Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, wanted to learn Hebrew. In 1835 he set up the School for the Elders where Mormon men were taught grammar, writing, and history. But not long after, Smith put out word that he and his Elders were looking for a Jew.
Enter Joshua Seixas, the son of a prominent Jewish leader in New York, and a very successful Hebrew teacher. By the early 1830s upon realizing that, as a Jew, he was unlikely to be hired as a professor, the young Hebraist converted to Christianity.
But the anti-Semites of the day were not appeased—and it probably didn’t help that Seixas joined the Unitarian rather than Episcopal Church. His struggle to find steady work continued.
In a strange twist of fate, Joseph Smith hired Seixas to spend six months at the School for Elders, and was profoundly affected by him. Though Seixas no longer considered himself a Jew, Smith did. In his journal he wrote, “It seems as if the Lord opened our minds in a marvelous manner, to understand his Word in the original language.” Even well after Seixas left, Smith continued his love affair with Hebrew, even naming a city, Nauvoo, Illinois, after a word he found in the grammar that Seixas gave him.
Eventually, Seixas moved on. He never did find permanent work as a professor.
March 25, 2014