RABBI CHARLES FRESHMAN
Charles Freshman was born in Micklosh (Liptovsky Mikulas), a city pleasantly situated on the river Waag, in Hungary (present day Slovakia), as the oldest of thirteen children. His parents were strict adherents of Judaism, and the whole religious training of young Charles was strict in the extreme.
At the age of eight years Charles could read Hebrew well and translate every word without difficulty, requiring a dictionary but seldom. Being naturally very ambitious and proud, his mind became fully possessed of the one determination of becoming a Rabbi, not an ordinary Rabbi, such as one meets every day, but a great Rabbi, such as those who had immortalized their names and imprinted their thoughts upon the pages of the Talmud. Fired with this desire, he studied the Talmud day and night and soon became so proficient in it that he was able to assist his fellow students and thus earn a little money for himself. At the age of eleven he was admired for his astounding knowledge and also for his manifest piety. He used to read and pray a great deal in secret, fast very often, and be very strict and scrupulously exact in the discharge of all religious duties, but alas! He was very proud and overbearing, claiming that he knew more than the teacher himself.
His father met with a misfortune in business which involved the loss of everything. There was hardly bread enough left in the house to satisfy the present demands of the large family. Charles was being prepared for confirmation by a private teacher. But alas! When the time for confirmation came, he could not be confirmed, for the father was again so poor that he could not spare enough money to purchase the necessary phylacteries and nice clothes. Charles was extremely humiliated and resolved to leave his father’s house and enter some Jewish theological institution in some distant city. With only a few cents in his possession, Charles said goodbye to parents and home and started out into the wide, wide world alone.
After many hardships he reached a place called Namensdorf where the Rabbi received him kindly, and after satisfactory examination permitted him to become a student in the Talmudic School. The means of the new student were quite limited, and he often went hungry, but he was comparatively happy and studied diligently. Still, he was no nearer the obtaining of phylacteries and confirmation. Hence he resolved to go to Poland, where famous colleges for the training of young Jews were found. So off he started and laid out a plan to go to the great Jewish College of Helleshan in Moravia.
After five days of weary tramping he arrived at Helleshan (Holesov, Czech Republic) and at once became a student in the College. Here he remained over two years, gaining honourable distinction as a student, and resolved to go to the great city of Prague to complete his education as a Rabbi. Again he felt the pressure of hard times as he prosecuted his studies, but he persevered five years, when his education was pronounced complete. He was thoroughly acquainted with the Hebrew language and the Jewish literature, but he had also acquired a good knowledge of languages, of history, philosophy, and science in general. He received his diploma and other credentials of the highest class, and returned home prouder than ever, because he was now a Rabbi and, in his own estimation, a Rabbi of no mean importance.
Instead of looking around for a congregation, the young Rabbi began to look around for a wife, which he found at last. He was married when only 23 years old. Over a year the young couple remained with his wife’s wealthy parents, then, instead of looking for a congregation, started in business. Twice he failed, and after officiating occasionally as Rabbi in some of the small synagogues, he was induced to leave his native country for the New World. He came to Canada, accompanied by his wife and five children. Dr. DeSola, the Rabbi of the Portuguese congregation in Montreal, recommended the young Hungarian Rabbi very strongly to the congregation of Quebec, and soon after his arrival in the New World, Charles Freshman was duly installed as Rabbi of a Jewish congregation in Quebec. He at once began to learn the English language, in which he made slow progress however.
The congregation in which Mr. Freshman now ministered was composed of mixed nationalities of Jews, but chiefly German and English. He used to officiate in the Hebrew and German languages, and it was not until he had been a long time among the people that he conducted his first service in English. These Jews had little regard for their Sabbath day. Many of them would attend the services of the synagogue and immediately afterward would return to their places of business or go to the pursuit of pleasures. The Rabbi, strictly orthodox, was horrified at this impiety, and remonstrated with many of them, reproving them severely for their conduct, but he had little or no influence.
Slowly the Spirit of God began to work upon the mind of the Jewish Rabbi. Often, as he would pass through the streets and see the large congregations thronging towards the various Christian churches, or returning from the services, his mind would be variously exercised toward them. At one time he would think, “What a pity that such a multitude of people will so easily believe in falsehood, and blasphemously worship a bad man.” But again, he would reflect, “Here are men of intelligence, men of education, men of a profound acquaintance with human nature, men who have the Old Testament Scriptures as well as I have, men who are accustomed to exercise their reason and judgment in regard to their worldly affairs, and men who, I am sure, do not place implicit confidence in the Christian religion without some strong foundation upon which to base it. What if, after all, I have only examined one side of the question? What if, after all, they should be right and I should be wrong? These kinds of thoughts he usually dismissed without an effort, as a temptation of the devil, but they would frequently recur again, in spite of himself. On one occasion, after preaching to his congregation about the restoration of the people of Israel, his mind became more beclouded than ever, and he felt he did not fully believe all he had told his people. In this state of dissatisfaction and perplexity, he went to his desk and carefully unlocked it, and all the while trembling as if he were about to commit a great crime.
