"The almond tree shall blossom. " - Eccl. 12 5
ON the 7th of February, 1856 when we landed in Beirut, the almond trees were in bloom; their snow-white domes in full blossom were fragrant and full of promise of abundant fruit:
"The silvery almond flower
That blooms on a leafless bough,"
was a token for good. Flowers promise fruit. And now, February, 1909, fifty-three years have passed. The almond snowwhite blossoms have now drifted from the trees to the heads of the two youthful missionaries who landed in 1856. We area pair of hoary heads. We see those flowers all around us and over us. They give promise of fruit-of something better beyond. The inspiration is renewed, God grant that "we may bring forth fruit in old age " (PS. 92: 14).
February 7, 1856-Malta, Smyrna, Cicilia, Seleucia, Beirut! Names associated with the voyages and labours of Paul the Apostle, and not less connected with the modern missionary work in the Levant. The first missionaries made Malta their first base of operations, then advanced to Smyrna, and then down the coast to Beirut. We have followed their track and have now begun to enter into their labours.
Here I am in Western Asia, land of the patriarchs, prophets and apostles. Yonder to the south are,
"Those fields Over whose acres walked those blessed feet
Which eighteen centuries ago were nailed
For our advantage, on the bitter cross."
That bright sunny spring morning of our landing in Beirut I can never forget. The lofty summits of the Lebanon range, Sunnin and Kaniseh 8,000 and 6,000 feet high, were covered with snow, shining like burnished silver, while the lower ranges were dotted with villages and the plain green and beautiful with trees and gardens. An Arab poet has said of Jebel Sunnin, that "He bears winter upon his bead, Spring upon his shoulders, Autumn in his bosom, While summer lies sleeping at his feet."
What a change, from the bleak blasts of wintry Boston in December to the balmy breezes of beautiful Beirut in February, with its almond blossoms and wild flowers!
And what a welcome we had no sooner had our steamer anchored than we heard familiar voices in the saloon, and soon grasped the hands of my old townsman and churn, Rev. J. Lorenzo Lyons, who came out a year ago, and then of Rev. E. Aiken, a new missionary, and Mr. Hurter, the mission printer.
As I stepped on the solid earth, and knew that here at length is my missionary field, my future home, the people whom I am to love, the noble missionary band, all of whom are faithful soldiers in their Master's service, and that on these mountain ranges of sunny and snowy Lebanon the Gospel is yet to beam forth with more than its original power and glory; that here are to be witnessed yet greater and greater triumphs of the Cross; my soul thrilled with exultant joy, and I could say in truth, that this was one of the happiest days of my life.
Yet, though nearer my work than ever before, I was stopped on the very threshold by the barrier of the Arabic language, and felt as one dumb; with a message, yet unable to deliver it. But having come to preach in Arabic, I resolved, "Preach in Arabic I will, by the help and grace of God. While I study the language, its hard gutturals and strange idioms, I can study the people and learn their ways, so different from our Western ideas, and they may teach me some things a Westerner needs to know."
We were soon introduced to the whole missionary circle, and at the annual meeting held not long after, on March 27th, the whole company met in Beirut, in the study of Dr. Eli Smith, below the present buildings of the British Syrian Mission. We five young recruits, Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Bliss, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Aiken and myself, were welcomed to their ranks.
