Was The Big Bad Wolff Afraid?

Joseph Wolff was constitutionally fearful, which basically meant that his first response to any new or dangerous situation was fear. An intriguing fact, given that he was one of the most adventurous missionaries to ever wander the face of the globe. Perhaps that is what makes the story of Joseph Wolff so compelling. The fact that he was a man prone to anxiety and fear and yet he was able to overcome that first, knee-jerk response in order to forge ahead and conquer new frontiers.

Wolff was born in Germany to parents who were devout Jews. His father was a Rabbi and often had Jewish scholars and thought leaders visiting his home to discuss various topics dealing with Judaism and the plight of the Jewish people. As a child, Joseph would sit and listen to these discussions with rapt attention, often breaking in, to pepper the adults with questions.

On one occasion he ventured to ask who Jesus of Nazareth was and was promptly told that he was an incredibly talented Jew who had pretended to be the Messiah and was sentenced to death by a Jewish tribunal. He mulled over this response, filing it away in his overactive brain for future reference. At a later time when he asked why Jerusalem was in ruins and why the Jewish people were scattered over the face of the globe, he was told that it was because the Jews had murdered the prophets. This piece of information struck him and he wondered if Jesus had also been one such prophet who was unjustly murdered by the Jews.

His curiosity in Christianity was piqued and though he was expressly forbidden from entering a Christian church he would frequently hang around outside a church and catch snippets of the sermon. Then one day when he was about seven or eight years old he was challenged by a Christian neighbor to read Isaiah 53. After reading it he was convinced that the entire chapter had been perfectly fulfilled in the life of Jesus. His growing conviction regarding Jesus led him to ask his father about the prophecy but he was met with a silence so stony and severe that he didn’t dare to ask him about it again.

His father’s response, instead of deterring him only served to pour more fuel on his already blazing curiosity and he began to look for more information about Christianity. Unfortunately, the information he was looking for was unavailable to him in his decidedly Jewish home. Craving an education that he couldn’t receive in his home and longing to choose his own religious beliefs and life work Joseph Wolff left home at the age of 11 and set out to explore the wide world.

For a while, he lived with relatives but they soon kicked him out as an apostate and he found himself alone and penniless bouncing from place to place among strangers. He managed to start teaching Hebrew as a way of supporting himself and began to educate himself at the same time.

He started studying under a Catholic instructor and soon became a Catholic. He was then filled with a desire to evangelize Jewish people with the gospel and decided to go to the College of the Propaganda at Rome in order to be trained for missionary work. It wasn’t long before his outspoken personality, candid speech and penchant for independent thought landed him in hot water at the College.

He openly attacked the abuses of the church and urged the need for reform. At first, the church indulged him, then they branded him a heretic and kicked him out, then they placed him under surveillance to make sure he didn’t make too much trouble and finally wearied with the entire ordeal they let him loose to do his own thing.

Wolff then meandered into England, declared himself a Protestant, studied for two years and in 1821 set out on his missionary adventures to evangelize his Jewish brethren. Along the way, as he continued to study the scriptures, he began to dig deeper into the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. This led him to the same realization as William Miller, that the second coming of Christ was imminent and he began to preach the Second Advent wherever he went.

As it turned out he traveled through much of the habitable globe, weaving from Egypt to Abyssinia and then onto Palestine, Syria, Persia, Bokhara, India and finally into America. Everywhere he went he preached Christ’s soon return and became one of the leading proponents of the Great Advent Awakening globally.

During his travels, he was beaten, starved, sold as a slave, sentenced to death thrice, robbed and nearly died of thirst. Once he was stripped of everything he had and left to trudge hundreds of miles through the freezing mountains on foot. The snow beat relentlessly against his face and his bare feet were frozen and numbed, yet he soldiered on, taking the message of the judgment and soon coming of Christ wherever he went.

Joseph Wolff was an amazing missionary for God and yet he was a man who was constitutionally fearful and anxious. I like that about him. Not that he was afraid, but that he was willing to push through his fears and come out bold and conquering on the other end. He changed the world, not because he wasn’t afraid, but because he didn’t let his fears stop him.

What’s stopping you?

Citations and Further Reading

  • Wolff, J (1861) – Travels and Adventures of The Reverend Joseph Wolff
  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Robinson, V.E. (1963) – The Restless Missionary

Suki Goonatilleke lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two daughters. She is passionate about winning people for Jesus and has served in full-time ministry at Gateway Adventist Center. Her current ministry endeavors include being a stay-at-home mom by day and writer by night.