Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stern, Henry Aaron
STERN, HENRY AARON (1820–1885), missionary and captive in Abyssinia, youngest son of Aaron Stern, a Jew, and Hannah his wife, was born at Unterreichenbach, near Gelnhausen in the Duchy of Hesse-Cassel in Germany, on 11 April 1820. He received his education at a school in Frankfort-on-the-Maine, to which place his parents had removed when he was young. His father destined him for the medical profession, but, at his son's special request, sent him when seventeen years old to Hamburg to be trained for a commercial life. In 1839 Stern received the offer of a good appointment in London, but presently the firm failed, and he found himself unsuccessful in obtaining employment. While in London he was taken to the Palestine Place chapel, where, through the influence of Dr. McCaul, he became a Christian, and was baptised on 15 March 1840. He was then placed in the Operative Jewish Converts' Institution, where he learned the trade of a printer. In August 1842 he was admitted into the Hebrew College of the London Jews' Society, with the ultimate intention of becoming a missionary to the Jews.
Early in 1844 Stern was appointed a missionary to the Jews in Asia Minor, and sailed for Palestine. On 14 July 1844 he was ordained deacon by the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem (Bishop Alexander) in St. James's Chapel at Jerusalem, and the same year began to work as a missionary to the Jews in Bagdad, as well as at Hillah and Bussorah. In 1847 he made a tour through the cities of Persia, labouring among Moslems as well as Jews. In 1849 he returned to England, and was ordained priest in the Chapel Royal at Whitehall on 23 Dec. 1849 by the bishop of London. He returned to Bagdad in June 1850, and remained there until 1853, when he was sent by the society to take charge of their mission at Constantinople. Here he remained for three years, and in 1856, at his own request, went on an itinerary among the Caraite Jews in the Crimea. In July 1856 he made a missionary tour among the Jews who live in the interior of Arabia, returning in the following January to Constantinople, where he stayed until 1859.
The state of the Falashas, or Abyssinian Jews, had attracted the notice of the London Jews' Society, and Stern, at their request, travelled to Cairo, whence, in December 1859, he proceeded southwards to Abyssinia. King Theodore and the Abûna gave him permission to preach to the Falashas, which he did, visiting the various Jewish villages and settlements, and fixing his headquarters at Genda. He paid a visit to England in 1860, but returned to Abyssinia at the close of 1861. Theodore, desiring closer relations between his country and England, forwarded a letter to the queen in November 1862 by Consul Cameron, stating his wish to send ambassadors to England. This communication reached the foreign office on 12 Feb. 1863, but was pigeonholed by Lord John Russell and never answered. Serious troubles followed. Stern was summoned to appear before Theodore in October 1863 at Gondar, was knocked down and beaten by the king's orders and put in chains, together with Mr. Rosenthal, a fellow-missionary. They were first incarcerated at Gondar, then at Assasso, and finally at Amba Magdala, which they reached in November 1864. Consul Cameron and other Europeans were also manacled and cast into prison. Stern was subjected to especially cruel tortures and indignities, for he was charged by the king with having reflected, in his book (see below) entitled ‘Wanderings among the Falashas,’ on the king's ferocity, and with having stated that his mother was a vendor of Kosso.
In July 1864 Mr. Hormuzd Rassam, first assistant to the political resident at Aden, accompanied by Dr. Blanc and Lieutenant Prideaux, arrived at Massowa, bearing a letter from the queen to Theodore, which he delivered to him at Ashfa on 28 Jan. 1866. On 24 Feb. the hand and foot chains were taken off the prisoners, whose liberation was then announced, and on 12 March they arrived, eight in number, at Korata, where Mr. Rassam was encamped. The 13th of April was the day fixed for the departure of the Europeans, but Theodore changed his mind, and again seized them, and, after a mock trial, sent the envoy and his companions, together with Stern, to Amba Magdala, where they arrived on 12 July. Four days later they were all put in foot-chains. The prisoners were guarded by soldiers day and night. They were, however, enabled to communicate with England, a system of coast messengers having been organised by Mr. Rassam.
On 13 Dec. 1867 Stern and his fellow-prisoners heard that Colonel Merewether and his band of pioneers were at Annesley Bay, preparing for the expedition upon which the government had resolved. Soon the army, which consisted of twelve thousand men, under the command of Sir Robert Cornelis Napier (afterwards Lord Napier of Magdala) [q. v.], reached Mulkutto, and, after a three months' march, crossed the Bashilo river on 10 April 1868, and defeated Theodore's troops. On the following day Stern and the other Europeans were liberated and sent to the British camp. On the 13th Amba Magdala was stormed and captured, Theodore shot himself, all the state prisoners were released, and on the 17th the fortress was burnt, and the troops marched back.
Stern at once returned to England, and (at the request and for the benefit of the London Jews' Society) told the story of his captivity to large audiences. On 1 Jan. 1871 he was appointed senior missionary of the London Jews' Society in the metropolis, and took up his residence at Palestine Place, working among the Jews and superintending the ‘Wanderers' Home.’ He was made D.D. by the archbishop of Canterbury in 1881. He died at 5 Cambridge Lodge Villas, Mare Street, Hackney, on 13 May 1885, and was buried on the 18th in the City of London cemetery at Ilford. He married: first, on 2 April 1850, Charlotte Elizabeth, second daughter of Charles Henry Purday, of Hunter Street, Brunswick Square; her health compelled her to remain in England during his captivity, and she died on 1 Jan. 1874. He married, secondly, on 3 March 1883, Rebecca Davis, daughter of S. D. Goff, of Horetown, co. Wexford.
His works are: 1. ‘Dawnings of Light in the East: with Biblical, Historical, and Statistical Notices of Persons and Places in Persia, Coordistan, and Mesopotamia,’ 1854. 2. ‘Journal of a Missionary Journey into Arabia Felix,’ 1858. 3. ‘Wanderings among the Falashas in Abyssinia: together with a description of the Country and its various Inhabitants,’ 1862. 4. ‘The Captive Missionary: being an Account of the Country and People of Abyssinia,’ 1868. A number of Stern's letters were included in ‘Letters from the Captive Missionaries in Abyssinia’ (1866).[Biography of the Rev. Henry Aaron Stern, D.D., by A. A. Isaacs, 1886; History of the Abyssinian Expedition, by Clements R. Markham, 1869; Abyssinian Captives: recent intelligence from H. A. Stern, edited by C. H. Purday, 1866; Times, 15 May 1885; information supplied by Colonel Prideaux, one of the captives.]