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
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
As a teenager she embraced Christianity
after a visit to a Borders evangelical
mission and subsequently pursued an
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
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 succes, 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 in
a book by a niece. Her mother Rache l-
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
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 Kinght 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 mutlicoloured
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
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'
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.