Dr. Bernard Jean Bettelheim (1811 – 1870)

Bernard Jean Bettelheim was born into a noted Jewish family in Pressburg, Hungary, in 1811. He studied, from a very early age, towards the goal of becoming a rabbi. It is said that by the age of ten he could read and write in French, German, and Hebrew, though if his biographies are to be believed, he left home at 12 to become a teacher and continued his studies at five different schools.

Bettelheim earned a degree in medicine from a school in Padua, Italy in 1836. He traveled much in these years, practicing medicine in a number of Italian cities, aboard an Egyptian naval vessel, and in a Turkish town called Magnesia, where, in 1840, he began studying Christianity. He converted to Christianity, and was baptized a short time later, in Smyrna.

During his time in Turkey, he held theological debates with local rabbis and published pamphlets on the matter in French. After facing salary disputes in Constantinople and resigning his post, Bettelheim made his way to London, where he hoped to gain authorization from the Church of England to preach to the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean. During this time, he became associated with a number of other prominent missionaries to the Far East, including Dr. Peter Parker, Karl Gützlaff, and missionary to Africa, Dr. David Livingstone. Following several months of disputes with the Church of England, who refused to recognize his European degrees, insisted he study at Oxford or Cambridge, and were in any case quite suspect of someone who had so recently converted from Judaism, Bettelheim abandoned that particular quest.

Bettelheim became a naturalized British subject sometime later, married the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and, in 1844, his first child was born. Following further disputes with various Christian organizations, including the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews, he accepted an appointment as medical missionary to Naha with the Loochoo Naval Mission. Leaving from Portsmouth on 9 September 1845, the Bettelheims arrived in Hong Kong in January the following year. Their second child, Bernard James Gutzlaff Bettelheim, was born at sea while rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

After several months in Hong Kong, studying Chinese and mingling with British missionary society there, Bettelheim departed for Okinawa with his family in April 1846. At that time, Japan forbade the entrance of foreigners, and external trade was strictly forbidden. 

Dr. Bettelheim arrived in Okinawa on April 30, 1846, accompanied by his wife, Elizabeth, their infant daughter, Victoria Rose, their infant son, Bernard James, ‘Miss Jane’, a tutor and schoolmistress, and Liu Yu-Kan, a Cantonese translator, on board the British ship Starling. After resisting their disembarkation, the local officials offered the family shelter in the Gokoku-ji temple for the night, where they ended up staying for seven years.

Bettelheim offered to teach a variety of subjects, including English, geography, and astronomy, and to offer medical services for the locals, but was refused by the local authorities. There was nonetheless some success at administering western medicine and also at preaching the gospel through this means, as a number of baptisms were recorded. A monument in Dr. Bettelheim’s memory was erected in May 1926 in Naha, Okinawa, and the Anglican Diocese of Okinawa recently dedicated ‘Bettelheim Hall’ in recognition for his pioneering medical work. During his time on the island, he also made the first translation of parts of the Bible into Chinese and Japanese, and compiled a Japanese grammar and dictionary.

On the other hand, his attitude and actions towards the Okinawan authorities has been described as ‘rude and extravagant’, and one foreign visitor to the island noted that the Bettelheim family were ‘living in a state of undisguised hostility’ with the indigenous authorities.

Dr. Bettelheim’s knowledge of the local dialect and culture enabled him to interpret for any Westerners who docked at Okinawa. Reportedly, he was often made to translate petitions from the Ryukyuan government asking that the newly arrived foreigners take Dr. Bettelheim with on their departure. He is said to have translated and delivered these petitions faithfully and unashamedly.

When Commodore Matthew Perry came to Japan in 1854, Bettelheim served as his translator and offered a valuable service as advisor, representative and commercial agent. Commodore Perry is credited with opening up Japan to the Western world.

Much to the relief of the Okinawa government, Mrs. Bettelheim and the children departed the island in February 1854, on board the USS Supplybound for Shanghai; Bernard followed them in July 1854. Dr. Bettelheim intended to return to England but eventually ended up in New York. After a few years he relocated his family to a farm in Illinois. In Chicago he completed his translation activity in Japanese. Because he knew the Japanese could read Chinese ideographs or ‘kanbun’, his passion to share the Gospel among the people of Japan drove him on, in spite of being unsuccessful in seeing his works published in Yokohama.  

From August to December 1863, he served as a surgeon in the 106thRegiment, Illinois Volunteer Infantry. After the American Civil War he relocated to Odell, Illinois and operated a drugstore, occasionally giving lectures about Okinawa and Japan. Later, the Bettelheims moved to Brookfield, Missouri. Dr. Bettelheim died February 9, 1870, at age 59 and is buried with his wife in Brookfield.

Bishop Juji Nakada of Tokyo said: “As far as I am able to learn, Dr. Bettelheim was the first Protestant missionary to Japan. He was a Hungarian Jew who found the Lord at Smyrna. He spent ten years on our islands [eight, more precisely], during which time he translated the greater part of the New Testament.”

The Reverend Timothy Nakayama, a missionary to Japan from 1991 to 2000, wrote in a recent tribute to Bettelheim:

“Dr. Bettelheim and his wife Elizabeth Barwick, as medical missionaries, provided Western medicine and shared the message of faith in God and salvation through Jesus the Christ. He had discovered that giving clean drinking water was essential to save victims from cholera. In discovering this new faith he was able to offer the water of life by which one need not thirst any longer … As Dr. Bettelheim introduced people to Western medicine, he talked to them about the Christian Faith and gave talks about medical practices, hygiene, and health, with a Christian perspective.

During the year 1996, the 150th anniversary of Bettelheim’s arrival, the Japan Bible Society conducted a campaign to highlight Bettelheim’s work as a Bible translator and pioneering missionary. The medical profession in Okinawa recognizes the Bettelheim heritage and the academic community carefully preserves primary sources (diaries, translations, Hong Kong Bishop’s visitation records), and artefacts (KJV Bible, engraving) of Bettelheim in the national university and prefectural museum.

May Bettelheim’s record be lifted up and inspire us. Let us thank God for these precious beginnings and pray that all the people of Japan may come to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen!”

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