American Missionaries in the Ottoman Empire: A Conceptual Metaphor Analysis of Missionary Narrative 1820-1898
Hami Inan Gumus’ book supplies the reader with a treasure chest full of insight into how American missionaries sent into the Ottoman Empire by New England churches in the 19th Century perceived themselves, their hosts, and their work. There is nothing inventive or surprising about the metaphors missionaries used to explain to their supporters what they were doing since all of the metaphors came straight from their Bibles. Protestant missionaries, recently minted from Andover Seminary, could, of course, be expected to derive their understandings of their place in the world from their Bibles given the beliefs of its founders.
And yet, when the Ottoman Sultan eventually began to read translated copies of the Missionary Herald, containing those missionary metaphors, it is no wonder that he began to make life difficult for missionaries and their converts. While no missionary to my knowledge ever entered the Ottoman Empire with weapons, or with a contract from the American government to spy on, infiltrate, and actively pursue “regime change” they might as well have, given their disposition toward the Ottoman government. There motive was simply religious. Not primarily political.
Clearly, they saw their work as both eternally opposed to Ottoman government, founded on Islamic theology as it was, and as altruistically devoted to the people of the Ottoman empire There is some irony here. It does not appear that missionaries actually craved political power for themselves but they certainly wished to undermine and topple the power structures of Ottoman life as they found them, both political and ecclesiastical. Jesus would, they hoped, be king.
From their frequent use of martial metaphors, it is obvious that missionaries saw themselves as soldiers in a war, soldiers lacking cannon and cavalry but heavily armed with canonical beliefs and Calvary.
Levi Parsons writes from Chios in 1820 of his planned trip to Jerusalem, “[f]orget not to pray for us, that we may be permitted to see and to take possession of the land of promise.” The reference to Joshua’s invasion of Caanan is thinly veiled. He has no intentions of fomenting some sort of military coup against Ottoman rule but the work he plans to do will certainly erode the foundations of it.
“Parsons and Fisk continued distributing tracts and Bibles around the region of Izmir before they took off for Jerusalem,” Gumus informs the reader, “The printing press,” they write,
“is a species of artillery, which, if well and perseveringly served, on the side of justice, benevolence, and truth, is perfectly invincible.”
Given that the Ottoman State was based on a foundation of religious belief in a religious text that Protestant texts ignored or outright disparaged, the attack on that belief that the missionaries were preparing to assemble via, tracts, Bibles, and preaching was unquestionably a threat, whether the Ottomans felt it to be so at the time or not. “The paradoxical use of military language and positive concepts is striking,” the author tells us,
“It is as if the missionaries justified their attack on other belief systems and people by alluding to the higher moral ground they claimed to occupy. Once again, certain conflicts caused by distributing tracts and books might have been the reason why the target groups sensed the aggressiveness that missionaries attached to these activities and felt threatened. Upon visiting the relics of the ancient city of Sardes, the missionaries experienced a feeling of discontent at the city’s desolate state. For them “[e]very thing seems, as if God had cursed the place, and left it to the dominion of Satan.” The missionary mind regarded the concept of a city or landscape as a ‘dominion’ that belonged either to them or to their adversaries. On occasions like this, the boundary between a mental space and mundane place is blurred. The missionary language employs the conceptual domain of war in seemingly abstract ways. The idea of a dominion in this sentence, however, is not only of an imagined place, a mental construct which Protestants and their rivals compete over. The dominion is real. It is a geographical location and a political and religious power that literally controlled the place.”
These first missionaries saw the connection between what they regarded as inaccurate (read “not Protestant”) doctrinal beliefs and human misery as both obvious and unavoidable. If Ottomans were ever to have better lives, they were going to have to think with better theology the missionaries insisted.
“On a similar occasion, Parsons’ and Fisk’s visit to the seven churches was described by the Prudential Committee with the comment that “[t]he marks of degradation and misery are visible in every place, where the dominion of the false prophet is felt.” Similar to the criticism about the city of Sardes, the region is depicted as backwards because it belonged to Muslim rule. The criticism of Islamic rule and the prevalence of Islam in general was not only a matter of abstract ideas for the missionaries. It was also a matter of infrastructure and economic degradation.”
