Trouble Wherever They Went: American Missionaries in
Anatolia and Ottoman Syria in the Nineteenth Century
Muslim World, Fall 2002, Vol. 92, Issue Nos. 3&4, pp. 287-314
(Thanks to Hector)
When the first missionaries sent by the ABCFM (American Board of Commissioners for Foreign
Missions) set off from New England early in the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was
about to enter a period of protracted reorganization and reform. The intention was to
modernize and thereby strengthen the empire. Of all the principles and abstract ideas on
which reforms were based, the equality of all the sultan's subjects before the law
regardless of their religious background was perhaps the most difficult to approach and
then put into practice. The first Tanzimat reform decree of 1839 "kindled the rage of
the old Mussulmans" and by 1870 the Grand
Vizier himself was admitting that Ottoman bureaucrats "could not understand the full
adoption of a new system which was repugnant to all their old prejudices."
Thus, at the time American missionaries were beginning to
spread out across the empire, the question of religion had become one of the most
sensitive elements in the reform program, with the "old Mussulmans" defending
their rights as they understood them and the Christians occasionally bold enough to put
the new edicts to the test in public, sometimes with unfortunate results: the flaunting of
their recently proclaimed rights after 1856 led to public disturbances in Palestine. Precisely what the two principal reform edicts (1839
and 1856) had granted in the way of religious freedom was open to dispute between all the
interested parties: the Ottoman government, the Eastern churches, the Protestant
missionaries and European governments among them, but the missionaries took the view that
they had opened the way to the full range of their activities.
Insofar as Ottoman reform was concerned, European interests after the Congress of Berlin
(1878) centered on reforms that would enhance the status of Christians and particularly
the Armenians. The interests of the European governments might have been in some way
humanitarian, but the religious question was also a political one directly related to
European (and especially Anglo-Russian-French) rivalry over the Ottoman Empire and thus
the European balance of power. After Berlin, the British pushed ahead with their own
reform program, which in contradistinction to the centralizing policies of the Ottoman
government, sought a special administrative regime for the six Eastern Anatolian provinces
along with the separation of the main ethno-religious groups (Kurds, Turks and Armenians)
and the granting of what would be regarded by the Muslims and the Ottoman government as
special privileges for the Armenians. By the 1880s, the Armenian revolutionary committees
within the Ottoman Empire were taking their cue from European sympathy and the autonomy
the Bulgarians had been granted at Berlin and had embarked on a program of propaganda and
It was in this charged atmosphere that the American missionaries began seeking converts to
the Protestant faith. Their activities generated not only the opposition of the Eastern
churches but the suspicion of the Ottoman government. Yet they radiated confidence even in
the most difficult and dangerous circumstances. Their mission was to carry Gospel truth to
the 'nominal' Christians of the Eastern churches and they would do it come what may: they
also hoped to influence Muslims through their teaching and good example and perhaps one
day approach them directly (which some of the missionaries did anyway). Their principal
enemies were the priests and higher ecclesiastics of the Eastern churches who tried to
check their advances by repeatedly anathematizing any of their flock who had dealings with
the Protestants. In the abstract, the great enemy was 'untruth'; not just the 'untruth' of
the churches of the Eastern rites but of the whole edifice of Islam. Whatever they might
declare about their good intentions, they freely expressed their hostility to the Eastern
churches and to Islam in their private correspondence and in missionary journals published
in the United States.
The Missionary 'Planting'
Nothing is more expressive of missionary fervor than the names chosen for them by
their parents. Asahel, Azariah, Ezra, Benjamin, Jonas, Selah, Nathaniel, Abner,
Alpheus, Nehemiah, Titus, Cyrus, Elijah, Hiram, Moses, Elisha, Daniel, Isaac,
Adoniram, Jedediah, Calvin, Jeremiah and Joseph all spoke of the puritanism of the
churches, colleges and seminaries of Andover, Salem, Bradford, Newburyport and
Boston once the revolution had "cleared away the fogs of infidelity" and revived Christianity. The establishment of
the ABCFM (American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions) was undertaken,
followed by the expression of student concern at the "moral darkness" of
Asia. In the period of the 'planting' (1810-1850), the first two missionaries and
their wives (Adinoram Judson Junior and Ann Haseltine Judson and Samuel and Harriet
Newell) were dispatched to India and Ceylon, arriving in Calcutta on June 17, 1812.
"The missionaries did not have to wait long for their trials," writes the
historian of the ABCFM. "Strangely the first opposition was not from the people
of the land but from men of their own race. The East India Company, whose tenure of
special privilege was then being sharply protested in England, was doing its utmost
to keep missionaries out of the country where their observant eye was dreaded." Two days after landing in Calcutta, the
governor-general directed the missionaries to leave the country. The story
thereafter becomes a fiasco. Newell took passage on a ship for Ceylon; Judson fled
to Burma (and became a Baptist once back in Calcutta); other missionaries who had
arrived from Mauritius were arrested (following the declaration of war between the
United States and Britain) and it was not until 1814 that the East India Company,
following representations by William Wilberforce, relented and allowed the
missionaries to stay.
In India, the missionaries declared war on practices that they found objectionable:
in their schools and churches, they attempted to 'stamp out' the caste system and
boldly sought converts even among the Brahmans. "... the persecution of Brahman
converts was bitter, parents wailing over a Christian son who had become a Christian
as if he were dead" — a reaction that
was to foreshadow the treatment of converts from the Eastern churches in the Ottoman
Empire, which was, of course, the focal point of their attention all along:
"From the beginning the American Board had its eye on the Holy Land. It seemed
intolerable to its founders that Christianity's birthplaces should be forever in the
grip of Islam or left to exhibit a form of Christianity, ancient and entrenched but
for the most part lifeless" — but
whether Christian or Muslim, all of it was part of the "stagnant
barbarism" that pervaded the Ottoman Empire "under the oppressive hand of
the sultan-caliph in Constantinople." The
characteristics of the dominant religion of the Ottoman Empire were tied in with the
perceived characteristics of the Turkish people: as one missionary wrote in 1888,
"the Turk is no doubt as fanatical at heart as he always was. The fear of other
nations only prevents him from putting his fanaticism into practice. There is above
all else a Mohammedan. All others are infidels destined to eternal torment hereafter
and worthy only of torment here." This
view of entrenched Muslim hostility towards Christians was standard fare in the
continuing Christian polemic against Islam. The missionaries could speak kindly of
individual Muslims while remaining vehemently hostile to Islam as a system of
belief: in their letters they spoke of systematically penetrating and
"occupying" Ottoman lands as if they were enemy territories and indeed it
would be fair to say that they did come to the Ottoman Empire to conquer — to win
the nominal Christians over to Gospel truth and convert Muslims when circumstances
were more favorable. It was no wonder that the response of the Eastern churches was
so ferocious and that the missionaries met with such suspicion of their motives
amongst Muslims and the Ottoman government alike.
The first two representatives of the ABCFM (Pliny Fisk and Levi Parsons), arrived in
the 1820s and were soon followed by others. Working closely with English
missionaries and enjoying the protection of the English government, they began
spreading out across the Ottoman Empire in search of suitable locations for their
schools, churches and colleges. They were indefatigable gatherers of information and
associated power with education and knowledge. "In no man is knowledge more
really power than the schoolmaster," the Prudential Committee of the ABCFM
noted in its instructions to a departing missionary, "and by none is it more
valued, by none more certainly used."
Their attention was concentrated on the "nominal" Christians of all the
Eastern rites, but in Istanbul, William Schauffler's special task was to reach
Sephard Jews "who upon their expulsion from Spain had crowded into
Constantinople more of their race than were in any other city of the world."
