by Joseph L. Grabill
American missionaries to the Turkish Empire first went to work among Muslims and Jews, and to revive Near Eastern Christians.
American missionaries to the Turkish Empire first went to work among Muslims and Jews, and to revive Near Eastern Christians. The first two young and resourceful American Protestants, Levi Parsons and Pliny Fisk, landed in 1820 at Smyrna (now Izmir), where about a dozen Yankee ships were stopping annually. Parsons and Fisk represented the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which was setting the pace in world-wide vision and outreach among American Protestants.
At that time a common and easy assumption in the United States was that the days of the pagoda, mosque, and cathedral were numbered. Another presumptive feeling in New England, namely that culture and Puritanism were inseparable (nearly all college and many elementary and secondary teachers there were clergymen), meant that not just hard-core Christianity was to be spread abroad but also a social system.
The two missionaries directly out of Andover Theological Seminary, soon joined by others, prepared to reach the "heathen." From Smyrna, Parsons wrote in February, 1820: "I find a great desire in my breast . . . to see a system in operation which, with the divine blessing, shall completely demolish this mighty empire of sin." And he grieved for Muslims: "How many souls are shut out from the light and blessings of the gospel!"1 The two men had received rather sophisticated instruction to learn languages, gather information, circulate tracts and Bibles, not offend the laws and customs of the people, and instruct in private.
In Beirut, which became the missionary center, entrenched Christian establishments resented and strongly opposed the polemical Protestants from the United States, who zealously advertised their brand of Christianity through letters and private debates. Laws prohibited the newcomers from preaching in public.
Local Christian bodies were extremely conservative. Turkish law helped keep them so, proscribing every person’s civil situation not, basically, by nearly equal standards for all inhabitants as in the United States, but by the traditions of Christian or Islamic communities. Thus voluntary choice of one’s religious affiliation, becoming increasingly the pattern in America, was then illegal in Turkey. For Muslims, conversion to Christianity was punishable by death. Turkish society knew no fluid pluralism.
The American Board missionaries interpreted this dilemma all too often in terms of the righteousness of Protestantism and the sinfulness of Turkish life. Such a notion nearly pinched off realistic analysis of problems. More importantly, and though only fuzzily aware of it, American Board personnel were a radically liberal force in the context of the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire, with as mush potential for violent disruption as for renewal. The original wise advice from Boston not to offend local mores was almost impossibly for the missionaries. A new administrator of the board soon changed this counsel, for it was of the order of asking birds not to fly. Puritanism by its nature of eager commitment to a city built on a hill for all to see required conflict with competing ideas.
Progress, if any, was agonizingly imperceptible during the first decade of the American mission in the Near East. A feeble start in Beirut at a school for Jewish children, with the Bible as the text, collapsed. The youngsters cut out the New Testament and sold it in the bazaar for waste paper. After highwaymen near Nazareth bludgeoned Fisk in the spring of 1825, he grew ill and died in autumn.
Ecclesiastical authorities of Maronite and Greek Orthodox Churches denounced the Americans and frustrated their efforts in education. Ottoman officials interdicted Bible distribution. The only "converts" were a handful of hired language teachers and translators from Armenian and Syrian Christian communities, one of whom became a "martyr" after imprisonment for his change of religion. A large blow came as the dislocation of Russo-Turkish war forced evacuation during 1828 to 1830 from Beirut to Malta.
Seeing that work among Muslims and Jews was for the time illusory, the American Board in 1831 shifted emphasis to the spiritual enlightenment of what it called "the degenerate churches of the East. "2 It set up in the same year three stations, each aimed at a different Christian communion: Constantinople for outreach among Armenians; Smyrna among Greeks (this project ended in 1843 because of the crippling effect of Greek Orthodox wrath); and Beirut among Syrian Arabs.
Concentration for several years was on language study, Bible translation, the printing of Scriptural and other religious materials (the press was in Malta until 1834), elementary schools using the vernacular, and private evangelism. Measurable steps forward were largest among the Armenians.
Some 60 missionaries went to Turkey before 1844, with an average of five or six years of advanced education in such colleges as Yale, Amherst, and Dartmouth (in an era when only two percent of the people in the United States went to college). Whey were willing to have no salaries until 1843, and they were undaunted by 30 percent of their number dying through disease or misfortune.
