The first two articles of this series focused on Jewish believers who were missionaries to China and to Japan, respectively. Isidor Loewenthal was a missionary to India.
Born in 1826 in Posen, Poland, Loewenthal grew up in a somewhat liberal Jewish home. He excelled in scholarship and was something of a political activist. In fact, he wrote and published what was considered subversive” poetry—which in those days and in that country meant certain arrest. Loewenthal fled, first to Germany and then to the U.S., where he tried to support himself by doing farm work. It was no use, he was a small man and unable to do the physical labor.
Next he tried his hand at peddling door-to-door. Thus, in 1846, at 19 years of age, Loewenthal came to the home of Rev. S. M. Gayley, a Presbyterian minister in Delaware. Gayley struck up a conversation with him and quickly learned that Loewenthal was fluent in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German and French, and had added English to the list since coming to America. Gayley ended up securing him a job as a French and German instructor at Lafayette College.
According to one account, Loewenthal’s roommate at Lafayette was a Jewish man named Victor Herschell, who had recently come to faith. Like typical college students (though an instructor, Loewenthal was only 20 years old) they talked into the night about spiritual things. One night, Herschell prayed out loud for the salvation of Loewenthal. Something tipped the scales; by morning Loewenthal had come to faith in Christ.1
Loewenthal later wrote to Gayley, “When I came to your house it was for worldly gain; little did I then think I was to receive there what was infinitely better.…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 I was on the wrong path.”2 So through a series of steps—contact with a Christian family and the Bible, then with a Jewish friend who believed—Loewenthal came to know the Messiah and publicly professed Him in 1847.
Loewenthal entered Princeton Theological Seminary, where he gained a reputation as a writer and essayist. There he decided to become a missionary to India and was appointed by the New York Presbytery as missionary to the Afghan Muslims, who lived in India as well as Afghanistan, (the latter being closed to missionaries at the time). One wonders whether he would have been accepted as a missionary candidate today, if only for health reasons; one writer described him as a “sufferer from a spinal disease which made him really a dwarf in physical nature.”3
Loewenthal quickly learned Pushtu (or Pashto), the chief language among the Afghan people, and translated the New Testament into that language. He preached daily in the local bazaar and elsewhere and has been described as “brilliant” with an “aggressive personality.”4 But after just eight-plus years on the field, at only 38 years of age, Loewenthal was shot dead by his own watchman, who supposedly mistook him for a robber. Some, however, suspected a conspiracy. The watchman was sentenced to two years of hard imprisonment. Loewenthal’s friend Herschell had also become a missionary, and also died on the field, in his case, in Jamaica during a mob attack in 1865. The life of Isidor Loewenthal shows how one’s path to salvation can be influenced by a chain of events and people. For Loewenthal, God used the life and words of a Gentile Christian pastor together with the story of a young Jewish believer. In the tapestry of life that the Lord weaves, we never know what part we may play.
Loewenthal’s life also shows how one can be a true scholar, yet committed to the life of a missionary in which scholarship meets real life, so to speak. Undoubtedly, his early activism was transformed from political into spiritual action. Thus does God meld our upbringing and talents in a way serviceable to Him.
Finally, though his life was cut short, his methods of evangelism and his scholarship remain, and his New Testament translation is a lasting legacy.
If you visit Princeton Theological Seminary’s Stuart Hall, you will see a plaque bearing the name of Loewenthal along with that of five others. Titled, “Of whom the world was not worthy,” the plaque includes the legend, “Isidor Loewenthal, Class of 1854. Shot accidentally or by design at Peshawur, India.”
- According to the account in Rausch, David A., ed., Louis Meyer’s Eminent Hebrew Christians of the Nineteenth Century, New York: E. Mellen Press, 1983, pp. 3-4.
- As quoted in “Obituary: Rev. Isidor Loewenthal,” S. A. G., The Foreign Missionary, April 1865, p. 2.
- Eminent Hebrew Christians, p. 4.
- Ebenezer, Matthew. “American Presbyterians and Islam in India 1855-1923: A Critical Evaluation of the Contributions of Isidor Loewenthal (1826-1864) and Elwood Morris Wherry (1843-1927).” Ph. D. Dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1998, p. 2.