Discretion was regarded as essential. No approach at all was to be made to the
Muslims. Neither was any direct attempt to be made to proselytize among the
Armenians. The missionaries attended services in both Greek Orthodox and Gregorian
Armenian churches but confined their attempts to reach Eastern Christians to
"such personal interviews as they might have with those who called upon them or
whom they might meet as they went here and there." According to missionary Goodell: "We tell them frankly you
have enough sects among you already and we have no design of setting up a new one or
of pulling down your churches or drawing any members from them in order to build up
our own." Others repeated the same
message. Fearing that under pressure from the patriarchs the missionaries might be
expelled, missionary Schauffler wrote,
Supposing therefore that we should have to go, we drew up a protestation of our
innocence declaring among other things that we had not come to draw away any members
from Christian churches or build up a Protestant denomination but simply to offer
our help to the Eastern churches in returning from the abuses gradually obtaining
ground and the superstitious practices which they themselves acknowledge to be
unscriptural, according to their own scriptures ... Our plea of nonsectarianism was
then strictly true. At the time, there existed no intention or expectation of
creating a Protestant denomination. How far the representatives of foreign powers
(apart from our own) believed our report on the subject I do not know. It seems
probable to me that they thought it a mere pretence, for sectarianism is the life of
all these religious bodies, including the Turks.
Such protestations were certainly likely to count for little among the representatives of
France and Russia — under the capitulations, the self-styled protectors respectively of
Ottoman Orthodox and Latin Christians — whose diplomatic influence "was used to the
utmost in high places against the missionaries."
The missionaries might not have been thinking of official recognition of a Protestant
millet at that stage but there could be no doubt about their other objectives. They wanted
(by their own admission) to lead Christians away from the erroneous doctrines of the
Eastern churches and eventually arrive at the point where the Muslim majority could be
approached. They were determined and underneath the pious declarations of good intentions
there was an unmistakably aggressive tone. When Cyrus Hamlin set out for Istanbul (where
he was to establish Robert College and in so doing show "those qualities which made
him the terror of the evasive Turk" , he was
instructed by the Prudential Committee of the ABCFM:
You are not sent among these churches to proselytize. Let the Armenian remain an Armenian
if he will and the Greek a Greek and the Nestorian a Nestorian and the oriental an
oriental ... Modes of government both civil and ecclesiastical are doubtless important but
they are not the great thing ... It may also be said of the rites and ceremonies of these
sects that they are mere outworks which it is not necessary for you to remove before you
come to the citadel; and an assault on them will awaken more alarm, more fierce hostility,
more general and decided opposition than upon the citadel itself ... Direct your whole
force to the principal post and when that is taken the others will fall at once ... Your
great business is with the fundamental doctrines and duties of the gospel and these you
should derive invariably and directly from the Holy Scriptures.
Such language was a fair indication of the ultimate intentions of the missionaries and as
we shall soon see, the Eastern churches were not deceived by their stealthy tactics.
"Nominal" Christians and the "Bible Men"
However discreet the missionaries claimed to be in the field, there was no
dissembling in their correspondence. In a communication on "The Cause of
Opposition to Protestant Doctrines in Syria," missionary Goodell writes in 1829
that "a nominal Christianity, where the doctrines are obscured by human
inventions and the precepts modified so as to consist in sin, is destitute of the
controlling power inherent in the Christianity of the New Testament. It is nullified
as to all the purpose of revelation; it has no more tendency to ameliorate the human
character than paganism; and perhaps even a retributive hardness of heart and
spiritual folly may be induced upon the ecclesiastics by their profane manner of
treating worldly things." Mr. Goodell
referred to the thousand provocations coming from the nominal Christians of Syria,
which had almost broken the missionaries' hearts; however "had they cherished
heavenly tempers we should not have been sent to them. It was because they were
selfish and proud and covetous and thieves and extortioners and 'inventors of evil
things,' possessing unholy characters and hateful tempers that we came here. 'They
that be whole have no need of a physician but they that be sick.'" Full responsibility for this state of affairs was laid on the
shoulders of the ecclesiastics of the Eastern churches whom the missionaries
regarded from the patriarch down to the village priest as being narrow-minded,
fanatical and self-serving. Their "blushing immorality" extended to the most iniquitous sins: "The ignorance and
sin that prevail to a great extent among the clergy and especially in the convents
seem almost to surpass those of Sodom" wrote missionary Goodell in a
communication on "The Cause of Opposition to Protestant Doctrines in
Syria." When such a corrupted form of
Christianity was combined with the influence of "Turkish tyranny and
bribery," integrity and good faith were destroyed and in their place were
introduced "lying, deception and every kind of hypocrisy."
This all added up to quite an indictment and the ecclesiastics of the Eastern
churches struck back from the beginning. Perhaps they knew something of what the
missionaries were saying in their dispatches sent back to the Missionary Herald, but
in any case, they were not deceived by the pious declarations of good intentions
that came from the "Bible men." They were as outraged by missionary
pretensions as the missionaries were by theirs. They were not going to allow the
Protestants to lead their flocks away under their noses and the first twenty years
in particular of the ABCFM presence in the Ottoman Empire is punctuated by the
exhortations of the patriarchs against the "Bible men." The missionaries
were denounced in such thunderous terms that one can almost see the fire and
brimstone descending on their heads. They were described as servants of the devil
"covered with sheep's clothing but [who] within are ravening wolves" —
or sometimes "prowling wolves."
The Rev. W. M. Thomson writes in the journal he kept while traveling in 1836 of how
under the influence of the Maronite clergy, the town crier at Brumanna on Mt.
Lebanon was sent out "proclaiming in the name of the emeer that no one should
speak to us, visit us or befriend us in any manner whatever. Those who spoke to us
should have their tongues cut out; those who sold to us should be bastinadoed and
have their houses burnt down, their orchards felled, etc."
The Greek church was no less vehement in its denunciations of the missionaries.
There was continuing trouble at Hasbeyya where missionary Whiting writes in 1848 of
the patriarch's bull of excommunication being published "not only in Hasbeiya
but also in all that part of the country. The purport of it was to denounce the
Protestants as accursed of God and man and to require all persons belonging to the
Greek Church to separate from them entirely, forbidding them to deal, speak or hold
any intercourse with them on pain of bringing the same fearful curse upon
themselves. The sentence was carried into effect to the letter. And not only did the
Greeks adopt this system of non-intercourse; but being the most numerous and
influential sect in Hasbeiya they induced the other sects to join them in it."
The same attempts to drive the missionaries were being made by the Gregorian
Armenian church, with the patriarch banning the reading of missionary material and
forbidding any Armenian from associating with the missionaries on pain of
excommunication: the missionaries were
denounced as "satanic heresiarchs from the caverns of hell and the abyss of the
northern ocean." Lest it be thought
that hostility to the Protestants was confined to other Christians, their gospel
work was repulsed just as vehemently by the Chief Rabbi who in 1836 "strictly
charged all Jews on pain of imprisonment not to visit Pera without a passport," according to the missionary William G.
Schauffler, who had come to the Ottoman Empire specifically to work among the Jews;
Pera, of course, was where missionary activities were based.