Missionaries from the United States had a marginal chance to reform the Eastern churches, finding themselves increasingly tempted to transplant a separate species of Christianity, vigorous American Protestantism, into the original Christian soil. They had started their mission by frontally criticising idolatrous rites, an ignorant priesthood, the Virgin Mary, vestments, monasteries, a celibate clergy, and episcopal polity. These tactics did not augur well in avoiding attacks on Protestant sympathizers from the ancient Armenian and Syrian bodies.
As the task went forward among non-Muslims, missionaries turned particularly to a revival among Armenians. Most Armenians spoke Turkish and belonged to a politico-religious community called a millet, which had many immunities from the central government. In the Armenian millet, missionaries encountered a venerable church that was the oldest ethnic Christian institution in the world. During the first century A. D. Christianity had gotten a toe hold among Armenians in the Anatolian mountains. Two centuries later, before Constantine’s Edict of Toleration, the whole tribal group formally became Christian. Saint Gregory the Illuminator was in the early 300’s the leading teacher of the new faith, and from him and his name there emerged the Armenian Gregorian Church.
American missionaries in the 1830’s sought to invigorate the Gregorians, attempting the miracle of reversing a strong, centuries-long pressure that had seen Armenians and other Christians slowly drowning in a Muslim sea. Protestants hoped their piety and idea of God would be more attractive than the ceremonies of the Gregorians. They translated evangelical literature and the Bible into the main language used by constituents of the old church, Armeno-Turkish (oral Turkish with Armenian alphabet).
To deny that there was a divine vibrancy to the Westerners’ extemporaneous praying, discussion of their Master as a genuine daily presence, and use of the Scriptures in the contemporary idiom would be hard. So it was not long until a young Armenian, John Der-Sahakian, discovered from Americans what to him was a difference between personal and external Christianity. In cooperation with missionaries, Sahakian led a small surge among Armenians, the Evangelical Union, which by 1836 included about twenty men. To one American Board member these "Armenian followers were signs of God’s blessed Spirit" and so uplifted him that he wrote in his diary: "The good work among the Armenians . . . now seems to be carrying bishops, bankers, everything before it . . . We have seen nothing like this since we left America."3
For awhile the strategy of reforming the Armenian Gregorian Church seemed to be working. Official policy from 1830 had been to seek not to tear down the old churches or "build up a sect, but to make known and inculcate the great fundamental truths of the gospel."4 Of course, superior attitudes by missionaries weakened much of this stated resolve; more concretely, there was little resistance to giving sacraments to a member of the ancient churches, no matter how it interfered with previous ecclesiastical relations. To ask the Protestants to labor patiently in the bosom of the native organizations was so contrary to the fervid spirit that brought the New World dwellers across the Atlantic in the first place as to be nearly ludicrous.
It was no surprise then that the American Board in 1843 modified its idea about not "tearing down" the local structures to advocacy of forming churches. About the same time the right wing of the Gregorian Church displayed its edginess through the election in 1844 of Patriarch Matteos, who began to use nonmaterial artillery against the pro-American Armenians. The climax came in 1846 when Matteos, thoroughly aroused, excommunicated them and declared they bore the curse by God, all the saints and himself. There followed boycotts of Protestant Armenian shops, ostracism, and imprisonment.
This denouncement was unfortunate. Communication daps between missionaries and the Gregorians were elements in the divisiveness. The Americans’ emphasis on saving individual souls was a primary factor. Another was the New Englanders’ compulsive activism. They just had to see tangible results. Home churches clamored for statistics on conversions. Instead of remembering adequately one of their own best insights that God is the primary architect of redemption in His own time, Board people gave almost exclusive priority to their preaching role over their servant function. Apparently their more advanced education and greater wealth, compared to the Armenians, made it hard for them to give themselves to the ministry of the helping hand, which was less obvious than that of the proclaiming mouth.
The missionaries within a few months helped organize the ex-communicants. There were soon four local congregations, modeled on New England polity and doctrine. In 1847 the Turks granted a charter for the infant, evangelical sect of Protestant Armenians. Using British diplomatic assistance, the new institution in 1850 received full millet status under Turkish law.
