The Conversion of Edward A. Steiner
By Dennis Haas
St. Peter and I is "a volume of Edward A. Steiner's writing which would present the underlying basis for his conversion from Judaism to Christianity, an act which lay at the heart of his life as lecturer, minister, and teacher." However, the collector of these writings, grandson Henry-York Steiner, concludes that "nowhere in Edward A. Steiner's writings have I found a satisfactory account of the actual circumstances of his conversion." Though it is true that in his writings Steiner does seem to make more of becoming a United States citizen than he does of becoming a Christian, I shall argue that his many writings, some of them autobiographical, do tell us much about his conversion, especially events in his boyhood which had a significant impact upon his life.
Edward was born Nov. 1, 1866, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the Czech Republic. As part of the Jewish community, young Edward was required to go to the local synagogue where his Uncle Isaac was the leader of the Orthodox group. There he experienced worship that, in his young opinion, was barren with long tedious prayers, a Judaism that did not satisfy his spiritual hunger. So commenced his quarrel with the synagogue. "First, it made the traditional ceremonials and observances a law of God. Secondly, it was intolerantly exclusive against those outside its own pale and those within, who saw the larger light." Thus the more his strict uncle chastised young Edward, the more he rebelled and looked elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment.
Clearly the most important and influential person in Edward's life was his mother. God, for Steiner, was in the home more than in the synagogue. "God looked like my mother, whom he had overendowed with kindness, and whose lips rarely spoke except to help and comfort." In Steiner's parable of the cherries, he goes with his mother to market where she purchases cherries from a Roman Catholic woman, a Protestant woman, and a Jewish woman, putting each purchase in a separate bag. At home all the cherries are put into one large bowl, then each cherry is opened to separate the good cherries from the bad. The lesson Edward learned is that we cannot tell the difference between the cherries bought from these women because the only important difference is good and bad. Later his mother says to him, "Yes, my boy, we are made of the same clay and I believe we have the same spirit in us, no matter what our race or faith." When his dear mother died, Steiner tells us that "the Lutheran church bell rings its thin, defiant note, from away beyond the barns, and the Roman Catholic bell responds with its mightier peal from the center of the town, and now their notes seem to blend with each other and with the solemn chant of the Jews, as they mourn a good woman who has gone to her reward." Thanks to his mother, Edward grew up in a home "where Judaism was more an inward experience than an outward expression."
As a Jewish lad in a predominantly Christian village, Edward did have some positive experiences with certain Christians. In the final chapter of St. Peter and I titled "Looking Back," Steiner reflects upon those boyhood years: "There by divine Province I was being prepared to be a teacher of applied Christianity. My instructors were Christina, my Christian nurse, who so skillfully blended my Jewish prayers with her Catholic devotions, the Pany's sister who told me that the Lord Jesus was once a Jewish boy, and the Lutheran pastor who shielded me from a mob." Christina made sure that Edward said his prayers. She took him to High Mass. And when Edward was caught stealing, she sacrificed her favorite chicken to save his soul. Above all, this Roman Catholic nurse assured the boy that there was only one God for all. To him she was a saint. It was the local Lutheran pastor who dispersed a mob outside the Steiner home during the Passover meal. Then he joined the family, sitting in the chair reserved for the proph et Elijah and drinking from the cup of Elijah. When asked by Edward's stern uncle why this Christian had helped them, the pastor described his vision of the Kingdom of God: "that a day will come when all the scattered shall be gathered again; when no barriers of race or religion shall divide; when the strong shall serve the weak, the rich shall succor the poor; and when the chief delight of men will be to do the will of God." The Kingdom of God was to become an important theme for Steiner the Christian.
However, as a Jewish lad Steiner experienced hatred and "the cruelty of religious prejudice." He was called "Jew boy" and "Christ killer" and was severely beaten by both Catholics and Protestants. To satisfy his hunger for beauty and harmony, which he found missing in his orthodox uncle's religion, Ed would peep into the village church to share in Christian worship. For doing this, Steiner writes, I "was often punished by my relatives for my transgression against the law, and by the Christians, for what they were pleased to call my impudence." "Yet," he writes elsewhere, "I remember the punishment less than the fact that it was my first conscious worship; a real attempt to commune with the Unseen. ... I felt a premonition that some day I should enter into whatever experiences the cross held for a human soul." In spite of these many bad experiences, Edward's mother always "loved the hate out of him."