The Ostracism of "Nominal" Christian Converts An area often overlooked in
studies of the missionary presence is the effect on those "nominal"
Christians who were won over by Protestant teaching and consequently were subject to
ostracism within their own communities. Given the centrality of the church in the
lives of all these millets, the "nominal" Christian who decided to follow
the teachings of the Protestant missionaries rather than the doctrines of his or her
own church risked total ostracism by his community. This was not simply a matter of
being shut out of the church but of losing employment and of being cursed in the
streets and of being spurned by people who were once neighbors and friends. William
G. Schauffler writes that the Armenian patriarchs "tried sundry means to crush
the spark of religious inquiry and the desire for instruction." We are told that a "new era" of persecution of
Armenians began in 1844 when the newly appointed Patriarch Matteos "used all
his ingenuity" to destroy the evangelicals he had once favored (or so the
missionary account claims). "Armenians in business found their shops boycotted;
teachers and priests were banished; men and women were stoned in the streets, hung
up by the thumbs, spit upon and smitten in the face, tortured with the bastinado,
thrown into prison without open charge or trial. Spies were everywhere." Their houses were closely watched and indeed
"the very servants of the families would have betrayed them." Missionaries did what they could to support Armenians who had
turned away from their own church and suffered in consequence. "The straits of
the missionaries were great in view of the many families thrown into the streets and
heads of families turned out of their shops and stores where they used to gain a
livelihood." Money was raised locally from English residents and brought from
abroad until "persecution" of the beleaguered Armenians ceased. The sufferings of the Armenians certainly fit
in with the missionary view of what they and others should be prepared to face for
the sake of their Christian beliefs.
This was of course a decade when the question of religious freedom had been opened
up by the Hatti Serif of 1839. It was not just the freedom foreign Christians
thought Muslims should have to convert, an issue brought to a head by the executions
in 1844 of two Muslim apostates, but the general question of religious freedom which
struck generally at the hold of the Eastern churches over their communities and
provides the context in which the vehemence of their response to Protestant
missionary work can be understood. The period of "persecution" of Armenian
defectors in the 1840s was not an isolated occasion either in time or place. We are
told of continuing attacks on converts and of a Protestant burial in Istanbul being
prevented by a "yelling mob." In
the Eastern provinces, a "native" preacher sent from Sivas to the
missionary outstation at Derende was abused and beaten by the principal Armenian of
the village, who then "proceeded to the preacher's room where he dashed in the
locked door and began pulling down and abusing the Bibles and other books and called
for fire to burn them up." At Yenije,
also near Sivas, Protestant Armenians were refused a place for their dead in the
cemetery. The preacher was threatened and accused of blasphemy and finally a group
of Armenians "broke in upon the little band of Protestants during their Sabbath
afternoon service a few weeks ago and, after trying in vain to intimidate them,
seized the preacher and violently dragged him out of the room, beating him and
heaping all manner of abuse on him and trampling his Testament under their feet in
the street. After carrying him a few rods out of the village they turned him adrift,
threatening to kill him if he attempted to return. With bare head and without shoes
he picked his way through the mud to a neighboring village." Perhaps we should
not be surprised to read that the preacher later "left our employ." Harassment extended to the colporteurs, whose
job it was to distribute Bibles and missionary tracts around the countryside, while
at Gurun the Protestants had to rebuild a new chapel when "by the malice of
some unknown enemy" the old one was burnt down.
Suspicion of the missionaries and resentment of their proteges cannot be separated
from the general social and political context of the times. After the Congress of
Berlin in 1878, the "Armenian question" was inscribed on the European
diplomatic agenda along with the general question of Ottoman reform. What reform
meant depended on who was talking about it: in the official Ottoman mind, reform
meant such changes applied across the board that would strengthen the empire in the
face of internal decline and external threat, but to the European powers and
especially to Britain, reform was taken by many as meaning such changes as would
benefit Ottoman Christians and especially the Armenians. They were regarded as a
suffering Christian minority and the whole emphasis of the British program for
reform in the Ottoman Empire after 1878 was directed to redressing their grievances
and uplifting their status. The other agenda besides the stated one of humanitarian
concern was national self interest and especially the need to prevent Russia from
using the Armenians in one way or another, but all the Muslims saw from the isolated
perspective of the Eastern Anatolian provinces was Christian favoritism at their
expense with consequences that shall be briefly surveyed later.
In the mountains of Lebanon, missionary activities caused similar problems for
Maronites and Greek Orthodox Christians who turned away from their established
churches. In 1823, an order from the Maronite Patriarch was read out in all churches
requiring "all of that large communion under his jurisdiction who had received
any of the books sent out by the Bible Society to return or publicly burn
them," these books being regarded as
"neither Mussulman, Jewish nor Christian," and to have no association with
the missionaries "in spiritual things or whatever concerns the Christian
religion" or to study in their schools.
The ban extended to all social and commercial intercourse with the missionaries.
There was to be "neither buying nor selling, neither borrowing nor lending,
neither giving nor receiving" or even sharing a house with them: "Let
no-one dwell out with them as a hired man or servant in any capacity whatever." The punishment for those who defied the
church was not slow in coming: a woman employed by the missionaries who was turned
away at the door of the church and a man "whose whole family rose against him
and particularly his mother"; a woman beaten when she went to bake Sabbath
bread at the common oven; and in the Lebanese mountain village of Ihdin, the
excommunication of an entire family for associating with the Protestants and
accepting their teachings: "They are therefore accursed, cut off from all
Christian communion and let the curse envelop them as a rope and spread through all
their members like oil and break them in pieces like a potter's vessel and wither
them like the fig tree cursed by the mouth of the Lord himself; and let the evil
angel rule over them to torment them day and night, asleep and awake and in whatever
circumstances they may be found ... Let them be avoided as a putrid member and as
hellish dragons." The effects of the
bursting of such vials of wrath on the heads of disobedient Christians can be
imagined. They lived in close-knit communities. Families were bound together and to
the church and like the Armenians, the issuing of such a declaration would be
followed by complete social and commercial ostracism unless and until they repented
(as the family which was the particular object of the anathema quoted apparently
This was a fearful price to pay for religious belief and Greek Orthodox Christians
attracted to the missionaries were subject to the same bans and similar
"frightful penalties" from their patriarchs. In 1848, missionary Whiting refers to the effects on local
people of the bull of excommunication published in the Greek churches in Hasbeyya
and surrounding district:
The consequence was that no Protestant could buy or sell or transact any business except
with his fellow Protestants, and most of them being poor and dependent upon their daily
labor for support, they were at once thrown out of all productive employment and cut off
from the means of living. Of course this reduced them immediately to a state of great
distress. It seems as though they must have starved but for the kindness of one or two of
their number who are men of property and had some funds and stores from which they
generously supplied the needs of those who were in distress. But these individuals, though
better off than the rest, were of course not able to support the whole company of
Protestants consisting of some fifty or sixty souls; and besides their own business and
resources were stopped. They were compelled to pay every piastre that they owed but could
collect nothing of what was due to them. Whoever chose might refuse to pay them their just
debts or even deny their claims together. There was no redress; for the Governor, whose
duty it is to compel people to pay their debts, would render them no assistance. In fact
it was plain enough that the Governor was determined to support the Patriarch and his
party in their iniquitous combination to ruin the Protestants. And for his persecuting
zeal in their cause, nobody doubts that he is well paid.
Missionary Benton tells a similar story from Aleppo. Christians responding to the
...have their books wrested from them. They are even deprived of their usual employment,
ridiculed, threatened and made the sport of children in the streets yet they are annoyed
in such ways that they can scarcely think of seeking redress. Although the Pasha has
written orders from Constantinople to give them protection, teachers have been deprived of
their schools; parents and children have been set at variance; wives have left the
dwellings of their husbands, declaring that they could not live any longer with them. When
a man shows his inclination to search the scriptures and gets possession of a Bible the
priests throng his house from morning till night to task and vex and wear out his
patience. If they can they will get the Bible into their hands. If at length he does not
yield they put his house under an interdict and not one of their number approaches it.
