Herschell, Ridley Haim (DNB00)

HERSCHELL, RIDLEY HAIM (1807–1864), dissenting minister, was born on 7 April 1807 at Strzelno, a small town in Prussian Poland about thirty miles from Thorn. The town was in French occupation at the time, and just before the child's birth a cannon-ball entered the room where the mother lay. The incident suggested the name ‘Haim’ (i.e. ‘life’) for her newborn son. His parents were devout Jews. His grandfather, Rabbi Hillel, who lived with them, exercised a great influence on the character of his grandson. He was a man of simple and intense faith, but gentle and considerate to those who differed from him.

When the boy was eleven years old he left home to seek instruction at a noted rabbinical school, and from that time he was never wholly dependent upon his parents. After a few years he returned home with a view to entering his father's business. Finding the life uncongenial he went to the university of Berlin about 1822, and while studying supported himself by teaching. In 1825 he paid a short visit to England, travelling mostly on foot, and occupied himself during his sojourn in learning English. After completing his studies at Berlin, and visiting England a second time, he went to Paris. The writings of English freethinkers had increased an alienation from his early beliefs already begun at Berlin. He yielded to the seductions of Paris, but in consequence, apparently, of the death of his mother, his religious feelings revived. He was powerfully impressed by reading a part of the Sermon on the Mount which had been used to wrap up a parcel. He studied the New Testament, but his Jewish instincts set him against the Roman catholic ritual. He is said to have thrown into the Seine a crucifix given him by a priest. Shortly after he came again to England, and was eventually (in 1830) baptised by the Bishop of London, one of his sponsors being the Rev. Henry Colborne Ridley, whose surname he assumed. He shrank from taking orders, and for some years occupied himself almost exclusively in mission work among the Jews. In 1835 Lady Olivia Sparrow induced him to undertake the direction of schools and mission-work established by her, first in the fishing village of Leigh in Essex, and subsequently in Brampton, Huntingdonshire. In both places he laboured with great success. By the aid of friends he opened a chapel in London in 1838, where he soon collected a congregation, and organised a ‘church.’ He did not associate himself with any of the nonconformist societies, although his religious belief was distinctly of the same type. Among his hearers were many members of the church of England, as well as of various denominations of dissenters. He was distinguished by the breadth of his views and catholic sympathies. He made many continental journeys, and his personal influence was felt far beyond the limits of his London congregation.

In 1846 Herschell removed to Trinity Chapel, John Street, Edgware Road. He had taken a principal part in founding the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Jews. He now established a home for Jews who were inquiring into Christianity, and was always untiring in endeavouring to find occupation for Jewish converts. He was one of the first to organise school excursions. He joined heartily with Sir Culling Eardley and others in establishing the Evangelical Alliance, the spirit of which animated his life. He died after a lingering illness on 14 April 1864. Herschell was twice married, first to Helen Skirving Mowbray, and secondly to Esther Fuller-Maitland. Three children survived him, a son, the present Lord Herschell, and two daughters. Herschell's books include:

  1. ‘A Brief Sketch of the Present State and Future Expectations of the Jews,’ 3rd edition, 1834, 12mo.
  2. ‘A Visit to my Fatherland,’ London, 1844, 12mo.
  3. ‘Psalms and Hymns for Congregational Use,’ 1846, 32mo.
  4. ‘Jewish Witnesses; that Jesus is the Christ,’ 1848, 12mo.
  5. ‘The Mystery of the Gentile Dispensation, and the Work of the Messiah,’ 1848, 12mo.
  6. ‘Far above Rubies,’ a memoir of his first wife, 1854, 8vo.
  7. ‘The Golden Lamp, an Exposition of the Tabernacle and its Services,’ 1858, 8vo.
  8. ‘Strength in Weakness; Meditations on some of the Psalms,’ 1860, 16mo. He edited for a time the ‘Voice of Israel.’

[Personal knowledge.]

G. B.-S.