How US Slavery Undermined Protestant Missionaries in 1860 Beirut

In the 19th century, American and English Protestant denominations sent loads of missionaries to the Ottoman Empire in an effort to convert the native Christian population — most of whom were Orthodox — to Protestantism. These missionaries would write letters to be published back home, usually condemning the “ignorant” Orthodox for idol worship, etc., and excitedly reporting back whenever they managed to win a convert.

Things weren’t going so well for those Protestant missionaries in 1860, though. On May 31, 1860, the New York Evangelist published excerpts from a letter written by an English missionary in Beirut complaining that the existence of slavery in the United States was undermining Protestant efforts to convert the native population in Syria. This letter was first published in the Levant Herald of Constantinople.

But you can have little idea what a heavy blow has been struck at the cause of Protestantism in this part of the world by these late doings across the Atlantic. The only Protestant missionaries we have in Syria are Americans, whereas the great mass of the native population belong to either the Greek Church, or to one or other of the Oriental sects which acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope, and are in communion with Rome, such as the Maronites, the Greek Catholics, the Catholic Syrians, and the Catholic Armenians. There are also European Roman Catholics (Latins as they are called here), who have numerous French, Italian, and Spanish missionaries in the country — men brought up at Lyons or at the Propaganda of Rome, belonging to the Jesuit, Lazarist, Capuchin, or Franciscan orders, speaking the language of the country perfectly, and by their preaching amongst all the various communities and sects which acknowledge the supremacy of Rome, trying their utmost to undo the work and to rake up the seed sown by the American Protestant missionaries.

Of this late disgraceful news from America they have made the best possible use for their own cause, and more particularly in this preaching season of Lent. From every pulpit in the land they now say to the people, “Preachers from America come here to convert you to what they call the true faith of Jesus Christ, and tell you of the great doings in their free and liberal country. We will tell you what Protestantism and freedom leads to. We will tell you this moreover from Protestant newspapers, and then you can tell us whether even the Moslems in Turkey would enact such iniquitous laws.”

Of course we who know the difference between the Northern and Southern States of the Union, see at once the fallacy of the argument, but we cannot wonder at the papal missionaries employing it. Would not our own preachers in England make a handle of such a fact, supposing that a papal despotic power had enacted such a law? Here it has made a great stir, and as an Italian friar said to me the other day in great glee, “all the preachers ever sent forth by the Propaganda could not have struck so heavy a blow at Protestantism in Syria, as has this late American news.”

I had proof of this myself the other day, when four or five respectable looking natives whom I had never seen or heard of in my life, called upon me, and asked me to translate honestly for them some paragraph of an English paper — the Times — which some one (they did not tell me who) had marked for them. Not being able to render the passages into fluent enough Arabic, I did so into Italian, which one of the party spoke well, and he again translated them to the rest in Arabic. Before commencing the translation, the party told me that although they knew I was a Protestant and an Englishman, they felt sure I would give them a true interpretation of what they had shown me. I did so. It was the story of the free colored population of Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, being made by law to fly their homes or become slaves for life.

As I proceeded with the translations the men seemed thunder struck, but kept saying amongst themselves that it was as the priest had told them. When I had finished, one of them put the question to me very solemnly, now on the word of an Englishman (a very common expression in Syria, and considered as sacred as an oath amongst the natives. Even a Syrian when he wants to affirm a thing solemnly, says, ‘I declare it on the word of an Englishman’), do you believe these things to be true?” I told him that I certainly did so.

The whole party then rose up and took their leave, declaring that they would go no more near the American chapel, nor read the American books. I tried to make them understand the difference between Americans of the South and those of the North, but all the reply I got was, “let those of the North then go home and convert those of the South, before they come to preach to the Arabs. Even the Turks never did such things as these.”

I afterwards learnt that amongst my visitors were two individuals who had lately been showing a strong tendency towards Protestantism, and that their priests and friends had used this American weapon as a last hope of bringing them back to their mother Church, and with very decided success.

3 Replies to “How US Slavery Undermined Protestant Missionaries in 1860 Beirut”

  1. Interesting also how the letter betrays the Protestant and Latin efforts to undermine the Orthodox Church in Syria.

  2. Western attempts at gaining a foothold in Terra Sancta have been ongoing since the Medieval times, starting with the Crusades, with the period from 11th century leading to the “latin patriarchate of jerusalem” and creating papal copy-cat patriarchates of existing churches and monophysite sects in the greater levant. It’s no surprise that once the reformation was completed, now we need each one of those break-off sects to have their own “patriarchate” there, because that would help the Christian cause that much easier. After these happenings in 1860, One hundred-sixty years later, we see the destructive fruits these Americans have sown in the Middle East, under the guise of their supposed “truth” > Divided families, increased tension with the Muslim population who are not familiar with these new behaviors, and a general multiplication of religious confusion among the youth (inserting the western enlightenment narrative into christian theology), whose very ancestors learned from the first-Christians of Antioch and the greater levant. Now we are used to hearing appeals for the beleaguered members of the “Lutheran diocese of Palestine” or the indigenous Seventh day adventists of Amman, Jordan.

    God save us all.

  3. I dare say that our current newspapers in the USA are full of examples that would serve to turn any traditional minded Christian (Orthodox or not) away from the protestant churches of the USA.

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