Some are stoned by the children in the streets. Others are turned out of doors by their
friends. Anathemas, excommunications, bribes and misrepresentations are held up before the
minds of the people to dissuade them from intercourse with us and with the Book of Life.
There are countless stories coming out of this period of Ottoman Syria of families divided
amongst themselves, of threats, beatings, stonings, insults in the marketplace, of people
too afraid to appear in the street, of what the missionaries would regard as martyrdom
(the death of the first Protestant "martyr" Asad al Shidyaq, after years of
confinement in the Maronite convent at Qannubin, for refusing to recant his beliefs), of the attempted poisoning of Protestant conveys and of tugs of war between the ecclesiastics and
missionaries over the loyalties of the mountain Christians — not that the number won
over to Protestantism ever amounted to more than a fraction of the whole — but the
outcome of the battle could not be discerned while it was in progress and the patriarchs
did everything they could to stem the advance of Protestantism. The political connections
between the patriarchs and the Ottoman government, as well as the valis, pashas and amirs
directly responsible for the administration of Ottoman Syria, were important weapons in
their armory and will be considered later in this narrative.
Missionaries in the Front Line
The difficulties ahead of the missionaries were felt most acutely in the villages of
the Ottoman provinces where they set up their stations. Istanbul and the main towns
had achieved a level of sophistication, in addition to which there was the direct
presence of the Ottoman government and foreign ambassadors or consuls from whom the
missionaries could seek support and redress, but these layers of protection fell
away the further they moved from the center of government. The incapacity (or
refusal) of the missionaries to live among local people according to their own laws
and customs was evident at an early stage. Conflict was inevitable. They regarded
the "Muhammadan" government whose permission they needed to establish
their schools and stations as corrupt and they frequently refused to accept the laws
and conventions of the land. They were already looking ahead to the day when they
could proselytize freely among Muslims as well as Christians and they took the laws
and decrees issued by the government to mean what they wanted them to mean. They
regarded the Hatti Humayun of 1856 as a charter opening the door to full religious
freedom as they chose to interpret it: the Crimean War was seen as working to their
advantage "as there was forced from the Sultan in 1856 the famous Hatti Humayun,
a firman granting full freedom of conscience and religious profession to all his
subjects. Religious liberty was now secured at least by decree..." Such an interpretation was vigorously denied by the Ottoman
government. They could be extraordinarily disingenuous. Addressing the annual
meeting of the ABCFM in New York in 1832, Eli Smith said that the missionaries did
not wish to curse Muhammad but only "by sober and convincing argument to prove
that he is a false Prophet." The
unspoken question left hanging in the air is "and who could possibly object to
In the 1860s, the British ambassador Sir Henry Bulwer recorded in one of his
dispatches how the missionaries had affirmed that while distributing their tracts
they had "pointed out the errors of Mohametanism in a very civil and courteous
manner and in fact I believe it was stated on one occasion that he was a capable
man." Seizing on the freedoms they
chose to believe the Hatti Humayun had given them, the missionaries approached
Muslims directly and even baptized the small number of them willing to convert, in
the full knowledge that within the previous 20 years, Muslim apostates had been
executed in the Ottoman Empire. This was not just a question of the laws and what
they were supposed to mean but civil order because as Sultan Abdulhamit observed,
"the public appearance of a converted Mussulman might lead to serious disorders
and even a massacre or persecution for which he and his government would be held
responsible." His ministers also
vehemently rejected the "pretensions" of the missionaries regarding the
Hatti Humayun, which in their interpretation ensured the right of each individual to
profess his own religion without impediment but not the "right" to insult
and cast doubts on the beliefs of others.
The missionary view of Ottoman society was basically adversarial. The path to Gospel
truth was strewn with obstacles: the corruption and misrule of the "Muhammadan"
Ottoman government; the fanaticism and narrow-mindedness of the ecclesiastics of the
Eastern churches; the ignorance of the "nominal" Christians needing to be
retrieved and brought to a higher form of Christianity; and swirling all around
them, Muslims led astray by a false prophet. In this sink of iniquity, injustice,
fanaticism and superstition, only the missionaries knew the truth; in a sense it
could be said that they were acting out the life of the early church in a region
which had been "from the time of Paul one of the most promising fields for
Christian work." The following passage
about the early Christians written by Eusebius of Caesarea can be taken as a
template for the lives of the Protestants who ventured forth into the "moral
darkness" of Asia in the nineteenth century:
At that time [about the beginning of the second century] many Christians felt their souls
inspired by the holy word with a passionate desire for perfection. Their first action in
obedience to the instructions of the Saviour was to sell their goods and distribute them
to the poor. Then leaving their homes, they set out to fulfil the work of an evangelist,
making it their ambition to preach the word of the faith to those who as yet had heard
nothing of it and to commit to them the books of the divine Gospels. They were content
simply to lay the foundations among those foreign people: they then appointed other
pastors and committed to them the responsibility of building up those whom they had merely
brought to the faith. Then they passed on to other countries and nations with the grace
and help of God.
Equipped with their New England seminary zeal and certitude, the missionaries went forth
into the field only to run up against the convictions of many others who thought that only
they knew the truth. We should not be surprised that from one end of the Ottoman Empire to
the other, the missionaries found themselves rebuffed, threatened and sometimes even
physically cast out from the communities to which they had come (in all their apparent
innocence) bearing the message of Gospel truth. Their position in Eastern Anatolia at a
time of increasing ill-feeling between Muslims and Christians for reasons already given
exposed some of them to criticism that they had allowed their sympathies for their
Armenian proteges to draw them into actively encouraging the Armenian revolutionary
movement. These charges were hotly denied but missionaries stationed in the remote Eastern
provinces were in a weak position to defend themselves, and, in any case, there is no
doubt that they were guilty of numerous "indiscretions" at the least, apart from
the occasional more serious embarrassments such as the printing of revolutionary
propaganda under their noses at Marsovan College.
The Missionary Herald rushed to the defense of the two Armenian teachers arrested by the
Ottoman government: "There was no evidence connecting them with the issuing of the
placards and the charge seems to have been made with the purpose for furnishing the basis
for an attack on the college." In fact,
there was evidence and when it was shown to the principal of the college, he declared that
"it was sufficient to cast the gravest doubts on Messrs Thoumayan and Kayayan and
until the Turkish Tribunal had passed upon their innocence or guilt he should recommend to
the trustees of the college that their names should be erased from the College
Register." The college subsequently became
the target of an arson attack. At Bitlis, a missionary accused of giving active support to
the Hunchaks was escorted out Of the town under armed Ottoman guard and fears were often
expressed that all missionaries would be removed from the interior. Even in the
confidential diplomatic correspondence of their own minister in Istanbul, the American
missionaries were accused of meddling, engaging in secret correspondence with the British
ambassador and providing material for the "atrocity articles" appearing in the
British and American press. It certainly seemed
to be the case that Ottoman ministers and Muslims alike believed that "the
revolutionary societies in and out of Turkey had their origin in missionary instruction
and that of all foreigners ours are the most dangerous to social order."
