 1860. (8p)
- Gidney, W. T., Joseph Wolff, (Biographies of eminent Hebrew Christians), London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, 1903
- Palmer, Felix Henry Price, Joseph Wolff. His romantic life and travels, etc, London: Heath Cranton, 1935
- Riggans, Walter, Joseph Wolff, in Gerald, H. Anderson (ed.) Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids / Cambridge: William B, Eerdmans Co. 1998., p. 746.
- M. G. Bowler. To a Different Drum: Joseph Wolff: Hebrew-Christian Missionary, in the archives of 'Christian Witness to Israel'.
- Joseph Wolff (1861). Travels and adventures of the Rev. Joseph Wolff, in Internet Archive.
- White, Ellen A great religious awakening in the Great Controversybg:Йосиф Волф