It became obvious to them that the power structures built on these Eastern religions (Islamic, Catholic, Armenian, etc.) were inevitably going to resist the work that they had come to do and they fully expected that the “fight” would not be an easy one. It was going to require a long sustained campaign and what they call in the real military, “logistics.”
Gumus explains with examples.
“In the September issue of 1825, a call was made to the secretaries, treasurers and collectors of the various associations. They were addressed on the importance of collecting money from the public [in America] and were given hints on how to deal with subscribers. They were reminded that if these were followed, “invasions” would be made “into the empire of darkness.” As in any war, financial means were of crucial importance. Daniel Temple, a missionary stationed at Malta for the mission press, summarized the background notion of considering places as dominions when he stated that ‘the few Christian missionaries stationed in the Mediterranean are increasing in zeal, and extending their plans and labors for the enlargement of our adorable Redeemer’s kingdom.’ The mission enterprise was involved in creating a new political entity on a global scale. They were ready for opposition and Temple anticipated that ‘the enemies of this sacred cause’ might start a corresponding activity against the mission. Their trust in the power of the printing press and their aggressive strategy can be seen in the following lines: ‘American press at Malta […] have a free and constant operation, for an age to come, and the foundations of the Papacy will be undermined, and Islamism will tremble to its centre.”
Jonas King, one of the more strident and militant of the first missionaries, cited the following poem from James Montgomery reflecting on what he expected would ensue when he arrived in Jerusalem:
The lowering battle forms
Its terrible array,
Like clashing clouds in mountain storms,
That thunder on their way.
For him, says Gumus,
“’[f]lesh and blood, principalities and powers, rulers of the darkness of this world and spiritual wickedness in high places’ were united to oppose them. Yet God, ‘under whose banner’ the missionaries were enlisted, was ‘sure to conquer.’ He believed that ‘the God of armies’ called them to the contest and they hoped for ‘victory.’ His aim was to ‘fight the good fight.’ Their rivals, mainly Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians, ‘seized upon the artillery of heaven’ and ‘the god of this world’ turned it to the defense of his own kingdom. The Board expected them to make their ‘firmest, most deadly stand’ which would result in ‘the most painful struggles, and the fiercest conflict.’ The mission work in Palestine was considered to be ‘a long and arduous, but glorious struggle’ and ‘the fierce and long-contested battle’ which would result in ‘ultimate and triumphant success.’ To sum up, from the missionary perspective the missionary operations were ‘destined to hasten the battle of the great day, when the Beast and the False Prophet, united in counsel and interest and hostile effort’ would be “overthrown, and their kingdom subverted.” ‘
There is a reason why I referred to these missionaries as “vicarious crusaders” in my Masters Thesis 25 years ago. The people donating the money for missionary work, the people making decisions about missionary work, and the missionaries themselves were steeped in this language of opposition and conflict.
“The Board was aware that without appropriate preparation and foreknowledge, the mission did not have the chance to become influential and successful. The missionaries of the Palestine mission were supposed to be acquainted ‘with every strong hold, and assailable point, in the ancient and mighty kingdom, which Satan has established in those parts’ and ‘with the most effectual modes of assault.’ The missionary excursions and explorations are conceptualized in these lines as a military expedition. For the missionaries, travel meant an opportunity for propagation and an opportunity to scrutinize the weak points of the adversaries to the missionary cause. They had a keen eye for detecting a weak point, a crevice in the texture of metaphorical fortifications, and they developed new modes of assault to overcome and subdue their enemies.”
“Via metaphors of war,” Gumus concludes, “missionaries constructed imaginary armies, abstract castles, and spiritual wars that overlapped with their mundane counterparts.”
This brings us to a two other metaphors frequently used by missionaries to describe their enterprise; the metaphors of agriculture and light. Frequently, they refer to the work they do as “sowing seed.” Primarily through the distribution of tracts and the selling of Bibles, they see themselves as “warrior-farmers” leaving behind them a swath of theological assertion approved by God Almighty and incubated in America. They regard the minds of the people they minister to as desert-like and barren of all but thorns and brambles. Having no access to the Bible, they have no access to any thoughts worth thinking. They are constantly reminding themselves that they have no control over how quickly the Word of God will gestate and bear fruit but they are certain that it will.
And for them, Biblical thinking is light and thinking inspired by anything but the Bible is darkness. And thus, they see darkness everywhere. For even in a culture where millions of people bear the name of Christian, few people can read and thus most thought is, according to the missionary way of seeing it, unenlightened.
