Founding Churches in Ottoman Empire Territory
RP Foreign Missions, 1856-1974
June 13, 1998
Jesus commands His Church to evangelize the world and plant churches everywhere. For 142 years the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America has sent out missionaries: to Syria and Mersine in the Ottoman Turkish Empire, to Cyprus in the British Empire , to South China and Manchuria in the Chinese Empire, and to Kobe in a defeated Japanese Empire.
Wars opened doors of opportunity. The Crimean War, which pitted the Ottoman Empire, France and Britain against Russia, helped open the door to Syria. At war’s end the grateful and beholden Ottomans welcomed French, English, and even American missionaries.1 War also laid the groundwork for our mission in Cyprus. In 1877 Russia and the Ottoman Empire fought another war. Russia won. But with Britain’s help, the Ottomans got the terms of the resulting treaty modified in their favor. For services rendered, the British took the island of Cyprus. Our mission in Cyprus began ten years later, in the face of hostile Greek Orthodox bishops but with a tolerant British administration.
The door which war opened, revolution and war closed. In 1922 the secular revolution of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey cleansed Turkey of nearly all of its Christian minorities. That was the end of our mission in Mersine. After World War II, Syria became independent and quickly restricted mission work, expelling our last missionaries in 1958. After a vicious guerilla war, Cyprus became independent in 1960. In 1974, a Greek coup d’etat sparked a Turkish army invasion, and our mission work in Cyprus ended.2
What did our missions in Syria, Asia Minor, and Cyprus accomplish with the open door that Christ gave them? Much in terms of education and medical work. But the most important thing they did was to establish churches, some lasting until the present, others quickly snuffed out.
Missionaries don’t just go on their own. The church sends them. In 1818, soon after the start of the modern Protestant missionary movement, Synod appointed a committee to consider foreign missions. Nothing came of it. In 1841, the Philadelphia church raised the matter anew. Four years later Synod appointed a Board to begin work.3 Its job was to recruit missionaries, raise funds, arrange travel, set policies and goals, and under Synod’s rule bear ultimate responsiblity for the missions. The Corresponding Secretary is key figure on the Board, the link between the Board and the missionaries. He does much of the Board’s work. His diligence, tact, wisdom, and vision -- or his lack of these things -- greatly affect mission work. Four men were Corresponding Secretary for 124 of the 142 years of our mission work: Samuel O. Wylie, pastor of Second Church in Philadelphia,4 Robert M. Sommerville, pastor of Second New York City, Findlay Wilson, pastor of Third Church Philadelphia, and Robert Henning.5 Any complete account of our foreign mission work would have to consider the character and aims of these four men -- but not in this paper.6
The Mission to Syria: Latakia
The new FMB chose Haiti to begin work, so in 1847 the Rev. J.W. Morton went to Haiti. His work did not prosper, and after he became a seventh-day sabbatarian, mission work in Haiti ended. A decade later, after considering places as far away as Cambodia, the Board settled on Syria. They appointed the Rev. Robert J. Dodds and the Rev. Joseph Beattie with their wives to go there in 1856. The lasting result of a century’s work in Syria is a church of about 200 in Latakia on the seacoast and a smaller church in Gunaimia back in the hills, both part of a larger Presbyterian Church in Syria.
After learning Arabic in Damascus and attempting to begin work in the Lebanon Mountains, the founders settled in the Latakia district, an area about the size of Connecticut. A coastal plain from one to ten miles led into mountains 4000 feet high. The district had no roads, only footpaths; no bridges, only fords. The seaport capital, named Latakia, had a population of 25,000: 75 per cent Muslim, 25 per cent Christian. The whole district contained about 180,000 Alaweets, 60,000 Sunni Muslims, and 40,000 Greek Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The birthrate, deathrate and emigration rates were very high. Beattie and Dodds gave their attention to warlike and quarrelsome Alaweets, definitely an “unreached” population.7
The Alaweets were nominally Muslim. They taught the Koran to their children and used Muslim names, but they had a secret religion, known only to initiated men, in which they worshiped the sun, moon, and stars. They kept small groves on treeless hillsides with shrines and altars, sometimes using bloody sacrifices. They practiced circumcision. Women, according to Alaweet beliefs, were created from the sins of devils and had no souls; they were stupid and unteachable, good only for childbearing and work. Officially classed as Shiites, the Alaweets seem more like descendants of Canaanite Baal worshipers than Muslims.8
What was the plan of work? Before settling in Latakia, Dodds wrote to the Board. “The precise object of a foreign mission...is to plant the church of Christ in the designated field, and watch over her development and growth,” providing “a native ministry educated on the ground, till she has attained such a maturity as to be able...to maintain, perpetuate and extend herself.”9 Little did Dodds know how many years it would be until a church would be planted in Latakia.
