John Duncan Missionary to the Hungarian Jews

John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan died, on February 26, 1870. He was not really a rabbi, but such was the nickname by which he became known.

John Duncan was born to humble, pious parents, in Gilcomston, Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1796, his father, John, being a shoemaker. Young John was the only child of his parents to survive infancy. He was a sickly child and a bout of smallpox rendered him permanently blind in one eye. His biographer describes him as “a delicate, dreamy, clever, engaging, affectionate, high-spirited and occasionally passionate boy, sometimes crying bitterly under the severity of paternal discipline, sometimes abruptly laughing aloud at the brightness, or at the humour, of his own hidden thoughts”.

Duncan spent time in atheism, despite the faith of his parents. The cogent reasoning and prayers to the “Great King” by his lecturer, Dr Mearns, gave Duncan a logical acceptance of the existence of God.

Trained for the Presbyterian ministry, and licensed to preach on June 24, 1825, it was not until the following year that he was genuinely converted, due to the personal work of Rev Dr Caesar Malan of Geneva, who visited Aberdeen on an evangelistic tour. Duncan was at that time in a state of mental depression.

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In 1828 Duncan enjoyed an additional spiritual touch on his life, which he referred to as his “second conversion”, due to its profound impact. He had become stale in his faith and struggled with that until he came again to strong conviction and soundness of belief.

In 1830 he was given 10 months as minister at the Chapel of Persie, from which his reputation as a profound, deeply-taught preacher of God’s Word began to spread. Thus he was given the post of English Assistant to the Rev Robert Clark of the Duke Street Gaelic Chapel with the duty of leading an English-speaking congregation on Sunday afternoons. And from there he was promoted to his own church, Milton Parish Church, which was built for him through a Church Building Association which had started in Glasgow.

Duncan married Janet Tower, of Aberdeen, in 1837, and she proved a valuable helpmate. However, just over two years later she died in 1840, following the premature birth of their child.

There was great interest in Scotland at that time for the winning of Jews to Christ. Duncan was strongly motivated in that direction and so, after about a decade of ministry in Glasgow, Duncan was selected to mount an evangelistic endeavour to the Jews in Budapest, Hungary. He attended to that task in the years 1841-42, ably assisted by his second wife. The Archduchess of Hungary had long been praying for the help of a man of God in her city, so was delighted to have Duncan at his work.

This was the most fruitful and happy season of Duncan’s life and ministry. Duncan’s excellent knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, customs and beliefs fascinated the Jewish community and gave him ready access to them. Among his converts were Alfred Edersheim and Adolph Saphir; both of whom became outstanding Presbyterian theologians.

Duncan later became Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Languages in New College, Edinburgh. Previously, in 1839, he had applied for the post of Dean of the Hebrew Chair of the University of Glasgow, but was unsuccessful. Dr Duncan occupied this chair for twenty-seven years from 1843 till his death in 1870.

“His students did not get much Hebrew instruction, but they were inspired by his spirit, so eminently godly” (Schaff-Herzog Encyclopaedia, page 673).

Biographer A. Moody-Stuart tells of Duncan’s strong Calvinistic views – “his aversion to Arminianism was intense” (page 192).

And the rather quaint story is told of his second marriage. Some years following the death of his first wife, Duncan married a widow named Mrs Torrance. But it nearly misfired. When the cab arrived to take him to the wedding, he was not to be found. “His niece found him in bed sound asleep with a Hebrew book in his hand” (Moody-Stuart, page 118).

And another story of his eccentricities (of which there are many) is that when asked if he would like another cup of tea – “having drained his cup 14 times, he replied, ‘No, thank you, I never take more than two cups of tea’” (page 117).

His strength waned in his later years and in January, 1870 his heart weakness significantly reduced his strength. From that time he ceased to attend the College. He passed away peacefully on the morning of February 26.

On his deathbed he said to his biographer, “I have been at the point of death. But I found that the one great mysterious death of Calvary was all I needed” (page 151).

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com