From Judaism to Christ – Bernhard Angel

This testimony first appeared in the January 1928 edition of Zions Freund. We are most grateful to Rivka Nessim for translating it from German into English.

I was born in Bucharest, the beautiful capital of Romania, on 5 September 1860. [1]  My first impressions of Christianity led me to believe that the persecution of the Jews must be one of the principal points of this religion. Sad scenes from Passover eve in my early childhood – I was just five years old – are still quite fresh in my memory. What happened in that terrible night served well to allow the bitter root of hatred towards Christianity to take deep root in my heart. In my ignorance, in those days I hated the very name that today means more to me than any other.

At the age of thirteen and a half I left Romania and all my nearest and dearest and entered a Jewish seminary in Hanover. Soon after my arrival I received the sad news of the death of my father. In accordance with Jewish custom I sat on the floor for eight days as a sign of mourning. The Rabbi, who lived in the same house as I, advised me to read the book of Job for comfort!  It made me feel yet more deeply the mystery of life and the mystery of eternal life.  I now yearned to become a truly pious Jew in order to gain God’s approval. I went daily to the Synagogue to say the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead – which however makes no reference to the soul of the departed one. I studied more diligently and sought to scrupulously observe the rabbinical laws, in the hopes of increasing my own righteousness.

My greatest joy was in reading the Psalms. One place in particular awakened a longing in me to know the King of Glory:

Lift up your heads, O gates!
And lift them up, O ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The LORD of hosts,
he is the King of glory!
Selah                                                           (Psalm 24:9-10, ESV)

Could I come to know him in the Seminary?  For two reasons I doubted it.  Although I had seen and heard much good in the Seminary, on the other hand I, the youngest in age, had been set a very bad example. One of my fellows pretended to be a strict believer but on the sly ate pork and desecrated the Sabbath. Through such influences I lost the firm foothold that had supported me in Orthodox Judaism. I became indifferent and superficial and was more or less inclined to imitate my free-thinking comrades. In addition, in studying the Old Testament our Hebrew teacher anxiously avoided any passage that spoke of the Messiah. When for example we came to the 53rd chapter of Isaiah he simply left it out with the apology: “The Christians apply this chapter to their god.”

That was sufficient to awaken my curiosity. I determined that if the opportunity should ever present itself I would find out how the Christians interpret this chapter. Once, on Easter day, I saw crowds streaming towards the churches. I followed them to the local Schlosschapel. There I heard for the first time a revivalist Christian sermon. It was on the omnipresence of the Holy Spirit. So far as I remember the preacher showed the differences between the Holy Spirit in the old and in the new ages. In the past the glory of God dwelt only in the Holiest of Holies. But now the entire world is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. In the past the presence of God was only with the Jews. Now the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all flesh.

In the year 1878 I completed my studies in the Jewish seminary, and traveled to Paris where my mother was then living. Then I returned to Bucharest, found a position in a Jewish school and tutored privately for three years.

The Sunrise

Now the “eternal Jew” was awakened within me. The sad condition of my people, particularly in the spiritual sense, as well as the misery of my own soul, laid heavily on my heart. I longed to learn the truth that sets one free, and to bring it to others. For this purpose I determined I would, if necessary, go to the ends of the world. As I left on my travels, my heart was full of doubt and worry and the desired goal seemed so far. And yet I hoped to find peace of heart through my travels and studies, in particular through the study of foreign languages. I thought first to go to London, but my relatives advised me not to. They were afraid that I would fall into the clutches of the missionaries and allow myself to be baptized. So I shipped myself off to New York. On the steamboat I made the acquaintance of Miss Franziska Mueller, whom I married a year after our landing. She was a catholic but was as indifferent to her church as I had become to the synagogue. So there was no difficulty in reaching an understanding that we would never discuss religious issues.  But soon the good hand of the Lord lay heavily on us. My wife became seriously ill. By Divine providence she was visited by a church Missionary, who proved to be a heavenly messenger as he brought my wife the Gospel of Salvation. When my dear wife was restored to health she regularly visited the meetings of that church and took Christ as her personal saviour. Now she loved all she had previously hated and sought to share with me the source of her joy and happiness. That unsettled me. I had not been afraid to marry an innerly-dead Christian who would never try to make me religious. But now I was forever bound to a person who was overflowing with joy because of her faith. That was uncomfortable. How blind I still was to the wonderful way in which the Lord was leading me to the cross, where I found peace and forgiveness!

Nevertheless I could only rejoice in the inner change my beloved wife had experienced. Her whole being showed that the Lord had touched her. So that the thought occurred to me that perhaps such a Christianity was worthwhile. One day my wife asked me, as she was not feeling well, whether I would accompany her to church. As we stood before the church she asked me to come in and stay there until the end. I surprised myself to discover that the service was not unpleasant to me. This kind of prayer seemed to me to be worthy of a Jew! Passages were read from the Old Testament, there were prayers to God, and songs of heavenly things. I felt good there, and decided to come again. So it was that the next time I asked my wife to take me to church. The German Pastor Leonhard and a Miss von Morstein took an interest in me and visited us in our home. I began to read the New Testament regularly and the light of the cross began to enlighten my seeking, anxious heart. Then Satan came with his wiles to keep me from the Messiah. He showed me that if things went any further, I would certainly become a Christian. I was still under the old prejudice that Christians were idol worshippers. I knew that God’s wrath was upon those who worshipped false gods. Before a Jew is fully convinced of the divinity of Christ, he sees Christianity as idolatry. I felt miserable.

