Israel’s contemporary critics angrily insist that the special relationship between America and the Jewish state stems solely from the outsize electoral and economic clout of American Jews. But those who argue that this undue influence has always shaped our policies in the Middle East ignore the fact that the commitment to a rebuilt Jerusalem and a reborn Israel began at a time when the republic’s Jewish community played an insignificant role in national life, with a minimal population amounting to far less than 1 percent of the federal total. In fact, the idea that the United States ought to link its fate to a Jewish state officially originated in 1844 with the very first diplomat America ever dispatched to Jerusalem, more than a century before Israel’s Declaration of Independence. His name was Warder Cresson, and he led an extraordinary and singular American life.
Cresson’s own Huguenot forebears first came to the New World from Holland in 1657, settling in Delaware and New York. After some adventures in the West Indies, his grandfather Solomon found his way to Philadelphia, where he became an ardent member of the Society of Friends and part of the new city’s Quaker establishment. As successful artisans and entrepreneurs, the Cressons owned prime real estate on Chestnut Street in the center of town as well as valuable agricultural properties in the surrounding countryside.
Born in 1798, Cresson began working the family farms in nearby Darby and Chester counties at age 17, impressing relatives and neighbors with his business and leadership abilities. Married at 23 to another devout Quaker, he proceeded to raise six children of his own and to follow the clan’s pattern of judicious investment and accumulation of wealth.
As he approached 30, however, religious doubts began to torment him, and he published outspokenly radical religious tracts (including Babylon the Great Is Falling!) that questioned his Quaker faith, challenging its perceived emphasis on “an outward form, order of discipline” without proper attention to the “inward man.” Cresson formally rejected the Society of Friends and affiliated himself with a series of unconventional sects that had arisen during America’s second “Great Awakening,” including, in turn, the Shakers, the Mormons, the Seventh-day Adventists, and the “Camp-bellites,” who believed in restoring the united, purified Christianity of the apostles.
In the process, Cresson developed a local reputation for sharing his insights and inspirations by “haranguing in the streets” of Philadelphia. With his flowing black beard and burning blue eyes, he cut a formidable, unforgettable figure, frightening unsuspecting passersby with stentorian warnings about God’s wrath and the imminent apocalypse.
Inevitably, this agitated religious seeker found his way to Mikveh Israel, the city’s leading Jewish congregation, where he received an unexpectedly warm reception from the ardent abolitionist and influential scholar Isaac Leeser. As the synagogue’s leader, Leeser patiently engaged Cresson in wide-ranging discussions on biblical interpretation and messianic redemption while introducing him to the work of Mordecai Manuel Noah, a Jewish political operative and man of letters who had begun pushing for an American commitment to reestablish a Jewish homeland in the Middle East.
Cresson became instantly captivated by that idea and reached the conclusion that “there is no salvation for the Gentiles but by coming to Israel.” He also reached the conclusion that God himself had created the United States for one purpose above all others: rescuing the Jews of the world from exile and oppression. He discerned profound significance in the young republic’s national symbol, since the prophet Isaiah had promised for the weary and fainthearted that “the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles.” He felt sure that the prophecy of a reborn Israel would be fulfilled by the soaring power of the American eagle that would “overshadow the land with his wings.”
To assure his own role in these miraculous forthcoming events, he contacted a friendly Philadelphia congressman named E. Joy Morris to arrange his appointment as America’s first consul to Jerusalem. At the time, the Holy City that loomed so large in religious imagery had degenerated into a run-down, isolated village of barely 15,000 souls (half of them Jewish) that hardly merited its own consulate by any conventional calculation. But Representative Morris wrote to Secretary of State John C. Calhoun that the American pilgrims and missionaries who visited Jerusalem in increasing numbers could benefit from a diplomatic outpost in that remote corner of the Ottoman Empire. More important, he made it clear that Warder Cresson, relying on his personal wealth, had volunteered to work for the government without compensation.
This was an offer that the perennially cash-strapped State Department could hardly refuse, so the official appointment came through on May 17, 1844. Cresson set out immediately, ready to make a decisive break with his past. He wrote in his diary at the time of his departure: “In the Spring of 1844 I left everything near and dear to me on earth. I left the wife of my youth and six lovely children (dearer to me than my natural life), and an excellent farm, with everything comfortable around me. I left all these in the pursuit of truth, and for the sake of Truth alone.”
Almost immediately, protests arose over the suitability of the selection of this relentless truth-seeker for a new diplomatic post. Samuel D. Ingham, of New Hope, Pennsylvania, who had been treasury secretary under President Andrew Jackson, wrote to Calhoun: “The papers have recently announced the appointment of Warder Cresson, Consul to Jerusalem. This man…has been laboring under an aberration of mind for many years; his mania is of the religious species. He was born a Quaker, wanted to be a preacher…and has gone round the compass from one job to another, sometimes preaching about the church doors and in the streets; his passion is for religious controversy…but, in truth, he is withal a very weak-minded man and his mind, what there is of it, quite out of order…. His appointment is made a theme of ridicule by all who know him.”
