18. Fighting Methodist: Lewis C. Levin
The race riots briefly mentioned at our Bedford Street Mission stop were not the only riots which took place in Philadelphia in the mid-1800s. Methodists and other Protestants were also involved in riots against Roman Catholics who were becoming more numerous in 1840s Philadelphia because of the growth of Irish immigrants escaping the famine in their country. Irish immigration to Philadelphia was never as large as it was in Boston or New York City, but it was still seen as a threat. Protestant pastors from all major Protestant denominations in Philadelphia joined together to form the American Protestant Association. They hoped, with this organization, to prevent the spread of “Popery” which they feared was a threat to the American Republic and its democratic values.
The Reverend Lewis C. Levin, who lived in this neighborhood, was the most outspoken Methodist pastor against Roman Catholicism in the riots of 1844. But here on the corner of 4th Street and Lombard Levin didn’t just speak against Catholics. Here he had fistfight. As he was walking with his wife and two children on May 2, 1844 another pedestrian insulted Levin. Levin wheeled around and punched his accuser knocking him to the ground. A full-blown brawl was on. A naval officer who lived nearby finally broke it up. Unfortunately, this encounter didn't deter Levin in his efforts to stir up Protestants against Catholics. It foreshadowed tragic events to come. Less than a month later and again in the July he gave rousing anti-Catholic speeches before the riots which destroyed property, burned Catholic churches, and killed people on the streets of Philadelphia.
The son of Jewish parents, Lewis Levin was born in South Carolina in 1808 and converted to Methodism as a young man. He had a hot temper and a propensity for violence his whole life. As a young man he was involved in at least two gun duels – one of which was said to be with the future president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
After gaining fame in his leadership of the anti-Catholic movement in the early 1840s Levin was elected to three terms in the US Congress. In spite of his conversion to Methodism he is still sometimes considered the first Jewish congressman in American history. Sadly, things did not end well for Lewis Levin. He eventually was deemed out of his mind and spent the last four years of his life in the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. He died in 1860. National newspapers reported his death. Ironically, Lewis Levin’s wife, Julia, and one of his children became Roman Catholics after his death.