Profile of Bernard Jean Bettelheim 1811-1870

When you think of Japan, you probably don’t think of Jewish people. And when you think of missionaries to Japan, well, again Jewish people probably do not come to mind. But a Jewish believer in Jesus named Bernard Jean Bettelheim has the littleknown distinction of being the first Protestant” missionary to Okinawa.

Born in Pressburg, Hungary, Bettelheim could write in Hebrew, German and French by the time he was eight. At thirteen, he became bar mitzvah, then was tutored in languages until he received his M.D. degree in Italy at age 25. Many Jewish mothers dream of their sons becoming doctors, but it’s unlikely that Bettelheim’s mother dreamed that her son would come to know Jesus as his Messiah and Savior at age 29.

Some would describe Bettelheim’s personality as “rough around the edges.” Whereas he originally applied to work as a missionary with the London Jews’ Society, eventually he went to Japan as a medical missionary with the Loo Choo Naval Mission. Why? Bettelheim wanted to preach to the “lost” Jewish communities of the Far East, mistakenly thinking that the Ryukuans (inhabitants of Okinawa) were descended from the “ten lost tribes.” He also said he wanted, “to delight my soul in the results of Protestantism on a virgin soil.” In other words, he wanted to be a pioneer. Do you get the feeling that Bettelheim was an adventurer?

Two things stand out about his time as a missionary. First, his attention to the body as well as the soul. As a physician, Bettelheim did much to stem the tide of cholera (his medical specialty) and gave public talks on hygiene and health.

The second thing that stands out is a kind of stubborn creativity for reaching the local population despite the hostility of local officials. Bettelheim’s evangelistic outreaches might be described as taking place in three “rounds.” In round one, after Bettelheim enjoyed a period of relative freedom in preaching the gospel, the officials ordered people to close their doors and gates whenever Bettelheim came near. Unable to go door-to-door, Bettelheim went out to preach to the crowds at the market.

Round two: when crowds gathered to hear Bettelheim in the market, authorities drove the people away with bamboo sticks. In response, Bettelheim wrote tracts and literally threw them into homes. The authorities collected the tracts and sent them right back to Bettelheim.

Finally came round three. Bettelheim began “showing up” uninvited in private homes and official government buildings to preach the gospel! As some might put it, “Don’t try this at home!”

Shut out entirely from street labor, nothing remained but boldly to venture into people’s houses…I…seated myself in the first room I could get access to. You will perhaps ask in surprise, at the outset, how I could gain access into houses.…The answer is simple. I did not enter by the door, at least in most cases, for I could not, but found my way in through the deep gaps in dilapidated back walls.1

As to the official government buildings, when Bettelheim “happened to surprise them at official meetings” he wrote, “Sometimes, if the leaders were inimically disposed, a hint from them sufficed, and the whole congregation jumped out of the windows, or over the wall into the neighboring houses.”2 But, he went on to say, he was more usually well received.

Bettelheim never forgot his Jewishness, nor his calling as a physician. He pioneered both the preaching of the gospel and the control of cholera in Japan, and went on to introduce the smallpox vaccine to Japan in 1848.

In his later years, Bettelheim came to the U.S. and served as a doctor in the Union Army during the Civil War. He died at age 59, in Brookfield, Missouri, where his grave can still be seen. (For pictures, visit findagrave.com)

Bernard Bettelheim exemplified Christian concern for the whole person, not sacrificing physical or spiritual care at the expense of the other. (James 2:15-16)

Bettelheim is also an example of prayerful creativity in witnessing, even in the face of opposition. Not that we should enter peoples’ homes unannounced or be obnoxiously intrusive! But no matter what we think of Bettelheim’s methods, he was undeniably stubborn and creative in his approach to evangelism. He turned the blows against him into opportunities to find new ways to share his faith. “But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel.” (Philippians 1:12)


  1. “Letter from B. J. Bettelheim,” The Chinese Repository, January 1850, pp. 48; February 1850, p. 58
  2. Ibid., February 1850, p. 61.