First U.S. Consul in Jerusalem - a Flamboyant Eccentric Who Embraced Judaism

In 1844, a Philadelphia Quaker named Warder Cresson disembarked at the Jaffa port, holding an American flag in one hand and a caged dove in the other. He converted to Judaism and assumed the name Michael Boaz Israel ben Avraham.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Cresson's book, "The Shield of David."Credit: Shapell Manuscript Foundation

Michael Boaz Israel ben Avraham was buried in 1860 on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. He was laid to rest in an elaborate funeral of the likes normally accorded only to eminent rabbis. Two weeks from now will be the 215th anniversary of the birth of this man who was the first American consul in Jerusalem. In the history books he's mostly remembered as an eccentric Christian who came to the Holy Land with a messianic vision of redemption and fought to convince the court that he wasn't insane.

His original name was Warder Cresson. A successful farmer from Philadelphia, he came from a Quaker family, later joined the Mormons and subsequently got involved in various other cults. He first set foot in the Holy Land on October 3, 1844 when he disembarked from a British ship at the Jaffa port, holding an American flag in one hand and a caged dove in the other. His great affection for Palestine began to grow years earlier, following a series of encounters with some rabbis and Jewish intellectuals in the United States.

He obtained the posting of American consul in Jerusalem by dint of his efforts in Washington, with the aid of a close associate who made a pitch on his behalf to Secretary of State John Calhoun. Cresson did not view his role as a mere diplomatic mission. He came to Palestine with a messianic vision of an ingathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

"In the spring of 1844 I left everything near and dear to me on earth. I left the wife of my youth and six lovely children (dearer to me than my natural life ), and an excellent farm with everything comfortable around me. I left all these in the pursuit of the Truth, and for the sake of the Truth alone," he wrote in his diary about his departure for Jerusalem. Close to the time of his arrival, he published a book called "Jerusalem, the Center and Joy of the Whole Earth," in which he wrote that the Jews would bring the Redemption.

"When he came to Jerusalem to his new position, he was already a Jew in his heart, though he had not yet openly come into the covenant of the Israelite faith. In Jerusalem, he joined the Sephardic community, and then he decided to legally adopt the Jewish religion, at a very dear cost to himself," said an article in the Hebrew newspaper Zman from exactly a century ago, in 1913, titled "A Jerusalem Consul who Converted."

Warder Cresson.

In the years that followed, according to the article, the consul "overcame every obstacle" until he was fully accepted "into the Jewish faith ... and ever since he was a loyal, God-fearing Jew who settled permanently in Palestine. Before long he became one of the great leaders of the Jerusalem Sephardic community."

Even before his arrival here, administration officials in Washington had heard some reports about Cresson's questionable character. The Ottoman government refused to approve his appointment as consul. In fact, before he arrived in this country the American administration had officially rescinded his appointment, but Cresson continued to introduce himself as the U.S. consul and to conduct himself with diplomatic airs.

In 1848, he was circumcised, converted and changed his name to Michael Boaz Israel ben Avraham. Afterward, he traveled to Philadelphia to deal with his business and family affairs there. His ex-wife was waiting for him with a court order to have him involuntarily committed on grounds of insanity, because he had abandoned Christianity and adopted Jewish-messianic ideas. Cresson appealed the order. His widely covered trial became a test case for the principles of freedom of religion and civil rights in the United States, and culminated with his acquittal on the charge of lunacy.

Nearly a hundred witnesses, including rabbis, friends and psychiatrists, both Christian and Jewish, took the stand to testify on his behalf. His lawyer delivered a long speech before the court, which concluded as follows: "The only charge left with which to accuse my client - is that he became a Jew." Following his victory, Cresson published a polemical autobiography entitled "The Shield of David," outlining the reasons for his conversion.

From his home in Jerusalem, he sought to promote his ideas about the connection between working the land and getting closer to God. "It is the one true foundation, the proper beginning and basis for all the other sciences and arts, the foundation for all of life's needs and living conditions," he wrote.

With this in mind, he also tried to establish agricultural colonies in Jerusalem and Jaffa. "One can earn a livelihood there by toil, work, skill and economy combined with stubborn persistence," he wrote. He wished to harness to agriculture the achievements of science and technology in order to make the countryside a viable alternative to the city.

Though Cresson was unable to see his ideas through to fruition, "there are modern elements in Cresson's plans that only sprouted and came into being many years later," Prof. Yaacov Shavit wrote in an article about Cresson in a 1988 edition of the journal Cathedra.

"In terms of the history of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine, Cresson is a very interesting figure," Shavit wrote. Of particular note was his ability to combine religious and mystical visions with purposeful and focused pragmatism. "Cresson is certainly a central figure in the gallery of people graced with seemingly contradictory qualities to such an outstanding extent," Shavit added.

Cresson will be the subject of an event to be held next Friday at the National Library in honor of America's Independence Day which falls the day before. It will include a tour of the exhibit "Dreams and Diplomacy in the Holy Land - American Consuls in Jerusalem in the 19th Century"; a study of manuscripts from the Shappell Manuscript Foundation which holds historical documents related to Cresson; and a performance of the play "Cresson and the Dove," adapted by Shavit.