Metaphors of light had a wide-ranging field of application, Gumus says,
“The political and social scene was no exception. Mr. Fisk and Mr. King call Egypt a ‘land of darkness’ in their journal they kept on their travels to Upper Egypt in 1823. Prior to his journey to Jerusalem from Beirut in 1825, Mr. King remarked on the hostile mood in the Holy City against the missionaries and considered the ‘earthly’ powers to be the ‘rulers of the darkness of this world.’ Mr. Goodell provides a thorough analysis of the political and social state of the Ottoman Empire when he describes a meeting of Armenians that took place in the city. He starts his reflections by introducing the country as the ‘oldest and darkest part of the globe.’ In a letter from Mr. Goodell to Mr. King dated 2 November 1826, that is published in extracts in The Missionary Herald, one can see that Mr. Goodell employs the metaphor of darkness while addressing his friend. He describes the opposition against the missionary activities in greater Syria as ‘the powers of darkness.’ We see a similar expression in the journal of Mr. Smith from 1828. While conducting missionary work in Mount Lebanon at Mar Chaaya, a Greek Catholic convent, he refers to this country as a ‘land of darkness.’”
To not think like the missionaries (i.e. to not be thinking like a graduate of Andover) was to be “in the dark” as far as the world of reality was concerned.
“Mr. Smith shared his opinions on the religious prospects of Egypt after his residence in Cairo with the Corresponding Secretary of the Board in a letter dated March 1, 1827, as follows: ‘Egypt is at present a land of darkness and of the shadow of death, a land where ignorance, indifference, and wildness produce a moral darkness which may be felt.’”
Missionaries not only therefore know whose ideas should form the basis of all human societies and know whose perception of the world is enlightened, they also know exactly where the world is heading – where it is being driven by an incontestable Providence. Hence missionaries frequently use the metaphor of a path or a journey that has an ultimate destination, the Millennium, as they see it predicted through their reading of the Bible.
“The very first use of this conceptual domain is in the letter of Fisk and Parsons to the Corresponding Secretary of the Board written in 1820. The lines read ‘the way is preparing for the diffusion of the blessings of salvation.’ The diffusion of the blessings of salvation will be achieved by using a ‘way’ according to the missionary discourse. This way is a metaphorical way ‘on’ which the missionaries conduct their activities and encounter opportunities. The concept of way entails the idea of a journey and an end. It is not hard to guess what the missionaries regarded as the end of the way: conversion of their target groups and the coming of the Millennium.”
“The missionary narrative functions in the confines of a conceptualization of time which progresses in a linear direction towards the future,” Gumus explains,
“In this linear progression, the sum of events and everything related to them inevitably goes in one direction which will end up with the coming of the Millennium. The missionary narrative takes missionary activity to be at the core of a linear historical time flow as it is one of the, if not the most influential, elements in defining the path for the Second Coming.”
The future that the missionaries see when they look around the Ottoman world is a Christian future. It is a world empty of mosques and synagogues and full of thriving churches until it is a world governed by a returned Christ.
To get to that future, missionaries would simply have to pay close attention to the hand of Providence as it “opened doors” for them. There’s was an aggressive approach. They intended to “run until they were tackled” you might say. And even then, they would not lay down for long. Consider how frequently they refer to the metaphor of the open door in their reports and letters.
“Fisk and Parsons wrote to the Corresponding Secretary of the Board from Malta, on December 23, 1819, to express their excitement at their journey from Malta to Izmir which is to take place in a couple of days. They were ‘anxious to be there’ and ‘see what prospects open before’ them. Having arrived at Izmir, Fisk and Parsons realized that the mission field is a rough one. In another letter to the Corresponding Secretary from Izmir, dated February 8, 1820, they made it clear that there were ‘many adversaries,’ yet they ‘trust a great and effectual door is opening.’”
