Annie Jonas Wells: Jewish daughter, Episcopal wife, independent intellectual.

Author:Gensheimer, Cynthia Francis
Position:Essay
 
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Three days before Good Friday, 1870, 28-year old Annie Elizabeth Jonas Wells was baptized at St. James Episcopal Church in Painesville, Ohio. (1) She was led to the baptismal font by her husband of eight months, the Rev. Thomas B. Wells. For the rest of her life, Annie Jonas Wells was an exemplary Episcopalian. When she died at 84, her church declared it "difficult to separate her ministry from [her husband's] ... that ministry was a blended one." (2) Wells' adult life was extraordinary for the daughter of Abraham Jonas, the Jewish politician whom Abraham Lincoln called "one of my most valued friends." (3)

Nineteenth-Century Intermarriage and Conversion

Wells' unquestionable devotion to her adopted faith raises a question. What led her to take such a bold step? While nineteenth-century American religious life was fluid, with Jews free to disassociate from the Jewish community, marry outside the faith, and convert, relatively few Jewish women did so. (4) Nineteen years after Annie Jonas' wedding, when Jewish women in Kansas City discussed intermarriage, one declared that if she had married outside the faith, she would have been spurned by the "best Jewish society," but not "received by Christians" either. (5)

American rabbis rarely performed interfaith marriages, and debate raged: Should Jewish men who married out be admitted as members of synagogues? (6) But this discussion centered on the fairly common case of a Jewish man who had married a Christian woman while never formally embracing Christianity. The case of Annie Jonas was different.

In the nineteenth century, Jewish women were less likely than men to become radically assimilated, because, in general, women retained meaningful ties to Judaism longer and female society was more sequestered. (7) Nineteenth-century Jewish men severed ties to the Jewish community primarily for pragmatic reasons: in Europe, converting for better careers and, in America, marrying Christians because of the paucity of Jewish women outside the large cities of the Eastern seaboard. (8)

Prevailing Victorian attitudes held that women were the more religiously and spiritually oriented of the sexes. In America and Western Europe, most economically secure women concentrated on motherhood and on creating a refined domestic refuge for their families. Outside the home, they most often engaged in worship and sectarian philanthropy and study. Although most American Jewish women probably knew little about Christianity, some--established Americans, those of the highest social standing and those living in the West or in small towns -- mingled with Christian women. (9) Because religiosity played such a vital role in the lives of Victorian women, Jewish women who socialized with Christians could not avoid the topic of religion, and some thus exposed felt the lure of the majority religion. For a brief period around 1800, for instance, Jewish women in Berlin gained entree to the "new social universe of salons, theaters, and reading and discussion groups" and left Judaism in larger numbers than their male counterparts. (10) Their experience, attributed by Todd Endelman to the "cultural precocity of Jewish women in the earliest stages of acculturation and integration in Germany," foreshadows that of Annie Jonas. (11)

Scholars argue that while few American Jewish women converted at this time, those who did converted for an advantageous marriage, to gain social acceptance from the non-Jewish community, or out of sincere belief. (11) Annie Jonas' rare case--conversion coupled with marriage to a clergyman--tends to be most clearly associated with sincere belief. As a young woman, she had the unusual opportunity to gain entree to circles of educated, introspective Christian women who joined together for social and intellectual improvement. Women's networks like these were devoted to religiously justified activities and were permeated with religion and religious rhetoric. The influence of Christian female companionship, together with Annie's own powerful quest for knowledge and social action, brought her to the dramatic turning point of conversion. While her brothers were able to achieve prominence in politics, journalism and business without renouncing Judaism, Annie's path to assimilation encompassed the spiritual realm as well. (13) Her story adds to our understanding of female assimilation and conversion during the 19th century.