The missionaries certainly did not make political maneuver a studied aim. But they were not adverse to thanking God for political help, perhaps even to sneak in a petition or two for such assistance. Participation in the Turkish millet system of government far non-Muslims made the question of escaping involvement irrelevant. The American Board became enmeshed in the millet structure of the empire for whatever might happen in the future. This led to the entanglement with a minority that would later nourish an independence movement against the Turkish government.
Evolution of the Armenian evangelical churches had a parallel among the Syrian Arabs. The first local congregation of nineteen members came into being in 1848. Along with other assemblies to follow, it became a part of the Protestant millet created in 1850.
The missionaries’ cultural and spiritual pride put sand in the gears of Western-Oriental relations within the Protestant millet. Americans foolishly resisted Armenian music and mandated Puritan hymnals and Presbyterian Psalters, as if God tuned his ear more readily to an Isaac Watts song of praise in an eight-tone scale than to "strange" eastern intervals.
In Syria, evangelical Arabs were spoon fed by and knelt before foreigners too long. In 1849 eleven of the fifteen males in the Evangelical Church of Beirut were paid servants of the mission-teachers, translators, stewards. Five years later the Americans, insisting on retaining the pulpit in the Beirut congregation, claimed insuperable obstacles against the pastoral candidacy of the brilliant, scholarly, and responsible Syrian, Butrus al-Bustani, who had been doing village preaching for some time. Although Bustani told his spiritual fathers that their negative move had an "adverse influence" on his feelings, mission policy retained a white-man’s-burden fixation. For a quarter of a century after the opening of the Beirut church, until 1873, there were to be no Arab pastors in any congregation.
Slowness to relax the missionary grip ran grave risks. Armenians and Syrians were being indoctrinated perhaps more in Americanism than in a Christianity that was in touch with the native culture. Inflexibility on democratic ecclesiastical rule in an authoritarian society, on New England’s standards for church membership in a situation where simply surviving birth gave entry to a religious group, and educational credentials for ordination amid pervasive illiteracy meant that Protestantism would not likely ever become a movement of wide attraction. On the other side of the ledger, scores of individuals were discovering richer meaning for themselves in relation to God and man.
Apparently there were too many triumphs for the American Board -to become aware of the effects of its paternalism. Statistical figures on the program in the Ottoman Empire by 1870 seemed almost entirely of God to the Puritans, especially in contrast to the zeros of the time during the exile in Malta from 1828 to 1830: around 20 strong stations, mostly in Asia Minor and with two mission families on the average at each; 46 missionaries, including nine in Syria; over 40 congregations with three among the Arabs; hundreds of evangelical church members; nearly 200 schools. Tomorrow looked sunny.
Part of the reason for the happy outlook was because the missionaries were helping to overthrow old learning fashions within the Ottoman Empire. The tutoring of Ottoman residents by America’s Protestants had begun unknowingly to Pliny, Fisk, Goodell, and others immediately upon their disembarkment. It astounded many people within Turkey to see educated American wives with unveiled faces. Traditional bribery and fatalism contrasted with the honesty and optimism of the missionaries. American glass windows, wooden floors, wagons, telegraph instruments (missionaries possibly brought the first one into the Ottoman Empire), potatoes, and tomatoes stimulated curiosity. The American Board taught Western life whether it wanted to or not.
Largely unaware in the early years of how they were disturbing the Near East by their alien ideas and practices as much or more than by their religion, the missionaries slowly organized education for what they believed was only an evangelistic reason. In the 1820’s and 1830’s they opened elementary schools for Jewish, Armenian, Greek, and Arab children. They taught reading. The Scriptures and Psalter were the texts. It was generally unthreatening, as one missionary later noted, to approach minors in the unknown society. Becoming teachers gave the Americans some status that they could not easily get by being preachers whom almost no one wanted to hear. Also, getting natives as paid colaborers was an entree to adults.