Considering various opportunities for the mission work, Fisk and Parsons expressed the opinion that ‘a delightful and animating prospect is here opened for the operations of Christian benevolence.’ In another letter from Izmir, dated December 4, 1820, Fisk and Parsons wrote that the distribution of Bibles and religious tracts was the most effective method at the time and ‘[i]n this respect a wide and effectual door of usefulness is opened.’ In his journal from the end of 1820 and beginning of 1821, Parsons related his observations during his journey from Izmir to Jerusalem and reflected on his three month stay in the Holy City. For him ‘[t]he station must not be relinquished’ because ‘the door’ was ‘already open.’ On November 22 1821, Pliny Fisk wrote to the Corresponding Secretary on the tumultuous situation in the Ottoman Empire, and reflected on the Greek uprisings. He was not concerned and he believed that the turmoil was not detrimental to the missionary cause. On the contrary, Fisk believed that ‘[i]t may open a wide door, for the circulation of the scriptures, the establishment of schools, and the diffusion of evangelical truth.’ In February and March 1823, missionaries Fisk and King visited Upper Egypt. They received a letter written by one Mr. Salt on behalf of the pasha, requesting them in a kind manner to forbear discussing religious subjects with the Muslims. The missionaries interpreted this warning as ‘a wide and promising field actually laid open before’ them ‘for labors among nominal Christians and Jews.’ They were cautious though not to disobey the pasha’s warning: ‘It seems improper to cause it to be shut against us, by attempting to force open a door, which Providence seems to have closed against us.’ This was a tactical retreat as the following sentence reads ‘[s]till opportunities may occasionally occur of giving the Scriptures to Mussulmen, and of speaking to them about Christianity.’ At the early stages of the mission, the missionaries were still preoccupied with the issue of converting the Muslim population of the Empire. Pliny Fisk’s letter from Syria dated October 1823 includes a section headed ‘On the Conversion of the Mussulmen.’ The missionary believed ‘[p]ossibly some great political evolution’ was ‘to open the door for preaching of the Gospel to the followers of the false prophet.’”
Isaac Bird’s letter from March 1824 dwells on the same issue Gumus records,
“To him their chances of converting the Muslim population of Jerusalem could be easily judged before they have the opportunity of conversing with the people. In this respect ‘the door” seemed “quite open for effort among them […].’ One of the topics in the April 1827 issue of The Missionary Herald is the state and progress of the Palestine mission. The information was compiled from the intelligence reports given by Goodell from January 3 to October 18, 1826. He gave an overall encouraging and positive account. For the conversion of the Maronite Christians around Mount Lebanon, which had become an important topic due to the severe persecution conducted by the Maronite patriarchate, Goodell likewise espied an open door: ‘A wide and effectual door does […] seem to be opening for us, and work, more than we can do, to be ready prepared for our hands.’”
In short, in this world of low literacy rates, civil conflict, ethnic tensions, and economic inequity, missionaries saw opportunities to capitalize everywhere. They looked at the Ottoman world and compared it to Boston and Andover and Connecticut and Vermont, weighed the former in the balance, and found it all wanting.
This is the point where supporters of the American missions will likely want to close their eyes or at least squint. For the simple fact is that the missionaries had been sent to collect evidence for an evangelical argument and they intended to deliver. The central debate between Andover and Harvard centered on whether or not a person without faith in the substitutionary atonement of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit could be a decent person, morally speaking. Not surprisingly, the missionaries generally failed to find what they had been led to believe they would never find: moral pagans. The judgements of those they have been sent to save are thus, not flattering.
“Emerging from such a substrate are the missionary observations conveyed to the American public via The Missionary Herald. Hence, one of the first published comments of Fisk and Parsons reads ‘Mahomedans are fatalists in theory, and probably are influenced more in practice by their theory, than any other class of men who ever lived.’ The observation can be regarded as a generalization inferred from limited factual evidence or experience. One year later, the two pioneer missionaries fall into the pit of generalization again, this time reducing their sample group. Having visited an inn, they coilcluded that ‘[the Turk seemed to live principally by his pipe and his coffee.’”
Given that missionaries were sent and paid to convert people and that attempts to convert Muslims was against the law, it is not surprising that missionaries did not spend a great deal of time with Muslims. Friendships were almost impossible. One should not be surprised then that the conceptions of Islam that missionaries brought with them did not dissolve easily or speedily. “Since they were not hesitant in drawing conclusions from anecdotal evidence,” Gumus writes, “they hastily resorted to insult and humiliation as well. For Parsons and Fisk, the prophet Mohammad was “the false prophet.”