Calhoun responded to this alarming dispatch by writing to Cresson and announcing, in President John Tyler’s name, that the government would not sponsor the establishment of a Jerusalem consulate after all. By that time, the idealistic emissary had already departed for the Holy Land, where he disembarked melodramatically from a British ship at the port of Jaffa, stepping ashore with an American flag in one hand and a caged dove of peace in the other.
Quickly establishing himself as the official representative of the United States, he created a new consular seal and issued a sweeping proclamation to all the Jews of the Holy City to assure them that they would henceforth enjoy the firm protection of the American government. But before Cresson could do much to give meaning to that promise, word finally reached him that his appointment had been canceled at the highest levels in Washington.
For Cresson, this news constituted only a minor inconvenience: He enjoyed the title of consul far too much to give it up and continued to present himself as the envoy of the American Republic, however dubious his claims. The bemused Turkish authorities mostly shrugged at his pretensions, while no other American officials bothered to travel to the remote region to raise uncomfortable questions about his status.
Meanwhile, Cresson took great satisfaction in hosting visiting dignitaries and startling them with his increasingly elaborate and grandiose plans for reconfiguring the Middle East and, ultimately, the rest of the globe. He welcomed the British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray and informed him that the United States would work closely with the United Kingdom to enlist the other powers of Europe in establishing a promising, prosperous new homeland for the Jewish people.
The author of Vanity Fair remained singularly unimpressed by this preposterous scheme. “He has no other knowledge of Syria but what he derives from prophecy,” reported Thackeray. “I doubt whether any government has received or appointed so queer an ambassador.” As if the conversational initiatives didn’t count as queer enough, there were also his increasingly ebullient writings. Shortly after his arrival, Cresson hastily penned a glowing paean to his new hometown, describing in rapturous terms the ancient but squalid village that most other visitors viewed as dirty and decrepit. Jerusalem, the Centre and Joy of the Whole Earth, published in Philadelphia and London at Cresson’s direction, failed to inspire a measurable upsurge in either emigrants or tourists but did draw enough attention so that he followed it with other book-length pamphlets combining reportage with religious argument.
Those arguments began drawing the peripatetic would-be consul far from his Christian roots, especially as he became personally engaged with the leading Sephardic rabbis in Jerusalem. At age 49, after seven years of study and contemplation, after intoxicating exploration of the shrines and byways of the God-haunted Judean hills and the shores of the tranquil Sea of Galilee, Warder Cresson reached the most consequential decision of a turbulent life.
“I remained in Jerusalem in my former faith until the 28th day of March, 1848,” he wrote, “when I became fully satisfied that I never could obtain Strength and Rest, but by doing as Ruth did, and saying to her Mother-in-Law, or Naomi (The Jewish Church), ‘Entreat me not to leave thee … for whither thou goest I will go. In short … I was circumcised, entered the Holy Covenant and became a Jew.”
During the course of this transition, he had been writing to his wife and children to keep them informed of his spiritual progress—and of his new name, Michael Boaz Israel ben Avraham. He had no desire to abandon the family that he “loved most dearly above anything else on earth” and felt certain that he could persuade them to share the satisfactions of his new faith and to return with him to his mystical mission in Zion.
Sailing back to Philadelphia just two months after completing his conversion, the former consul received a devastating reception from his nearest and dearest. His wife, Elizabeth, had taken sole possession of their property, selling off the family farm as well as Warder’s personal effects. She ignored his appeals for a settlement and joined other family members in lodging a formal charge of “lunacy” against him. A “sheriff’s jury” of six men quickly agreed with their arguments and issued its verdict of insanity, but Cresson, who never spent a day in an asylum, challenged their decision in court.
The resulting trial lasted for almost three years, included more than 100 witnesses, and became a national sensation. Aside from the obvious attempt by a frustrated and embittered wife to seize what remained of her wandering husband’s wealth, the dispute involved the government’s power to stigmatize and punish a citizen’s midlife decision to embrace an ancient faith. Cresson fiercely defended his right to select his own religious path, no matter how exotic or bizarre its practices might seem to his former neighbors.
Esteemed physicians, theologians, and legal scholars gave testimony on both sides. While no one denied Cresson’s reputation as “a strange bird” (in the words of one reporter), the leaders of the nation’s small Jewish community testified on his behalf, resisting the notion that conversion to Judaism in any way constituted automatic evidence of insanity. Cresson’s lawyer, the eminent Horatio Hubbell Jr., characterized the case as a crucial test of the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment. His impassioned closing statement ended with a dramatic denunciation of the attempt to discredit an unconventional thinker based on his religious ideas alone. “The only charge left with which to accuse my client,” he thundered, “is that he became a Jew.”
