Four prominent Victorian evangelists and preachers of the 1800’s – Hudson Taylor, C.H. Spurgeon, George Muller and David Baron – were all associates of John Wilkinson, who founded the Mildmay Mission to the Jews, in 1876.
John Wilkinson, a Lincolnshire lad, was born in Tealby, in 1826, to a staunch Methodist family. His grandparents had come to the Lord through the Wesleyan Revival, at the end of the 18th century. John himself became a Christian at the age of fourteen.
Upon leaving school, he started work in a drapery business and also became a Methodist local preacher.
One day, a friend asked him if he had ever considered working among the Jewish people. Wilkinson replied that if God wanted him to be a missionary to the Jews, then he would be a missionary to the Jews! After much prayer, Wilkinson applied to the British Society for the Promotion of the Gospel Amongst the Jews, which was formed in 1809. (Today, it is known as CWI). He spent three years at their training college in Stamford Street, Blackfriars, where he became quite conversant with the Hebrew language. After finishing at Bible school, in 1854, he worked with the British Society for 25 years.
Each day, John Wilkinson would walk from his home to the City of London, where many Jewish people lived. He would visit Jewish people in their homes and shops, give out tracts and speak to anyone he could in the streets.
Wilkinson worked very hard and the Jewish people he spoke to were amazed at his knowledge of the Scriptures and the Hebrew language. He would often use Isaiah 53 to speak about the Messiah, and after only a few months, he had formed contacts with around sixty Jewish families.
As well as his outreach in London, he began to travel all over the country to share the gospel with Jewish communities. However, as time went on, he travelled more for deputation than for evangelism. The British Society was keen to stir up more Christians to support Jewish mission and to understand God’s prophetic plans for Israel – something which is still needed today!
Whilst John Wilkinson was well-suited to presenting God’s plan for the Jews to Christians, he realised that he was preaching about Jewish concerns, rather than witnessing to Jewish people. His studies of the Scriptures led him to believe that it would not be long before they would be restored to their own land. This gave added impetus to his desire to tell Jewish people about their Jewish Messiah. After much prayer and deliberation, he left the British Society on 31st May, 1876, and on the 1st of June began a new ministry – the Mildmay Mission to the Jews.
Based in the East End of London, the new ministry took the name of ‘Mildmay’ and initially had links with the Mildmay Institution and the Mildmay Hospital. The Rev. William Pennefather, who had great interest in social concern and sharing the gospel, was responsible for both of these charities.
Whilst there was no large financial backing to set up the mission, John Wilkinson’s guiding principle then, as it is today, was to ‘Ask the Lord and tell His people.’ As a faith mission, MMJ was blessed by God and, in due course, what had begun as a small work became the largest mission in the British Isles at that time.
John Wilkinson continued to pursue a ministry of personal evangelism. He also held open air meetings and conducted a weekly gospel service. House-to-house visits around the East End were an important part of the work. Although primarily an evangelistic body, MMJ were also concerned with caring for the physical needs of the Jewish population. In 1892, new headquarters were opened in Philpot Street. The Central Hall was a huge building of some forty rooms and included a medical mission with a resident doctor. One writer described it as, ‘the most complete Jewish mission building in the world.’ More people worked there than in any other mission of the era. As the work expanded, a convalescent home was added, together with an orphanage and school. There were also facilities for teaching Polish and Russian immigrants various trades, such as shoe repairing and needlework. All these different strands of the work gave opportunities to bring the gospel to the Jewish people.
One of those who passed through John Wilkinson’s care, and spent much time debating with him, was David Baron. Baron, an orthodox Jew, from Russian Poland, would argue that the Talmud said one thing and Wilkinson would counter this by quoting what the Bible said. Eventually, David Baron accepted the Lord Jesus as his Messiah and he worked alongside John Wilkinson and MMJ for the next twelve years. However, Baron felt that Jewish people should evangelise other Jewish people, so in 1893, he formed his own organisation – the Hebrew Christian Testimony to Israel.
As Mildmay grew, centres were opened in Liverpool, Birmingham (under Elijah Bendor-Samuel) and overseas in Morocco and Cape Town. Book depots began in five Russian cities. Many Hebrew New Testaments were published and given away. Between 1887 and 1901, over one million Scriptures were distributed.
In 1940, Joseph Yoelson-Taffen, an evangelist with MMJ, felt called to give the Scriptures to Jewish people. He therefore started the Society for Distributing Hebrew Scriptures whilst continuing to work with MMJ. Eventually, he left the mission to devote all his time to this daughter organisation.
In February 1907, John Wilkinson was finally called home. Three generations of Wilkinsons were directors of MMJ: John Wilkinson the founder, Samuel his son, and Oliver his grandson. Other notable people, like Elijah Bendor-Samuel, started off as an evangelist, later becoming a director of MMJ. Bendor-Samuel’s son, Theodore – an FIEC pastor – became the last director of MMJ and steered the mission into its present-day partnership with Hebrew Christian Testimony to Israel, now known as Messianic Testimony.
John Wilkinson was a contemporary of a number of great worthies of the faith, whom he knew personally. For instance, Hudson Taylor of the China Inland Mission used to send his first tithe of each year to MMJ, accompanied by a note to John Wilkinson saying, ‘To the Jew, first.’ John Wilkinson would respond by sending his gift to CIM with the note, ‘To the Gentile, second.’
George Muller, the founder of the Bristol orphan homes, had a large heart for Jewish mission. In fact, he had originally intended to work in Jewish outreach, but God had other ideas! He gave legal advice to Wilkinson to put MMJ into a trust, and this suggestion was gratefully accepted.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, said of John Wilkinson, ‘If any man is called to work among the Jewish people, it is John Wilkinson – and we wish him God-speed.’ Spurgeon himself often wrote Jewish tracts and preached about God’s plan for the Jewish people.
These great worthies of the faith, along with many others, believed that God had a plan for the Jewish people to come to know their Messiah. They knew that, one day, God would bring His people back to the land that He had given them, because they believed the prophetic Scriptures in the Old Testament. Although this event, in their days, was yet to come, they knew that God’s Word said:
“For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries and bring you into your own land… I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you…Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36:24-28)
“Who has ever heard of such a thing? Who has ever seen such things? Can a country be born in a day, or a nation be brought forth in a moment?! (Isaiah 66:8)