This Day in Jewish History

1891: An American Cleric Presents His Own 'Balfour Declaration'

Writer of 'Jesus is coming' saw Jews' return to Palestine as key to Messiah's return.

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On March 5, 1891, the American Christian clergyman William E. Blackstone presented what became known as the “Blackstone Memorial,” a petition advocating the restoration of Palestine to the Jewish people, to President Benjamin Harrison.

Blackstone (1841-1935) was an evangelical and dispensationalist, seeing a connection between the second coming of the Messiah and the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel. His 1878 book “Jesus Is Coming” was an international bestseller.

In 1888, Blackstone visited Palestine with his daughter. That visit convinced him that the land could accommodate the Jews of Eastern Europe, who were at the time suffering from the waves of pogroms that afflicted the Russian Empire between 1881 and 1918. In 1890, he organized a meeting in Chicago of both Christians and Jews to discuss the Jewish return to the Holy Land, and the following year, he collected signatures for what became the Memorial.

No copies of the original Blackstone Memorial are known to exist today, but at the time there was extensive press coverage of its presentation to the president. Among the 431 prominent Americans who signed on to it were the financiers John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, agricultural inventor Cyrus McCormick, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Speaker of the House, and other senators and congressmen.

The document asked President Harrison to “consider the condition of the Israelites and their claims to Palestine as their ancient home, and to promote, in all other just and proper ways, the alleviation of their suffering condition.” More specifically, it pointed to the treaty of Berlin, signed by the powers in 1878, which “gave Bulgaria to the Bulgarians and Servia to the Servians,” provinces that were “wrested from the Turks and given to their natural owners. Does not Israel,” it asked rhetorically, “as rightfully belong to the Jews?”

Harrison, who was president from 1889 to 1893, understood the political significance of the petition, and promised “to give it careful attention.” In fact, there was not a whole lot he could do to advance the Zionist cause, besides paying lip service, which he did, even mentioning the plight of Russian Jews in his one of his State of the Union addresses.

Twenty-five years later, Louis D. Brandeis, just weeks before he became an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was in touch, through the businessman Oscar Straus, with Blackstone. Straus reported to him that Brandeis was “perfectly infatuated” with Blackstone’s efforts on behalf of Zionism, and proposed that he reissue the Memorial, this time directing it to President Woodrow Wilson. Brandeis knew at the time that the United Kingdom was weighing the possibility of endorsing the idea of a Jewish national home in Palestine, and wanted Wilson to weigh in with his support.

Blackstone readily agreed to reissue his Memorial, and successfully solicited the endorsement of the Presbyterian Church, among other mainstream Protestant movements. This was significant, as Wilson was a churchgoing Presbyterian.

Although the 1916 presentation of the Blackstone Memorial was done privately, in contrast to the public nature of the 1891 dispatch, Wilson is said to have been moved by it, and did indeed encourage Britain to issue what became the Balfour Declaration, in November 1917.