This Day in Jewish History / A Quaker Convert to Judaism and Early Zionist Is Born

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Jerusalem's Mount of Olives, where Warder Cresson is buried. Credit: AP

July 13, 1798, is the birthdate of Warder Cresson, a Philadelphia-born Quaker who served briefly as the United States’ first consul in Jerusalem, converted to Judaism, and was a strong and early proponent of the Jews’ return to the Holy Land as farmers.

Warder Cresson was the second of eight children born to John Elliott Cresson and the former Mary Warder. He was raised as a Quaker, and at age 17, was sent to work on family farms situated outside Philadelphia, in Darby and Chester. By 1821, he was back at the family homestead, and married Elizabeth Townsend, also a member of the Society of Friends.

After Cresson began questioning the tenets of Quaker faith, he experimented with a number of other religions, trying out life as, among others, a Shaker, a Mormon and a Seventh Day Adventist. He developed a reputation as an eccentric, partly due to his practice of preaching in the streets about the approaching apocalypse. Hence, it is understandable that shortly after Cresson was appointed to the position of consul in Jerusalem, in May 1844, someone (a former treasury secretary) wrote to the U.S. secretary of state, informing him that Cresson’s “mind, what there is of it, [is] quite out of order.”

By then, however, Cresson, who had been recommended for the job by a U.S. congressman, was already on his way to Palestine. By the time he received Secretary of State John C. Calhoun’s letter informing him that the United States had changed its mind about opening a delegation in Jerusalem, Cresson had already been serving in the position for a half year.

Cresson remained in Jerusalem, however, became very interested in the Jewish faith, partly through his close friendships with two successive chief Sephardi rabbis. He changed his name to Michael Boaz Israel ben Abraham and then, in March 1848, he underwent circumcision and formally converted to Judaism. A short time later, Cresson boarded a ship to return to Philadelphia, where he hoped to convince his wife and their two children to follow his path, undergoing conversion and returning with him to the Land of Israel.

By then, Elizabeth had become an Episcopalian and had no interest in becoming a Jew. She had sold off most of his assets, and now filed an “inquisition of lunacy” in a Sheriff’s Court. The court judged Cresson mentally unbalanced, he appealed, and the case went on for three years. Cresson brought 73 witnesses to testify to the soundness of his mind, and when a jury of 12 deliberated, they reversed the earlier judgment.

Cresson and Elizabeth then divorced, and he returned to Jerusalem. Already before his first voyage there, Cresson had become interested in the idea of Israel as a haven for persecuted Jews, and of agriculture in particular as the solution for them. Now, he set about to organize farms, including in Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim area (today’s German Colony), a project that never got beyond the planning stage.

Cresson remarried one Rachel Moleano, with whom he had two children, neither of whom lived to adulthood.

In 1856, Herman Melville visited the Holy Land, a trip that disabused him of an earlier belief that a return to Zion was what was needed for the Jews. He met Cresson, and listened to his ideas, but in his journal, Melville wrote that, “The idea of making farmers of the Jews is vain. In the first place, Judea is a desert, with few exceptions. In the second place, the Jews hate farming...and besides the number of Jews in Palestine is comparatively small.”

Cresson remained in Jerusalem until the end of his life, on October 27, 1860. He was buried on the Mount of Olives, but the location of his gravesite was lost. Only in 2013, during an effort to map the Jewish graves of the mount, undertaken by the Elad organization, was Cresson’s headstone found and identified.

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Warder Cresson.

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