Dodds and Beattie started preaching in Latakia and in nearby mountain villages. People were uninterested. So the mission opened a school for boys, then one for girls. They bought property. Soon they asked the Board for a physician who would have freedom to speak where others could not. After disease killed several missionary children, the Board sent Dr. David Metheny to Latakia in 1865 and medical work began.10 By 1876 the mission had built a three-story girls school, a chapel, and a hospital clustered together in a mission compound. By 1880, they oversaw 14 day schools in the hills, 2 boarding schools in Latakia, and 11 Sabbath schools. They had acquired the property of other missions in the nearby towns of Bahamra, Aleppo, and Soudea. Life in Syria was an adventure: there were periodic disruptions by Turkish authorities, internecine Alaweet wars, cholera epidemics, threatening mobs, last-minute rescues by American warships, illegal round-ups of young Christians for the army, and missionary deaths. Despite troubles, the mission grew.
Many people have criticized mission schools and hospitals, arguing that complex institutions keep new churches dependent on missionaries and consequently immature, tempt people needing jobs and protection to join the church for impure motives, and divert missionary effort from the main goal of missions, founding churches. Instead of spreading the Gospel they end up spreading Western culture. Paul, it has been noted, never stayed more than three years in any one city; he offered only the Gospel.11 Our missionaries certainly stayed in Syria far longer than three years, and they were agonizingly slow about organizing churches, installing pastors, and turning control over to Syrians. But there is this to be said for schools and medical work. They demonstrated the love of Christ to poor people plagued with disease and illiteracy. Syria in 1856, like China in 1895, was a far poorer place than Paul’s Roman Empire. Syria lacked the biblically literate Jews and God-fearers who formed the core of the churches Paul founded. Perhaps, in the absence of signs and miracles from heaven, the long and dedicated doing of good deeds in school and hospital served to validate the Gospel message in a way that was necessary at the beginning stages of missions. Medical care was often given free of charge. Our schools cared for many orphans and raised them as Christians.12 More than one Muslim observed the good moral effect of the schools. Nevertheless, the question always has to be asked, Was a church being built?
Was it? Our Syrian mission baptized its first convert in 1860, the Alaweet Hamoud. Four years later he died of tuberculosis. They baptized their second convert in 1864 and the first woman the next year. By 1872 there were 41 communicants. Many of the new believers worked for the mission as teachers. Some endured great persecution. Daoud Mahloof, for example, was impressed into the Turkish army in 1873 and fought against Russia in the 1877 war. The church gave him up for lost. Then he suddenly reappeared in July, 1880, still faithful after years of hardship and persecution to make him renounce Christ.13 The mission grew both in territorial extent and in numbers.
The mission church was growing in numbers. It also grew in extent. In 1882 Dr. Metheny went to the Adana district in southern Turkey, where many Alaweets lived, to begin work. He settled finally in the seacoast city of Mersine. As in Syria, mission work rested on the three legs of chapel, school and clinic, but the language was Turkish rather than Arabic.
More preachers, teachers and doctors came, 20 altogether between 1886 and 1896. By 1886 there were 186 communicants in Syria, a partial Arabic Psalter had been published, theological education had begun for three years prior to Mr. Beattie’s death in 1883. But missionaries still held complete authority: after 26 years there were no Syrian elders or deacons.
The Foreign Mission Board decided to investigate. In 1888 Dr. David McAllister led a delegation to Syria. The next year Dr. D. B. Willson, President of the Seminary, visited. No doubt at the instigation of the Board, the missionaries held elections for elders and deacons at the end of that year, and in 1890 they ordained five elders and four deacons. After thirty years of mission work in Latakia, a church which could govern itself was in place.