But even in less troubled times, objections to the missionary presence and activities were
frequently and vehemently expressed. In 1825, missionaries Fisk and Bird were visited in
their room in Beirut by the head of police accompanied by an armed guard and taken away
for questioning by a "moolah or judge," who told them their firman had entitled
them to travel but not to distribute books. He produced a copy of Genesis which the
missionaries had handed out and threw it to the floor declaring "these books are
neither Mussulman nor Jewish nor Christian" and when told that they were indeed the
holy books of Christians, "his reply deserves to be remembered. The Latins say these
are not Christian books." The missionaries
were detained overnight and taken before "the governor," to whom they declared
that they did not consider it unlawful for Muslims to read Christian books. Their room was
temporarily sealed and eventually orders were received from the pasha in Damascus
"stating that as we had a firman from the Sultan we must not be imprisoned or
molested in any way." The outcome was satisfactory. "I believe all parties
regretted that they had meddled with us," one of the missionaries wrote, "and I
believe that a general impression was made that men under English protection are not to be
trifled with." And, in their view, the whole episode came not from the opposition of
the Turks but was rather "founded on the testimony of the Papists."
Naturally, the Eastern churches would do all they could to block the advance of the
Protestants and undoubtedly their repeated declarations inflamed feelings against the
missionaries among the "nominal" Christians whom they sought to persuade. In
Malta, the Wesleyan minister and his wife "were driven from their home by a furious
Maltese mob ... It was judged that not less than two hundred persons were assembled who
threw stones with such violence as to break almost every pane of glass in the house and
materially to injure the doors." Visiting
the Lebanese mountain village of Ihdin — close to the residence of the Maronite
patriarchate — in 1828, missionary Bird ran into the direct opposition of the local
people — "the family which entertained him was excommunicated by the Patriarch and
the Maronites rose tumultuously, assaulted the house, beat and threatened the family and
obliged Mr Bird to flee to Tripoli." Indeed
the missionary's appearance appears to have caused a near riot. His host was clubbed and
his daughter beaten when she went to bake bread at the communal oven. An old lady's wrist
was broken. Missionary Bird and his family spent the night in trepidation. A stone was
hurled down the chimney and for the greater part of the night "we heard the footsteps
of men upon the terrace"; the next morning the family left the village but while
still in the vicinity "a servant came...and laying a paper on a stone at a little
distance ran back as if he were afraid of the plague." The handwriting of the note
Joseph recognized to be that of the priest and these were its contents: "Rise and
quit this whole vicinity. If you are not off within five minutes time you will be saluted
with a volley of stones."
All of this was regarded by the missionaries as persecution. We know how the heads of the
Eastern churches regarded the "Bible men" — as "beasts of prey" and
followers of the devil, etc. — but what was the opinion of the Amir Bashir, the highest
political authority in Lebanon? In a letter to the British consul, Bashir asserted that
missionaries had traveled around the mountains without being molested "even to the
value of a mustard seed." Missionary Bird's problems at Ihdin had all been of his own
making. "It is indeed a fact that at the very moment of his arrival before he had
time to rest he began to wrangle and contend about religious subjects; and you know sir,
that to every person his own religion is dear. The people were moved and took offence at
what he said and he being seized with fear fled before anyone had lifted a hand against
him ... The blame and reproach in this case is all on Mr Bird for it is he that drew upon
himself the disaster."
This dramatic (and according to Bird's own account, dangerous) episode did not deter the
missionaries. In 1849, they returned to Ihdin, hoping that in the twenty years since Bird
had been driven out with his family, "even Papists had learned something during that
long period and that we should be allowed to reside there in peace." Two houses were hired but shortly afterwards one of the owners came
with a note written by a priest saying that Protestants were not wanted in Ihdin. He tried
to give the rent money back but the missionaries refused to accept it. Returning to the
village after a brief absence, missionaries Wilson and Foot found the houses occupied but
Wilson managed to open the door of one and went in with their families. The word spread
and a crowd gathered. "Several attempts were then made to fire the house; all of
which failed. Their next attempt was to tear it down, a work which they began in good
earnest, rolling stones off from the walls. The confusion now became very great and our
ladies left the house while heavy stones were falling near the door through which they
must needs pass." As Bird had done twenty years before, the missionaries left the
village and camped in the open air before returning to Tripoli. A letter subsequently
received from Ihdin informed them that the people "are determined in their opposition
to us; and they say they will cut down their trees, burn up their houses and flee from
their country before a Protestant shall be allowed to live among them." At other Maronite strongholds, the reaction was just as hostile.
Missionary Benton and his family were physically ejected from Zahleh in 1859 after
spending just two days there. First, boys entered their house and seized their books and
then a crowd of townspeople returned. In the angry scenes which followed, the owner was
among those injured but the main target was the missionaries. "Then the crowd poured
into our room and with much force and violence seized us, carried us out of the house amid
their clubs and stones and hurried us with our children and servants out of the town to
Maallika where we sought and secured the aid and protection of the Turkish
Two more episodes will suffice to round this picture of the awkward if not dangerous
situations into which the missionaries projected themselves as a matter of religious duty.
In 1836, missionary Smith hid a Druze convert to Christianity (and his two sons) from the
authorities for a fortnight on the grounds that "according to the rights granted in
this country to Europeans no-one would venture to take him without my leave or at least
that of my consul." In 1843 there was a tug
of war in Beirut between the missionaries and the mother of a Christian girl. She had
spent two years with the missionaries after her father had died and her mother had
"lost her reputation" (as the missionaries asserted) and on eventually going
back to the family house had been prevented from leaving. Fearing that she might be
married that night or "delivered into the hands of the bishop," the missionaries
went to the house with guards provided by the consul (presumably English or American) and
succeeded in removing the girl. The next day, they took the precaution of lodging her in
the house of the Prussian consul-general. "You might say that all of this looks very
much like taking the law into or own hands and so it does" admitted missionary Smith,
"but then it was the plain law of the land that that we executed; and we did it
ourselves because we had no confidence that this weak and corrupt government would do it
for us and the emergency required haste."
The girl's fate very quickly became a diplomatic issue. In the morning, the Russian
dragoman "presented a complaint from the mother to the pasha charging the janissaries
with having beaten and wounded her other daughter and me with having forced Rahil away
contrary to her will and for sinister purposes." The pasha then asked the American
consul to have the girl brought before him but his reply was that he could not because she
was now under the protection of the Prussian consulate. The mother then appeared before
the pasha and "confessed" that the girl had left of her own volition. The girl
eventually was brought before him and said the same thing. The Greek bishop became
involved but the girl said she was not answerable to him and that finally she was free to
what she wants, an outcome which the missionaries again interpreted (grandiosely) as
upholding the right of Christians to become Protestants or members of any other sect.
The Muslims — Challenge and Temptation
Proselytizing among Muslims was even more dangerous than it was among Christians.
The death penalty for apostasy was applied until 1844 and open approaches to
Muslims, however disingenuously presented by the missionaries, could and did result
in public disturbances. The Shari'ah was the law of the land and the entire
structure of Ottoman authority was underpinned by the legitimacy of the sultan as a
Muslim ruler. The Ottoman government could not possibly tolerate any questioning of
the truth of Islam. It could only be seen as subversive and as having dangerous
practical consequences and it was in the face of these realities that the
missionaries were advised to tread cautiously when dealing with Muslims. This did
not stop them from looking forward to the day when they could proselytize openly and
grabbing eagerly at the reform decrees issued by the sultan as proof that their
"right" to seek Muslim converts had now been granted — an interpretation
which (as has been already pointed out) the Ottoman government did not share. There
was another consideration to be added to these difficulties and that was the example
of Eastern Christianity to the Muslims. Its condition was scandalous: false beliefs,
a corrupt, fanatical, self-serving and immoral priesthood and a people kept in
superstition and ignorance. Looking at all of this why would Muslims even want to
become Christian? Thus it was that the elevation of Eastern Christianity to a higher
stage was regarded by the missionaries as a prerequisite for approaching Muslims.