When I was first appointed to the Syrian Mission, the Board intended that I be stationed in Antioch. Fifty-three years have passed and I have never been in Antioch. There were present Dr. E. Smith, Messrs. J. A. Ford and Hui-ter of Beirut, Calhoun of Abeih Dr. Thomson and Van Dyck of Sidon, Messrs, Bird of Deir el Komr, Benton of Bhamdoun, Eddy of Kefr Shima, Wilson of Hums, Lyons of Tripoli, Aiken, a new recruit, and D. Bliss and H. H. Jessup, the latest arrivals. We young men looked with deep interest on the faces of the veterans before us. Dr. William M. Thomson (1833) had been here twenty-three years. He was the picture of ruddy, robust health. When, in 1857, father went with me to the Manhattan Life Insurance Company, New York, to take out a policy on my life, the company demanded an extra climatic risk. I protested and referred them to Dr. Thomson then in New York, as a sample of the effects of the Syrian climate. The company soon removed the climatic risk. He was a man of such geniality and ready wit, so kindly and full of experience that my heart went out to him. For sixteen years, from 186o to 1876, he was my associate in Beirut and he was both father and brother to me. At that first mission meeting we recognized the helpfulness of his clear head and wise counsels, when difficult questions arose. Next to him sat Dr. Eli Smith, pale, thin and scholarly, precise in language and of broad views of mission policy. He spoke of the Bible translation then in progress and reported that he had, up to that date, printed it as far as the end of Exodus in the Old Testament and Matthew sixteenth in the New Testament. He was evidently struggling with deep-seated disease and was granted a special furlough for a summer trip to Constantinople and Trebizond, whither he went with Dr. H. G. 0. Dwight, his old friend and fellow traveler. There was Simeon H. Calhoun, the "Saint of Lebanon," the principal of the Abeih Academy, and treasurer of the mission, in whose accounts not an error of a para could be found. He reported a memorial letter of the Board with regard to the death in November, 1855, of his colleague and brother beloved, Rev. Geo. B. Whiting, after twenty-five years of labour in Syria. Mr. Calhoun's voice in speaking or reading, and especially in prayer, was peculiarly deep, rich and tender. I knew him for twenty-five years in joy and sorrow, in peace and the horrors of the massacre summer, in his ideal home, in his lovely family, and in business relations, and I never met a wiser, saintlier or more lovable man. Whitfield could draw tears from his hearers by merely pronouncing the word "Mesopotamia." Mr. Calhoun could win hearts by a look. And there were the slender form and classical face of Dr. Cornelius V. A. Van Dyck from Sidon, of few words, but of great wisdom, and evidently highly respected and esteemed by all his brethren. I have spoken fully of him in another chapter of this book. We little thought at that meeting that it was Dr. Smith's last meeting, and that in January, 1857, he would be called to a higher sphere, and Dr. Van Dyck be summoned within a year to take on his mantle, and complete his momentous work. And there was J. A. Ford of Beirut, a man of sterling worth, true as steel, a delightful preacher in Arabic, simple in his habits, a hearty, trusty friend, ready for any sacrifice in the service of his Master. He was then acting pastor of the Beirut Church. He bad been in Aleppo for seven years. Of strong physical constitution, he seemed destined for a long missionary life, but, alas, fell victim, not to the Syrian climate, but to an Illinois blizzard in April, 1860
And there was David M. Wilson, a plain, blunt man, and mighty in the Scriptures. He had come from his distant home in Hums, to plead for a colleague, and the mission, after full discussion, appointed Mr. and Mrs. Aiken, new recruits, to go as companions to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson and work in that promising field. How the events of those subsequent months rise in sad memory as I write! On April 23 a little company left Beirut on the French steamer for Tripoli; Mr. and Mrs. Lyons and child and I going to our new home in Tripoli; Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, Mr. and Mrs. Aiken, accompanied by Mr. Calhoun, going on to Hums. Mrs. S.D. Aiken was daughter of judge John 0. Cole of Albany, the perfect picture of health and womanly. beauty. Mr. Bliss was stationed in Abeih, as Mrs. Bliss appeared to be extremely delicate in health, and the mission thought it wiser to. send the young and robust Mrs. Aiken to be a companion of Mrs. Wilson in Hums, which was four days distant from any physician. But how little we know of our Father's plans for His children I In less than two months, the lovely Mrs. Aiken was in her grave, in the court of a Moslem effendi's house in Hums. There was no Protestant cemetery and the effendi kindly consented to the temporary interment in his house then leased by Mr. Aiken. A year later, I visited that stricken home in Albany, and learned lessons of Christian resignation which I never forgot, and which helped me in my own hour of need, when, forty-four years afterwards, I followed to the grave in Sidon my own lovely daughter, Amy Erdman. The seemingly delicate Mrs. Bliss lives, surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Another of that mission band was W. A. Benton, who came from the heights of Lebanon at Bliamdoun, and who was like a patriarch among the villagers. And then Dr. W. W. Eddy, equally at home with his pen in editing and translating, in church building and teaching theology. His handwriting was like steel engraving and his English style in sermon writing chaste and elegant. At that time, after three years in Aleppo, he was living with his family in the village of Kefr Shima, in accordance with Dr. R. Anderson's theory that each missionary, should occupy a separate station. This theory the mission soon repudiated, believing that the highest health, efficiency and success of the missionary will be attained, by placing them two and two, to support each other. And it has not been found best to multiply foreign-manned stations. In September, 1857, he removed to Sidon, where he laboured for twenty-one years and then was transferred to Beirut to teach in the theologicalseminary in which he continued until his death January 26, 1900. The lay missionary, Mr. Geo. C. Hurter, mission printer, was a Swiss by birth a faithful, self denying man, hospitable, hearty, devout, He managed the press employees well, and could conduct a Prayer meeting with profit to the ripest Christian and most learned scholar. His memory is blessed.
