Originally published in the AMF anniversary booklet 100 Years of Blessing, AMFI, 1987
In what is often the humdrum of daily life there is sometimes an exciting leap in the progress of world events. Yet the swift pace of history’s forward tread tends to diminish in our eyes even the most significant of events.
For example, we who live in the last score of years of this century too easily overlook the meteoric rise of Israel, now on the verge of its fortieth year of statehood. A generation has come into the world without fully appreciating the miracle of the event that transpired on May 14·, 1948 when the people of Israel obtained distinctive status in the world. Once again after almost two millennia they had a land and a government of their own! Those who on that day were children, or have been born since, cannot appreciate the birth pains and travail that brought about that event. The history leading to that day, along with some of the players, should be brought to the attention of a new generation. Thus, they too may have occasion to marvel in God’s sovereign working in the affairs of me. 1987 marks the centennial anniversary of an organization that is in the forefront of reminding God’s people of His eternal promises to His ancient people, Israel. The early decades of the nineteenth century were not noted for an interest in future events. Great attention was being given to the growth of a bright star on the international scene, the United States. The Industrial Revolution with its far-reaching effects was in its early stages in America. What would become huge cosmopolitan areas, diverse in ethnic background, were beginning to rise across this mighty land.
At the same time God was bringing to the fore men of spiritual vibrancy, evangelistic fervor and deep biblical insight. Men like D. L. Moody, Ira Sankey, James Hall Brooke and William Eugene Blackstone were raised up of God to teach a generation of believers the Word. They imparted a spiritual vision of how God, in the midst of the frenetic growth in America, would draw multitudes to Himself. It is on one of these men that we focus our attention.
As is often the case, God did not select in W. E. Blackstone a man of high birth or noble parentage, but obscure origins. His outstanding achievements are known, but the man himself remains in the shadows. In fact, the principal source for recorded details concerning his life is found only in the archives of the American Messianic Fellowship. (This mission agency stands as one of the remaining monuments to this man’s ministry. His dedicated contributions to it from the very formative stage earned him the title “founder.”) His quarterly letters written to the Chicago Hebrew Mission (as the work was then known) over the many years of his ministry provide the source of our insight into his ministry. This correspondence unveils ‘ a heart of love and service to believers as well as to the Jewish people.
William Eugene Blackstone would be the first to disclaim credit for any of his achievements. He often referred to himself as “God’s little errand boy.” This was without cynicism or sarcasm, but was the genuine, wholehearted response of a man who accorded to God the glory for anything accomplished in or through his life. Born October 6, 1841 in Adams, New York, his parents were relatively unknown but earnest believers attending the Methodist church in Adams. (Interestingly, this is the same town that was the natural and spiritual birthplace of Charles E. Finney, the evangelist, another of the men God used to leave an indelible mark upon this land.)
Blackstone accepted the Lord Jesus Christ at the age of eleven during evangelistic meetings at the Methodist church his parents attended. While he did attend an “academy,” he never was privileged to attend college or seminary. Yet he enjoyed reading and multi-faceted study throughout his life. From the smallest particle to the exhaustless universe, his mind constantly searched for truth.
He frequently utilized available libraries in his travels. We learn of this through his letters to readers of The Jewish Era, periodical of the Chicago Hebrew Mission. In one dated 1900 he mentions, “There are few places on earth where any line of study or original investigation can be more practically and helpfully pursued than right here in Washington, D.C.” He went on to mention that he was putting many of his spare hours into research concerning protozoa, cryptogramic botany, bacteriology, etc. Moreover, he found such study “enchantingly interesting.”
On another occasion, while at Cayuga Lake in New York, he wrote, “I spent much time making a large map of the heavens to illustrate the subject of ‘The Gospel in the Stars.’ ” While not a man of letters, he had an exhaustless curiosity that drove him to search out knowledge and discern truth in order that it might be brought to bear upon his ministry. His greatest study, however, was spent in the pages of the eternal Word of God.