Schools met at first in missionary homes, then usually in simple structures with dirt floors, mats, and benches. The growing educational movement gave opportunity to make converts among language informers and instructors. By the 1830’s Armeno-Turkish and Arabic had become the main languages in teaching. As needs arose to give formal training to a local staff, the first boarding institution, Bebek Seminary (a secondary school), began in 1840 at Constantinople. Three years later a similar facility, Abeih Academy, opened in Syria. In all these learning situations, Near Easterners not only imbibed New England Christianity, which insisted on the reading and application of principles from the Bible and which clearly differed from the typically unlettered and liturgical Christianity they had known previously, but also drank in some of the American character.
Perhaps no technique helped missionary education as much as the printing press, because its efficient form of communication helped overcome inertia against change in the Eastern communities. The press began at Malta in 1822 and then transferred in 1834 to two locations in Turkey, Beirut and Smyrna. During this initial period the American Board printing establishment published thousands of Bibles and tracts to a total of around 21,000,000 pages, a rate that increased over the years to follow. Americans eventually invented an improved movable type in Arabic and became pacesetters with such languages as Armeno-Turkish and Bulgarian. For the first two decades after the move to Beirut and Smyrna, concentration was on materials in Armeno-Turkish and Arabic, although work was put out in ten languages in total.
Almost the entire list of titles in these years was of a clearly religious nature for use by the missionaries and native assistants, including hymnals and such translated Protestant literature as the moralistic tale, Dairyman’s Daughter by Leigh Richmond. Then in the mid-1800’s elementary and secondary texts on grammar, spelling, geography, and mathematics were coming off the press and receiving acceptance among many institutions in addition to those run by the Americans. In the latter 1800’s there were a notable series of scientific and medical texts of a college level. By the early twentieth century, missionaries were printing an ever larger number of general works on a commercial basis, periodicals in five languages (one magazine had the largest circulation of any journal in the Ottoman Empire), dictionaries, and volumes on literature and history.
As Martin Luther and John Calvin had used movable type to help win northern Europe and eventually North America, so the missionaries won people in Turkey to their bookish culture and its individualistic and rational notion that the Bible must be widely available in the vernacular. The printing-press mentality of the United States thus became one of the most powerful implements the missioners had in opening minds of Armenians and Arabs who were denied personal choice about their learning style and relation to God within semitribal communities. The type-set page in the privacy of the reader’s home, or in a school away from traditional settings, could and did expose the irrationality and inadequacy of many ancient authorities to inquiring persons.
With a press in one hand and equally American tools in the other, the educational movement broadened into colleges in the mid-1800’s. Because the American Board in 1856 temporarily decided not to finance schools but to back only the preaching of the Gospel, some sons of missionaries to Turkey obtained the support of a New York businessman, Christopher Robert, for a Christian college independent of the Board. Robert in turn recruited Cyrus Hamlin, who reluctantly left the Board to pursue the new enterprise. On the European bank overlooking the Bosporus, six miles from the Golden Horn in Constantinople, the two men and their supporters opened Robert College in 1863.
Another pioneer in education was Daniel Bliss. Syrian missionaries started preparing for a college in 1862. Recognizing that the American Board had inadequate funds for such a venture, they decided that the new institution should be legally independent. But these men contemplated that it be guarded by the wisdom of the mission, and chose Bliss from their midst to head the project. Spending much time in England and the United States between 1862 and 1866, Bliss raised over $100,000 and incorporated in the state of New York. From Abeih Academy, which later was to merge with the school of higher education, came guidelines. Goals were to organize a liberal arts program to develop the physical, intellectual, and moral potential of students from any ethnic group or religion, but especially to train leadership for the local Protestant community.
In December 1866 the child of the mission, the Syrian Protestant College (now the famous American University of Beirut), opened triumphantly with sixteen students and four instructors. Seeking academic excellence and using Arabic, Bliss soon produced departments of medicine and pharmacy, and then after some interval, of dentistry and commerce.
Educational internationalism from America had a most revolutionary effect within the Ottoman Empire through a third structure, Constantinople Woman’s College (later Istanbul Woman’s College), which began in 1871. Only a decade after the start of the first feminist institution of higher learning in the United States, Vassar College, missionaries were exporting an idea that was quite radical at home to a fairly closed society. By then the American Board had become less conservative and nurtured Constantinople Woman’s College.
