Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wolff, Joseph

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WOLFF, JOSEPH (1795–1862), missionary, the son of a Jewish rabbi of the tribe of Levi named David, by his wife Sarah, daughter of Isaac Lipchowitz of Bretzfeld, was born at Weilersbach, near Forchheim and Bamberg, in 1795. He originally bore, according to oriental custom, the single name of Wolff, conferred in circumcision, but on baptism he took the christian name of Joseph, and Wolff became his surname. In the year of his birth Wolff's father removed to Kissingen to avoid the French, in 1796 he proceeded to Halle, and in 1802 again removed to Ullfeld in Bavaria. When he was eleven his father became rabbi at Württemberg, and sent him to the protestant lyceum at Stuttgart, whence he afterwards removed to Bamberg. While still a youth he learnt Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Leaving home on account of Christian sympathies, after many wanderings he was converted to Christianity in part through perusing the writings of Johann Michael von Sailer, bishop of Regensburg, and he was baptised on 13 Sept. 1812 by Leopold Zolda, abbot of the Benedictines of Emaus, near Prague. In 1813 he commenced to study Arabic, Syriac, and Chaldæan, and in that and the following year he attended theological lectures in Vienna, where he was intimate with Professor Johannes Jahn, the oriental scholar; Friedrich von Schlegel; Theodor Körner; the poet Werner; and Clement Maria Hoffbauer, the general of the Redemptorists. After visiting the great Friedrich Leopold, count of Stolberg, at his palace at Tatenhausen, near Bielefeld in Ravensberg, he entered the university at Tübingen in 1815, and by the liberality of Prince Dalberg he was enabled to study the oriental languages and theology for nearly two years. He devoted himself chiefly to the oriental languages, particularly Arabic and Persian, but he also acquired a knowledge of ecclesiastical history and biblical exegesis under Professors Steudel, Schnurrer, and Flatt. In 1816 he left Germany, visited Zschokke, Madame la Baronne de Krudener, and Pestalozzi in Switzerland, and spent some months with the Prussian ambassador, Count Waldbourg-Truchsess, and Madame de Stael-Holstein at Turin. He arrived in Rome in the same year, and was introduced to Pius VII by the Prussian ambassador. He was received on 5 Sept. 1816 as a pupil of the Collegio Romano and afterwards of the Collegio di Propaganda, but about two years later, having publicly attacked the doctrine of infallibility and assailed the teaching of the professors, he was expelled from the city for erroneous opinions.

