THE SEVEN PIONEERS OF SYRIA MISSION WORK

Article Index

VI. ELI SMITH, D, D., THE LINGUIST AND TRANSLATOR OF THE SACRED SCRIPTURES

When God has a great work to be done, He raises up great men to do it. Western Asia needed the Bible in the languages of the people; Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Modern Greek, Bulgarian, Persian and Kurdish, and the Lord raised up and thrust forth into the field those brilliant scholars and remarkable linguists - Eli Smith, Elias Riggs, William Goodell, Justin Perkins, W. T. Schauffler and Cornelius Van Dyck, who have prepared the Scriptures for more than 100,000,000 of men. One of these belonged to Persia, two to Syria, two to Constantinople, and one, Dr. Goodell, to both.

I remember well my first interview with Dr. Eli Smith in the Susa house in Beirut, It was in February, 1856, the day after my arrival. As I passed up the narrow stone staircase I saw in a niche in the wall a box of waste paper, which I learned consisted of proof-sheets of the Arabic Genesis. These were a curiosity to me, and he told me to take all I wanted. I did so, and sent them to my friends in America. He had just begun to print Genesis, after labouring eight years on Bible translation, he spoke very modestly about his work, and gave me some excellent advice about Studying Arabic. He inquired warmly about his old classmate and fellow explorer of Palestine, and my seminary professor, Dr. Edward Robinson, and was much amused when I told him that on account of Dr. Robinson's frequent allusions to the valleys of Sinai and Palestine as wadys, the seminary students called him Dr. Waddy! He asked me if I had seen in the papers Dr. Prime's account of his (Dr. P.'s) ride to the Dog River on a white, blooded Arab steed with curved neck, flowing mane, flashing eye and distended nostrils! “And would you believe it, that was my old Whitey?"

A few days after my arrival Mrs. Smith invited me to lunch, and at 2 P. M. Dr. Smith asked me if I would not like to take a walk. I gladly accepted, and we went out, I on foot and he on horseback. We soon entered on the great sand-dunes west of Beirut and I went wading and struggling through the light, deep, drifting sands about a mile to the Raushi or Pigeon Islands overlooking the sea, and then south another mile through still deeper sands to the sea beach, then up again over sand-hills and sandstone quarries, in the hot sun, and I reached borne, after nearly two hours, drenched with perspiration and ready to give up exhausted. As we neared home, Dr. Smith told me that I could see that walking in Syria is not so easy as it seems. He then explained that some years ago Dr. Anderson, of the A. B. C. F. M., visited Syria, He told the brethren one day that good Christians in New England disapproved of missionaries keeping horses, and, said he, “I think you had better make your tours on foot." They acquiesced, and the next day proposed a visit to a mountain village some nine miles away. They all set off boldly on foot, but after climbing stone ledges, and along dizzy precipices, the Syrian sun pouring down upon their heads, they sat down to rest. They then set out again, over even a harder part of the road. Dr. Anderson was about exhausted, and at length said, “Brethren, I should say on the whole, for such a journey as this, you would be justified in riding horses." They said, “Exactly so, and we thought of it before we started, and we shall find horses awaiting our whole party just around the next turn in the road." The result was that the American Board after that time enjoined the Syrian missionaries to own horses and use them. The missionary had to buy his own horse, but the Board Supplied the barley to feed him.

Dr. Smith put me through that pedestrian ordeal in order to prevent my attempting to repeat it on a large scale in the future. And I have many times thanked him for it, I have known several stalwart evangelists come to Syria, full of enthusiasm and desire to “endure hardness," and by exposure to the blazing sun in walking over mountains induce brain fever, and die after a few days in delirium.

Dr. Smith had a delicate physical frame, was pale and highly intellectual in appearance, courteous and hospitable. It was evident that he was struggling with some occult form of disease. The following summer he visited Trebizond, on the Black Sea, with his old companion of 1829, Dr. Dwight, but fatal disease had fastened upon him and he died of cancer of the pylorus, after much suffering, on January if, 1857.