A great cataclysm swept America in the years 1861-65. The Civil War that would tear this nation asunder and split families began in the spring of young William’s nineteenth year. He sought to enlist for military service but was not accepted due to “frailness of body’ Thus, he voluntarily joined the United States Christian Commission (which functioned during the Civil War in a fashion similar to our modern Red Cross). He was stationed much of the time at General U.S. Grant’s headquarters. In fact, he carefully garnered and preserved the signatures of great men of that era such as General Grant and President Abraham Lincoln.
On June 5, 1866, with the war over and the rehabilitation of our land underway, Blackstone married Sarah Lee Smith. The couple settled in Oak Park, Illinois in 1870. There he engaged in the “business of building and property investments” – and was very successful. Three children were born to them: Andrew (who followed his father in the business world); Harry (who became a missionary to China); and Flora (who was an inveterate companion of her father until her death while a student at Oberlin College in 1892).
A contemporary and colaborer in his years of ministry with the Chicago Hebrew Mission was Mrs. T. C. Rounds. She first met Mr. Blackstone at a noon meeting in Chicago over which D. L. Moody presided. She gave this description of the encounter: “A tall, fine intellectual man with sideburns rose with Bible in hand and gave a short, most interesting talk on the Jews, a people chosen by God to manifest His power and His love to. . .a world steeped in deepest idolatry.”
At the height of his business success there was the temptation to push on and become even more prominent in business. After all, the metropolitan Chicago area was booming. Also, among his close associates were men like Marvin Hewitt, of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad; and his cousin, Mr. T. B. Blackstone, president of the Chicago and Alton Railroad. However, according to Blackstone’s testimony, God spoke to his heart. Getting out of bed in his Oak Park home in the middle of the night, he went to his knees and for hours wrestled with God in prayer. At last, rising to his feet, he made a promise to God that he would undertake no more business obligations until he had attempted to preach the gospel for at least two years.
It was soon afterward that God took him at his word. He was called to assist in an evangelistic meeting in Aurora, Illinois. Blackstone, upon arrival at the meeting, was dismayed to find himself scheduled as the principal speaker that Sunday evening. In the congregation were trained theologians and church leaders. Humbly he asked that he have the privilege of yielding the pulpit to some of the better-trained members of the congregation. The request was rejected, so he asked for time to pray. While in prayer he was assured by God that this trembling servant would be His minister of the Word. God, moreover, laid upon his heart the text in Mark 9:19, “Bring him unto me.”
The text gripped Blackstone’s heart. He realized that, while he himself had no ability, the responsibility of bringing men to the Savior in order that God might deal with them was his. He embraced the concept of being “God’s little errand boy:’ bringing the message of redemption to man with the results left to God. This led him to greater personal evangelistic effort and opened his heart and mind to a world of mankind in need of salvation. He stepped to the pulpit with a topic that had gripped his own heart. God used his theme to touch hearts of the hearers to whom he ministered as he spoke on the urgency of bringing men to Christ.
Having launched into a ministry of urging others to bring people to Christ, he soon gave up thoughts of ever returning to his business again. The man who had once remarked, “it would be just as easy to own a railroad as to own a farm:’ now found God’s business far more challenging and rewarding.
Early in his ministry, Blackstone’s interest in the subject of biblical prophecy was whetted during a sermon by a Presbyterian pastor. He was impressed with the number of prophecies in the Scriptures concerning the second coming of Christ. In his personal study, the prophecies of the restoration of Israel to their land soon gripped his mind and heart.
This interest was not unique with him, but was common to other men in whose company he traveled. One of his preaching itineraries brought him to a YMCA convention in Sedalia, Missouri. There he urged the well-known Presbyterian pastor, Rev. James Hall Brooke, to write a tract on the second coming of Christ. Blackstone promised to cover the cost of printing and then distribute that tract on trains as he traveled. (Distributing literature was his custom wherever he went.) In response, Pastor Brooke suggested that Blackstone write the tract himself and that he, Brooke, would then publish it.
With great trepidation and humility Blackstone undertook the responsibility, writing two short tracts on the subject of the second coming of Christ. Later, evangelist Charles M. Morton suggested he combine the two tracts into one. The result was a paper-covered booklet of ninety-six pages, bearing on its title page the simple inscription: Jesus Is Coming by W.E.B. In humility he would not allow his name to be used in conjunction with the earth-transforming event that would transpire; only his initials were used. Over one million copies have been printed since the book was first published, and it has been translated into at least forty-seven different languages.
