May 21, 2020

Saved by a Pandemic

While being under “shelter-in-place” orders for the past two months, I finally had the opportunity to read Joseph Wolff’s (1795-1862) Travels and Adventures.1 I’ve deeply admired Wolff ever since I first read about him in The Great Controversy.2 For those not familiar with his story, Wolff was one of many heralds of the Second Advent spanning the globe during the nineteenth century.

Brief Biographical Sketch

Wolff was the son of a Jewish rabbi in Germany. At the age of 7, while getting a haircut, the barber (named Speiss) challenged him to read Isaiah 53. Their conversation eventually led to his conversion to Catholicism. Eventually, Wolff made his way to the College of Propaganda in Rome. His dream was to become a missionary like Francis Xavier (1506-1552). Yet, he felt out of place. He found himself in trouble, especially when he questioned Catholic doctrine and refusing to believe that the pope was infallible.

Shortly before he was kicked out of Rome (under armed guard), he providentially met Henry Drummond (1786-1860), a businessman, who wanted to personally meet this remarkable Jewish convert. Drummond was a leading figure of a Protestant reform movement in England. During their brief conversation he offered to pay his travel expenses if he would come to visit him in England. Wolff soon took him up on his offer.

When Wolff arrived in England in 1826, he met two people who would change his life: Edward Irving (1792-1834) and Lady Georgiana Mary Walpole (1795-1859). He came to deeply admire Irving for his knowledge of the Bible, and especially his interest in Bible prophecy. The latter he married soon after meeting her.

Wolff also arrived in time to participate in a prophecy conference at the Albury Park estate. The conference, which lasted for a week, gathered various expositors of Bible prophecy from across Europe. Wolff, for his part, helped them with difficult passages with his fluent understanding of the Hebrew language. In fact, afterward, when they used code names to describe those who had participated, Wolff was “Josephus,” and Irving was referred to as “Athanasius.” The group especially admired the work of Manuel Lacunza, a Jesuit priest, who wrote a book titled The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty.3 First written in Spanish, Irving translated it into English, and Wolff translated it into German. Wolff loved this book so much that he frequently referenced it and shared copies on his many missionary travels across the Middle East, through Africa, and all the way to India.

One can quickly see why Ellen White saw Wolff as one of the many harbingers of the Second Advent of Christ. Wolff’s story was roughly analogous to that of William Miller (1782-1849) in North America. Wolff traveled the world as a missionary sharing his love for Jesus and inviting others to be ready to meet Him upon His return. It’s noteworthy that Ellen White not only quoted from Wolff’s Travels and Adventures, but kept a copy of the two volumes in her own personal library.

Disease, Hardships, and Divine Protection

As I read these two volumes about Wolff’s life, I was struck by how different life was for someone who lived 200 years ago. In light of the current pandemic, I couldn’t help but notice how many times he, too, was impacted by various epidemics. One quickly loses count of just how many times he was seized by fevers or various other maladies. Some notable examples include his first visit to Jerusalem, when he came down with a fever.4 After he recovered, he ministered to other Jewish families, endearing himself to them. Later, after his marriage to Lady Georgiana, the couple traveled back through the Middle East. This time they arrived in Beirut, Lebanon, just as a plague was breaking out. They narrowly avoided it by not talking with anyone or touching anything.5 Unable to return to Jerusalem because of the pandemic, they took refuge on Cyprus, where they both succumbed to Cyprus Fever (Brucellosis) and also tragically lost their infant daughter to the disease.6 Wolff seemed perpetually plagued by pandemics. 

On another occasion, Wolff’s ship was shipwrecked. He arrived on land dripping wet, thankful to still be alive, only to be quarantined for the next 26 days for fear of the plague (one of numerous occasions when he was quarantined). Later, when Wolff finally arrived in India, he was so delirious (and later unconscious) from typhoid that he didn’t know that his life had remarkably been spared thanks to yet another stranger, who had pulled his limp body out of a burning building. Pandemics always seemed to put a crimp on his style, although they couldn’t stop him.

One cannot help but marvel at just how different life is today thanks to vaccines. What strikes me as unusual is just how ordinary pandemics were for Wolff—a man who frequently pointed to various earthquakes and other natural disasters as signs of the end. Yet, Wolff never saw any of the many pandemics he experienced as such a sign, perhaps because they seemed like an ordinary, or expected, part of everyday life.

I’ve thought about the biblical text from Daniel 12:4 about how “knowledge shall increase” (NKJV).7 Various Adventist expositors have pointed to the fulfillment as advances in knowledge about Bible prophecy or various scientific advances (such as through technology or travel), or both. I wonder if one such sign of the end is the lack of pandemics in our lives today. It’s been just a little more than a century since the last global pandemic, yet Wolff’s life, some two centuries ago, illustrates just how much pandemics were viewed as common, albeit unfortunate, parts of everyday life.

There’s one story that stands out in this memoir that Wolff clearly enjoyed sharing because he references it frequently, focusing on the time his life was providentially spared thanks to a pandemic.

At one point, Wolff faced the real possibility that he might not be able to continue his journey because of an outbreak of a plague in the mountains of northern Persia (modern Iran). He and his servant decided to stock up on extra food and sleep under the stars, practicing what we today call “social distancing” by not talking to anyone and avoiding towns and villages along the route. After some 200 miles (320 kilometers), they finally arrived in Tehran. A curious crowd, amazed they had made it unscathed, asked him about what drove him to take such risks. He simply replied that he was a “great dervish” who loved “to speak to the nations about Jesus.”8 In one of the highest compliments he ever received, someone described him as the “Protestant Xavier”—referring to his childhood role model.9

When Wolff continued his journey, he joined a caravan. As they passed through a remote valley, a large group of bandits descended upon them. Terror seized them as this particular group was famous for its merciless stealing and plundering, enslaving any whom they kept alive. Wolff stepped out in front, waving and shouting in Arabic, warning them that they had just been through a region infected with the plague. The ruse worked. These same bandits, who were ready to pounce upon them, now hastily turned around and ran for their lives. Wolff always loved sharing this story—the time when the plague had once been “the means of saving him from either certain death or slavery.”10

Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D., serves as professor of religion at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas. His latest publication, A Pocket Dictionary for Understanding Adventism, will soon be released by Pacific Press.

1A digital scan of a later one-volume edition is available at

2Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan: The Conflict of the Ages in the Christian Dispensation (Boise, Id.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1950), pp. 357-361.

3Joseph Wolff, Travels and Adventures of the Rev. Joseph Wolff (London: Saunders, Otley, and Co., 1860), vol. 1, p. 455. All references are from the earlier two-volume edition.

4Ibid., p. 285.

5Ibid., pp. 409-410.

6Ibid., p. 267.

7Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright ã 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

8Ibid., p. 468.

9Ibid., vol. 2, p. 226.

10Ibid., vol. 1, p. 467.