Eli Smith was born in Northford, Connecticut, September 13, 1801, graduated at Yale College in 1821 and after teaching two years in Georgia, graduated at Andover in 1826. He was ordained and sailed for Malta to take charge of the mission press May 23, 1826. In 1827 he came to Beirut to study Arabic, and in 1828, during the terrors of the Greco-Turkish War, left with Messrs. Bird, Goodell and their families for Malta. March, 1829, he traveled through Greece with Rev. Dr. Anderson, and then with Rev. G. O. Dwight explored Armenia, Persia and Georgia, thus opening the way for the establishment of the Nestorian Mission at Oroomiah. Returning to America in 1832, he published, “Missionary Researches in Armenia " (2 vols. Boston, 1833) and a small volume of "Missionary Sermons and Addresses." In December, 1833, he embarked for Beirut with Mrs. Smith (nee' Sarah Lanman Huntington), whose bright missionary career was terminated by her death at Smyrna, September 30, 1836. Mrs. Smith commenced, in 1834, soon after her arrival, a school for girls in Beirut, which was the first regular girls' school in Syria, and under her auspices was erected the first edifice ever built in the Turkish Empire for the education of girls. A memorial column in the churchyard in Beirut marks the site of that edifice, which was removed when the church was built in 1869. Dr. Smith visited Constantinople, in quest of the best models of Arabic calligraphy in preparation for his new font of Arabic type. He then proceeded to Egypt by authority of the Board of Missions, and accompanied Dr. Edward Robinson in his celebrated tour of research to Sinai, Palestine and Syria. By his experience as an Oriental traveler, and his intimate knowledge of Arabic, he contributed largely to the accuracy, variety and value of the discoveries of Biblical geography, recorded in "Robinson's Biblical Researches." Dr. Robinson fully recognizes this in his volumes. Dr. Smith was worth more to him than a score of Oriental dragomen, many of whom are only too ready to show travelers what the travelers want to see. A famous savant of Europe, when at the Dead Sea, asked his dragoman, "Is this place Sodom?" "Certainly," said the dragoman, anxious to please, and the discovery was recorded in the savant's note-book. But Dr. Smith, who was eyes, ears and tongue to Dr. Robinson, on reaching a supposed Scripture site, called the village sheikhs and shepherds, and said, "Will you please give me the names of all the hills, valleys, ruins, streams and rocks in this region?" They then began, and Dr. Smith wrote them down in Arabic, and in this way many lost sites were discovered. One day north of Nazareth, a shepherd, in reply to a question as to the name of a low hill covered with pottery, came out with the word "Kana el Jalil" or Cana of Galilee, which satisfied both Dr. Robinson, Dr. Smith and afterwards Dr. Thomson, that Kefr Kenna is not the site of Cana of Galilee.

After this tour be went to Europe, and in Leipsic superintended tended the casting by Tauchnitz of the most beautiful font of Arabic type the world had ever seen. In the mechanical preparations for this noble achievement, he was greatly indebted to Mr. Homan Hallock, the missionary printer in Sniyrna, whose ingenuity and inventive genius enabled him to cut the punches and matrices for the new, so-called, “American Arabic Type." The original written models of Arabic calligraphy, gathered from the best Moslem penmen in Cairo, Damascus and Aleppo, were lost in his shipwreck, but he afterwards replaced them at Constantinople to the number of two hundred: so varied, that the punches formed from them would make not far from a thousand matrices.

An ordinary font of English type contains not more than one hundred separate types. A font of Arabic vowelled Arabic type contains about 1,800 separate types. Each letter has three forms, initial, medial and final, and each letter may have several different vowel points above or below it, and the types of the letters are grooved on the sides to admit of the insertion of the fine needlelike types of the minute vowels.

After a visit to America, Dr. Smith returned to Beirut in June, 1841, having married Miss Maria W. Chapin, of Rochester, New York, who died in about one year, July 27, 1842, leaving a son, Charles, now (1907) professor in Yale College, the alma mater of his father. After five years spent in preaching, traveling and close study of the Semitic languages, he revisited the United States and returned January 12, 1847, having married Miss Henrietta S. Butler, sister of Dr. Butler, of Hartford, Connecticut. In his new reconstituted home in Beirut he now devoted his energies to the preparation of a new translation of the Bible into the Arabic language. He collected a library of the best critical books on the Semitic languages, and on the text of the Scriptures, in English, French and German, and laboured for eight years incessantly, aided by the famous Arabic scholar and poet, Sheikh Nasif el Yazigy, and Mr. Butrus el Bistany, a learned convert from the Maronite faith. He obtained from Dr. Mashaka, of Damascus, a treatise on Arab music, which he translated into English. It was published by the American Oriental Society in 1850.

Dr. Smith was a man of great business capacity, giving attention to the minutest details. For many years he read the proofsheets of nearly every work that was printed at the mission press, and he bestowed much thought and labour upon the mechanical apparatus of that establishment. To him every pursuit was subsidiary to a faithful translation of the Word of God into the Arabic language. Yet he did not neglect the regular preaching of the Gospel, which he regarded as the first duty of every missionary, and having early become a fluent speaker in the Arabic, this was ever his delight. It was said of him when I came to Syria, February, 1856, that Dr. Smith could not only read Arabic poetry, but could preach in such "buseet" or simple Arabic that the women of the Lebanon villages could understand him. Yet he was disposed to question the practicability of translating children's hymns into simple and yet classical Arabic. We have, however, proved by experience that our most beautiful children's hymns have been put into beautiful and simple Arabic, quite intelligible to the children in the common schools. Dr. Smith published in Arabic a book on the, "Office and Work of the Holy Spirit," "El Babel Maftuah," which was a revelation to all speaking the Arabic language.

In 1850, he had received the merited degree of D. D. from Williams College.

Dr. Smith was familiar with the ancient classics, and with French, Italian, German, Turkish and Arabic. His ideal of perfection was so high that it was difficult for him ever to be satisfied with his work.

In April, 1890, I took my old Yale friend, Dr. Daniel C. Gilman, of Johns Hopkins University, through our mission premises, and as we entered that little upper room in the female seminary building, formerly the mission house, or "Burj Bird," where the Bible was translated into Arabic by Drs. Eli Smith and Van Dyck, he said, "Dr. Smith was a Yale man and we are Yale men. Why not put up a memorial tablet on the wall of this room commemorative of the great work of Bible translation done here?" I replied, "The only objection is the want of funds to do it." "I will pay the expense," was the ready reply, and this tablet was prepared and set in the wall.