Hidden in that desk was a neatly bound edition of the Old and New Testaments. Years before that time, during the last years of his sojourn in Hungary, a Jewish missionary of the Scottish Church met the Jewish Rabbi in a hotel in Cashaw and persuaded him to the purchase the book. He never looked into it. When he came to Quebec and unpacked his books, he found among them his Bible which he thought he had left in Hungary. He took it and locked it up among his private papers, lest his own wife or children, or some of his congregation should find out that he had such a book in his possession. He felt like a guilty person because he did not destroy it at once, but undoubtedly God directed him to preserve it that He might bring about the final result. For now, in the hour of deepest anxiety and doubt, he unlocked his desk, took out the Bible and went into his library, locking the door securely. Then, secure from all interruption and disturbance, he opened the New Testament, and commenced hastily to read a few pages. After a very short time he threw it away in disgust, exclaiming, “This cannot be.” Soon, however, he took it up again, read a while, and again threw it from him. So he continued for about an hour. At last he became so excited that again taking up the book and reading a while, he threw it on the floor with such violence that several leaves were torn from their places. In a moment he was seized with remorse, and gathering up the loose leaves and placing them in their proper places, he carried the book to its former biding-place and locked it up, firmly resolving never to look into it again.
Evening came, but his mind was so greatly disturbed that he could scarcely perform his routine duties in his synagogue. A sleepless night followed, then another day of anxious, perplexing thoughts, at last the firm resolution carefully to study the prophets, especially those having reference to the coming of the Messiah. While engaged in this occupation, a Jewish Rabbi from Jerusalem visited Rabbi Freshman, who at once embraced the opportunity to ask the learned man concerning their Messiah. The poor Rabbi from Jerusalem could not answer the questions, and Rabbi Freshman began to think seriously that there was something wrong with the Jewish belief and that the Christians might be right. He even commenced to speak his thoughts aloud to some members of his congregation, and he read the New Testament with great care, notwithstanding all his former resolutions. A pious Christian neighbour, Mr. Hinton, spent hours with the inquiring Jew in conversation about religious topics, but the light did not come. Days and nights he searched the Bible, but conviction came not. He remained torn by doubts, neither believing in the Jewish religion fully nor yet being convinced of the truth of Christianity. He wanted to resign his Rabbiship at once, but his good wife was altogether against it, declaring, “I will never become a Christian.”
The Jewish Passover was approaching, and Rabbi Freshman had to prepare a special sermon for the occasion. The text he chose was Genesis 49:10. During the writing of the sermon doubts overcame him so that he determined not to preach it. He called in his wife and told her that he believed in Jesus as the Messiah. She commenced to weep bitterly, and the elder children, learning the state of affairs, joined in with their mother. There was lamentation and mourning, and the Rabbi himself wept. Being unable to endure the sight of misery he had thus brought upon his family, Freshman left his home and retired to a solitary place beyond the barracks of Quebec. Without human eye to witness his grief and in an agony of soul, he threw himself upon the ground and cried mightily to God. Still, relief did not come, and with a heavy heart he retraced his steps homeward. Without saying a word to his still weeping family, he went into his bedroom where he again prayed and read his Bible. He awoke, firmly resolved to give in his resignation, but again his moral courage failed him and he put it off again.
At last, on the day before the Passover, he once more prayerfully pondered over Genesis 49:10, then read Isaiah 53, and suddenly, became fully convinced that Jesus is the expected Messiah. Without the least hesitation he now wrote out his resignation and sent it to the president of the congregation.
But now the storm burst upon him in all its new fury. His wife and children wanted to celebrate the Passover as usual, while he had no desire to engage in its celebration. The Jews declared that the Rabbi was insane and dangerous, and tempted his wife and children to leave him. His friends forsook and avoided him, and a story that he had received ten thousand dollars for renouncing his faith was circulated. But, worst of all, Mr. Freshman had not yet full light. He believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but knew nothing of justification or saving faith, and had no clear conception of his condition as a sinner in the sight of God, nor of the necessity of a change of heart. His conversion was of the head, but not of the heart. Many ministers and members of churches in Quebec called on him, but the darkness continued.
In this state he continued several weeks. He again studied his Bible most diligently, commenced to attend churches of different denominations, and prayerfully sought the Lord with all his heart.
One night he was crying to God in deep, earnest prayer and was in greatest agony as he saw himself clearly as a lost sinner, unworthy of anything but condemnation. In very self-despair he cried out, “Lord, save me or I perish,” and saw no other hope but Christ. At that moment the shadows fled and the burden rolled from his troubled soul. Prayer now gave place to praise, and a marvelous change was wrought in him. He was born again.
Mr. Freshman began at once to show others what God had done for his soul. He commenced with his own family. His wife, though slow of heart to believe, consented to accompany him to church. After studying the New Testament in church his family members also came to faith in Jesus the Messiah.
Rabbi Charles Freshman, his wife and seven children, were baptized in the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Quebec. Ministers of other denominations were present and took part in the remarkable exercises, which were witnessed by a vast assemblage of Christians and by some of the members of the Jewish congregation in which Rabbi Freshman had officiated the three years preceding his baptism.
Having spent some time as a lecturer on Jewish subjects, Mr. Freshman was appointed a missionary of the Wesleyan Methodist Church among the Germans in Canada. He was ordained and served the Master faithfully until his death. The congregations which were organized chiefly through his effort were located at Hamilton, Ontario, and in its neighbourhood. Many souls were led to Christ through his efforts, among them several Jews.
—The Glory of Israel
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