An Organized Church
Trouble quickly followed the organization of the church, from both outside and inside the church. In 1891, Turkish authorities seized some mission property. Then they arrested four church members, interrogated them about their religion, and finally released them with the order not to work for the Americans any more. The following year, a new governor began building mosques in Alaweet territory and called in the chiefs to swear that they were Muslims. Then he forbade them to allow foreign schools in their territory and told them to arrest any teachers seen in the villages.14 Meanwhile the Plymouth Brethren heresy of dispensationalism invaded the church causing much trouble. In 1899 two elders resigned over differences with the mission. Emigration increased, draining membership. But despite the persecution, heresy, and emigration, membership remained constant and even increased slowly. By 1913 the Latakia church had 293 members, with smaller churches in other locales.
A fully organized church has its own pastors and its own Presbytery. In 1895 Synod organized a Syrian Presbytery, even though there were not yet any Syrian pastors. But two of the American ministers, the Revs. Stewart and Easson, refused to attend, Dr. Metheny was ill, and only the Rev. J. Boggs Dodds came to the scheduled meeting. Synod backed down and dissolved the Presbytery. In 1899 Synod created a Commission to oversee the Syrian mission. During these years the Rev. Beattie and then the Rev McFarland provided some converts with theological educations and licensed six of them to preach.15 Most of these men worked faithfully as evangelists in Syria and Mersine, none were ever ordained and installed as pastor of any congregation! Licentiate Jureidiny died in 1908 after 40 years of teaching and preaching in Latakia, Suadea, Bahamra and Tartoos.16
World War I changed the Syrian mission dramatically. First, nearly all of the missionaries left when the US entered the war in 1917 because the Ottoman Empire was fighting on Germany’s side. Only Mrs. Stewart and Miss Maggie Edgar stayed in Latakia, and only Dr. Peoples and Mr. McFarland stayed in Mersine. Second, the war devastated the Latakia congregation. When it ended 100 of 287 communicant members were missing. Third, Syria became a French colony after the war. The Ottoman Empire was gone. In these changed circumstances the mission church finally took another step forward. In 1921, the Syrian Commission ordained and installed the first Syrian pastor, the Rev. Khalil Awad, age thirty.
Awad was a third generation member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. His father was converted from a Greek Orthodox family, his mother had gone house to house to teach the Bible and was the daughter of one of the first Syrian evangelists. Awad studied under Dr. J.S. Stewart and was licensed to preach in 1912; he then preached in Latakia for eight years as stated supply. When he was installed as pastor in 1921, the congregation assumed responsibility for his support. It soon built a larger church building. As pastor, Awad oversaw the Latakia church and also visited four village churches and twelve mountain schools. In 1924 two more ministers were ordained, Mr. Hanna Besna and Mr. Michael Lattoof.
Why was the Syrian mission so slow first to organize and then to ordain a Syrian pastor? The published sources do not discuss the question, but several reasons suggest themselves. The Syrian church itself may not have wanted responsibility for its own affairs and finances. Our missionaries in China in the 1920’s, for example, found that they had to press the Chinese very hard to begin taking control of their own affairs.17 A related possibility is that neither the missionaries nor the Syrians could see how less educated and less motivated Syrians could handle the complex schools that were central to the mission’s work. After decades of missionary control, the inertia of habit would hinder the organization of a native-run church. One other factor was probably at work: the Ottoman Empire fostered a culture of distrust. Greek, Arab, Serb, Turkish parents often raise their children not to trust anyone beyond their relatives, if them. Long-time missionaries living in basically hostile surroundings, where distrust was the rule, would become distrustful also and fear handing the oversight of beloved converts to Syrians. Nevertheless, at last, the Syrian church had its own pastor.
A Slow and Painful Exit
Under French rule, the schools prospered. But competition from a new government hospital and the straitened financial situation caused by the worldwide Depression of the 1930’s, brought the end of medical work in Latakia. In 1934 the Board recalled Dr. Esmond Smith who had worked in Syria since 1921. The number of missionaries in Syria declined from twelve in 1907 to only five in 1937: the Rev and Mrs. Herbert Hayes, who arrived in 1935, Miss Elizabeth McElroy, and Mr. and Mrs. Chester Hutcheson.
Life was more secure under the French than under the Ottomans, and also less interesting as one missionary observed. But it was under French rule that a Covenanter missionary was killed. In 1932 Miss Maggie Edgar, who had been in Syria for over 45 years as a teacher and as a visitor in homes to share the Bible, went to a home where the husband was known to be violent. She was never seen again. French police investigated, and there were rumors that the man of the house had knifed and killed her, but no one was ever arrested. Although our missionaries were in danger more than once from mobs and robbers, Miss Edgar was the one Christ chose to die a martyr’s death.