By that time, the newspapers covering the trial had swung to support of Cresson’s cause, and they unanimously expressed their jubilation at his vindication. Philadelphia’s Public Ledger saw the decision as “settling forever … the principle that a man’s ‘religious opinions’ never can be made the test of his sanity.”
Having overturned the prior verdict of lunacy, the court enabled the newly minted Michael Boaz Israel ben Avraham to continue worshipping at Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel Congregation, where he enjoyed the status of local hero and meticulously followed Jewish religious law. He used his last months in the United States to pen a spiritual autobiography filled with exultant, sometimes terrifying prophecies, predicting the imminent rebirth of the Land of Israel and the ingathering of the exiles, despite unimaginable trials and terrors.
The cover for his publication showed a sketch of a human heart, consumed by flame, locked within the traditional six-pointed Star of David. The title proclaimed: THE SHIELD OF DAVID: HOLOCAUST TO THE UNITY OF GOD AND TO DAVID THE MESSIAH. The peculiar use of the term “holocaust,” more than 80 years before Hitler’s rise to power, offers one more example of Cresson’s haunting insights and premonitions, which became increasingly inseparable from his overwhelming weirdness and uncompromising oddity.
Within a year of his trial’s successful conclusion, he divorced his wife and re-turned to Jerusalem in 1852 with a new mission: to restore the Land of Israel by restoring the land itself. He used his background as a “practical farmer” to argue that the establishment of scientifically sophisticated agricultural settlements could remake the ancient earth of Judea at the same time that they reshaped the Jewish soul. Working the land, he averred, “is the one true foundation, the proper beginning and basis for all the other sciences and arts, the foundation for all of life’s needs and living conditions.”
His determination to plant model colonies amid the desolate landscape and to achieve national redemption through tireless farming not only anticipated future Zionist pioneers by nearly half a century but seemed distinctly, decisively American in its ambitious, against-the-odds vision. He raised money to purchase a substantial empty tract of land near Jaffa (today’s Tel Aviv) and another significant parcel known as Emek Refaim (Valley of the Healers) outside Jerusalem’s Old City—which is today an elegant, cosmopolitan neighborhood that’s home to numerous American immigrants to Israel, including my brother Jonathan.
In Cresson’s era, on the other hand, visiting Yankees saw a far less appealing prospect. In 1856, a frustrated 37-year-old writer, depressed by the disappointing response to his ambitious novel Moby Dick, borrowed money and made his way to the Middle East. Though he hoped for inspiration from the Holy Land’s sacred soil, Herman Melville saw only “the emptiness of the lifeless antiquity of Jerusalem” where “the migrant Jews are like flies that have taken up their abode in a skull.”
He sought out one of those tenacious flies: the famous former American, Warder Cresson, now remarried to a Sephardic Jewish woman and raising their two young children in a devoutly observant home. In lengthy arguments recorded in his journal, Melville contemptuously rejected the former consul’s soaring schemes of establishing cooperative farms to transform physical and spiritual realities. “The idea of making farmers of the Jews is vain,” he wrote. “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. And how are the hosts of them scattered in other lands to be brought here? Only by a miracle.”
Cresson had long maintained that the United States alone could serve as the anointed instrument for that miracle. He also came to believe that by re-creating a Jewish state to inspire the world, America could simultaneously save itself from approaching disunion over the tormenting issue of slavery. “God hath chosen Zion…as the centre and joy of the whole world,” he wrote, and “there cannot be unity and harmony…without this concentration.”
In 1860, on the verge of the American Civil War that Warder Cresson both dreaded and predicted, the always vigorous and outspoken Michael Boaz Israel ben Avraham took suddenly ill with an undiagnosed malady. After 12 days of ebbing strength, he passed on the Sabbath day at age 62. The newspapers of the time reported the burial of the onetime diplomat as a significant civic occasion, with all Jewish businesses in Jerusalem closed in his honor. A long line of mourners trudged up the steep slope of the Mount of Olives in the autumn season of the High Holy Days to grant him “such honors as are paid only to a prominent rabbi.” Unfortunately, neither of his two Jerusalem-born children—Avigail Ruth and David Ben-Zion—survived to adulthood, both dying within three years of their American father. Without descendants to tend to his gravesite, its location, like memories of the consul’s remarkable role, was lost to history for some five generations.
In 2013, however, renewed interest in the disputes and oddities of Warder Cresson’s turbulent life led to the rediscovery of his damaged but still-identifiable gravestone. It turned up among the relics in the crowded and ancient cemetery on the Mount of Olives, where it was suitably restored as a small memorial not long before his two homelands took the joint historic step of establishing the first American Embassy in Cresson’s holy capital of Jerusalem.
His contemporaries had dismissed him as a “strange bird,” but Warder Cresson anticipated the Zionist visions that later changed the world while advancing the idea that America’s destiny providentially connected her to a restored Israel. After his death, the miraculous events that unfolded in and around his Jerusalem home also established him as the posthumous but indisputable winner of his prophetic arguments with Herman Melville.