On the day of our arrival, February 7th, I went down With Mr. Lyons to the mission press (Burj Bird), it, the lower room of which was the chapel. We there saw an interesting sight, a convention of Protestant Syrians met to discuss their civil organization. There were Butrus Bistany, Naameh Tabet, Elias Fuaz, Tannus El Haddad, T. Sabunjy, Hanna Shekkoor of Lebanon, Shaheen Barakat Nasif erRaiees, Khalil Khuri, and Kozta Mejdelany of Hasbeiya, Abu Faour of Khiyam, Elias Yacob of Rasheiya el Fukkhar, Nasif Michail of Aitath, Saleh Bu Nusr of Abeih, Michaiel Araman, Rev. J. Wortabet, Jebbour Shemaun, Shaheen Sarkis, Assad Shidoody, Khalid Tabet Yusef Najm, Beshara Hashim, Girgius Jimmal and others. I shall speak more particularly of some of these remarkable men - "immortal names, that were not born to die."
Not long after our arrival, I was taken to the American printing-press and the old mission cemetery. There, at the foot of a tall cypress tree, was a little plain, horizontal gravestone of mossgrown sandstone, and set into it a small -slab of marble on which is the inscription,
Died Oct. 23, '182S
Aged 31 years.
American Printing Press
More than thirty years ago was this precious seed sown in the soil of Syria, and a little cypress sapling was planted by his grave. His missionary life was short and he "died without the sight."
Beirut, in Fisk's day, was a little walled town 3,000 feet from north to South, and 1,500 feet from east to West, on the north shore of a cape, extending about five miles from the base of Lebanon into the Mediterranean. It had a Population of 8,000, Mohammedans, Greek, Maronites and a few Druses and Jews.
Within the walls, the streets were narrow, crooked and dirty. There was no harbour, only an open roadstead, and boats landing from ships anchored outside would strike bottom before reaching the beach, and the passengers, men and women, were then borne, by brawny boatmen and dumped on the land. There was but one house which had glass windows and that belonged to the British consul, Mr. Abbott. A wheeled vehicle had not been seen since the days when chariots rolled over the Roman roads, eighteen centuries before, nor was there a road on which a wagon could run. The houses had flat roofs of cement, which cracked every summer, and the walls of porous sandstone absorbed the winter rains, which covered the inside with fungus and mould. Outside the town, the narrow lanes about eight feet wide through the mulberry orchards, were overarched with the prickly pear or "subbire," whose leaves, fringed with long, needle-like spines, threatened the faces and eyes of the passers-by. The entire water-supply was from wells, some sweet and some brackish, from which it is supposed the city Beer-ut took its name. Beirut was so unimportant politically, that Saida (Sidon), twenty-five miles to the south, gave name to the province. On the sea-wall were lofty castles to protect the town against Greek pirates, and a fine tower, or Burj, eighty feet high, stood outside the southeast gate to protect it against land attacks. The only roads in the land were the rough, narrow, rocky mule paths, never repaired and often impassable. The interior was little known, for the modern explorations of Edward Robinson, Eli Smith and William M. Thomson had not begun, and Palestine, the land of the Bible, was rarely visited. Steam communication was unknown, and barks and brigs, ships and schooners were the only sea-craft known along these old Phoenician shores. The only lights known were the ancient earthen lamps like bowls, with olive oil, and the wick hanging over the side. At night, all pedestrians in the cities were obliged to carry lanterns or be arrested.
The terrible massacre Of 20,000 of the Greek population of the Island of Scio (Chios) by the Turks had recently taken place in1822, and the War of Grecian Independence had begun. Syria was in a state of semi-disorder.
Intellectually, the land was in utter stagnation. With the exception of the Koran and its literature among the Moslems, and the ecclesiastical books among the Oriental Christians, there were no books. Many of the Moslems could read, but very few of the other sects could either read or write. The Moslems who have always been devoted to their one book, had little "madrasehs " or schools, attached to the mosques, and the Oriental Christians taught a few boys who were in training for the priesthood. But it was in general true that there were in the land neither books, readers nor schools, as such. There was a little hand-press at a monastery near Shweir in Lebanon, for printing Romish prayer books, but there were no printing-presses, no newspapers and no desire for them. The Oriental mind seemed asleep. If the "rest cure," which obliges the patient to lie prostrate for weeks in a state of mental vacuity and physical relaxation, often renews the mind and body, then the Syrian race, by their rest cure of ages, should have reached the acme of mental and physical preparation for a new era of vigour and growth.
