THE SEVEN PIONEERS OF SYRIA MISSION WORK - WILLIAM M. THOMSON, D. D., EXPLORER AND AUTHOR
VII. WILLIAM M. THOMSON, D. D., EXPLORER AND AUTHOR OF “THE LAND AND THE BOOK"
As God raised up men in the West to give back the Bible to the East, so He chose among these men those who should illustrate the Bible to the West, And there was divine wisdom in sending Thomson, Robinson and Eli Smith to explore the Holy Land, while still in its primitive state, before the irruption of Western customs, implements, dress and means of communication. Dr. Thomson was a born traveler. He loved the saddle and the tent, the open air exercise, the evening talks at the tent door with Arab sheikhs and villagers, the glorious sunrise and sunset effects of the Syrian sky, the wild flowers and sweet odours of the fragrant herbs on the moors, the lofty mountains and dark ravines, the waving grain of early spring, the early and latter rains, the long rainless summer and the thunder and lightning of winter when, “the voice of the Lord breaketh the Cedars, yea the Lord breaketh the Cedars of Lebanon."
Of a high poetical nature and brilliant descriptive powers, he seemed called of God to picture to the Christian world of the West the unchanged and unchanging witness of the land to the verity and veracity of the Book.
Dr. William M. Thomson was born of godly ancestry in Springdale, Ohio, December 31, 1806 son of Rev. John Thomson, a Presbyterian minister. He graduated at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, in 1829, and at Princeton Theological Seminary, under Dr. Alexander, in 1832. He arrived in Beirut, Syria, February 24, 1833 and thus was the eighth American missionary in Syria, two having died, and two removed from Syria before his arrival.
In April, 1834, He removed with his wife to Jerusalem. One month later, after seeing his family settled in his new home, he went to Jaffa to attend to the forwarding of his goods. Civil war then broke out in Palestine. The fellahin, from Hebron to Nazareth, rebelled against Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt, and besieged Jerusalem. For two months a reign of terror prevailed in Jerusalem; siege, war, several violent earthquakes, plague in Jaffa, pillage and murder in Jerusalem. Dr. Thomson was detained in Jaffa and was unaware that an infant son (now Prof. W. H. Thomson, M. D., of New York) had been born to his wife. She was in circumstances indescribably terrifying, amidst the roar of cannon, falling walls, the shrieks of the neighbours, the terror of servants and constant expectation of massacre by the enraged mob of fellabin besiegers. After two months, Ali Mohammed having reached Jaffa with 12,000 troops, and marched on Jerusalem, Dr. Thomson followed the army and hastened to his wife. He found Mrs. Thomson nearly blind from opthalmia, accompanied with a high inflammatory fever, and twelve days after his arrival, exhausted by the trials of the previous sixty days, she fell asleep in Jesus and was at rest. Her own letters written during the days of agony and suspense are a beautiful illustration of the sustaining power of Christian faith. Dr. Thomson removed to Beirut, in August, 1834, with his infant son. He was afterwards married to Mrs. Maria Abbott, widow of H. B. M. Consul Abbott.
In December, 1835, he opened a boys' boarding-school in Beirut. Rev. Story Hebard joined him in this work in 1836 and continued it until 1840-41. On New Year's Day, 1837, a terrific earthquake devastated Syria and Palestine, especially the town of Tiberias, where 700 of a population Of 2,500 perished, and Safed, where from 5,000 to 6,000 perished out of a population of 10,000 Dr. Thomson and Mr. Calman, English missionary to the Jews, were sent as a deputation by the people of Beirut to carry relief to the sufferers: and his reports as published, giving a graphic account of the dreadful and heartrending scenes at Safed, the horrible wounds, the mangled bodies of the dead, the groans of the hundreds of victims still alive and half buried under the ruins, sent a thrill throughout the Christian world. They built a temporary hospital, distributed money and food, and relieved the suffering Jews, Moslems and Greeks as far as it was possible to do. The survivors seemed paralyzed. One Jew refused to aid in extricating his wounded brother from under a pile of stones, unless paid for it! Spiritual comfort seemed out of the question, for it was the testimony of Dr. Thomson on this as on other similar occasions, that great overwhelming calamities seem to harden rather than soften the hearts of men. Dr. Thomson wrote, "There is no flesh in the stony heart of man. No mail would work to help us, except for enormous wages. Not a Jew, Christian or Turk lifted a hand to help us except for high wages."
In 1835, the same year in which the first building erected for female education in Syria was built, at the expense of Mrs. Todd (an English lady from Alexandria), in Beirut for Mrs. Eli Smith, on the lot in front of the present church, a seminary for boys was commenced in Beirut, by Dr. Thomson, in which work he was afterwards assisted by Mr. Hebard. English was taught, and some of their pupils have since been prominent men in Syria.