Their first impressions from Jerusalem were as follows: “The Jews hate the name of Christ, and when you mention it, some of them will almost gnash on you with their teeth. The Turks exalt the name of their false prophet above his most glorious name, and are pre-eminently distinguished for their hypocrisy, tyranny and lying. The Greeks and Armenians profane the temple of the Lord, and seem to know very little of the true nature of Christianity.”
“The writers of this passage, Pliny Fisk and Jonas King, had already displayed their aptitude in stereotyping and degrading other people on their way to Jerusalem. In one instance, as they visited the nuns of Karnak, Egypt, they ascribed the apparent poverty to ‘ignorant and miserable Arabs, and Mussulmans.’ Likewise, William Goodell and Isaac Bird resorted to their repertoire of stereotypes and clichés and pointed to the ‘desolation of Turkish despotism’ as the main reason for the silent atmosphere in Larnaca, Cypris. The idea of oriental despotism was a recurring theme in missionary writings. Expressions such as ‘land of oppression and sin’ and ‘Turkish barbarity’ were common. Pliny Fisk reported from Beirut that they were ‘in a land of Turks, tyranny, superstition, and intolerance.’”
“Their discontent was not to abate. In one of his letters, William Goodell complained about the ‘wretchedness of the present inhabitants of this country’while Jonas King referred to the Alawite population of Lebanon as ‘impure’ and “barbarous.’ Their first years in Beirut were a time of trial and tribulation, and the inexperienced missionaries had difficulty coping with the misfortunes their new settings brought them. This fact might have added to the bitter tone stirred up by their deeply rooted prejudices. Discouraged and demoralized, Goodell started one of his reports with his records of the weather in Beirut, continued with the shortage of bread and goods, and finally complained about ‘the stupidity, ignorance, superstitions, bondage, and wickedness, in almost every forum, of time people.’” “The people of the ‘Orient’ were thus represented in plain words to the American public. Sharp dichotomies such as civilization versus barbarity, progress versus backwardness, intelligence versus stupidity. Cleanliness versus filthiness portrayed the new mission as legitimate and necessary, both to the Board itself and to the supporters of the missionary cause.”
The following passage from the book sums up the argument succinctly.
“The missionaries came to a new land, started looking for openings and doors to enter (opportunities), wanted to walk on the right path leading to the final destination (the Millennium and finally the second coming), looked for a fertile ground and favorable climate to sow their precious seed, conducted a spiritual warfare against the enemies of ‘truth,’ and while they were the enlightened ones, the rest was in darkness. All these metaphorical formations originated from a Biblical background.”
It was perhaps, only a matter of time before the subjects of the Ottoman Empire, and their imperial rulers themselves, began to understand what the missionaries thought of them and what their intentions toward them were. Given that so much of their communication was written when most people in the Ottoman empire were illiterate and given that most writings were appearing in newspapers in a foreign language back in America, the backlash was slow in coming. But come it did.
“[The sultan] Abdulhamid’s displeasure was based on hard facts. . . . Abdulhamid’s administration was aware of the degree and content of the manipulative influence that the missionaries had on Western public opinion. During this period, excerpts from The Missionary Herald were translated into Turkish by state officials …”
No doubt the Sultan and his advisers saw the missionaries as communists might have been seen by nationalists in the McCarthy era. Regardless of how innocent missionaries claimed to be, they came to be regarded, by the Ottomans at least, as subversives and Trojan horses working for imperialistic powers. And yet, so much of the work they were doing was charitable and beneficial.
There are ironies within ironies here. For in spite of everything said above, Protestant missionary activity, according to the most informed researchers, had a profoundly positive effect upon most of the people that hosted them. Whether you agreed with them or not, the challenge that Protestant missionaries posed forced host countries and powers to attend to their people’s legitimate needs. The quality of Protestant schools required a corresponding initiative to raise the quality of state schools. The literacy rates of Protestant converts required a corresponding attention to the literacy rates of people you did not want to convert. A Protestant hospital stood as a challenge to train doctors and nurses and improve medical care for all those who you did not want being assimilated into the Protestant phalanx.
I find it interesting that one of the arguments that brought missionaries to foreign shores was the assertion that these poor people would be helpless to improve their lives if they were not converted. What the missions proved beyond a shadow of a doubt was that lives could be improved without conversion. How much this is true is, of course, still being debated. And may well be debated for a long time to come.
Question for Comment: In your own way of seeing the world, how important is education and literacy and how important is spirituality and faith in bringing about a better life and a better world?