In his preaching as well as in his writing, Blackstone proclaimed the premillennial return and pretribulation rapture of the Church. Christ, he wrote, would return to rapture His Church and after the tribulation would return to this earth to set up His kingdom. During that seven year period, the antichrist would come to power and reign. The rapture would “occur at any moment:’ and the Church would be taken “like Enoch” out of the world.
As he ministered across the land, this remarkable layman spoke with increasing fervor and at great length of the restoration of Israel to their land – this at the time when such an event seemed the remotest of possibilities. He looked upon the nation as “God’s sun-dial.” “If anyone desires to know our place in God’s chronology, our position in the march of events, look at Israel:’ he repeatedly proclaimed. Thus, Blackstone became increasingly preoccupied with the Jewish people, their land and the promised return of Israel to that land. He felt it anticipatory to the imminent rapture of the Church.
His ministry to the Church in urging men to win others to Christ did not hinder his own outreach. The year 1887 marked a very significant intensification of Blackstone’s activities in seeking to reach Jewish people for their Messiah. On November 4, 1887, he joined in forming the Chicago Committee for Hebrew Christian Work, effectively establishing the first formalized endeavor to “undertake Gospel work among the Jews of Chicago.” Two years later the work was formally incorporated as the Chicago Hebrew Mission. (In 1953, due to the enlarged outreach of the ministry, the name was changed to the American Messianic Fellowship.) The expressed purpose was to “undertake Gospel work among the Jews of Chicago.” A reading room was opened with literature placed on the tables in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, German and English by Mr. Bernhard Angel, the first missionary hired by the board of trustees. Blackstone had served as secretary-treasurer of the original committee. In 1889 he was elected vice-president, serving also as the first superintendent of the Chicago Hebrew Mission.
In 1888, accompanied by his daughter Flora, he visited Palestine and later stayed in London, England, in order to attend the General Missionary Conference. This foreign tour continued for almost a year. Shortly after his return to the United States, he was burdened to organize what has since been called “the first conference between Jews and Christians.” It was in this conference that much would be accomplished in moving the world governments to allow Jewish people to immigrate to Palestine. The eventual outcome of this conference, followed by the work of other men like Theodor Herzl, Leon Pinsker and William Hechler, would be the establishment of the modern State of Israel. (It is fascinating to contemplate the role of committed believers in bringing about Israel’s rebirth as a nation.)
It was late fall of 1890 – four years before the Parisian trial of Dreyfus which stimulated the Zionist work of Theodor Herzl. History records an important prelude to the setting up of the State of Israel for the return of the Jewish people to their land. The Conference on the Past, Present and Future of Israel was conducted November 24-25, 1890 at the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago. Blackstone’s account of the conference stated that “neither Jew nor Gentile was asked to do violence to his convictions but all were desired to remember the meekness of the Law-giver and tenderness of the Author of the Sermon on the Mount.”
Those participating in the conference included some of the best-known leaders of both the Jewish and Christian communities. William Blackstone served as chairman of the conference. Resolutions of sympathy for the oppressed Jews living in Russia were passed, and copies of those resolutions were forwarded to the Czar as well as other world leaders. Blackstone was convinced that mere resolutions – even though passed by extremely prominent men – were insufficient. He advocated strongly that per mission be granted by world leaders for the return of Jewish people to Palestine.
The Blackstone Petition of 1891 was the product of the conference. It was a memorial signed by 4·13 outstanding Christian and Jewish leaders in the United States. These men of influence wrote to President Benjamin Harrison. They urged him to use his good offices with various European governments “to secure the holding, at an early date, of an international conference to consider the condition of Israelites and their claims to Palestine as their ancient home, and to promote in all other just and proper ways the alleviation of their suffering condition.”
The memorial was so designed as to be sent to all of the principal nations of the world. Soon to be called the “Blackstone Memorial,” the document received a most remarkable endorsement from editors, statesmen, clergymen and notable citizens of the United States. As Black stone traveled, God gave him favor in the eyes of those whose signatures he sought for his Memorial. Although it was not immediately successful, it had great influence in strengthening the kindly attitude of the United States toward such a proposition.
