THE SEVEN PIONEERS OF SYRIA MISSION WORK - PLINY FISK, THE LINGUIST AND PREACHER
II. PLINY FISK, THE LINGUIST AND PREACHER
No name is more familiar to missionaries in Syria than that of Pliny Fisk. He was born June 24, 1792, was ordained in Salem, November 4, 1818 and sailed with Parsons, from Boston in the bark Sally Ann, November 3, 1819 Touching at Malta, December 23d, he reached Smyrna January 15, 1820. His missionary life covered six years. During this time he lived in Smyrna, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Aleppo, Tripoli and Beirut. He distributed 4,000 copies of the sacred Scriptures, and parts of Scriptures, and 20,000 tracts. He traveled with Dr. Jonas King, the eccentric Dr. J. Wolff, the many-sided Goodell, and the studious, hard-working Bird. His teacher was the scholarly poet-martyr, Asaad es Shidiak, the first convert, and the proto-martyr of modern Syria. He could preach in Italian, Greek, and French, and had just begun a regular Arabic Sabbath service, and had nearly completed an English-Arabic dictionary, when he was called to his rest October 23, 1825, aged thirty-three years.
Fisk was the pioneer missionary of Beirut, and it was a fitting tribute to his memory that one of the largest buildings of the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut should be named after him as the " Pliny Fisk Hall."
He was appointed originally to Jerusalem, but never spent more than nine months there. He arrived in Beirut July 10, 1823, where he spent two years and three months before his death, having spent the first three years in Smyrna and Alexandria. He was "in journeyings oft, in perils of robbers, in perils in the sea," and from war and pestilence.
When he reached Jaffa, March 29, 1825, the town was full of rumours as to the object of his labours. He and Dr. Jonas King were reported to pay ten piastres (forty cents) a head for converts, and that these ten piastres were self-perpetuating, and always remained the same however much the convert expended. Others said the -missionaries drew pictures of their converts, and if one went back to his old religion, they would shoot the picture, and the renegade would drop dead. A Moslem heard that they hired men to worship the devil, and said he would come and bring a hundred others with him. “What?" said his friend, “would you worship the devil?” “Yes," said he, "if I were paid for it."
That idea of foreigners drawing pictures probably came from the habit of travelers to sketch the scenery and costumes of the Last. My colleague, Mr. Lyons, of Tripoli, made a tour in August, 1858, and camped in Zgharta, a Maronite village near Tripoli. The men were grossly insolent, entered the tent, sat on his table, sprawled on his bedstead and knocked things around in an ugly style, He said nothing, but, taking out a note-book, began to sketch them. One of them looked over his shoulder and, seeing a face and eyes, shrank back and bolted from the tent, yelling to the rest to follow him. Soon after, one of them came to the servant and said, “Do entreat the Khowaja not to take our pictures or harm us. We will protect you. Whatever you want we will bring, water, milk, chickens, eggs or barley for the animals." The Khowaja did promise and soon all his wants were supplied.
Mr. Fisk had a strong constitution but was often exposed to drenching rain and chilling winds when traveling. In October, 1825 he was attacked by malignant fever and died October 23d, lamented by all who knew him. He “died without the sight." Asaad-es-Shidiak was the only convert to evangelical Christianity in Syria up to that time.
In 1824, the year previous to his death, both he and Mr. Bird were arrested in Jerusalem by Musa Beg, sheriff of the governor, and taken before the Kadi and to the governor, on the charge of wearing the white turban, and trading in unlawful books. The judge said, “These books are neither Christian books, nor Mohammedan, nor Jewish, and contain fabulous stories that are profitable for nobody and which nobody of sense will read." The governor remarked, that “The Latins had declared that our books were not Christian books." The two brethren were thrown into prison, and kept until the next day. Their rooms were searched and then locked, but finally, the governor finding that they were under English protection, released them, gave back their keys, charging them to sell no books to Moslems.
One of the Greek priests in Jerusalem made to Mr. Fisk the astounding confession that they had in Jerusalem a hundred priests and monks, but among them all, not a single preacher.
On February, 1824, a firman of the Sultan was issued throughout the empire, at papal instigation, strictly forbidding the distribution of the Scriptures, and commanding all who had received copies, to deliver them up to the public authorities to be burned, The copies remaining in the hands of the distributors were to be sequestered until they could be sent back to Europe.
This firman was something new for the Turks. They cared nothing for the Bible, pro or con, but the minions of Rome had induced them to issue it, and it was never executed with any vigour. Rome is Rome in all ages, in her bitter hostility to the Word of God. Mr. Fisk was an uncommon man. "With a vigorous constitution and great capacity for labour, fie possessed a discriminating judgment, an ardent spirit of enterprise, intrepidity, decision, perseverance, entire devotion to the service of his Master, facility in the acquisition of languages, and an equipoise of his faculties, which made it easy to accommodate himself to times, places and companies." He was highly esteemed as a preacher before leaving home for Syria. And who, said a weeping Arab, on hearing of his death, smiting on his breast, "who will now present the Gospel to us? I have heard no one explain God's Word like him."
As to the results of the labours of Parsons and Fisk, we may say that,
1. They did a remarkable work of exploration.
2. They brought to light the religious condition of these Bible lands.
3. They met the leading men of all sects, Christian, Moslem and Jewish, and preached Christ to them frankly and openly.
4. They distributed great numbers of Scriptures and religious tracts.
5. They studied the climate and prevailing diseases, and urged the sending of medical missionaries.
6. They had no definite plan with regard to organizing a Native Evangelical Church, as there was but one convert, and he soon after suffered martyrdom,
7. They were sent to found a permanent mission in Jerusalem, but the early death of both of them prevented the fulfillment of this plan. Parsons spent only three months there and Fisk nine months in all.
8. The Arabic Bible which they distributed was that printed in London from a translation made by Sarkis er Rizzi, Maronite Bishop of Damascus in 162o, and printed in Rome in 1671 This version was printed by the British and Foreign Bible Society, and circulated for many years by missionaries and Bible agents. But it was so full of errors, that a new translation became necessary.
9. Fisk decided that Beirut was preferable to Jerusalem as the headquarters of a mission, in view of its climate, the character of the people, the proximity of Mount Lebanon as a summer retreat, its accessibility, its communication with Europe, and the ease with which books could be sent from it to Damascus, and the cities of the coast. This decision to occupy Beirut, then a town of less than 5,000 population, was divinely directed. It has more than fulfilled the highest hopes of him who selected it and whose body rests in the cemetery in Beirut. He rested from his labours and his works do follow him.
10. These pioneer missionaries unmasked the batteries of the Oriental hierarchy. They were at first welcomed by priests and people of all sects, but when it became known that their object was the distribution of the Scriptures, and making God's Word the only guide and rule in religious belief, the Oriental hierarchies stirred up opposition and resorted to excommunication and Bible burning. It was evident that the chief priests and rulers of church, mosque, and synagogue in Bible lands, did not want the Bible.
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