After a visit to Vienna he entered the monastery of the Redemptorists at Val Sainte, near Fribourg; but, disliking the system of the monastery, he shortly after came to London to visit Henry Drummond [q. v.], whose acquaintance he had made at Rome. He soon declared himself a member of the church of England, and at Cambridge resumed his study of oriental languages under Samuel Lee (1783–1852) [q. v.] and of theology under Charles Simeon [q. v.] He resolved to visit eastern lands to prepare the way for missionary enterprises among the Jews, Mohammedans, and Christians who inhabited them, and commenced his extraordinary nomadic career in oriental countries. Between 1821 and 1826 he travelled as a missionary in Egypt and the Sinaitic peninsula, and, proceeding to Jerusalem, was the first modern missionary to preach to the Jews there. He afterwards went to Aleppo, and sent Greek boys from Cyprus to be educated in England. He continued his travels in Mesopotamia, Persia, Tiflis, and the Crimea, returning to England through European Turkey. While in England he met Edward Irving [q. v.], through whom he made the acquaintance of his first wife. About 1828 Wolff commenced another expedition in search of the lost ten tribes. After suffering shipwreck at Cephalonia and being succoured by Sir Charles James Napier [q. v.], whose friendship he preserved through life, he went to Jerusalem, Alexandria, Anatolia, Constantinople, Armenia, and Khorassan, where he was made a slave but was rescued by Abbas Mirza. Undaunted, he traversed Bokhara, Balkh, and reached Kábul, emerging from Central Asia in a state of nudity after having been plundered and compelled to march six hundred miles without clothing. From Ludiána he went to Calcutta in a palanquin, preaching at a hundred and thirty stations on his way. At Simla Lady William Bentinck told him that, though she had convinced the governor-general's court that he was not mad, she could not persuade them that he was not an enthusiast; to which he replied, ‘I hope I am an enthusiast drunk with the love of God.’ After visiting Kashmir he was seized with cholera near Madras. On his recovery he went to Pondicherry in a palanquin, visited the mission in Tinnevelli, and proceeded by Goa to Bombay. He returned westward by Egypt and Malta. In 1836 he journeyed to Abyssinia, where he found at Axum Samuel Gobat, afterwards bishop of Jerusalem. He conveyed Gobat, who was very ill, to Jiddah, and then proceeded to Sana in Yemen, where he visited the Rechabites and Wahabites. After visiting Bombay he went on to the United States, where he preached before congress and received the degree of D.D. at Annapolis in Maryland. In 1837 he was ordained deacon by the bishop of New Jersey, and in 1838 priest by the bishop of Dromore. In the same year he was instituted rector of Linthwaite in Yorkshire. In 1843 he made a second journey to Bokhara in order to ascertain the fate of Lieutenant-colonel Charles Stoddart [q. v.] and of Captain Arthur Conolly [q. v.] He was sent out by a committee formed in London by Captain John Grover, which raised 500l. for his journey. His mission involved him in the gravest peril, for Stoddart and Conolly had already been executed, and their executioner was sent to despatch Wolff also. He escaped almost miraculously, and brought to England the first authentic news of the fate of the two officers. After his return, on 11 April 1845, he published in London and New York a ‘Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara to ascertain the Fate of Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly’ (2 vols. 8vo), which reached a seventh edition in 1852 (Edinburgh, 8vo). Portions of his journal were published in the ‘Athenæum’ between 1844 and 1845 during the expedition. In 1845 he was presented to the vicarage of Ile Brewers in Somerset, where he died on 2 May 1862, while contemplating a new and wider missionary journey (cf. Dr. Wolff's New Mission, 1860). He was twice married: first, on 6 Feb. 1827, to Georgiana Mary, sixth daughter of Horatio Walpole, second earl of Orford (of the second creation). By her he had a son, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, G.C.B. (1830–1908), named after his earliest English friend. She died on 16 Jan. 1859, and on 14 May 1861 he married, secondly, Louisa Decima, youngest daughter of James King (1767–1842) of Staunton Court, Herefordshire, rector of St. Peter-le-Poer, London.

Wolff was a singular personality. At home in any kind of society in Europe or Asia, he fascinated rather than charmed by his extraordinary vitality and nervous energy. He signed himself ‘Apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ for Palestine, Persia, Bokhara, and Balkh,’ and styled himself the Protestant Xavier. Xavier, indeed, was his constant model, and he ‘lamented that he had not altogether followed that missionary in the matter of celibacy, such was the sorrow that their separation, by his frequent wanderings, brought on Lady Georgiana and himself’ (Smith, Life of Wilson, p. 124).

Besides the work already mentioned, Wolff was the author of:

  1. ‘Sketch of the Life and Journal of Joseph Wolff,’ Norwich 1827, 12mo.
  2. ‘Missionary Journal and Memoir,’ ed. John Bayford, London, 1824, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1827–9, 3 vols. 8vo.
  3. ‘Journal of Joseph Wolff for 1831,’ London, 1832, 8vo.
  4. ‘Researches and Missionary Labours among the Jews, Mohammedans, and other Sects between 1831 and 1834,’ Malta, 1835, 8vo; 2nd edit. London, 1835, 8vo.
  5. ‘Journal of Joseph Wolff, containing an Account of his Missionary Labours from 1827 to 1831, and from 1835 to 1838,’ London, 1839, 8vo.
  6. ‘Travels and Adventures of Joseph Wolff,’ London, 1860, 2 vols. 8vo; 2nd edit. 1861; translated into German in 1863.

[Wolff's Works; Gent. Mag. 1862, ii. 107–9; Burke's Peerage, s.v. ‘Orford;’ Burke's Landed Gentry, s.v. ‘King;’ Joseph Leech's Church-goer, 1847, i. 233–41; Memoir of Bishop Gobat, 1884, pp. 177–80; Smith's Life of Wilson of Bombay, 1878, pp. 251–2.]

E. I. C.