As a boy Steiner recalls hearing someone call Jesus "you bastard Jew." His heart went out to Jesus at once. "I pitied Him, and, oh, I knew just how to pity Him! No Gentile knows the woes of Christ as we who are His kin, and who are not so alien to His spirit as others think. And so I pitied Him because He was a Jew, smitten and cursed, and crucified again, by one for whom He died." There is no doubt that the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy had a tremendous influence on Steiner. In the final chapter of St. Peter and I, Steiner credits this spiritual giant as the one who "opened the door to his home and to his soul, revealing to me the essence of the gospel story." And there is no doubt that young Steiner first visited Tolstoy prior to his coming to the United States in 1886 at age 20. There were six such visits in all. How much effect did Tolstoy have on young Steiner prior to his conversion? In his account of that initial visit, Steiner asks his new mentor, "Is there a God?" "Yes, God is spirit; God is love." Then this Jewish lad asks what Tolstoy believes about Jesus. His unorthodox response later became central in Steiner's Christianity. Jesus "expressed fully the will of God in His Teachings. ... God dwelt in Him fully, always even as He wants to dwell fully in you. The salvation He brings is, that He has taught us that without love we cannot be the children of God." Steiner's conve rsion to Christianity was a conversion to Tolstoy's radical understanding of the Christian tradition.
In the Fall 2004 issue of The Grinnell Magazine in a letter to the editor, Henry-York Steiner writes that his grandfather had little, if any, extensive contact with Tolstoy before coming to America and his conversion. "I think they held compatible secular views, but that religious conversion was not, at least significantly, the consequence of Tolstoy's influence." This seems contrary to Edward A. Steiner's own words quoted above. Indeed it can be argued that Tolstoy's view of Christ and Christianity, his not stressing the divinity of Jesus and Christian dogma, made this tradition so appealing to Steiner.
At the age of 19 Steiner received his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg. The following year, 1886, he fled Europe and immigrated to America. Why flee? According to family oral history, he had to escape from the Austro-Hungarian secret police because of his involvement with student and worker socialist groups, including his interest in literature banned by the state. Possibly Steiner left his beloved mother behind because he feared being conscripted into the Austrian imperial army.
Young Steiner arrived at Ellis Island not knowing English and with little money in his pocket. While toiling for a time as a garment worker in New York City, he drifted into a Fifth Avenue church and remembered his first glimpse of a church back home. "I recalled my wavering between faith and unbelief, my firm denial of the Deity and the latent hunger and thirst for contact with that great Something which could not be blotted out by syllogisms and which had defied my defiance of it."
While working in a New York City sweatshop, Steiner attended night school to learn English. As he slowly but surely moved westward, he earned survival money by laboring in fields, mills, mines and factories. A turning point in his life ("A Turning Point" is the title of a key chapter in Steiner's autobiography, From Alien to Citizen) occurred when he was a store clerk in a Midwestern small town which Steiner calls Bethlehem. Why Bethlehem? Because as Jesus was born in another Bethlehem, now Steiner was to be born into the Christian faith in this out-of-the-way place. Here he mingled with professional Jews and Gentiles at a time when his religious life was probably at its lowest ebb. Steiner experienced a spiritual hunger that his new secular Jewish friends "did not and could not satisfy." He attended a church "whose self-sacrificing pastor and his wife were, and still are to me, most convincing examples of the Christian life." Soon his outward opposition to religion decreased and Christ began to look human to him. "His artificial halo disappeared. I saw Him walking among men, and began to feel His power. ... Again I saw the face of Tolstoy, whose touch upon my life had never been lost."
However, Steiner's spiritual hunger met grave obstacles. He did not share many of the beliefs of his Christian friends, especially that conversion should be a volcanic change following confession of sin and a desire to be saved. Rather Steiner yearned for a more quiet, more mystical change. "I desired salvation, not for myself alone, but for the world I knew to be in need of it." Another obstacle for him was his "horror of the so-called converted Jew, who often changes his faith from convenience and not from conviction. ... My final determination to take the momentous step was brought about by an event which transpired in the Jewish home which had first sheltered me, and where I was a guest at dinner every Sunday." On one particular Sunday Steiner met a relative of the hostess, a young woman whose parents were Jewish born but had converted to Christianity as had the young women. And as Christians they "had devoted their lives to the kind of service which seemed to me the most attractive phase of that religion ." For the first time Steiner encountered Jews who had converted from conviction and not from convenience and, importantly, were accepted by their Jewish relatives.
That night was one of struggle: "Should I cut myself loose from a race and its traditions, and in doing so wound all those who were flesh of my flesh? Dare I wound her most, who loved me most," my dear mother. "It was a night of mental and physical torture, and with the morning there came no peace, but a decision. Before many weeks I resumed my journey, for the first time with a great purpose and a goal." So concludes "A Turning Point" chapter in Edward A. Steiner's life.
Earlier Steiner had considered attending a Rabbinical College but did not because at that time his faith was so weak. However, now that his faith was strong and his enthusiasm was great, he attended a Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Here he encountered a formal rigid theology and a distasteful dogmatic atmosphere, lacking love, reminding him "too much of the orthodox synagogue" back home. Steiner left this seminary and eventually ended up in Oberlin, Ohio.