"The Turks as a body have never yet seen anything like a fair exhibition of
Christian character," missionary Dwight wrote in 1830. "Who can wonder
that they should look down with contempt on the mummery and nonsense in the shape of
religious rites which they every where see in the professedly Christian churches of
this country?" In its instructions to
Cyrus Hamlin on the occasion of his departure for the Ottoman Empire, the Prudential
Committee of the ABCFM wrote: "The object of our missions to the oriental
churches is first, to revive the knowledge and spirit of the gospel among them; and
secondly by this means to operate among the Mahommedans." According to instructions given to the missionaries as
reproduced in the Missionary Herald: "The Mohammedan nations cannot be
converted to the Christian faith while the oriental churches existing everywhere
among them as the representatives and exemplifications of Christianity continue in
their present state.
These were the difficulties but the harvest was so promising that missionaries
frequently could not resist the temptation of the direct approach. British
missionaries once planned to declare the Prophet Muhammad an impostor from the
precincts of Aya Sofia and when they and American missionaries began handing out
religious tracts from rented rooms in Istanbul in the 1860s, the Ottoman government
responded with alacrity, closing down both their rooms and their assembly halls on
the grounds that their activities were putting public order at risk. The
missionaries and their supporters reacted with outrage but one only has to consider
the kind of material they were handing out to understand the impact it would have
had on Muslims: Proofs of the Falsehood of the Mahometan Religion was the title of
one tract and the Rev. Carl Pfander's The Balance of Truth (Mizan al Haqq) was
another. Pfander had traveled widely through the Muslim world, had lived in Baghdad,
Persia and India and had spent 12 years among Muslims in the Caucasus without
apparently changing his views. Of Pfander, Avril A. Powell has written: "Like
most European observers of his generation his mind was entirely closed to the idea
that Muslim civilization had thrown up any achievements either in the past or the
present which might bear favorable comparison with the cultural and scientific
progress he associated with Western Christendom." It is not surprising to read that Sir William Muir wrote The
Mohamedan Controversy to attract wider support for Pfander: it was, after all, Muir
who wrote that "the sword of Muhammad and the Kor'an are the most stubborn
enemies of civilization, liberty and truth which the world has known." On that point, he and Pfander appeared to be
in full agreement.
Other missionaries met with a similar response when they approached Muslims
directly. In 1827 Joseph Wolff, an agent for the Society for the Promotion of
Christianity Among the Jews, took it upon himself to issue a manifesto to the "Mahometan
grandees" of Alexandria urging them to repent and "return" to
Christianity. That was risky enough but when he sent one of his "calls" to
the governor, his messenger was flogged and he himself subsequently expelled. The accumulation of these experiences did not
deter some missionaries and virtually all of them looked forward to the day when
Ottoman Muslim power could be overthrown. Some regarded every misfortune suffered by
the Ottoman Empire as a step forward. "Were not all of you disappointed that
the Russian army did not march at once upon the capital and annihilate by force the
dominion of the successors of Muhammad?" missionary Eli Smith asked his
audience at the annual meeting of the ABCFM in 1832. But perhaps the "grand prize" denied the Russians had
been reserved for missionary enterprise to win "by converting Moslems to the
faith of Jesus." Even martyrdom was seen as a means towards this end. In a
letter written in 1824 on the subject of the conversion of Muslims, we find
missionary Fisk in a contemplative mood:
My mind dwells with deep interest on the question "how is the Gospel to be
preached to the Mussulmans"? According to the established law, and a law which
to the extent of my information is rigidly executed, it is immediate death for any
Mussulman, of whatever rank in whatever circumstances to renounce his religion.
Undoubtedly God can so pour out his spirit upon men that they shall embrace the
Gospel in multitudes even with the certainty of immediate death. But has he ever
done this? Has the Gospel ever prevailed where this was the case? Under the pagan
emperors fiery persecutions were endured and the Gospel still prevailed. But in
these persecutions it usually was only some of the principal persons or at least a
part of the Christians that were put to death. Perhaps if a few conversions should
take place and be followed by immediate martyrdom the blood of the martyrs would
again prove the seed of the church and the persecutors cease from their opposition,
Possibly the bloody and fiery scenes of the first centuries are to be acted over
again. Possibly some great political revolution is to open the door for the free
preaching of the Gospel to the followers of the false prophet.
In 1837, missionary Bird also referred to the Shari'ah against apostasy yet "in
the assailable parts however of the Mohammedan world where their discipline is lax
or where the government is not their own it is time to begin to press them with the
difficulties of their system and to exhibit these difficulties in contrast with the
perfect system of Christ." The
conflict between the Ottoman government and Muhammad 'Ali should be regarded as a
providential sign for the possibility of labor among the Muslims. "We see the
kingdom divided among itself ... Since the late civil war Moslems have learnt to
feel that their kingdom is weak and on the verge of ruin" and a spate of rumors
about the state of government "whether believed or not betray a strong feeling
of distrust in their civil and spiritual head and betoken the entire breaking up of
the Mohammedan system of delusion."
But even Bird recommended prudence and generally it seems to have been regarded as
the better part of valor, which is probably just as well given the hostility to
Islam that seeps out of missionary correspondence. There is little more that needs
to be said about it. References to the "Muhammadan delusion" or
"imposture" or to their "false prophet" pepper their pages. They
could certainly look out for receptive minds and if Muslims were willing to take the
risk they could even baptize them (although years of toil never brought them more
than a handful of conversions) but basically they had to wait until time and
providence created more favorable circumstances. By and large, Muslims were not
receptive to their views. They were likely to be offended and even outraged by them
and the Ottoman government would not tolerate open proselytism whatever
"rights" the missionaries thought they had under Ottoman law. All of this
put the missionaries in the position of watchers at a banquet gazing hungrily at
food they were prevented from eating.
Altruism and Imperialism
The question arises as to whose ends the missionaries were serving (apart —
presumptively — from God's). In the various lands to which they went what else were they
representing besides Gospel truth? In the eyes of the native population, it was European
power, appearing in a variety of disguises but always with the same purpose of domination
and control of minds as well as territory and resources. As Stephen Neill has written,
"... for say what we will, Christian missionary work is frequently understood by the
people of Africa and the East not as the sharing of an inestimable treasure but as an
unwanted imposition from without, inseparably associated with the progress of the colonial
powers." The missionaries went abroad fully
equipped with notions of racial and civilizational superiority common to European man. The
historical differences between the English and the Americans all fell away in the local
setting before the common unifying truths. Whether in the Ottoman Empire or in India or
China or in the Sandwich Islands, the missionaries were not only the bearers of Gospel
truth but came as representatives of the Anglo-Saxon 'race' and the representatives more
generally of a superior civilization in all material and spiritual aspects. These were
self-evident truths and the failure of others to see them (even worse to oppose them) led
to the frustration, disappointment and irritation that is constantly to be found in
missionary records and correspondence. Their unwavering belief in their mission could only
lead to the condemnation of societies, laws and customs that did not meet their standards.
There could be no shades of grey. The missionaries could certainly recognize individual
good, but systems, cultures and histories that lacked the basic ingredients of
"Western civilization" could only be regarded as deficient if not downright evil
(here the Protestants did not show as much flexibility when encountering foreign cultures
as the detested Papists sometimes did). Thus, the caste system in India had to be swept
away and so did "Muhammadan government" wherever it was encountered. There was
no self-analysis or questioning except in the most disingenuous and superficial sense: the
object of Carl Pfander's tract was not genuine religious debate but propaganda. Against
Gospel truth there could be no other truths and insofar as "civilization and
progress" was attainable, it could only be according to the
Western/European/Protestant model. "Only Western man was wise and good and members of
other races in so far as they became Westernized might share in this wisdom and goodness.
