“Here are some words to substitute when talking to Jewish friends and neighbors about your faith,” proposes Home Mission: “Use immersion, not baptism. Use Messiah, not Christ. Use congregation, not church. Use completion, not conversion. Use Jewish person, not Jew. Use New Covenant, not New Testament.”
On Mission recommends, “When you speak of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit, do not identify them as a Trinity. Use the term Tri-unity.”
SBC Life suggests, “It is usually wisest, if possible, to build a friendship prior to communicating the Gospel” as you seek the “rare and wonderful experience” of “helping a Jewish person come to the Lord Jesus.”
If the unusually careful terminology and the “friendship as means to an end” strategies in these Southern Baptist magazines sound a little underhanded or even duplicitous, then welcome to the sometimes unsavory world of Jewish evangelism.
Jewish leaders have long criticized deceitful conversion tactics aimed at Jews. Famously, Philip Abramowitz, from the Jewish Community Relations Council, sent a letter in 1999 to then-SBC president Paige Patterson urging “the Southern Baptist Convention to repent of its embrace of deceptive tactics and conduct itself in a spirit of honesty and respect.”
Patterson, nonplussed, called the charges “false” and compared them to a “mentality that says, ‘If you cannot debate the facts, disparage the witness.'”
As most of us know, such is the state of Southern Baptist-Jewish relations as we embark upon the 21st century. What may be more surprising, however, is that dubious tactics and deceptive strategies also characterized Southern Baptists’ very first formal efforts at Jewish evangelism.
From 1921-1949, Jacob Gartenhaus was the Home Mission Board’s lone missionary to the Jews. He tirelessly crisscrossed the South, holding evangelistic crusades that aimed to bring Jews right to the doorsteps of local Southern Baptist churches.
How could Gartenhaus compel Jews to show up at First Baptist Church? By masking the real purpose of the gatherings, apparently.
These crusades were marketed, both in state Baptist papers and in city newspapers, as “Jewish-Christian Goodwill Meetings” or “Great Mass Meetings for Jews and Christians.” Sometimes, the advertisements simply promised Jews and Christians “Something Different.”
These crusades were held across the South: Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Euclid Baptist Church in St. Louis, Second Baptist Church in Little Rock, First Baptist Church in Shreveport, First Baptist Church in Kansas City and First Baptist Church in Richmond, to name a few. The purpose, of course, was to convert Jews who might happen to show up, thinking they were attending a “Goodwill Meeting” or a political “Mass Meeting.”
The advertisements for these meetings certainly didn’t betray an evangelistic purpose.
Fliers for the “Jewish-Christian Meetings for the General Public” in Austin, Texas, promoted such presentations as “The Tragedy of the Wailing Wall” and “The Basis of a Better Understanding between Jews and Christians.”
In Little Rock, with Gov. Thomas J. Terral presiding, Gartenhaus himself addressed the “Mass Meeting” on the subject, “Why I am a Jew,” and another minister spoke on “The Passover in Its Present Day Meaning.”
For the meeting at Euclid Baptist Church in St. Louis, the advertisement promised the (Jewish) public “Eminent Jewish Speakers” (which meant, of course, converted Jews like Gartenhaus) and, as further enticement, “Alexander Kaminsky, Imperial Russian Violinist, Will Play At Each Service.”
These meeting announcements were intentionally vague so as to attract a Jewish audience. That this vagueness was part of the marketing of Southern Baptist evangelism of Jews is clearly demonstrated by letters Gartenhaus sent to Jews prior to these “Mass Meetings.” Here, in advance of a “Mass Meeting” in Atlanta, is a letter Gartenhaus sent on Oct. 6, 1926:
“Dear Jewish Brother of Atlanta:
“As you will notice by the enclosed program, definite arrangements have been made for a series of meetings to be held in this city, the purpose of which is to bring about a friendlier and more sympathetic understanding between Jew and Gentile.
“For some time there has existed a barrier between our people and the Gentiles, due to lack of knowledge. Realizing that such relations were most undesirable, several serious minded men who are lovers of Israel have given their influence, time and means to bring about such a meeting.
“The speakers for this occasion are of national and international prominence and possess an undying love and rare concern for our people, to such an extent that they have given their lives to this worthy cause.
“If you are interested enough to see harmony exist between the Gentiles and us, you are cordially invited to attend this meeting. Questions and discussion will be a part of our program and the admission is free to all.
“I shall be very happy to make your personal acquaintance and if I can be of any service to you, do not fail to call upon me.”
Terms like Christian, Jesus, Christ, evangelism, Messiah and salvation do not appear in the letter. Nothing in the letter gives the slightest indication that the “meetings” to which the Jews were invited are really occasions for evangelism.
Instead, the letter trolls for Jews who are interested in seeing “harmony exist” with Gentiles and promotes meetings that will facilitate “a friendlier and more sympathetic understanding between Jew and Gentile.”
Bearing in mind the precarious fate of Jews in Europe in the 1920s-30s, and the various organizations in America seeking to address Jewish suffering abroad, these meetings were shrewdly marketed to Jewish communities across the south.
Gartenhaus sent out very different letters to Christians in preparation for these meetings. For example, in advance of a “Mass Meeting” in St. Louis, Gartenhaus’ letter, dated Feb. 19, 1930 and addressed, “Dear Christian Worker,” listed the twofold purpose of the meetings: “first, to enlist the prayers and cooperation of all loyal Baptists in the salvation of the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and second, to reach the Jewish people with the gospel message.” Nothing vague about that!
All of which brings us back to the shady strategies advocated by current SBC missions magazines.
Michael Miller, who was executive vice-president of the Jewish Community Relations Council in 1999 when the spat between Abramowitz and Patterson made its way into the public media, commented to The New York Times that, in the case of Jewish evangelism or messianic Jewish movements, “The objective is to fog the difference so that people think they are part of authentic Judaism.”
Unfortunately, it’s not just the difference between Christian and Jewish religious interpretation that gets fogged during these underhanded approaches to Jewish evangelism; Christian honor, integrity and truthfulness start looking pretty foggy as well.
Daniel Goodman is associate professor of New Testament at Gardner-Webb Divinity School.
The author wishes to acknowledge the generous support of the Lilly Foundation. The research upon which this column is based is part of a larger research project examining the history of Southern Baptist-Jewish relations that is being funded by a 2004-05 Lilly Theological Research Grant.