Growing out of the conference with its resultant memorial was an interesting insight into Jewish thinking about Palestine in that era. In an article entitled, “William E. Blackstone, Zionist” (The New Palestine, March 7, 1941) the Jewish reaction to Black stone’s plea for the return of the Jews to their land is documented:
“The clergymen were surprised at the attitude of the Rabbis…a marked feature on this occasion was the disavowal by the Jewish speakers of any hope of the return to Palestine.”
As events would later prove, Jewish leaders did not want to return to Palestine. They felt that such a return would simply make Palestine a huge ghetto for world Jewry. The Jewish people were satisfied to live in the countries to which the dispersion had brought them. There they took up the culture and customs of the people among whom they were presently living, and considering the cities in which they lived as “their Jerusalem.” Frankly, there was little or no interest on the part of the Jewish community as a whole for a return to their ancient land. This was expressed by Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch when he said,
“We modern Jews do not wish to be restored to Palestine…the country wherein we live is our Palestine…we will not go back…to form again a nationality of our own:’
Obviously, the history of the past forty years has proven Rabbi Hirsch wrong. The Jewish people have returned to their land, and today over three million of them live in Israel.
Lethargy toward a return to Palestine on the part of Jewish people living in emancipated countries did not negate their concern for persecuted Jewish people living in other lands. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Russia was noted for its overt and severe persecution of Jewish people. Forced to leave their homes and move within the boundaries of the Pale of Settlement in Russia, the ghettoized Jews became handy scapegoats for the Czars. The lot of the Jewish person in Russia at the turn of the century was most deplorable.
This weighed heavily upon the Christian conscience of Blackstone and others. His efforts were redoubled in seeking to move governments to take steps to alleviate this terrible persecution of the Jewish people. Undergirding his actions was the scriptural realization that the Jewish people would one day have to return to their land. God had decreed it! Thus, he became an even more ardent Zionist as days went by.
In recognition of these efforts, Nathan Straus, prominent New York businessman and philanthropist on behalf of Palestine (the city of Netanya bears his name), wrote to Mr. Blackstone in a letter dated May 8, 1916:
“Mr. Brandeis (Louis D. Brandeis, first Jewish Supreme Court Justice) is perfectly infatuated with the work that you have done along the lines of Zionism. It would have done your heart good to have heard him assert what a valuable contribution to the cause your document is. In fact he agrees with me that you are the Father of Zionism, as your work antedates Herzl.”
The Pan-Jewish Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, accorded him the same honor. What an accolade for “God’s little errand boy” from such Jewish notables!
Thus was W E. Blackstone used of God to stir the conscience of a nation and then a world toward action in behalf of the persecuted Jewish people. He also moved believers to a renewed study of the prophetic teachings of the Word. For Blackstone, all of this effort was the outworking of one grand prophetic scheme that was highlighted by the imminent return of the Savior for His Church.
Comparatively few religious writings have had the widespread distribution that the book Jesus Is Coming has enjoyed. Its impact is seen in the testimony of well-known men who have enjoyed great influence in the Christian church. R. A. Torrey, former dean of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and President of Moody Bible Institute, recorded:Jesus is Coming, W.E.B.
“The book, Jesus Is Coming by W.E.B., was the first book that made the coming of Christ a living reality. I had already become convinced that our Lord’s coming would be before the millennium, having reached that conclusion, having studied the works of the Danish theologian, Martenson, but it was merely a theological conception until I read the book Jesus Is Coming. It was this that first brought me to definite convictions and made the doctrine not only clear, but very precious. It is one of the books that has had a decidedly formulative influence on my life and teaching. I always recommend it to those who are beginning the study of the subject.”
J. Wilbur Chapman, noted Presbyterian minister, wrote: “A number of years ago I had placed in my hands the little book, Jesus Is Coming by W.E.B. Prior to that time I had no defined method of Bible study, and I confess it would seem that I had very little passion for Bible reading and the winning of souls. This book completely revolutionized my thinking, gave me a conception of Christ and a new understanding of what it meant to work for Him.”