In the late 1880s Steiner entered Oberlin Theological Seminary, receiving his Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1891. He asked his teachers not to call attention to his being a Jew because of the kind of notoriety that often clings to a Jewish Christian. "Eventually he converted to Christianity because he believed that the love he had encountered in his improbable journey to Oberlin was the love of Christ, but he never repudiated his Jewish background and openly embraced the value placed on learning and social concern in Jewish culture." Steiner praised his Oberlin mentors, "Not only were they good teachers, they were the type of men whom I needed. They strengthened my belief in the new faith; they were living epistles whom it was good for me to read." He reserved special praise for his professor of Hebrew: "He disclosed to me the genius of the Hebrew prophets, he stirred within me whatever spiritual gifts I inherit from my race and to him I owe a fairly well governed pride in that inheritance." As a Congrega tional minister Steiner served churches in Minnesota and Ohio before coming to Grinnell College in 1903 to teach there for 38 years as Rand Professor of Applied Christianity.
Steiner reflects on conversion in several of his writings. He acknowledges that conversion as a way of escape is not frequently sought by Jews who are heavily penalized for doing so. To become a Christian is anathema, an unpardonable sin, breaking one's racial tie. Converted Jews are even under suspicion by Christians. Yet, as in Steiner's case, "a Jew may become a Christian, driven by an inner compulsion to enlarge his spiritual experience," not satisfied either by a sterile Orthodoxy or "the arid, intellectual atmosphere of Reformed Judaism. ... Such Jewish Christians have found in Christianity a larger, broader, richer Judaism, a rejuvenated ancestral faith. ... They do not regard themselves as deserters or do they become aggressive proselyters; they accept the loneliness of their position as a price which they are willing to pay for the enrichment of their inner life and the broadening of their spiritual experience." In Against the Current, concluding a chapter on "The Synagogue," Steiner writes: "I have no quarrel with the synagogue except this: that it never revealed to me the riches of Judaism. It showed me its beggarly edge, its vulnerable trivialities, its pathetic pharisaism and its absurd worship of the letter. That Israel had a mission to the world I never knew; that Moses and the prophets were names of which the world took cognizance I never heard; that the Catholic and the Protestant were feeding from the same spiritual sources which fed us was hidden from me, and that we all had 'one Father' was never revealed to me."
When Steiner recalls the words of that famous Jewish leader and lecturer Theodore Herzl that only the weaker Jews convert to Christianity, he felt "its barb in my conscience and I struggle with it still." Yet for him conversion was not running away; it was being "born again." He continues: "It is difficult of course to say what would have been my view-point had I met Theodore Herzl twenty or more years ago. I might have returned bravely 'to my people.' But when one meets Jesus of Nazareth there is no way back; there are new marching orders, and they call 'Forward.'" Elsewhere Steiner writes, "I love this Christ, born of my race, and I cannot think of my life without Him."
Steiner "found Jews everywhere who were Christian in spirit; and the distance between synagogue and church is as great as it is, only because of prejudices, which the church has not yet allayed and which unconsciously it is increasing." He acknowledges that Jews are most suspicious of converts, missions, and missionaries because they know Christianity from its worst side. This leads him to take an anti-conversion stand: the need to make Jews "more truly Jewish." Concerning Steiner's own conversion, "I put off much of the 'old man' and put on the new. It was a daily conversion, a process which I know is never finished."
"When, finally, on this side the Atlantic, I united with the Protestant Church, no struggle preceded it, no reaction was necessary; mind and soul were merely coming home." But he was coming home to a special Christianity. As earlier Steiner rejected an orthodox Judaism, so he rejected an orthodox Christianity with its creeds and dogmas. Christianity for him was special "when it proclaims the supreme value of the human soul, and demands for it a right to seek its God, unhindered; when it pleads for protection of the child and the woman, and labours for the day when they shall not need protection from a rapacious society; when it struggles to bring to earth the Kingdom of Heaven."
Let's end where we began, the book St. Peter and I. The final chapter, "Looking Back," is written by Steiner in 1946, 10 years before his death. Responding to Grinnell College students' question about whether he would want to live his life over again, he gives an enthusiastic "yes" to being born in a Jewish home "where Judaism was more an inward experience than an outward expression." Though as a Jewish child he experienced "the cruelty of religious prejudice," there Steiner "learned the need for sympathetic understanding which is more and better than tolerance," learned to demonstrate "the essential likeness and basic unity of all." And Steiner gives an enthusiastic "yes" to his multiple meetings with Tolstoy who on every visit made by Steiner repeated this "warning and benediction: 'You must learn to love the unlovely, to regard wealth and honor as of no import and to ask yourself every day, "What is the purpose of my life?" Recalling his friendly contact with liberal rabbis, Steiner quotes the rabbi who said to him, "When I see and hear you, I say to myself, he is a better Jew than I am; and I want you to say of me that, being true to the teachings of all the prophets of Israel, I am a better Christian than you are."
Steiner concludes his "looking back": "I believe that the city of God will come down from heaven as soon as men and nations make room for it in their hearts and in all their earthly concerns. If in some way, however small, I have helped toward this end, then my soul's travail has not been in vain." Edward A. Steiner, the converted one, did dedicate his entire life as a Christian to convert any and all to the way of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, predominantly the way of justice and peace for all. His soul's travail was not in vain.
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2004