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James Turner Barclay: Adventurer, Author, Missionary, or Madman, Eretz Magazine.

James_Barclay_TurnerJames Barclay Turner

In Israel, James Turner Barclay is known as the man who discovered Barclay’s Gate, one of the ancient gates to the Temple Mount (see page 36). True archaeology buffs know that he also discovered Zedekiah’s Cave, the vast cavern near the Damascus Gate that has fascinated Freemasons, treasure hunters, and thrill seekers (see ERETZ 108, page 48). In the U.S., however, Barclay is known for completely different accomplishments. He is famous for serving as the first missionary to the Holy Land of the Disciples of Christ and infamous for buying Monticello from U.S. president Thomas Jefferson’s descendants and destroying the beautiful mountaintop home that Jefferson had built.

Barclay was born in 1807 in Virginia, a scion of a prominent Quaker family. His grandfather, Thomas Barclay, had been a close friend of both Jefferson and the first U.S. president, George Washington. His father Robert died when he was a child and his mother, Sarah Coleman Turner, remarried. Her second husband was a wealthy tobacco planter who sent Barclay to the University of Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned an M.D. in 1828. A few years later he married Julia Sowers, also of Virginia. The couple lived in Charlottesville, where he operated a pharmacy.

However, operating a pharmacy did not particularly interest Barclay. He soon decided to purchase Monticello from Jefferson’s daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph and grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who had been struggling to maintain it ever since Jefferson died in1826.

In his 2002 book, Saving Monticello- The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built, Marc Leepson wrote- “James T. Barclay was a learned, if eccentric, many-faceted man whose four and a half years as the owner of Jefferson’s mansion have not been positively portrayed. He has been characterized as a Jefferson-hating eccentric who bargained ruthlessly with the land-rich, cash-poor Randolphs. At Monticello he set up what has been described as a crackpot scheme to grow silkworms. To that end, it is said, he cut down Jefferson’s carefully cultivated trees. Barclay also let the house go to ruin, then went bankrupt and sold Monticello after being struck with fundamentalist Christian missionary fever and spiriting his family off to the Holy Land.”

Leepson then gives an evenhanded account of Barclay’s reign at Monticello. He noted that “Uriah Levy’s biographers, Donovan Fitzpatrick and Saul Saphire, were particularly harsh on Barclay. He ‘had no interest in preserving Monticello as a shrine to Thomas Jefferson,’ they said. Barclay ‘wanted the property for a fanciful experiment – a grandiose plan to grow mulberry trees and start a silkworm business. He dug up the flower gardens and cut down most of the fine trees on the lawn – the poplar, linden, and copper beeches on which Jefferson had expended so much money and care – and replaced them with mulberry trees. So began the despoliation of the most beautiful house in America.’”

He also noted, “The Barclay family has a much different version of James Turner Barclay’s life and times at Monticello. Accounts of his life written by one of his grandsons, Julian Thomas Barclay, in 1904 and by Decima Campbell Barclay, a daughter-in-law, around 1900 based on the reminiscences of his widow portray him in a completely different light. The family claims he was an ardent admirer of Jefferson who took great care of Monticello.”

Whatever the case maybe, when Barclay was in the process of selling Monticello to Uriah Levy a few years later, “Martha Randolph referred to James Turner Barclay as a ‘mad man’” and blamed him for Monticello’s deterioration, Leepson wrote.

After selling Monticello, Barclay had intended to travel to China to serve as a missionary. The sudden death of his brother led him to cancel the trip and settle in Scottsville, a town near Monticello where his mother resided. In Scottsville, Barclay became involved with the Disciples of Christ, a Presbyterian group led by Alexander Campbell. The group, which had grown quickly in the U.S. and spread to Europe and Australia, wanted to bring its message to a wider audience. Barclay, who had become the first minister of the Disciples of Christ Church in Scottsville, hadn’t given up on his dreams to serve as a missionary. After his mother’s death, Campbell appointed Barclay to be the Disciples of Christ’s first missionary and sent him and his family to Jerusalem from 1851-1854.

In Jerusalem, Barclay soon found he was one of a horde of Westerners trying to convert the residents of Jerusalem. His attempts were not particularly successful. Instead, Barclay dedicated himself to exploring Jerusalem. At one point, he was appointed the assistant to a Turkish architect who was doing repair work on the Dome of the Rock. This allowed him to wander around and photograph the Temple Mount, which non-Moslems normally could not enter.

After returning to the U.S., Barclay produced a 600-page opus, The City of the Great King. The book told about his discovery of Barclay’s Gate and presented some controversial theories on Jerusalem. The book’s illustrations are based on Barclay’s photographs. He may also have used pictures taken by his friend James Graham.

While Barclay was in the U.S., president Franklin Pierce sent him to Philadelphia to help the mint there develop methods to prevent counterfeiting. After completing that mission successfully in 1857, Barclay returned to Jerusalem, where he continued his missionary work for eight years. He resigned when the Civil War began, not wishing to be a tax on his brotherhood in a time of war.

One of the few converts that Barclay influenced was Mendel Diness, a Jew who had been born in Odessa in 1827 and moved to Jerusalem in 1848. He became a photographer in Jerusalem, creating one of the most remarkable photographic records from that period. He also apparently lost such faith in Judaism that he converted to Christianity twice. His family and the Jewish community were so scandalized that he went to America, where he became an itinerant preacher known as Mendenhall John Dennis.

According to Leepson, “After he returned Barclay wrote City of the Great King, which was published in 1858. The engraving on the first page shows a stern, solid looking man with a pronounced widow’s peak and an Abraham Lincoln beard. In 1858, he took his family to Jerusalem for a second round of missionary work, returning to the United States in 1865 to teach natural sciences at Bethany College in West Virginia, the Disciples of Christ School. In 1868, Barclay resigned and moved to Alabama where he spent the rest of his life preaching. He died at age sixty-seven in 1874.”

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