In May, 1840, in company with Mr. Beadle and Dr. Van Dyck he made an exploration of Northern Syria. In one of his letters his description of a sunrise in the desert is a masterpiece of brilliant imaginative writing. This description was printed in the Missionary Herald and reached the Sandwich Islands, where one of the missionaries cut up the whole passage into elegant Miltonian blank verse, without altering a word. Indeed his journals printed at length in the Missionary Herald were eagerly read and universally admired.
On the 14th of August, 1841, the English fleet under Sir Charles Napier arrived in Beirut harbour to drive Ibrahim Pasha out of Syria. The combined English (twenty-one vessels), Austrian (six) and Turkish fleets (twenty-four Turkish transports) anchored off Beirut, being in all a fleet of fifty-one sail, The United States corvette, Cyane, Captain Latimer, took on board all the missionaries and landed them safely in Larnaca, Cyprus. The bombardment began and continued while the Cyane was still at anchor, and kept on for a month when Soleyman Pasha evacuated the city. In October, the missionaries returned, expecting to find the mission house in ruins. But on the contrary, although the ground on the mission premises was ploughed by cannon-balls, and two bombs had burst in the yard, the house and printing-press were uninjured! The library, the costly apparatus for the boys' seminary, the invaluable manuscripts and books, and the large folio volumes of the Christian fathers, remained safe just as when the missionaries left them.
Soon after, Ibrahim Pasha was driven back to Egypt, and Syria and Palestine were restored to Turkish rule. But for the interference of England, the Egyptian dynasty would have subdued the whole Turkish Empire. While Ibrahim Pasha was in Syria there was universal security and a better government than had been known for centuries. On his departure, things returned to their old Course. Again in the Crimean War, England saved the Turkish Empire from destruction. It did the same at the close of the Bulgarian War, after the treaty of St. Stephano. And it may be said that in x861, by insisting on the evacuation of Syria by the French army of occupation, it again saved Syria to the Turk. And yet the Turks do not love the English!
In 1841, war broke out between the Druses and the Maronites. Many refugees were fed and clothed by the missionaries.
In 1843, Dr, Thomson and Dr. Van Dyck removed to the village of Abeih in Mount Lebanon, and carried on the boys' seminary, now transferred from Beirut. They continued teaching and preaching until they were stationed in Sidon in 1851.
July 18, 1843, Dr. Thomson went to Hasbeiya where 150 men had declared themselves Protestants, and on August 1st., the entire body left for Abeih to escape attack by armed men from Zahleh and the region of Hermon, but they returned in the fall, the fury of their foes being exhausted.
One day Dr. Thomson and two deacons went up the side of Hermon to the solitary lodge of a poor vine-dresser, who was deeply interested in spiritual things. He wrote of this visit, “It was good to be there on that mountainside, in the lodge beneath that olive tree, among those clustering vines, with that old man of humble mien and tearful eye, the voice of prayer ascending from full hearts to the canopy of heaven above our heads. Yes, it was good to be there. I crept forth from this humble lodge with eyes bedimmed with tears."
In April, 1845, civil war broke out again in Lebanon, and a battle took place in Abeih. Dr. Thomson bore a white flag to the Druses' camp, and through his prompt action in securing the interference of the British consul-general in Beirut, a truce was agreed on and a general massacre of the unfortunate Maronites was prevented.
Whereupon the Greek and Maronite bishops of Beirut ordered their people to protect the American missionaries. In September the missionaries were ordered down from Abeih by Chekib Effendi, the Turkish commissioner, and returned again in December
From this time on, during his residence in Abeih and Sidon (to which place he removed in 1851) until 1857, Dr, Thomson was engaged in making extended missionary tours in Syria and Palestine. It was my privilege to accompany him, on his invitation, in February, 1857, through Palestine, when he was engaged in elaborating his great literary work , "The Land and the Book."
That journey, made one year after my arrival here, and with such a guide and companion, marked an epoch in my life. It "established my goings " in Bible study and gave me a familiarity with Bible scenes and localities which has been to me of priceless value. On reaching camp at night, when we younger men were well-nigh exhausted by long stages, through miry roads and swollen streams, he would sit up to a late hour writing up his notes of travel with the greatest care, apparently as fresh as in the morning. His buoyant spirits, his thorough understanding of men, his facility in settling difficulties, his marvelous knowledge of Scriptural scenes and sites, his hearty good nature, willingness to impart useful information about the sacred localities, and his devout and reverent spirit, made him a most charming and invaluable traveling companion. Every mountain and hill, every stream and valley, every rock and castle and cavern, every village and hamlet were familiar to his practiced eye. His trusty horse, which had borne him often through the "Land," seemed to know every road and by-path.
Dr. Thomson was an enthusiastic geologist, and in this we both heartily sympathized. He discovered the greater part of the fossil localities of Mount Lebanon and directed me to them. I never travel, or visit these localities, without recalling his valuable information.