In 1931 Findlay Wilson, Corresponding Secretary of the Foreign Mission Board, visited Syria and urged the mission to move more quickly to put authority into Syrian hands. So in 1933 a church was organized at Gunimea and in 1935 at Inkzik. Ibrahim Besna was ordained as a second pastor.18 But no Presbytery was organized. Syrians became principals of both the Boys and Girls Schools in Latakia, but in a few years Americans were running them again. In 1953 Bassam Madany and his wife Shirley, a Canadian from Winnipeg, returned to Latakia. Madany was the first Syrian to be graduated from our Seminary in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, he never preached in the church there.19 After three years he came back to the United States, to oversee a long radio ministry with the Christian Reformed Church, the Voice of the Arabs.
After World War II, three additional missionaries arrived in newly independent Syria to join Herbert Hayes, Chester Hutcheson and their families. The new government quickly restricted the schools from teaching the Bible to Muslims. In 1953 the government closed the last mountain school. It was obvious that the Syrians would soon be on their own. So meetings began in 1956 between the missionaries, Synod’s commission, and a church committee to plan handing the schools over to the church. Concerning these meetings, Marjorie Sanderson writes: “The group was so large, with many of the members uninformed concerning educational matters, that it proved in reality a waste of time. Many diverse and often unworkable plans were proposed, and the difficulties involved in operating two large schools seemed to be almost beyond their comprehension.”20 The government soon decided matters. They expelled the Hayes family in 1955, Elizabeth McElroy in 1957, Eunice McClurkin the same year and the Hutchesons and Sandersons in 1958. The door had closed to American missionaries.
The two remaining congregations in Syria joined the National Evangelical Synod in 1961. Pastor Awad continued his work in Latakia until his death in 1975. The present pastor is Amir Isaac from Egypt who preaches under the Beirut Presbyterian Synod both in Latakia, to a congregation of several hundred, and to a smaller group in Guinemeia. The schools are gone. Syria’s dictator, Assad, does not pressure the churches.21 It took more years than the founding missionary Robert Dodds anticipated, but our mission work resulted in a church that has maintained itself and continues to this day.
The Mission in the Adana District: Mersine
Our mission in the Adana District of Asia Minor operated organizationally as part of the Syrian mission, but it was quite a different field. The dominant language there was Turkish rather than Arabic, and work soon came to center on Armenians more than on Alaweets. This mission had a far more tragic end than did the work in Syria.
Evadna Sterrett opened a school for girls in Mersine in 1883. By 1886 Dr. Metheny had built a house and a boys school while beginning preaching and doctoring. While overseeing construction, he worked on his sermons, sometimes sending a workman to his house to fetch a book.22 Two children of earlier missionaries went to Mersine, a son of the pioneer Robert Dodds, the Rev. R.J. Dodds in 1890, and David Metheny’s own son, Dr. S.A.S. Metheny in 1897. At least eleven other missionaries also went to Mersine, some staying a brief time, others staying many years, some like Dr. Metheny and the Rev. Robert Willson dying there.23 By 1900 the school in Mersine had 275 students. The school in Tarsus was also well attended. Native Christians evangelized and preached in Mersine, Tarsus, and Adana. Dr. John Peoples, with the help of German army officers, opened a small hospital. By 1908 the Mersine church membership was 64 and things looked promising. Then the political situation changed drastically.
A group of young army officers, dubbed by journalists the “Young Turks,” overthrew Sultan Abdul-Hamid. The new government, more ruthless than the old Sultan, aimed to modernize the empire and rid it of its enemies. For help they looked to Germany. Influenced by European thought, the Young Turks began to think of their Empire as made up of nationalities (Turks, Armenians, Greeks, Arabs, Serbs, and so on) rather than religions (Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and so on). Not entirely without reason, the Young Turks perceived the Armenians in particular as a threat to the Empire.24
The year after the Young Turk coup d’etat, the Empire withdrew its protection from the Armenians for a time to teach them a lesson. In the Adana District they brought in mountain peoples, Kurds, Turks, and Alaweets, and permitted them to pillage and slaughter Armenians for five days. In Adana about 10,000 Armenians were killed while another 20,000 perished in outlying areas. In Latakia the local Turkish governor refused to cooperate with the slaughter and there was no killing. Refugees flooded into both Mersine and Latakia, and for some months our missionaries became relief workers.
