Empress Maria Dorothea and Jewish Missions in Budapest

Empress Maria Dorothea and Jewish Missions in Budapest

In 1839 the Church of Scotland sent a delegation of four ministers to visit Jewish communities in Europe and Palestine to prepare for missionary work among the Jews. The four were Alexander Black, Alexander Keith, Robert Murray M'Cheyne and Andrew Bonar. Whilst travelling north from Egypt to Palestine by camel, Dr. Black sustained a fall that led to his premature departure from the mission of inquiry. Accompanied by Alexander Keith he made his way back to Scotland through Central Europe by the river Danube.

Arriving in Budapest the travellers had to wait for a change of steamers. This gave them time to find out what they could about the extensive Jewish community in the city and Keith's conclusion was that "of all the cities we had visited, none was to be compared to it, as the promising site of a Jewish mission." Everything they were able to discover pointed to the wisdom of opening up mission work there. Only one thing seemed to stand in their way, Hungary was part of the Austrian Empire and it was staunchly and intolerantly Roman Catholic.

An anguished cry

To establish contact with people able to give them the kind of information they needed —Rabbis, Professors or Protestant clergymen — Keith and Black had to use the greatest caution as they moved from house to house. This was a time when the circulation of the Bible was treated by the authorities as a political threat. As they walked the streets of Budapest and looked up at the grand palace of the Prince Palatine it seemed to defy them, destroying all hope. They could expect no encouragement from that quarter, or so it seemed. Nevertheless, within its frowning walls, the Lord had been preparing the heart of one without whose aid the Jewish mission would never have been possible.

Maria Dorothea, the Archduchess, had some years previously come to faith in Christ. As a result of the death of her son, who had earlier come to faith, she had begun to read the Bible, and in her own words, "in the Bible [she] met with Jesus". Her conversion gave her a deep spiritual concern for Hungary, and for a period of about seven years she begged the Lord to send her a Christian friend and counsellor, someone who would carry the gospel to the Hungarian people. One account informs us that "sometimes her desire became so intense that, stretching out her arms towards heaven, she prayed almost in an agony of spirit that God would send at least one messengerof the Cross to Hungary".

For some days before the arrival of Keith and Black in Budapest the Archduchess had experienced wakeful nights in which she was filled with a clear premonition of some great event that was to happen. Night after night for two weeks she awoke suddenly in the middle of night, and being unable to sleep she was gripped by indefinable but anxious feelings. The pattern was consistent and regular, etching into her mind a deep foreboding. She thought that the only news that could possibly affect her as deeply as this would be the knowledge that her mother had died and so, day by day, she waited for confirmation of this impression.

Two dead dogs

Meanwhile, both Keith and Black were feeling the effects of steamer travel on the Danube during the summer; bouts of what was popularly called "Danube fever" had troubled them. Still, weak though they were, it did not daunt them from making the most of their days in Budapest until the day when Dr Keith was taken ill in the street.

Returning to his hotel Keith soon manifested symptoms of cholera, slipped into a coma and seemed to be lying on the very threshold of death. Black was so distressed by his friend's illness that it worsened his own condition and his fever returned with a fresh virulence. As Keith later described it, "We were like two dead dogs". Though in adjacent rooms they were both so ill that six weeks passed before they saw each other again. The hotel staff gave up all hope that Dr Keith could recover and stationed two men at his bedside to carry him away when death should come. A number of people visited him, including some British travellers but their outlook was pessimistic, summarised by one who said merely, "Nothing can be done but order the coffin". The doctor who attended him later confessed, "I never knew, heard, or read of anyone but yourself who touched the gates of death without passing through them."

The turn of the key

As part of their preparation for their journey from Scotland, the travellers had obtained letters of introduction from people of position and influence. One was from a Miss Pardoe an acquaintance of Prince Esterhazy who had introduced her to the Archduke and Archduchess. It was a coincidence of God's arranging that Miss Pardoe and her mother arrived in Budapest at this time and were soon aware of the illness of both Black and Keith. In a short time Miss Pardoe secured an appointment with the Archduchess, informing her of the condition of the two men. The Archduchess replied that the Archduke had given her a copy of a book of Keith's Evidences of Prophecy which contained pictures of Palestine. Instantly, she felt assured that this was the event her broken nights had been preparing her for. From that night on she returned to her usual unbroken sleep pattern, without any disturbing thought. Simultaneously she was filled with a tremendous sense of purpose. Keith later described it as "the key whereby a door was to be opened for the Jewish mission at Budapest, though no one knew it, or thought of it then".

Shortly after, when Dr Keith began to regain strength, he received his first visit from the Duchess, who began a regular pattern of visiting him every other day. In their conversations she poured out her heart to him. Eventually the conversation revolved more around the possibilities of a mission to the Jews. She became as enthusiastic as Keith himself for the commencement of a Jewish mission in her city, and stated that should the Church see fit to begin the work "she would place her own person between it and whatever danger might assail it".

Her deeds of kindness included sending to the hotel a bed long enough to allow Keith, who was very tall, to lie comfortably. On another occasion Keith could not understand why the street had become unusually quiet. He was told the Archduchess had ordered the road to be covered with straw and commanded that no carriages should use it as a through road and that those having to call in the street were not to travel faster than walking pace. To ensure this, she had a soldier posted at each end of the street. The patient's main meal, prescribed by the physician, was delivered to him hot from the palace kitchen.

So, from the quarter they least expected, help came. Back in Scotland Keith used to refer to these incidents in discussions, where despite much opposition, he remained totally convinced that God himself had, through all their experiences, indicated that Budapest was a suitable centre for Jewish missions.

—John Ross

This article appeared in the Autumn 1998 Herald.

This article was first published in The Banner of Truth magazine in February 1992, and is used by permission.

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