Education became the vogue for missions as much as Gospel-preaching had been in the 1820’s. Americans by 1914 had the largest network of schools in Turkey, with most of its strength in Anatolia among Armenians and least in Syria where British, French, and Russian missions were robust. Approximate statistics tell something: in the northern Ottoman Empire there were 2,500 college students, 4,500 pupils in 50 high schools, and 20,000 in 400 elementary schools; in Syria there were over 6,000 enrollees in both the Syrian Protestant College and 100 secondary and elementary institutions (making a total of 33,000 students throughout Turkey).
Strategy and tactics for classroom outreach showed both conservation of the original Christian vision and a mellowing of New England ethnocentrism. The executive secretary of the American Board, James L. Barton, wrote in 1913 that educational missions were a part of propagating the traditional Good News, although he acknowledged founders of the Board would not agree. Barton intimated that raising the status of women by training them as well as young men ,vas like Jesus’ concern for protecting women against cynical divorces, and that promoting ecumenical understanding by giving a Western, Christian education to members of the Eastern churches was like Jesus’ desire that Samaritans and Syro-Phonecians develop sympathy for the Jewish view of God and His Messiah.
Rejoicing in the increasing role of indigenous teachers in the schools, the preparation of church, business, and professional leaders, and influence on constitutional and education reform within Turkey, Barton also worried about the growing use of English as the mode of instruction, which was Westernizing as much as Christianizing many students, and about the retreat of overt Christianity, which was weakening the missionaries’ transcendental perspective.
Emphasis on the chalkboard more than the pulpit had as much potential for retrogression as progress within the missionary program. As to improvement, there had been for some years the possibility, through interchange with national colaborers in the schools and other means, of Americans seeing with some clarity for the first time that Jehovah was not a cosmic New England Puritan but the Lord of all peoples. On the dark side, there was the potential that teaching Western economic and democratic ideals and practices would siphon off the best Armenian and Arab leaders as emigrants to the United States and encourage the remnant to rebel internally, if not with guns, against the reactionary Ottoman government. Sultan Abdul Hamid the Second ominously had warned: "Private schools constitute a grave danger to our nation. With unpardonable carelessness we have allowed representatives of all sorts of nationalities to build schools at all times and places. What a peril they are has often been shown."5
Mixed feelings of confidence and fear were not strangers to the missionary ensemble in Turkey. Education among Christian minorities was flourishing and building hope. But also it was disturbing that what Parsons had called the mighty empire of Muslim sin was not crumbling. Anxiety over purpose was a deepening problem for the missionaries. Should priority be on individual or social salvation, education or evangelism, philanthropy or preaching, public affairs or the church, accommodation to different cultures or parochialism, cooperation with secular values or defense of the pietistic castle? Of course, no single one of these questions ever came up in a vacuum unrelated to the others, so no simple answers appeared. How frustrating!
Organizational changes between 1863 and 1870 helped untwist cords tying the American Protestants together, providing the institutional milieu for later perturbances. As noted, Robert College and the Syrian Protestant College from their formation were not part of the American Board. Another division of the mission structure, worked out by mutual consent, was the allotment of Syria and Persia to the newly-formed Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in 1870, and the restricting of the American Board, supported primarily by Congregational churches, to Asia Minor and European Turkey.
These disruptions made little difference informally in unity among missioners for quite awhile. Cooperation across lines was regular. Whether active primarily in schools, scholarship, the press, or churches, all Protestants from the United States called themselves missionaries and shared the task of applying evangelical Christianity to the Ottoman Empire. The two separate missionary schools drew almost solely on Presbyterians and Congregationalists for professors. Intermarriage between personnel in diversified areas, functions, and boards was typical.
It was the colleges that first caused irritation. These centers of higher education were accountable to bodies not directly connected to the American or Presbyterian Boards or to churches. Sources of wealth were individuals more than religious groups. Temptations to independence grew until the Syrian Protestant College, for example, in 1878 decided to move toward instruction in English since qualified teachers in Arabic were scarce. The Presbyterian mission in Syria fought to block this choice, objecting because it had anticipated when abandoning Abeih Seminary that the college would supply Protestant teachers prepared in Arabic for the village schools. This plan in 1878 appeared untenable. A Presbyterian Board missionary already had noted that the college slid not teach what his organization needed, and that its location in a city made students psychologically unfit for work among rural people. But his argument and that of his colleagues were in vain.
