Rabbi Marcus Hoch – later known as the Rev. John Neander (1812 – 1885)

This is an edited version of a biography first published in German in the ‘Zions Freund’ of October 1925. We are grateful to Rivka Nessim for the translation into English.

Marcus Hoch was born on 12 January 1812 in Neubruck, Posen, where his father served as Rabbi.  While still very young his father sent him to study the Hebrew language, which he learnt by the age of eight. Later he studied Talmud, and in 1835 he moved to Lehe in Bremen, close to Bremerhaven, to serve there as Rabbi. His burning thirst for truth and his serious and sincere enquiries into the Old and New Testaments eventually brought him to the knowledge of Christ.

In his own words: “I plunged myself into the deep labyrinth of Rabbinical subtleties and sophistry, entangled myself in a chain, composed of thousands of links of trivialities, exhausted myself in endeavouring to be enlightened on this or that matter, but I only got deeper and deeper into the labyrinth. Not a ray of light penetrated its dark recesses. At length this exercise became exceedingly disagreeable to me. The zeal that was so ardent in my youth (alas! it was a blind zeal), cooled more and more as it became clearer to me, that the words of the different Rabbis, the former and latter, are truly not agreeable to God’s most holy word. I discovered, that the persuasion that their ways lead to the truth, is a vain persuasion.

“I was about 25 when with a painful heart I perceived this. I had no sure foundation to rest upon, nothing to lay hold of. I stood as on broken ground, my heart torn, and near to perishing with anguish. At this time I was teacher in a town in Germany, where I had twenty or more pupils whom I had to educate, and bring up as men and Israelites. Every Saturday I had to deliver a public lecture on portions of the Old Testament. All this placed me in a terrible condition. I had to preach up and defend that against which my heart revolted; dissemble I would not, yea, I could not.

“In the early period of my life as a teacher, I was zealous for the Rabbinical Judaism of the present day. I tormented and exhausted myself endeavouring, by the works of the Law, to lead a life pure and holy before my God. For even when a child, I conceived sin to be an abhorrence to God. The thunders of Sinai sounded and resounded in my heart, the mighty word proceeding out of the mouth of an Almighty God, “cursed is he who does not keep my law,” pressing me down to the ground at that early period of my life. As with flaming letters it was written in my heart, “God is a holy God! God is a righteous God who abhors sin, in whose presence, none but those who are pure, and free from sin, and who live for him only, can abide.” From all my toil, however, I found no peace. Far, far from me was the rest for which I so much longed.

“I had discussions with a few individuals who called themselves Christians. I sought them out for the purpose of discussing with them scientific subjects, and now and then to study the Old Testament with them. Of these some were students in theology, and others teachers. They used to attack the revealed word of God most terribly. Through them I became acquainted with the criticisms of de Wette, Eichhorn, Dinter, and others, and it was not long before I stood up a zealous defender of modern Judaism: I became a Rationalist. We are deceived! I exclaimed to my community, terribly deceived! The Talmud and the Pesakim are a tissue of errors, and so forth. Still the storm in my heart did not subside. It continued to roar and to rage – I was not free. Before it was chains of superstition that shackled my heart, now those of unbelief; chains forged by profane hands, by such fools as say, “there is no God.”

“As I looked on these contradictions, and on this work of ungodly men, I trembled, and entered the field against these impudent deniers of God; but with what weapons, alas, I knew not at that time, and so I was in a terrible condition. I felt as if closed in by a wall. I panted after the breath of life. I longed after liberty, and hoped that the enigma would solve itself, but the hand which should lead me into the haven of peace appeared to me far off, and the light which I searched after in all the writings of men, proved only darkness – they were broken cisterns, and my soul, which was languishing and near to death, did not find the water of life. I lay at times the whole night on the hard floor, chastised my body, yearned and cried aloud. The old Jews, to whose knowledge these austerities came, held me for a saint, and the modern Jews said to me: “Don’t be a fool.” Oh, these were years of anguish and terror. I was often near to despair.

“The compassion and grace of God, whom I did not know at that time, alone held me up. The hand of the mighty covenanted God of my forefathers, covered me, and it was his eternal love that preserved me from sinking. I tore myself with force from the circle of those who surrounded me, and I was chiefly alone and secluded … The speculations of men had only filled my head, while my heart remained empty …”.

