May 16: Rabbi Duncan

A Scottish Missionary to the Jews
by Rev. David T Myers

How about another mystery quiz on This Day in Presbyterian History? Who said the following:  “I am first a Christian. Second, I am a catholic. (Author: note the small “c”); Third, I am a Calvinist.  Next, I am a paedobaptist. Fifth, I am a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.” If you answered, “John Duncan,” or better yet, “Rabbi Duncan,” give yourself a proverbial pat on the back.

John Duncan’s years were 1796  to 1870, mostly in Scotland. His parents were  humble but pious Christians. They had a trying time in that all of their children had died in infancy. Indeed, son John developed a a case of small pox at a young age which almost killed him. In the process, it left him blind in one eye. Despite  his father’s employment as a shoemaker, son John entered at age 9 the prestigious grammar school in Aberdeen, Scotland, from which he graduated at age 14. With that he entered Manschal University, earning a master of arts in 1814.

His interest was that of becoming a minister. There was only one problem. Despite his parent’s godly heritage in the Associate Church of Scotland, young John was an atheist. Entering the theological college of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, he graduated in 1821, still holding atheistic views! After being denied entrance into the Presbytery of Aberdeen because he couldn’t affirm the Westminster Standards, he switched from atheism to theism. But he was still without Christ as Lord and Savior.

His licensure took place by the Presbytery of Aberdeen on June 24, 1825 however! (Author: Where were their minds?) John Duncan was still outside of Christ. One year later, after a personal conversation with  Rev. Cesar Milan, he finally bent his knee to Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior. After this experience, he had a lifelong dread of  superficial Christianity. On April 28, 1836, he was ordained a minister of the gospel.

In 1837, he married Janet Tower, with whom he had one child.  The difficult birth of their second child ended in both the death of his wife and child.  Looking at his wife’s body in the casket, he quoted Shorter Catechism number 37, “The souls of believers are at their death make perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.”  This  catechism answer comforted him.

It was around this time that he began to have an interest in, and sympathy for, the Jewish people, especially for their salvation. The Church of Scotland set up in 1839 a Committee for the Conversion of the Jews. Two years later, on This Day in Presbyterian History, May 16, 1841, John Duncan, his new wife, and two others moved to Hungary

His ministry there was only for two short years, but his passion for the souls of Jews caused many to dub him “Rabbi Duncan.”  Through Sabbath peaching of the gospel and what we would call “friendship evangelism” today, countless Jews became Christians.  Famous among the latter was Alfred Edersheim.  The Disruption of 1843 took place in Scotland and John “Rabbi” Duncan traveled home to his mother country.  Joining the Free Church of Scotland, he took the chair of Hebrew and Oriental Lanuages at their new college, where he stayed until his death of 1870.

Words to Live By:
There is no doubt John “Rabbi” Duncan had a spiritual journey which was long in coming.   His story cries out for our Sessions and Presbyters to make sure  that a work of saving grace has occurred in the souls of our members and candidates for church office.  Remember Jude 3 and 4.




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