© Marcus Roberts (2012)


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In about 1824 and after, the tiny Bedford Jewish community was rocked by the religious wavering and eventual conversion to Christianity of Nathan Joseph, through the offices of the Rev. T.S.Grimshawe of nearby Bidenham and his clerical colleagues.

Nathan's father had until that year enjoyed the fruits of his own work and the nachos (parental satisfaction) brought by his children. The historian and convert to Christianity, Moses Margolioth, wrote in 1851 aptly of his personal tragedy.

"Whilst the worthy founder of the Bedford Synagogue was surveying, from the happy summit to which he was raised, his beloved family, and beholding through a distant vista a long line of descendants -his beautiful daughter Kate, was just married to Henry Leveaux, and the marriage service was performed by his son Nathan, the minister of the congregation - his happiness was doomed to encounter a total eclipse, from which it did not emerge to the day of his death. His son Nathan came into contact with the pious and late Rev. T.S.Grimshawe, and after several disputes on the evidences of Christianity, Mr. Nathan Joseph acknowledged himself beaten, and declared to Mr. Grimshawe his intention of giving up his appointment in the Synagogue, and crave admission into the Church of England, as a humble follower of the true, though despised, Messiah."

It seems that young Nathan came into contact with local clergy - including Grimshawe - due to his interests in theology and Hebrew. One influence was the Rev. Dr. Henry Tatam, Rector of St. Cuthbert's and a leading antiquarian and expert on the Coptic language. Others were Rev. Samuel Hillyard of the Bunyan Meeting. He discussed with them, among other things, the claims that Christ fulfilled the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, such as in Isaiah 52; of the Christian interpretation of this, he was eventually persuaded.

His progress to Christianity, contrary to the impression given by Margoliouth, was in reality tortuous - his conversion and subsequent life has been recently very ably researched and described by Patricia Bell in her authoritative work on 19th century Bedford Jewry to which I am indebted in this account of Jewish Beford. A crucial watershed was reached when it became evident to the Jewish community that he was wavering dangerously and the chief rabbi was informed and Nathan was suspended from his post. He was also induced to do public penance before his congregation in the synagogue. Nathan was caused some real distress when in 1827 Grimshawe and Tattam prematurely announced Nathan's conversion to the journal of the London Society, the Jewish Expositor.

Nathan wrote back to the journal from Cheltenham, where he was temporarily sheltering with a leader of the Jewish community, to say that he had not thus far gone the whole way. Nathan was put under more stress while at Cheltenham, as his hosts got hold of the Jewish Expositor and wanted to know what was going on. While he did not formally convert at that moment, he did resolved to fulfill his offices at Bedford as reader and rabbi for the last time very shortly afterwards.

Nathan finally decided to go the whole hog, so to speak, and affirm his new faith. Thus decided he went to Norwich in 1829, where he stayed with his sister Hannah and her family who had been converted in 1827. There he was instructed in his new faith and baptized under the name of Henry Samuel Joseph, seven months later in 1829 - no doubt in recognition of his debt to Henry Tattam and Hillyard. It is interesting to note that some of Nathan's relatives were not at all ill-disposed to Christianity and Margoliouth notes with some satisfaction that in his day no less than a score of Nathan's family were Christians and two were Anglican clergymen.

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