But Western man was the leader and would remain so for a very long time, perhaps for ever.
This does not mean that the missionaries were the conscious agents of imperialism. The
affinities of the American missionaries with the English were more along cultural,
religious and civilizational lines than political. Not that the missionaries were unaware
of political realities. Even in the late 19th century, the relationship between the US and
British governments was fraught with difficulties (such as the application of the Monroe
Doctrine and their competing interests in Latin America). But the pressure the British
government could bring to bear on the Ottoman government was far greater than anything
their own government could muster and the American missionaries knew it and frequently
sought to use it in their own interests. Well before the development of the Orientalist
critique the missionaries also knew that knowledge is power: they were the most
indefatigable collectors of information towards the general end of strengthening their
mission work. But the side benefits for any student of Ottoman society in the 19th century
are works such as W. M. Thomson's The Land and the Book: the people and the way they live,
the crops they grow and even the flora and fauna to be found across the land are richly
detailed. The relationships between missionaries and governments were complex. The ABCFM
missionaries benefited from the diplomatic and consular protection of their own government
and of the British, whose help they acknowledged as being critical when they were
establishing themselves in Ottoman Syria. As well as being aware of what European power
could achieve in the face of a recalcitrant Ottoman government, they shared the prejudice
common to European diplomats that the Ottomans would only introduce reforms under threat
or pressure. Each setback suffered by the Ottoman government was interpreted as a sign of
the final downfall of a system which they detested. These general attitudes come through
clearly in their correspondence. Leading missionary figures maintained contact with
politicians (pre-eminently William Gladstone) and provided newspapers in England and the
United States with information during the violent disorders that swept Istanbul and the
Eastern provinces of the empire from 1894 to 1896. The outraged reaction included demands
that the U.S. government send gunboats to Turkish waters with the authority to bombard
Ottoman ports if necessary (the same pressure for military intervention was being made in
Britain by politicians and religious groups associated with the "forward
Missionary involvement was instrumental in highlighting the need for foreign governments
to protect Ottoman Christians and therefore strengthened the case being argued from time
to time for European intervention on humanitarian grounds. However, to take just the
example of the British government and its involvement in the Armenian question, while
there was no doubt genuine solicitude, the more important motive from Britain's point of
view was the need to prevent the Armenians from being used by Russia as leverage to
strengthen its own position vis-á-vis the Ottoman Empire. That self interest was more
important than humanitarianism would seem to be indicated by the fact that when Lord
Salisbury decided in the 1890s that Britain would be better off concentrating its
attention on Africa, the Armenian policy followed
since the Congress of Berlin and the Armenians themselves were effectively abandoned.
Henry Bulwer, ca. 1870;
Cyrus Hamlin lashed out
But however much diplomats and governments
might sympathize with the humanitarian and religious activities of the missionaries
and might even profit from them, it is clear that the missionary presence in the
Ottoman Empire was frequently the cause of frustration and irritation. They often
made demands that could not be met or they would get themselves into awkward
situations which the diplomats would have to sort out and which only caused strain
between themselves and the Ottoman government, yet they had to be handled carefully
because of the strong support they enjoyed both in the United States and Britain.
The diplomat who went too far in upbraiding the missionaries would soon feel the
lash across his back. For appearing to sympathize with the Maronite patriarch and
the Ottoman authorities over the question of proselytism in 1841 the U.S. minister
at Istanbul, David Porter was very quickly pulled into line by his own government
and told to give American citizens "that aid and protection to which they feel
themselves entitled." In 1864, after
criticizing missionaries for imprudent behavior, the British Ambassador, Sir Henry
Bulwer, was roundly abused by two of the most senior missionary figures, George
Washburn and Cyrus Hamlin. Thirty years
later, missionary "meddling" and "indiscretions" and finally the
abuse of him which appeared in the "missionary press" appear to have
totally infuriated the American Minister Plenipotentiary to the Sublime Porte,
Alexander Terrell, and indeed to have strongly influenced his decision to resign. In
his letter of resignation to President Cleveland, he conceded that some of the
missionaries were good people but some were "bad and dangerous.
This deep official ambivalence about the missionaries can be found in other sources.
W. M. Ramsay, for example, in Impressions of Turkey During Twelve Years Wanderings
(1897), refers to the "missionary stumbling bloc" standing between the
United States government and the Sultan.
Their good work and Christian dedication could be admired. They were a strong part
of the Western presence in Eastern lands and were furthering the goals of
civilization and progress, but they could not be controlled and that was what made
them dangerous. They were capable of guile and dissembling but in pursuit of
Christian truth (as they saw it) they could be as obdurate and troublesome with
their own governments as they were with the Ottomans. They could not easily be
persuaded to retreat from what they considered to be their rights whatever the
dangers and embarrassment these threatened to cause diplomats and their governments.
Sir Edmund Hornby, a consular court judge and a defender of the missionaries in
other circumstances, wrote in apparent exasperation that they were "next to
habitual criminals the most troublesome people in the world to deal with."
The missionaries were part of a slowly encroaching Western presence and in numerous
ways, directly and indirectly and objectively if not subjectively, strengthened the
capacity of the West to dominate the East. They provided the outside world with the
knowledge that could be used as the leverage for intervention in Ottoman affairs.
They brought into Ottoman society ideas that were regarded as dangerous by the
authorities: according to Alexander Terrell, "the Turks believe that Robert
College as the educator and encourager of free thought caused them the loss of
Bulgaria" and the college remained an object of suspicion in his time. According to Richard Davey, in The Sultan and
His Subjects (1897), "The only fault to be found with the American missions is
that their teaching is a little too thoroughly 'go-ahead' to suit the conditions in
which the pupils are eventually destined to live. Whether justly or unjustly, I
cannot say, official Turkey views them with suspicion as being centres of
revolutionary propaganda. One or two of the missionaries have frankly admitted to me
that the education which the Armenians in Asia Minor were receiving — not from
themselves only but from Roman Catholic Dominican, Lazarist and Jesuit missionaries
— might tend to render the rising generation dissatisfied with its lot, adding,
however, that the Armenians are so exceedingly intelligent that it seems a pity not
to afford them every possible opportunity for improving themselves and of rising in
the scale of civilization."
This, one thinks, was the real danger presented by the missionaries. Their religious
ideas were annoying, niggling and caused problems to the patriarchs of the Eastern
churches, the Ottoman government and their own diplomats alike. But the secular
ideas they brought with them and imparted through their schools alongside Gospel
truth struck at the bases of Ottoman authority. They left behind very few converts
to Protestantism from the Eastern rites. Islam was even more impervious: only a tiny
number of Muslims ever converted to Christianity. We are told that the Reformed
Church mission at Muscat converted only five Muslims in 50 years. This is the irony — that their legacy was not religious truth
but rather the spread of secular ideas disseminated through their schools and
Attached to the central narrative of the American missionary presence in Ottoman
lands is a number of other stories. The missionary experience is also the story of
the country from which they came. Their confidence and idealism and the values the
missionaries brought with them and reflexively assumed were right for everyone else
tell us something of the state of American society at the time they took sail for
the Ottoman Empire. Another story speaks of the juxtaposition of two societies —
one entering a period of rapidly gathering cohesion and dynamic growth and the other
falling even deeper into a state of decline which no reform proved capable of
arresting. Yet another element is what stands to be learned when morality is
injected into international relations and the affairs of governments. The moral and
religious concerns of the missionaries might attract the sympathy and even the
support of diplomats and governments, but only to a point defined by national
self-interest. In the case of official British interest in the Armenians,
humanitarian concern rose or diminished but never moved above this line. A
politician such as W. E. Gladstone, a self-consciously moral and religious figure,
was only possibly an exception. By the time the Armenian question had reached the
point in the 1890s where intervention was being demanded in the name of morality, he
was out of office and could only wring his hands at the refusal of the Conservatives
to do more. The insistence of the missionaries on morality above politics inverted
the code of governments and diplomats, among whom they aroused not just ambivalence
but frustration and even anger: the true imperialists did not quite regard them as
belonging to the same club. Certainly many of the missionaries were sympathetic to
the imperialist idea: in the context of the nineteenth century, that is only to be
expected, but there were as many attitudes as there were missionaries and in any
case their overriding concern was their commitment to the spreading of Gospel truth.
