The current Baron Rothschild is one of the British philanthropists backing a new museum of Christianity in Britain, built around Jacob and His Twelve Sons, a dazzling series of thirteen Baroque paintings, each over eight feet tall. His interest in the project was undoubtedly sparked by the remarkable connection between these paintings and the history of Jews in Britain.
Francisco de Zurbarán’s paintings were already a century old in September 1745, when a Jacobite army supporting the Catholic pretender to the British throne soundly trounced British regulars at Prestonpans, near Edinburgh. Londoners panicked and there was a run on the Bank of England. Among the most prominent financiers in the kingdom was a Jew named Sampson Gideon, who regularly floated enormous loans on behalf of His Majesty’s government. Gideon reportedly stabilized the government’s credit by quickly raising the staggering sum of £1,700,000. That translates to an estimated £24 billion ($38 billion) today.
Gideon was the son of a Jewish immigrant who had become a successful merchant in the West Indies trade despite the legal disadvantages he faced. As an immigrant, he could not buy real estate, trade with the colonies, or own a share in a British trading ship, and he had to pay the higher customs fees charged to foreigners. He could have been naturalized only if he had been willing to become a Christian.
Because he was born in Britain, Sampson Gideon possessed most—though not all—of the rights of an Englishman. Jews, Catholics, and non-Anglican Protestants could not attend university, work as an attorney, be appointed to any public office, hold an officer’s commission, or sit in Parliament. Gideon wanted these rights, along with the social acceptance that would have come naturally to an Anglican of his standing.
His father had already changed the family name from the Sephardi Abudiente to the more British-sounding Gideon. Sampson Gideon married a Christian woman; their children were baptized. He resigned his membership in the Jewish community, and purchased a landed estate with a country house for his son to inherit. He arranged to have the son, a fifteen-year-old Anglican schoolboy, made Sir Sampson, sent the boy to Eton, and negotiated his marriage to the daughter of Sir John Eardley Wilmot, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. He secured his daughter’s marriage to Viscount Gage with a dowry that is the equivalent of £77 million ($122 million) today.
When Parliament passed the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753, they undoubtedly had Sampson Gideon’s remarkable success in mind: England wanted more men of his worth. The “Jew Bill” permitted Jews to petition Parliament for a private Act of Naturalization, waiving the requirement that they receive “the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.” Some supported the Bill as a reasonable extension of the Toleration Act of 1689, and some argued that naturalization would encourage Jews to convert to Christianity, but most quite frankly argued that encouraging rich Jewish merchants to settle in Britain would be good for the economy. The Bill passed without a great deal of debate.
Getting a private Act through Parliament was such an expensive undertaking that a mere handful of the 8,000 Jews then living in England could possibly have taken advantage of the Jew Bill. The Jew Bill was the 18th-century equivalent of modern laws in the United States, Canada, and other countries that offer citizenship to substantial investors. But in the end the Jew Bill was of no use even to the wealthy. It sparked an enormous outpouring of anti-Semitic sentiment and was quickly repealed.
Richard Trevor, Bishop of Durham and, therefore, a member of the House of Lords, was among the Jew Bill’s strong supporters. The fight for Jewish civil rights would continue for another century, ending in 1858, when Lionel de Rothschild took his seat in Parliament with a modified oath that that ended “so help me, Jehovah.” But in 1756 the Bishop of Durham found a way to make a very public statement of his support for Jewish naturalization.
A series of paintings by the Spanish Baroque artist Francisco de Zurbarán came onto the market from the estate of James Mendez. Mendez, a successful financier, was the son of Fernando Mendez, a Sephardi Jew who came to England as the personal physician of Catherine of Braganza, the future Queen of England following her marriage to Charles II. Mendez’s wealthy grandchildren were rapidly assimilating into the Anglican gentry and may have decided to sell Jacob and His Twelve Sons precisely because the paintings were too Jewish.
Art historians speculate that the Zurbarán paintings were commissioned for a Catholic foundation in Spanish America, and captured in the Atlantic by British privateers who sold them in England.
The Bishop was able to purchase only eleven sons. Benjamin was sold separately, but the Bishop had a copy made. To showcase the paintings, Bishop Trevor had the Long Dining Room at his official residence, Auckland Castle, enlarged and remodeled, in a princely gesture of public support for English Jews.
Auckland Castle itself has just been purchased by financier Jonathan Ruffer, an art collector, philanthropist, and committed Christian who plans to turn the historic Bishop’s Palace into a museum that will tell the story Christianity in Britain. Since the Christian story cannot be told without the story of Christianity’s Jewish origins, Zurbarán’s magnificent paintings of Jacob and his twelve sons will be at the heart of the collection.
But the story of Britain’s Christians is as ambiguous as the story of Britain’s Jews. After centuries of identifying as a Christian and Protestant nation, Britain has become a land filled with cherished, historic church buildings that attract almost no worshippers. Men like James Mendez and Sampson Gideon, with their Anglican grandchildren, may have been as typical of the Jewish community of their era as the proudly Jewish Rothschilds. (Sampson Gideon’s Christian son changed his name to Eardley, served as an elected member of Parliament for over three decades, and was created Baron Eardley.)
As for Gideon himself, he left £1,000 to London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue in his will. He had paid his dues to the community every year under the name “Almoni Peloni” (a variant of “ploni almoni,” the biblical equivalent of “John Doe”). And he was buried as a Jew.