One of the old missionaries wrote that "The Syrian people are singularly unimpressionable on religious subjects because they are so eminently religious already. Religious forms and language abound." The salutations, ejaculations and imprecations of the people are full of the name of God, Allah. The most sacred words and expressions are on the lips of all, the learned and the ignorant, men, women and children: nay, of the most vicious and abandoned. Whatever may be the subject, religion in some form or other has its share in it. That which is most sacred becomes as familiar as household words and is as little regarded. As far as words are concerned they have religion enough. But they need to be taught the need of spiritual regeneration, and the reality of personal religious experience. The state of woman was pitiable in the extreme. The first missionaries could not hear of a woman or girl in the land who could read. Mohammedanism had blighted womanhood, and driven her behind the veil and into the hareem. Oriental Christian women dared not appear unveiled in the streets for fear of vile abuse and even violence from the lords of the land.
Moslems would not mention the name of woman in conversation without begging pardon from all present, by using the abominable term "ajellak Allah," or may God exalt you above the contamination of so vile a subject. They would use the same term in speaking of a hog or a dog or a filthy shoe. By degrading women the Moslems had degraded themselves and lowered the whole tone of society. No man calling at a Mohammedan house would ever see the face of a woman, nor would he dare ask after the health of the wife or mother, sister or daughter. A young man never saw the face of his bride until after the marriage ceremony was over. Mutual acquaintance before marriage was not necessary and was impossible.
Polygamy, the upas tree of Islamic society, had corrupted all moral ideas and despoiled the home of everything lovely and of good report. The Koran enjoined wife beating. In Sura IV, verse 38 of the Koran it is said,
"Virtuous women are obedient. But chide those for whose refractoriness Ye have cause to fear, and scourge them."
And this injunction of their Koran they are not slow to obey. They have degraded woman and then scourge her for being degraded. They have kept her in ignorance and then beat her for being ignorant. They have taught her all vileness and then beat her for being vile. The Oriental Christians, having been crushed under the Mohammedan domination for twelve centuries, had lost all hope of rising, and all ambition to better their condition. Numerically inferior, they could not rebel, and no hand from Christian lands was extended to protect or encourage them. The Christian sects were not allowed to ring bells, and in Damascus no Christian could ride on horseback or wear any colour but black. The other sects of the land were no better off , "A deep sleep from the Lord was fallen upon them." Fisk had lived two years in Syria. He pitched his tent in front of this Gibraltar of false religion, ignorance and superstition, full of faith that one day it would yield: but he died having seen but one convert, Asaad es Shidiak, the martyr of Lebanon, who followed him, in 1829, through the gates of torture and starvation, into the New Jerusalem. Fisk was buried some two hundred yards outside the city wall, beyond the Bab Yakob, in a plot of ground bought by his colleague, Rev. Isaac Bird. It was hardly thought safe at that time to live so far outside the walls. Isaac Bird, William Goodell and Dr. Jonas King took up the work. It seemed a forlorn hope, an impossible task. For that reason God sent men of faith to begin it. What were they to do? Where to begin? What plan of campaign must they adopt? Dr. Worcester, Secretary of the American Board, in his farewell instructions to Parsons and Fisk in November, 1819 said: "From the heights of the Holy Land and from Zion, you will take an extended view of the wide-spread desolations and variegated scenes presenting themselves on every side to Christian sensibility: and will survey with earnest attention the various tribes and classes who dwell in that land, and in the surrounding countries. The two grand inquiries ever present to your minds will be, "What good can be done?" and "By what means?" "What can be done for Jews ?" "What for Mohammedans ?" "What for Christians?" "What for the people of Palestine?" "What for those in Egypt, in Syria, in Persia, in Armenia, in other countries to which your inquiries may be extended? " These instructions implied a work of exploration, investigation, analysis and preparation. These being done, what then? How could they give the Bible to a people unable to read? How open schools with neither school-books nor teachers? How preach without a mastery of the Arabic language? How could they expect to commend Christianity to Moslems who regarded Christianity as a picture- worshipping, saint-worshipping and idolatrous system full of Mariolatry and immorality, little better than themselves? The government was hostile. Moslem sheikhs were hostile. Christian ecclesiastics, especially the Maronites and Latins, were even more hostile against the "Bible men," and cursed and excommunicated them root and branch. But young American disciples of Christ, who knew, by experience, the length and breadth and height and depth of His love, were not to be deterred by any obstacles. None of these things moved them. Those were the days of darkness, but there was " light in the dwellings" and in the hearts of those young men and women, and those who came after them. The mustard seed which they brought with them, had in itself the germ of life and growth and expansive power. They came to lay again the old foundations, or to clear away the debris and rubbish of ages which had covered out of sight and out of mind the Rock, Christ Jesus. How well they and their successors did their work will appear in the pages of this volume.