Mendell Diness

Born: 

January 1, 1827

Died: 

December 1, 1900

Most Disciples know that James T. Barclay (1804-1875) was the first missionary of the Stone-Campbell heritage - sent by the American Christian Missionary Society to carry out the Biblical injunction “to preach the gospel first in Jerusalem.” We now have information on a man who was one of Barclay’s early converts - Mendell Diness.

Barclay and his family arrived in Jerusalem on February 7, 1851. Sometime during 1852-1853 Barclay came into contact with a young man the Anglicans had converted from Judaism. Mendel Diness earned a living as a watchmaker. Born in 1827 in Odessa, Ukraine, he had come to Jerusalem in 1848 and soon married. About the time of the birth of his first child he had accepted baptism into the Anglican church. Following the custom of that church, the Christian name John was given to him; from that time he was known as Mendel John Diness.

Mendel’s baptism caused a furor in the Jewish community of Jerusalem. The Jews claimed jurisdiction over Diness as a Russian citizen. To escape this, Diness was able to persuade the British consul to take him and his family under British protection. Ultimately Mende’s Jewish wife’s family forced him to divorce her. The crisis created by his conversion resulted in Mendel’s losing most of his business and he was forced to seek financial help from the Anglican mission. Trouble came again when Diness desired a second marriage which was unacceptable to the Anglicans.

In the midst of this Dr. Barclay arrived and Mendel became aware of the Disciples mission. Full of missionary zeal Barclay soon persuaded Mendel that his baptism by sprinkling was unscriptural and that he should accept Alexander Campbell’s view of the Scriptures and be immersed. Barclay rebaptized him and accepted him into the Campbell movement. Apparently Dr. Barclay had no qualms about Mendel’s remarriage and even performed the ceremony.

In the meanwhile, James Graham, a Scottish missionary who was also an early photographer, arrived to become the Jerusalem secretary of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. When Barclay returned to America in 1854 (probably to raise funds for the mission), Diness was left without a means of support. It was at this time he learned photography from Graham. Over the next several years Graham and Diness spent much time together photographing Biblical sites in and around Jerusalem.

By late 1858 Barclay had returned to Jerusalem. He found that Diness was doing well in selling prints of the photographs which he and Graham had taken. The business did not flourish long, however, as Diness soon had competition. As a result of that competition and with the growing tension between Jerusalem’s Jewish community and the several Christian groups, about 1859 Diness and his wife decided to leave Palestine and try their fortune in the United States.

Exactly 130 years later, in 1989, John Barnier, a professional photographer from New Jersey visited a garage sale in St. Paul, Minnesota. He had come there because a friend at home had heard that antique photographic equipment was in the sale. In a dusty corner of the garage Barnier found eight boxes in which were more than 100 glass plates, four handwritten notebooks and some silver prints; on the plates was the name “M. J. Diness.” On a hunch he bought the lot.

Upon arriving home and examining his purchase he discovered the photographs seemed to be of Palestine in the mid-1850s. Barnier was a specialist in historic photographic processes and decided to discuss his materials with the staff of the Archives for Historical Documentation in Brighton, Massachusetts and with scholars at Harvard University’s Semitic Museum at Cambridge. They decided the prints were definitely the earliest known photographs of Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

By coincidence in 1985 a doctoral student at Princeton University known to the museum’s staff named Dror Wahrman had published an article in Jerusalem’s academic magazine Cathedra titled “Mendel Diness – Jerusalem’s First Photographer?” About the same time some salt prints with the initials MJD were discovered in an 1857 album in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It was generally believed that, except for the album in the Israel Museum the rest of Diness’s photographs and negatives had disappeared. It was known that Diness had left Jerusalem about 1859-1860, but it was not known what had become of him.

On September 20, 1990 Wahrman and Barnier met for the first time and agreed that more research was needed. Barnier would work on Diness’s plates and Wahrman would seek knowledge of Diness’s life in the United States. The two men were later joined in their search by Nitza Rosovsky of the Semitic Museum’s staff. The search led to countless archives and libraries in several countries and ultimately to the Speer Library at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.

