For Leon Levison, life could not have been better. Son of the local rabbi in Safed and aged 17 he ran the family’s vineyard after a stint at agricultural college. For the teenager, on the brink of the 20th century, life was good. An encounter with a Scottish missionary, however, turned his life upside down, leading him to an exile in Scotland and a path which led from grinding poverty, to the upper echelons of UK society. Leon’s mother, Miriam was determined her son would have a full knowledge of the Bible and had hired a tutor, who Leon noticed skipped passages which referred to a coming ‘Messiah.’ This puzzled him and he secretly visited Dr George Wilson, a missionary from Scotland, who preached teaching about this Messiah called Jesus.
Dr Wilson was surprised to be visited by the son of the village rabbi and after a long discussion about the Messiah, he gifted the teenager a copy of the New Testament. The book was banned in Leon’s home, so he kept it hidden and studied it, returning to Dr Wilson with his questions and, as time passed, he accepted Jesus as the Messiah. One evening at the supper table he announced he wished to be baptised. He was cast out of the family and regarded as dead. Dr Wilson, who was sponsored by Barclay Church in Edinburgh, came to his aid, suggesting he travel to Scotland. He arrived in Leith with only £4 in his pocket and, following Dr Wilson’s instructions, was directed to Barclay Church, where the minister, offered him a warm welcome. Leon found digs in Fountainbridge and found work, initially as a gardener’s labourer in the Royal Botanic Gardens and later as a bottle cleaner at a pharmacy and a biscuit factory. He was rescued via an introduction to the Church of Scotland Mission, where he was, in time, adopted by Fred and Julia Sawkins, a childless, but well-off couple. Such was Leon’s commitment that in 1904 he was appointed by the Church of Scotland as the first full-time missionary to the Jewish community in Edinburgh. He was not quite 23. In 1907, he decided to visit his family in Palestine. The visit was not a success. His father had died and his mother ordered him from the house – unless he gave up any notion of Christianity.
On his return to Scotland, the Sawkins, who now lived in Albert Terrace, Morningside, decided to enrol Leon in classes at New College, Edinburgh. It was in Albert Terrace that Leon met Catherine – Kate – his future wife. The youngest daughter of a wealthy landowner, she had used her inheritance after her parents’ death to buy her independence through her own home at 9 Albert Terrace. As a teenager she embraced Christianity after a visit to a Borders evangelical mission and subsequently pursued an independent life. A rose thrown over the garden wall by Leon to Kate as she walked by marked the beginning of their romance. Leon and Kate’s relationship was based on the fact that she was a committed Christian and he had given up home and country when he chose Christian discipleship. They were married in St Michael’s Church in the city’s Ardmillan Terrace and later become members of St George’s West United Free Church in Shandwick Place, where Leon was later ordained as an elder. In 1908 John, their first child, was born and a year later his brother Fred.
Leon continued his missionary work with notable success, but his interests were wide. He joined the Liberal Club in Princes Street, which brought him to the attention of the goverment during World War I. Concerned that the Turks, who occupied Palestine, were allies of the Germans, they summoned Leon to the North British Hotel in Edinburgh where he remained closeted with the then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George and his counsellors. Leon said little about what had happened but years afterwards when Fred was a student he met a man who told him he had met Leon during the war in Cairo.
Another related incident is recorded ina book by a niece. Her mother Rachel – Leon’s sister – was working in a field in Galilee one day when a small Piper aircraft came out of the sky and landed nearby. From the plane there emerged two uniformed figures, one of whom turned out to be her long lost brother Leon. She was able to give him vital information about the deployment of Turkish forces in the area which he relayed to Allenby in Cairo. In 1920 he received a knighthood from King George V for services to the country.
He also received other honours – a medal from the king of Italy and another from the king of Belgium. He was involved in the rescue of Russian refugees fleeing from the revolution. I remember a framed citation from the Tsarina of Russia above the mantelpiece in his study at no 9 conferring on him the Order of the Golden Eagle – a beautiful golden star with a black eagle in the centre. Years later, in connection with Leon’s work with Russian refugees, my mother told me of a strange incident. Answering the doorbell at no 9, she found a forlorn figure. He said he was fleeing from Russia and trying to get to America. He said his name was Trotsky. My mother did not tell me what help they gave him, apart from a good pair of boots as his footwear was in such a state. History records that Trotsky reached America and was later assassinated.
I cannot finish this reference to Leon’s honours without telling of the one he treasured the most – the Insignia of the Order of the Knight Grand Cross and Star of the Holy Sepulchre, conferred on him in Jerusalem by the Arch Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. Among the regalia of this award was a cream coloured cloak adorned with large red Maltese crosses, and a sword. But the significant part was a four inch cross slung from a mutli-coloured ribbon of gold, blue and crimson. At the foot of the cross you undid a screw. The cross opened up and it contained a small splinter of wood. The legend was that this was a fragment of a cross found on Golgotha – the hill of the crucifixion. Such splinters of wood were still available since only 300 individuals had received this honour during two millennia. It was special to Leon as he received it in the country that years before had cast him out.
Before the war ended, Kate had given birth to a girl and a boy – now a family of four children – John and Fred pre-war and Rosalin and David in 1916 and 1917 repectively. An indication of Leon’s organising ability arose when he learned of the genocide afflicted by the Turks on the Armenians. His response was to set up an Armenian Relief Fund. He wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘How the Turks Make War’ with a foreword by the editor of the Edinburgh Evening News and in Who’s Who at the time he is credited with raising £200,000 for the Armenians.
His most remarkable achievement, however, was yet to come – The International Hebrew Christian Alliance. Leon was aware of groups of Hebrew Christians in every European country and America, who suffered persecution and poverty. So he conceived the idea of the Alliance, with membership open to every Jew who confessed the Christian faith and loved the Lord Jesus. Within two years, thanks to his organisational skills, there were 12 different branches in Europe and America. Every week he would travel by sleeper to London and return to Edinburgh two days later to continue his work with the Edinburgh Medical Mission which he never neglected. In London, an international conference of the Alliance was planned. It was to take place in Hamburg in 1927. The conference was attended by 130 delegates from 12 Alliances. At the conference Leon was elected as the first president of the Alliance. Kate was present at the conference and was thanked for her valuable co-operation with Leon. In reply, she said: “Believing in my heart that this movement is the plan of God, how could I stand in the way by holding my husband back.” The conference gave her a gold wrist watch- ‘an expression of love for your husband’ they said.
At the beginning of the 1930s, with Ramsay Macdonald now Prime Minister, Leon was asked to join the Government in the House of Lords. Kate prevailed, persuading Leon that he should not give up his missionary work to become a full-time politician and Leon continued his travels working for refugees, now more numerous with the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Leon’s final undertaking in 1936, was to gather a strong committee to organise a nationwide centenary celebration of the Moody and Sankey hymn book. The first meeting was in Glasgow but at the meeting he began to feel unwell and returned home where he died a short time later, surrounded by his family, at the age of 56.
His funeral service took place in St George’s West, attended by many of his Alliance leaders from all over the world. The local newspaper posters read ‘Edinburgh philanthrophist has died’. The Alliance magazine said: ‘A lion has fallen in Israel’ and he was buried in Morningside cemetery in South Edinburgh. On his gravestone were the words ‘missionary to the Jews’ to which Kate added: “he was afflicted in all their afflictions.’
L David Levison (Rev)
Son of Leon Levison.
Published in Life & Work September 2011