Next, broader views, Ottoman restrictions against discrimination toward Muslims, and determination to train students of various religious and ethnic origins (in contrast to previous stress on Christian Arabs), helped lead to relaxed regulations for chapel and Bible classes. These reasons, coupled with pressures for finances and an increased staff, helped the Syrian Protestant College in 1902 to drop requirements for professors to sign statements of faith and to seek philanthropists for trustees, men not necessarily ardent Christians. The Presbyterian mission to Syria at the turn of the century declared that the college was certainly an honor to the United States and a blessing to Western Asia, but it was not furnishing Christian workers to the Protestant Arab community. A similar sequence of events was W process at Robert College and Constantinople Woman’s College.
The determination of the schools of higher education to have a more flexible mission than the American and Presbyterian Boards was illustrating that many of the Protestants in the Ottoman Empire had a new Christian style. A son of Daniel Bliss, Howard Sweetser Bliss, and second president of the Syrian Protestant College, explained the modern missionary as one who believes in the uniqueness of Christianity, yet does not think it is the "sole channel through which divine and saving truth has been conveyed." He is not self-righteous nor disparaging of other religions. He trusts in the Bible, not as errorless, but as a spiritual document with great appeal. He proclaims Christ’s love and joy, obedience to God, hope amid tragedy and sin, and concern for a benign social order. He recognizes behavior change as final proof of the Message. He allows theological variety but insists on Christ’s authority. "Or, in following Him, are your lips silent in your incapacity to define Him and His influence upon you? Call Him by no name, but follow Him!" The modern missionary seeks to bring a person to Christ "with or without a resulting change in his ecclesiastical affiliation."6
American Board secretary James Barton was stating by the first decade of the twentieth century that the missionary does not go abroad to overturn the foreign society; rather, he goes to shed Christian light as intense as a noon-day sun without denigrating feeble native tapers. "All that is good in the old religion remains, all else disappears. The missionary does not forget," Barton continued, "that Jesus came not to destroy, but to fulfill."7 The mission executive wrote of a multi-purpose Gospel which advocated individual redemption, sharing the Good News through example and through printed and oral words, Christian schools, and a society uplifted by such means as fighting unsanitary conditions and poverty.
A most dramatic reason for noticing a deficiency in the original purpose of the American Board missionaries was that sensitizing minorities in the Ottoman Empire to Western affluence and ideology, as much as Christianity, was helping an exodus of Eastern Protestants to the transatlantic Promised Land. Between 1905 and the start of the First World War there were 367,000 emigrants from Turkey to the United States, nearly 75 percent of whom were Greeks, Arabs, and Armenians. As early as the late 1880’s and within a period of only 18 months, the town of Zahlah in Syria lost to America 10 percent of its population, many of them educated in Presbyterian Board schools and five percent of those departing being Protestants. Throughout Syria the stampede to the United States was removing native preachers and teachers from the American mission and threatened for awhile cessation of some of its activities.
The most sensational reason of all for becoming aware that educational missions might be bringing unwanted results was that the schools were helping a growing Western-style revolution within the Armenian millet which in turn led to a Turkish-inspired bloodletting resulting in tens of thousands of Armenian deaths in the 1890’s.
In addition there was the Social Gospel that was helping alter the idea of missions in Turkey. Missionaries increasingly taught Western democracy, medicine, nursing, engineering, and business in their schools, and drew upon a heritage of Christian humanitarianism to put on various other caps of social service. There were dispensaries and hospitals, pioneered by the first physician, Asahel Grant, who worked in the Mosul region from 1835 to 1843. By the late 1800’s physicians resided at many American dots on the Turkish map. In the year 1914 there were 10 missionary hospitals and a dozen or more dispensaries, performing 2,000 major surgeries and aiding 130,000 patients. A sizeable number of persons benefitted were Muslims. And there were orphanages and homes for widows, ministering to Armenian refugees after massacres of fathers and husbands by Turks in the 1890’s. In these institutions the Americans taught carpentry, tinsmithing, baking, lace-making, and silk culture.
The cup of educational and humane water, Tiven not only to Protestant Armenians and Arabs but persons of Gregorian, Syrian Orthodox, and Islamic conviction in Jesus’ nam