Yet it was clear to me that the Christianity I had seen was something right, something desirable – a religion that towered infinitely over the religion of my youth. In my younger days I had been told nothing of my relation with God and my eternal calling. More than that – I wanted to get out of the darkness and sin and Judaism did not help me in that. I knew that in this new religion Christ was seen as giving power for life. The desire to get to know Christ better burned within me.

At about the same time I got to know Dr. Schauffler, the evangelical pastor of the church mentioned above. He invited me to his home. There, in his study, we read together a passage from John’s Gospel. Dr. Schauffler explained the passage to me and pointed me to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world – the Messiah, of whom Moses in his law and the prophets have spoken – the counterpart of the snake in the desert. Afterwards we kneeled in prayer. Dr. Schauffler asked me to pray also. I had never pleaded with God so earnestly as I did in this hour, next to this man of God. The doctor told me to read the Gospel of John humbly and in prayer. This I did, and the Holy Spirit revealed Christ to me more and more.

Rays of Messiah’s Glory

I was particularly affected by the beauty of Christ’s life. The wonderful life of the Messiah was nothing to be compared with the lives of the philosophers I had read. More than anything Jesus won my heart through his godly love and his compassion, especially in the story of the adulteress (John 8). The life of Christ seemed to me so virtuous, so pure, so full of goodness and well doing that despite myself I had to believe all the particulars as I read more of the Gospel.

I believed the miracles. As I came to verse 30 of chapter 10, where Jesus claimed “I and the Father are one”, I believed it! It was simply a natural consequence, and undeniable truth. Through the entire previous chapter I saw the truth before my eyes that was testified in the first chapter:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son
from the Father, full of grace and truth.                                   (John 1:14 ESV)

I came to learn how such a Christ stills the demands of the soul. In the church services I heard the old, old story again and again, until its delight filled my soul. The holy God convicted me of my sins and opened my eyes to see Jesus. After about six months the battle was over and I was filled with the peace that surpasses understanding. On 2 January 1887 I was baptized in the Olivet church.

In my joy over my salvation I was anxious to show Christ and his saving grace to my relatives. I decided to write my beloved mother in Paris. Miss von Morstein tried all she could to prepare me for the results. The answer of my mother was to the effect that other mothers could abandon their sons, but she could not and she loved me nevertheless. It would also have been unfathomable to me to ever be excluded from the love of my mother, who was the most devoted and loving of all mothers. Yet I was to learn, that for Jewish families it is an unforgiveable sin for one of their own to become a renegade, a Christian. Our mutual correspondence brought to both my mother and to me pain and anguish; but I had chosen to follow Him who had said:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me”            (Matthew 10:37-38, ESV).

A New Way

Following the earnest proposal of my spiritual counselor, and because of my own impulse, I decided then to give myself to ministry among my own people. My education in a Jewish seminary and the later study of foreign languages seemed to be Divine preparation for my future service.  Pastor Leonhard applied to Professor Scott, the secretary of the theological seminary in Chicago, and opened the door for me to go there to be trained as a preacher of the Gospel. In this seminary, Christian company and fellowship were of great service to me.

During my time at the seminar our small home became a center of Christian witness to the Jews. Soon thereafter, in November 1887 the work among my people began. After seven years of work in Chicago, a time richly blessed by God, it pleased Him to call us to a broader field. It was not easy for my wife or for me to leave the field of work that had grown so dear to our hearts. We had many true friends, both Jewish and Christian, from whom we separated with heavy hearts. Only when I was convinced that God would give our work into faithful hands, did I decide to accept the call of the New York mission, under whose leadership I have been working among the Jews for the last thirty years.

One small addendum to the experience with my mother. After strenuous work in Chicago, and because we were physically pretty down, the Lord opened the way for us to visit our relatives in France and in Germany. When we arrived in Paris I asked my brother to kindly announce us to my mother and ask her permission to come in and visit her. The answer was that she did not wish to see us. Undaunted, we made our way to her home. We waited downstairs, while I send word up to her and asked her, at least to come to the window so that I could see her face once more. There motherly love won over, and we were warmly received. When, later on, we received notice of her death she had left “a blessing for her son Bernhard and his family”. We believe that God heard our prayers for her. It was after this memorable visit to Paris that the call came to the ministry in New York.

I praise God for the privilege of preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ to thousands of “my brothers and relatives according to the flesh” for many years. Among those who have been led to Christ are now preachers of the Gospel, while others in a quiet way are testimony of His love and grace and await His return.

This ministry was shared by my good wife with her tireless work, and my three children, who helped in various ways. One daughter, Ruth, gave herself entirely to evangelisation among the Jews. The mission stands as a living testimony to this thirsty field for the Lord Jesus Christ. The various branches of the work have served as channels through which blessing has come to many a Jewish family. New believers, young and old, bare witness in the midst of persecutions to the saving and preserving might of the Son of God.

The ministry was of an evangelical character and did not serve any particular denomination. In New York there are more Jews than in any other city on earth – almost two million. Only a very few of this multitude still observe the faith of their fathers. They put aside rabbinical Judaism and are as “sheep without a shepherd”. My heart sought the multitudes of my people, who need the Gospel so desperately. As a son of Abraham according to the flesh I knew that no one could find their way out from sin and darkness other than by Him, who came down to us from above.

From the streams of Judaism – both, the orthodox and the liberal – I have drunk; and in my days of free-thinking I enjoyed the worldly philosophies; but my soul remained thirsty until I came to Golgotha and saw Him who was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities I can now say:

The blood of Christ and his righteousness, is my adornment and robe of praise. No other name sounds so sweet, My Jesus is my paradise.

[1] In 1929, soon after writing this testimony, Berhard Angel passed on to his eternal dwelling place.