In Bremen, Hoch made contact with the local clergy and found some who speak with warmth and enthusiasm about the Hebrew scriptures.

“I heard for the first time a powerful testimony to the Christian doctrine. My whole heart was stirred up against it, the ground burned under my feet and I hurried away purposing never to return again. Still there remained a thorn in my heart. The 53rd chapter of Isaiah as well as other places in the Old Testament, to which my attention was drawn, were too strong for me. Doubt raged in me, and the questions, “what if it be really true? What if the Christians are right?” left me no peace.

“A few weeks elapsed, and I could no longer endure my trouble, I greatly desired to be enlightened, and that, by means of the common medium of all truth, holy writ alone. I began to read the New Testament, and to compare it with the Old, and it wonderfully unfolded itself to me. More and more I discovered the great mystery of redemption. In the Old Testament, in all God’s contrivances, a voice called to me, and I heard the voice of God, through Moses and the prophets, saying: “Jesus Christ the crucified, is the true Messiah, the true Saviour, whose name is Jehovah Zidkenu, the Lord our righteousness.” I was roused especially by the 9th chapter of the Acts.  I was made acquainted, after much wrestling and fervent prayer, that Jesus, is the source of salvation, and of eternal life to all, who, by the efficacy of his blood, are cleansed from the guilt and pollution of sin, and through Him can call God, “Abba, Father.” I perceived that faith on the triune God is the victory which vanquishes the world.”

“I could not remain silent about this – my heart was filled with it. I tasted the friendship of God, I rejoiced and was forced to exclaim, “my Redeemer lives” – and this I announced to my pupils, talked of it in the circles of Jewish families, and publicly and aloud gloried in the ground of my hope in the rich promise made secure to me by the mouth of a Mighty Covenant God: “Be comforted, all your sins are forgiven, your debt is paid and annulled, through the great and only atoning sacrifice, through “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.”

In 1838 he stepped openly into the Christian church, and after receiving instruction was baptized on 9 December 1839, by the Rev. Miller.

It is clear that this estranged him from his own family and made bitter enemies of his former congregation. But Christ was more to him than father and mother, than brothers, sisters and friends. His most earnest efforts were in proclaiming the Messiah to his own people. He traveled throughout northern Germany preaching the cross to his people, suffering many privations, hardships, dangers and persecutions.

In the year 1845 he came to America and served in New York as a missionary to the Jews. Here he became well known as John Neander, the name he had taken at his baptism. (“Neander” meaning “new man” was not an uncommon name among Jewish converts.) Here as in Germany, his work was crowned with blessing. In 1846 he was ordained as an evangelist by a Dutch Reformed church. In the same year he married Susanne Dobler of Baltimore, who passed before him into eternity after 24 years of happy family life. Two of the five children the Lord had given him, also passed before him into eternity.

In the winter of 1852/3 he established the “First German Presbyterian Church” in Brooklyn, which he faithfully served as pastor until his death.

Neander was without doubt an exceptional man. He knew the Hebrew Old Testament almost entirely by memory and was thoroughly versed in the Talmud. In every respect he was well acquainted with Jewish theology. As Paul, he had a burning love for his brothers according to the flesh. He sincerely mourned the veil over the eyes of his people.

We do not know how many of his fellow Jews he brought to Christ, but we do know that his brethren in America held him in high regard for his piety, his theological learning and his amiabilityAs a preacher he was a man who with skilful and noble speech, with a fiery intellect, who captivated his listeners, convinced them of the truth and winning them for Christ. He was a shepherd and pastor to his congregation, sparing no effort or sacrifice necessary for their welfare.  He liked to call his congregants “my children”, and in truth, he was their spiritual father – the one who had baptized most of them, confirmed them, wed them and then went on to baptizing some of their children. In society he was quiet, peace-loving and sincere. He was always mild-mannered and charitable towards the poor. He had a child-like and devoted faith in God.

The home-going of this true servant of God was unexpected and occasioned a deep grief far beyond the circle of his family and congregation. Over 2000 people attended his funeral on 10 November 1885, among them some thirty evangelical preachers and professors. Friends came from near and far to pay their last respects to the sleeping one.

The Presbytery of Brooklyn and the German Presbyterian church mourned him as one of their best men. May his life and deeds continue to be a shining example for us all!