He felt deeply that the Bible could only be fully and clearly understood by remembering its Oriental origin, and that it was important to study and record, with scrupulous exactness, the mariners and customs, the language and salutations, the usages and peculiarities of the modern inhabitants of Syria and Palestine, before the influx of European ideas and habits should have swept away their distinctive features as illustrative of the language and thoughts of Bible characters.
His studious habits, his ready pen, his almost microscopic powers of observation, and his habit of recording conscientiously every new discovery and impression, enabled him to accumulate, during his missionary life, a mass of material such as no one had ever been able to secure. And he felt that he could not do a better service to the Church and the world, than to turn the searchlight of the land upon the pages of the Book.
He was well fitted for the task and he did it well. He did it as missionary work in the broadest sense, and how well he did it, can be learned by seeing his volumes in the libraries of universities, colleges and theological schools, in the homes of pastors and teachers, in Sunday-schools and public schools; quoted by scholars, preachers and teachers, in commentaries, books of travel, and encyclopedias. Nearly, if not quite 200,000 Copies of "The Land and the Book " have been sold.
When in the troublous war crises of 1841 and 1845 a number of men left the mission for America and urged the abandonment of the field, Dr. Thomson with Mr. Calhoun, and Drs. Van Dyck, Eli Smith, De Forest and Mr. Whiting resisted the suggestion, and stood to their posts, and saved the work from destruction.
In June 23, 1859, on his return from a two years' visit to the United States, he was stationed in Beirut, where he remained for seventeen years, until his final departure for the United States, August 7, 1876. He laboured as his colleague during those seventeen years and learned to love and admire him and trust in his judgment.
In the fall of 1859, the population of Lebanon was in a state of agitation and preparation for a renewal of the old war between the Maronites and the Druses.
In the spring of 186o the war-cloud burst, and for sixty days, civil war, the burning of villages, outrage and massacres devastated Southern Lebanon, the Bookaa, the Anti-Lebanon, and Damascus. Thousands of refugees, men, women and children widows and orphans, crowded into Beirut. Dr. Thomson was most active in the practical management of the distribution, by a committee, of nearly £30,000, in money, food and clothing to the wretched sufferers. He had the special charge of the clothing department, and distributed the material for 100,000 garments.
When Lord Dufferin, and his successor, Colonel Frazier, wished judicious counsel in matters pertaining to the reorganization of the Mount Lebanon government, they consulted first of all the two veterans in missionary experience and knowledge, Dr. Thomson and Mr. Calhoun of Abeih.
Lord Dufferin, in an official report sent to England at the time, in speaking of the part borne by the Syrian missionaries in the work of relieving the refugees, states that "without their indefatigable exertions, the supplies sent from Christendom could never have been properly distributed, nor the starvation of thousands of the needy been prevented."
On the 29th of April, 1873, his devoted wife, Mrs. Maria Thomson after more than forty years of a lovely and consistent Christian life in this community, passed to her heavenly reward, universally beloved and respected by people of all nationalities.
On reaching the United States in 1877, he resided in New York for several years, and then removed to Denver Colorado, where he enjoyed the clear skies and the towering mountains, which he said reminded him so vividly of his beloved Syria. In that city, in the home of his daughter, Mrs. alker, and with the faithful ministrations of his unmarried daughter Emilia, he remained until April 8, 1894, when he was summoned to the heavenly Canaan, the unfading and unclouded "Land of Promise," by the great inspirer of the "Book" he had so faithfully laboured to illustrate and exalt before the minds of his fellow men.
His actual connection with the mission in Syria covered a period of forty-three years and five months. His sojourn in America lasted seventeen years and eight months. His latter days were serene and happy; enjoying the full possession of all his faculties, he retained his interest in all that pertains to the kingdom of Christ. His life and work were a blessing to Syria, in laying the foundations of the work now going on in all parts of the land. In the annual meetings of the mission, when grave questions were under discussion, he would rise to his feet, walk to and fro, and give utterance to his views in terms so clear, concise and convincing, that they generally settled the question.
His life is an illustration of the fact that in the foreign mission service there is scope for every kind of talent and acquisition. Dr. Eli Smith could not have written "The Land and the Book," and Dr. Thomson could not have translated the Bible. Dr. Thomson found in Syria and Palestine a vast unexplored field of Scriptural illustration. The land of the Bible, its topography and customs, were well-nigh unknown among the great Christian nations of the West. With unequalled facilities for travelling in the land and studying the people, he used the talents God had given him in illustrating the Word of God. Others engaged more especially in translating that book into the Arabic language, in founding schools and seminaries, in preparing a Christian literature, and in preaching the Gospel from the pulpit or in the homes of the people. While he did what he could in several of these departments of labour, he gave more especial attention to that for which God had prepared him by special gifts and graces His works do follow him. His name will be remembered, with those of Eli Smith and Edward Robinson, as one of the three Americans who were the pioneers of exploration of the Bible lands, as a means of illustrating the Word of God.
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