It was the Rev. William O. Harris, Librarian and Archivist at Princeton who suggested Disciples sources for both Diness and Barclay. Among those who helped was David I. McWhirter, then Director of the Library and Archives of Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville, Tennessee. It was he who provided the first concrete evidence that Diness had come to the United States. Another Disciples source for the researchers was Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia. The College Archivist R. Jeanne Cobb as well as Vicky Fuqua, then Director of Historic Bethany and George F. Miller of Bethany (who by chance was just then researching the missionary work of Barclay) were of considerable help.

The story the researchers discovered was that Dr. John Barclay gave Mendel and his wife letters of introduction to be used when he presented himself to the officers of the American Christian Missionary Society in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Diness family had left for America sometime after June 8, 1860. When they arrived in Cincinnati in late October of 1860 they found the annual meeting of the Society in session. Alexander Campbell himself was present, met the Diness family and was favorable impressed. Before adjourning, the ACMS board gave Mendel Diness a temporary engagement as the Disciples city missionary for Cincinnati. Diness was warmly commended to the churches as a man of character having interesting photographs of the Holy Land and was available for lectures. At this time, probably to sound more American, he changed his name to Mendenhall John Dennis.

On and off for the next decade Dennis and his family resided in Cincinnati. Dennis had a photography and stationery store; at one time he and H. S. Bosworth, a Disciples publisher, had a brief partnership. From Cincinnati Dennis itinerated through Ohio, Kentucky and Missouri using his Jerusalem and Holy Land photographs and stereoscopic images to illustrate his lectures. From 1887 to 1894 he was chaplain at the Dayton, Ohio Asylum for the Insane. In December 1900 he went to Port Townsend, Washington (where his son William lived) having been called there to minister to a bereaved relative. While there he had an attack of appendicitis, underwent an operation and on December 1 died. He was 73 years of age.

By this time his great work in photography in the Holy Land had long been forgotten. Mendenhall John Dennis during his last years must have been a restless, lonely man, an unhappy person who could not find peace. In his obituary no mention was made of his early work in photography. Yet it will probably be his work in photographing the sites of Jerusalem and the Holy Land for which he will be remembered. The Stone-Campbell heritage and the Disciples of Christ can remember an early convert of Dr. John Turner Barclay and the Disciples mission to Jerusalem.

From 1990 to 1993 Dror Wahrman and Nita Rosovsky put together as much information as they could possibly find on Mendel John Diness. John Barnier made prints of all the available original print negatives and worked with the other materials he had discovered. Incidentally, all of the photographic materials and the notebooks of Mendel Diness were on sale in St. Paul because a grandson had moved there from the east and really did not know what he had.

Sometime in late 1993 at the Semitic Museum of Harvard University there was a public reception for all the participants and an exhibition of Diness’s photographs. Funding for the extensive research and for the exhibition came from several foundations and many individuals. For the occasion Harvard University Press produced a handsome catalogue containing both the story of Mendel John Diness (1827-1900) and annotated copies of the photographs in the exhibit.

The catalogue is titled “Capturing the Holy Land: M. J. Diness and the Beginnings of Photography in Jerusalem.” The information and basic facts of the story used in this article are from that catalogue. The author expresses his profound gratitude for the use of this material. Disciples and members of the Stone-Campbell heritage will find a copy of the catalogue at Disciples of Christ Historical Society, Nashville, Tennessee or at the Disciples Seminary Foundation, Claremont, California. A limited number of catalogues are available for purchase from the Semitic Museum of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Dr. McAllister is co-author of Journey in Faith: A History of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He is a lifetime member of the Historical Society’s Board of Trustees.

Read more about the discovery of Mendel Diness’s photographs in this article by Piney Kesting in the July/August 2004 issue of Saudi Aramco World. (Several of Diness’s photographs are also available for viewing in this online version.)