When war came in 1914, the Turks drafted Christian men into labor corps where the death rate was very high. They took the girls to be nurses. Most horribly they decided to solve the Armenian problem with a forced deportation deep into Syria, killing from one to one and a half million people in the process. Efficient German officers and newly disciplined Turkish officers made the old ways of bribery and ancient friendships ineffective as means of escape. Our missionaries helped as they could, taking many valuables for safe keeping. Few returned to claim them.
During the war Dr. Peoples and A.J. McFarland stayed in Mersine. McFarland took a German army officer into his home and Dr. Peoples treated many wounded Turkish soldiers. Our mission property remained safe. In 1919, at war’s end, Evangeline Metheny,25 the Robert Willsons, French Carithers and Evadna Sterrett returned to Mersine, spending their first months almost entirely in relief work. Out of 99 members in the Mersine church at the start of the war, 86 were there for the peace.
The 1919 peace settlement broke the Ottoman Empire into separate states, including giving part of present-day Turkey to Greece and part to French-run Syria. But deep in the interior of Asia Minor, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) organized Turkish resistance to the peace treaty. He expelled the French from Tarsus, and he defeated the Greek army in 1922, taking Smyrna from the Greeks and expelling hundreds of thousands of Greeks from Asia Minor. Christians throughout the new Republic of Turkey left, including the Armenian remnant which fled to Syria, Cyprus and Egypt. The church in Mersine was left with 18 members after 1922, and the Board closed the mission. Only Miss Elma French remained with those few members until 1934. No continuing church in the Adana District of Asia Minor exists from our forty years of work in that territory.26
The Mission to Cyprus
Work in Cyprus began the same way that it did in Mersine, Turkey: a missionary with years of experience went there from Syria, the Rev. Easson in 1887. He reported both need and opportunity in Cyprus, and the Foreign Mission Board adopted the island as a new field.27 After the mission’s initial years, school work overshadowed all else. Keeping at the task of evangelism outside of the schools and establishing a church proved continually frustrating. Unlike in Syria and China, most of the missionaries never learned the language of the people. At the end a weak indigenous church remained alongside two large and prospering schools.
In 1877 when Britain took control of Cyprus from the Ottomans, its population was about 200,000. Greeks were the majority, Turks a sizable minority. There were five towns: Nicosia, the capital, Larnaca, home to most foreign consulates, Famagusta, Kyrenia, and Paphos. Most Greeks belonged to the Orthodox Church, but they knew almost nothing of the Bible. Easson reported both need and opportunity, and the Foreign Mission Board agreed. Mission work in Cyprus began.
Starting was difficult. In the first 15 years schools were begun and abandoned four times. Medical work started, stopped, and started again. Few missionaries volunteered to go to Cyprus, and those who did stayed only briefly. Itinerant evangelism, however, prospered. Daoud Saada, who spoke Turkish, Arabic, and Greek and who knew Orthodox teaching, came from the Adana District in Turkey and began preaching in 1892. Under the supervision of R.J. Dodds of Syria, he covered the Larnaca District by 1895 and began holding meetings in Nicosia. For a while he spoke to crowds as large as four hundred. In response, the bishops imported anti-Protestant literature from Greece. Someone spread a slander that hampered the mission for decades: Covenanter missionaries, it was said, were Freemasons, which to the Greeks meant infidels and blasphemers.
In 1896 the Easson came to Cyprus for five years and Dr. Moore came for seven. Dr. Moore treated thousands of patients during his stay in Cyprus, impressing them with his kindness. Easson set to work to build a mission. He brought two Greeks from Smyrna to sell Bibles and evangelize. Vamvois made Limassol his base; Zacharakis worked out of Nicosia. Demetriades, the interpreter for Dr. Moore, was converted and later licensed to preach. Together Saada, Demetriades, Vamvois, and Zacharakis canvassed the island with the Bible. In Kyrenia some converts emerged, and in Famagusta a small Protestant group began. Besides overseeing itinerant evangelism, Easson oversaw building a mission house on the outskirts of Larnaca near a chapel already erected in 1892. He started a school for the fourth time, bringing, Egyptiades from Asia Minor to lead it. Easson also worked with Armenian refugees who began to arrive in Cyprus in 1898.