The Americans of the ABCFM saw themselves as doing God's work on earth and not as
serving the temporal interests of any particular power, whatever their individual
sympathies and affinities. This made them unreliable allies. It is for this reason
that their place in imperial and colonial history is so idiosyncratic even though
they served "Western interests" in the general sense by their presence and
the values they disseminated.
1. Jeremy Salt, Imperialism, Evangelism and the Ottoman Armenians
1878-1896 (London: Frank Cass, 1993), 23, quoting Cyrus Hamlin.
2. Ibid., 20.
3. Moshe Ma'oz, Ottoman Reform in Syria and Palestine
1840-1861 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 160.
4. William E. Strong, The Story of the American
Board. The Centenary of American Foreign Missions (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1910), 9.
5. Ibid., 17.
6. Ibid., 17-18.
7. Ibid., 30.
8. Ibid., 80.
9. Ibid., 81.
10. Edwin M. Martin, The Hubbards of Sivas (Santa
Barbara: Fithian Press, 1991), quoting the U.S. consul at Sivas, H. M. Jewett.
11. Kamal Salibi and Yusuf K. Khoury, eds., The
Missionary Herald: Reports from Ottoman Syria 1819-1870 (Amman, Jordan: Royal Institute for
Inter-Faith Studies, 1995), vol. 3, 1836-1846, Instructions of the Prudential Committee to
Rev. Cyrus Hamlin on the occasion of his recent departure for Turkey, 164.
12. Strong, op. cit., 90.
13. Ibid., 92.
15. Autobiography of William G. Schauffler. For
Forty Nine Years a Missionary in the Orient. Edited by his sons (New York: Anson D. F.
Randolph and Company, 1887), 135. Among Schauffler's contemporaries at Andover were two of
the leading missionary figures of the nineteenth century, Dr. H. G. O. Dwight (his roommate)
and Dr. Elias Riggs.
16. Richard Davey, The Sultan and his Subjects
(London: Chapman and Hall, 1897), vol. two, 223.
17. Strong, op. cit., 103.
18. The Missionary Herald, volume three, 162-63.
volume two 1828-1835. Extracts from a communication of Mr Goodell on "The Cause of
Opposition to Protestant Doctrines in Syria," 164.
20. Ibid., 165.
21. Strong, op. cit., 167, referring to an Armenian
22. The Missionary Herald, reports etc. vol. 2,
23. Ibid., vol. 1, a letter from missionary Fisk,
24. Ibid., vol. 2, "Extract from the journal
of Mr Bird," 88.
25. Ibid., vol. 2, "journal of Mr W. M.
Thomson at Beyroot and on Mt. Lebanon" December 9, 1835, 93.
26. Ibid., vol. 4, 1847-1860, 60.
27. Salt, op. cit., 33.
28. Strong, op. cit., 92.
29. Schauffler, op. cit., 93.
30. Ibid., 131.
31. Strong, op. cit., 105.
32. Schauffler, op. cit., 180.
33. Ibid., 190-91.
34. Strong, op. cit., 215.
35. Martin, op. cit., 96.
36. Ibid., 99-100.
37. Ibid., 96.
38. The Missionary Herald, Reports etc. vol. 1 from
a letter of missionary Goodell, 235.
39. Ibid., vol. 1,480.
40. Ibid., vol. 2, 11.
41. Ibid., 75.
42. Ibid., vol. 1, 144.
43. Ibid., vol. 3, 82.
44. Ibid., vol. 4 letter from Mr Whiting, dated
June 22, 1848 on "persecution at Hasbeiya," 60.
45. Ibid., vol. 4, 62.
46. Ibid., vol. 2, see 321-323 for a history of the
sufferings of Asad al Shidyaq.
47. Ibid., vol. 4, 350.
48. Strong, op. cit., 196: emphasis in the
49. The Missionary Herald, reports etc. vol. 2,
50. Salt, op. cit., 36.
51. Ibid., 35.
52. Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions,
revised by Owen Chadwick (Penguin 1964: 1986 and 1990), 29. (n53.) Ibid., 35.
53. Ibid., 35.
54. Salt, op. cit., 65.
55. Martin, op. cit., 217, quoting The Missionary
56. Salt, op. cit., 66.
57. Ibid., 115.
58. Ibid., 117, quoting the U.S. Minister
Plenipotentiary at Istanbul, Alexander Terrell.
59. The Missionary Herald, reports etc. vol. 1, 286
et. seq. Emphasis in the original.
60. Ibid., 293.
61. Ibid., 320.
62. Ibid., vol. 2, 7.
63. Ibid., 87-88.
64. Ibid., 109.
65. Ibid., vol. 4, 96.
66. Ibid., 97.
67. Ibid., letter from Mr. Benton, May 24 1859,
"Violent Expulsion from Zahleh," 343.
68. Ibid., vol. 3, letter from Mr. Smith, Beirut,
March 17, 1836, 65-69.R
69. Ibid., letter from Mr. Smith February 27, 1843
on "Toleration of Protestants," 382.
70. Ibid., vol. 2, extracts from a letter of Mr
Dwight's April 9, 1830, 253.
71. Ibid., vol. 3, 160.
72. Martin, op. cit., 95, quoting the Missionary
Herald of September 1839.
73. Avril A. Powell, Muslims and Missionaries in
Pre-Mutiny India (Curzon Press, 1993), 152.
74. Sir William Muir, Life of Mahomet from Original
Sources, new edition (London: 1877), 535. See also Clinton Bennett, Victorian Images of
Islam (London: Grey Seal, 1992), 109 and 111 for reference to Muir's support of Pfander --
"the most distinguished opponent of Islam that has yet appeared."
75. H.P. Palmer, Joseph Wolff (London: Heath
Cranton Limited 1935), 153.
76. The Missionary Herald, reports. Etc. vol. 2,
77. Ibid., vol. 1, 251, journal of Mr Fisk on the
subject of the "conversion of Mussulmans."
78. Ibid., vol. 3, 77.
79. Ibid., 78.
80. Neill, op. cit., 213.
81. Ibid., 220.
82. Salt, op. cit., 142.
83. Ibid., 33.
84. Ibid., 37.
85. Ibid., 135.
86. W.M. Ramsay, Impressions of Turkey During
Twelve Years' Wanderings (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1897), 161.
87. Salt, op. cit., 36.
88. Ibid., 38.
89. Davey, op. cit., 201.
90. Neill, op. cit., 311, referring to the
activities of Samuel M. Zwemer, one of the leading figures in Christian mission work in the
Persian Gulf. His attitudes in the chapter subtitles of Zwemer's Islam. A Challenge to Faith
(first published 1907, London: republished by Daft Publishers, 1985) give some flavor of his
views -- "the problem and the peril," "the danger in West Africa,"
"the parable of the locusts," "Moslem morals in India," "their low
ideal of character" and "the social bankruptcy of Islam."