Family Background

Annie Elizabeth Jonas was born and raised in an elite, enlightened Jewish family. The seventh child of Abraham and Louisa Block Jonas, she was born in November of 1841, in Columbus, Ill., a hamlet outside of Quincy. (14) Her father was said to have been raised in a beautiful house in England, and he had emigrated in 1819 to join his older brother, Joseph, in Cincinnati. Abraham Jonas moved to the small town of Williamstown, Ky., after the 1825 deaths of his infant child and first wife, Lucia Orah Seixas, daughter of Gershom Mendes Seixas. He began life in America as a merchant, rather than as a peddler, and by the time of his daughter Annie's birth, he had already served in the Kentucky legislature and as Grand Master of the Masons of Kentucky. (15) Keenly literate and broadminded, he was elected to his one term in the Illinois legislature when Annie was a baby. Tall and lean, Jonas was considered one of the best orators in Illinois--a formidable debater. (16) As in Kentucky, he rose through the ranks and became the first Grand Master of the Masons of Illinois. He was appointed postmaster of Quincy by three presidents, but he is perhaps best known as a close friend of Abraham Lincoln--one of those integral to Lincoln's presidential nomination. (17)

Abraham Jonas had grown up one of twenty-two children born to Benjamin Jonas (1767-1846), who was "a firm adherent to all the tenets of the Faith of Israel." (18) An American Jewish newspaper recounted that when Benjamin Jonas died in Cincinnati, his "last moments were occupied by instilling the holy precepts of Israel into the minds of his surrounding family." (19) Benjamin Jonas was a goldsmith who lived most of his life in Teignmouth, England, with his wife, Annie Ezekiel (1772-1851), Annie's probable namesake. (20)

Abraham's wife, native-born Louisa Block (Bloch), came from another established Jewish family, having grown up in Richmond, Va., where her father, Bohemian immigrant Jacob Block, was known to quote scripture. He served as president of the city's first synagogue. (21) A veteran of the War of 1812., Block was a successful, well-regarded merchant. (22) Unfortunately, little is known about Louisa Block's upbringing, and even the name of her mother is unknown. (23)

The Jonas Family's Isolation from Jewish Community: A Childhood on the Frontier

When the Jonas family arrived in Illinois in 1838, no Jews yet lived in Quincy, a small but rapidly growing outpost of about 1500 residents. (24) On the Mississippi River at Illinois' westernmost point, Quincy was a commercial center of growing importance, a port for goods making their way to and from New Orleans. Mary Jane Smith Selby, who arrived in Quincy as a young girl with her family in the same year, recalled that no streets in the city were paved, and Indians were frequent visitors, sometimes inviting themselves to homes for meals." (25) She remembered attending a few musical productions and lectures, but social life centered on the several churches in town. She wrote:

The churches had their sewing societies where the ladies tacked comforters, quilted bed-quilts, or did any other available work for pay, that was, of course, donated to church or benevolent purposes. Sometimes the husbands came for tea, when quite a social evening followed. (26) Although Quincy was on the frontier, many of its early residents were well-mannered, well-educated New Englanders and Kentuckians who brought with them a formal protocol revolving around teatime visits. (27)

Historian Lauren Winner cites examples of Jewish women in small Southern towns who embraced Christianity partly as a means of countering social discrimination. (28) Although the Jonas family was on friendly terms with the most elite Protestant families in Quincy, it is unclear how much Annie Jonas' parents actually socialized with them. (29) Louisa Jonas was certainly denied entree into the church societies that ordered the social calendars of her Christian friends. But the social upheavals that occurred with the tumult of the Civil War created the opportunity for Annie Jonas to fraternize with Christian women.

In 1841, the year of Annie Jonas' birth, Abraham Jonas' bachelor brothers, Samuel and Edward, moved to Quincy and went into the business Abraham Jonas had established selling carriages, stoves and other ironware. However, no other Jews joined them until 1846, when a small influx of bachelors and a few families from Germany and Prussia increased the size of the city's Jewish population. In choosing life on the frontier, Abraham and Louisa Jonas knew that they were distancing themselves from other Jews. (30) Historian Jacob Rader Marcus concluded that most Jewish women resisted marriage that entailed going into "exile" as pioneers, but some couples were prepared to make tradeoffs that sometimes led to "divestiture, modification, even surrender of older mores and practices." (31)

Quincy's first Jewish congregation was not formally organized until Annie Jonas was fifteen years old, and there is no way to know how the Jonas family worshipped or celebrated Jewish holidays before that. Unlike Annie Jonas' uncle, Joseph Jonas, who vowed when he moved to Cincinnati in 1817 to create a thriving Jewish community, most Jews who first settled in pioneer outposts made do the best they could. (32) The Jonas family maintained ties with extended family spread far and wide and, in the early years, probably joined them for important holidays. (33) In 1853, the Jonases invited Louis Schwarzkopf, spiritual...

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