Missionary and Oriental traveler; born at Weilersbach, near Bamberg, Germany, in 1795; died at Ile Brewers, Somerset, England, May 2, 1862. His father, who was rabbi at Württemberg, sent him to the Protestant Lyceum at Stuttgart, and while still a youth he learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Leaving home on account of his inclination toward Christianity, he was converted after many wanderings, and was baptized on Sept. 13, 1812, by Leopold Zolda, abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Emmaus, near Prague. In 1813 he commenced to study Arabic, Syriac, and Aramaic, and in the following year attended theological lectures in Vienna. In 1815 he entered the University of Tübingen, and by the liberality of Prince Dalberg was enabled to study theology for nearly two years, as well as Arabic and Persian, Biblical exegesis, and ecclesiastical history. In 1816 he arrived in Rome, where he was introduced to Pope Pius VII. by the Prussian ambassador. He was soon afterward admitted as a pupil of the Collegio Romano, and later of the Collegio di Propaganda; but in 1818, having publicly attacked the doctrine of infallibility, he was expelled from the papal dominions on account of erroneous opinions. After a brief stay at the Monastery of the Redemptorists at Val Sainte, near Freiburg, he went to England to visit the eccentric Henry Drummond, M.P., whose acquaintance he had made at Rome. He soon declared himself a member of the Church of England. At Cambridge he resumed the study of Oriental languages, with the purpose of visiting Eastern lands to prepare the way for missionary enterprises. Between 1821 and 1826 he traveled as a missionary in Egypt and the Levant, and was the first modern missionary to preach to the Jews near Jerusalem. He sent Christian boys from Cyprus to England for education, and then continued his travels through Persia, Mesopotamia, Tiflis, and the Crimea.
About 1828 Wolff commenced an expedition in search of the Lost Ten Tribes. After suffering shipwreck at Cephalonia and being rescued by Sir Charles Napier, whose friendship he retained through life, he passed through Anatolia, Armenia, and Khorassan, where he was made a slave, but ultimately set free. Undaunted, he traversed Bokhara and Balkh, and reached Cabul in a state of nudity, having walked six hundred miles through Central Asia without clothing. In 1836 he went to Abyssinia, and afterward to Sana in Yemen, where he preached to the Wahabites. His next journey was to the United States. He preached before Congress and received the degree of D.D. at Annapolis, Md., in 1836. He was ordained deacon by the Bishop of New Jersey, and in 1838 priest by the Bishop of Dromore. In 1843 he made another journey to Bokhara to ascertain the fate of Lieut.-Col. Charles Stoddart and Captain Connolly, a committee formed in London having raised the sum of £500 for his expenses. The men for whom he searched had been executed, and the same fate threatened Wolff. According to his own story he confronted the sovereigns of Central Asia with imperturbable audacity, refusing to conform to their court etiquette or to observe any ceremony in his speech; on being asked to become a Moslem he returned a defiant reply. The threat of execution was, however, a pretense, and he was ultimately rescued through the efforts of the Persian ambassador. In 1845 he was presented with the vicarage of Ile Brewers in Somerset, where he resided until his death.
Before joining the Church of England, Wolff had entertained all sorts of religious opinions. He was a member of the little band which met in Henry Drummond's house at Advent, 1826, for a six days' study of the Scriptures, which resulted in the origination of the Catholic Apostolic Church under the leadership of Irving. In his missionary travels he went fearlessly among the most fanatical peoples, and he may be said to have been one of the pioneers of modern missionary enterprise. His greatest opposition came from the Jews, and to overcome this he made use of extraordinary methods, as when, in Bombay, he wished to inspect the synagogue of the Beni-Israel. In spite of his education and his extensive travels, Wolff was possessed of many erratic ideas. In India he was considered a fanatic; in England he was at one time ostracized by the clergy; and he bent all facts to suit his theories of the lost tribes. He believed the East India Company to be the "kings of the east" (Rev. xvi. 12).
In 1827 Wolff married the sixth daughter of the Earl of Orford, Georgiana Mary Walpole, by whom he had a son, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, the politician and diplomatist. After her death he married(1861) Louisa Decima, daughter of James King, rector of St. Peter-le-Poer, London. Wolff signed himself "Apostle of Our Lord Jesus Christ for Palestine, Persia, Bokhara, and Balkh." He was the author of the following works: "Missionary Journal" (London, 1824; 2d ed. 1827-29); "Sketch of the Life and Journal of Joseph Wolff" (Norwich, 1827); "Journal of Joseph Wolff for 1831" (London, 1832); "Researches and Missionary Labors Among the Jews, Mohammedans, and Other Sects Between 1831 and 1834" (Malta, 1835; 2d ed., London, 1835); "Journal of the Rev. Joseph Wolff Continued, An Account of His Missionary Labors for 1827-31 and from 1835 to 1838" (London, 1839); "A Narrative of a Mission to Bokhara to Ascertain the Fate of Colonel Stoddart and Captain Connolly" (London and New York; 7th ed. 1852); "Travels and Adventures of Joseph Wolff" (London, 1860; 2d ed. 1861; translated into German, 1863).
- Travels and Adventures of Joseph Wolff, London, 1861;
- Dict. Nat. Biog.