John Witmer, writing for Moody Monthly in May, 1960, twenty-five years after Mr. Blackstone’s death, spoke of the influence of Jesus Is Coming on one pastor. He wrote:
Church services were cancelled. A storm such as develops only in Texas engulfed the community. In his study, D. K. Ferguson settled down with a small book which had lain, unread, for years on his library shelf. It was W. E. Blackstone’s Jesus Is Coming.
All that day and far into the night he read the book and studied the truths it had unfolded about our Lord’s return. As a result, Ferguson was a different man. His spiritual life was changed; his doctrine was changed; his ministry was changed. The Bible was a new book for him…
That small book, Jesus Is Coming, also worked in the lives of many others to enlighten them to the truth of the prophetic Word and the return of the Lord. Charles G. Trumbull read the book at the suggestion of a friend who encouraged him to study the subject of the Lord’s Second Coming. He promised that he would find it the ‘key to the Bible.’ Through this study, Trumbull became a premillennialist. At one time, it was the practice to give each graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary a copy of Jesus Is Coming as he stepped out of the door of Miller Chapel after the commencement exercise.
The missionary interest of W.E. Blackstone was multi-faceted. He understood that the prophetic teaching of the premillennial return of Christ gives great impetus toward the speedy evangelization of the entire world. He created missionary maps at his own effort and expense which showed the condition of every missionary field in the world. He soon became a recognized expert on worldwide missions. Invitations to speak at missionary conferences flooded in. Doors were opened for song and testimony as well as for the ministry of the Word. Thus, he began an itinerant ministry across the land urging others in the light of the imminent return of Christ to speedily seek to evangelize the lost. A. B. Simpson attended such a missionary address delivered at Old Orchard Beach in Maine by Mr. Blackstone. There he was inspired to organize the Christian Alliance (now the Christian and Missionary Alliance) with its tremendous program of foreign missions.
This man touched by God, motivated by the realization of the imminent return of Christ, gave his time, talent and strength, but his finances as well. Ever a heavy contributor to missions, he also sought funds for missions through appeals. He never harangued for money and always gave more heavily than he asked from others. Early in his ministry it is written that his mother-in-law, Mrs. Adalaine Smith, appointed him manager of her husband’s estate of $125,000. In the next fourteen years Blackstone had given from that fund more than $135,000 to Christian institutions scattered throughout the world. The Sunday School Times published the list of those who received funds without any hint of Blackstone’s connection. After all, he was just “God’s little errand boy.”
Blackstone once said, “Oh, if so much can be done with $135,000, think what God could do with a million dollars!” He began to ask God for someone to give him a million dollars. He spent five years distributing literature in China sponsored by Milton Stewart of the Union Oil Company of California. He was then asked to be the trustee of the Milton Stewart Fund of two million dollars. (Milton and his brother Lyman Stewart are perhaps best known in Christian circles as the financiers for publication of The Fundamentals.) Over a period of time he was able to give upwards of six million dollars to the Lord’s work. God had trusted him in small things and now trusted him in large things as well. Three times over he gave his personal fortune of $50,000 to the Lord’s work.
In his concern for the expenditure of all funds entrusted to him and looking toward the Rapture, he wrote to Louis D. Brandeis, Jewish Justice of the Supreme Court. He requested that these funds, including the trust and his own estate, be handled in a unique manner. He wanted them to be used for Jewish believers who, following the Rapture of the Church, would be sealed for a ministry of evangelism on a worldwide scope. Explicit directions were given Mr. Brandeis, a personal acquaintance, on where the funds were located. He stipulated how they could be made available for use in the continued work of evangelization during the Tribulation. Justice Brandeis accepted the responsibility and kept in his own personal strong box the records and requests given him by Mr. Blackstone.
Life-long service, unstinting obedience to the Savior, and the careful use of entrusted funds were the hallmarks of this man’s life. Always aware of God-given responsibilities and resources, he wanted to serve God in a way that counted for eternity. His homegoing on November 7, 1935 ended the earthly sojourn of “God’s little errand boy.” His humility, evangelistic fervor and perceptive writings not only continue to glorify God but also to benefit the Church. Indeed, the ministry of the American Messianic fellowship continues today as part of the legacy of its founder and friend of Israel, William E. Blackstone.