Two things that were to shape the future of the mission appeared during Easson’s term. First, the new church that was started was based mainly on immigrant refugees, not people born in Cyprus. In 1898 the 28 believers made professions of faith and joined the RP Church. Two were Greek, the rest were Armenians, converts of Congregationalist missionaries in Asia Minor. The Armenians disagreed with the mission about exclusive Psalmody and by 1904 there were only 8 members still in the church. Second, persecution became heavier, perhaps because the old archbishop who favored Bible distribution had died and the struggle to succeed him was beginning.28 In 1901 the chapel in Larnaca burned to the ground, and the evangelists found the going more difficult. In Limassol the bishop successfully closed all doors to Vamvois except one.
When Dr. Moore left in April of 1903 there were no American missionaries left until the Rev. Walter McCarroll arrived in November of that year. After surveying the situation, he decided that the mission should concentrate its efforts on a high quality school. He drew up detailed plans and submitted them to an unsympathetic Foreign Mission Board. Work on the school that McCarroll thought necessary did not begin. Meanwhile, two developments showed progress in establishing a church. In 1905-06 the church received 7 new members, one of whom was a rich industrialist named Peponiades. He left two thirds of his estate to the mission and gave land and $1000 to build a chapel in Nicosia. The other development was the emergence of a nascent church in Famagusta. The leader of the Famagusta group was Michael Kassilian (Armenian name) who started services in his house.
“The first Sabbath we had ten Greeks...one of whom is a Greek teacher...The Greek teacher yesterday, Sabbath, invited us to go to his house and hold a meeting in his house before his family. Oh, how gladly we went! Brother Stavro from Kyrenia, who is now working here with Brother Philipos, the confectioner, and Brother Mehmet Sureya, the Turkish brother, marched to the teacher’s house, and there we read John 3 and spoke about conversion, justification and sanctification, things they had never heard before.”29
A few months later in 1906 a mob of 2000 destroyed the little church. They trashed the confectionary shop of Philippos, sacked Kassilian’s house, and forced the Greek school teacher Fitikides to recant at gunpoint, then held a parade to announce his recantation. All members of the group were forced to leave Famagusta. The Bishop of Kitium (Larnaca) publicly called for the expulsion of the mission from the island. In 1907 an unruly mob interrupted church services in the new chapel in Nicosia, and several brothers were harassed by the authorities. Perhaps most daunting of all, the British, after restoring order, officially wrote to the mission with the plea to “cooperate with the Government by taking every possible precaution against offending the susceptibilities of the members of the Greek Church.”30
The attacks brought to an end the itinerant Bible selling and evangelism that had been the mission’s most prominent activity until then. In 1908 Walter McCarroll submitted a new proposal to the Mission Board for a boarding school and received their approval, this time meeting no resistance. The trajectory of the mission was set: schools, with church work on the side, especially among immigrants from Asia Minor.
Successful Schools, Struggling Immigrant Churches: 1906-1961
The school that McCarroll envisioned had two goals: 1) to evangelize the students, especially boarders, so that they would become members and workers in the church, and 2) to provide an English language education to prepare students to be teachers or to move into the world of business. The school grew rapidly, from 35 students in 1908, to 60 in 1911 with 10 boarders, to 200 in 1920.31 A new building was erected. Eight teaching missionaries came between 1909 and 1920, but none stayed for more than a few years. None learned Greek. Over twenty more came between 1921 and 1935.32 There were never enough missionaries to staff the school, so non-Protestant teachers had to be hired. In 1922 the Mission began a Girls School in Nicosia, self-supporting from the start and also English language. Miss Blanche McCrea took it over in 1925 until she retired in 1967. It too prospered.
The mission resumed medical work in these years, with Dr. Calvin McCarroll (1905-1933) practicing in Nicosia. Neither medical work nor schools produced the desired conversions. Walter McCarroll wrote in 1916 that “...the results in conversions and changed character have been disappointingly small.”33 That was to be the story of the schools. Medical work also showed little in terms of conversions, even though a Greek evangelist often worked alongside the “Protestant Doctor,” as Dr. McCarroll was known. What both school and medical work did achieve was a good reputation for the mission as each offered a useful and wanted service.
In 1919 Walter McCarroll returned to the United States and Dr. William W. Weir succeeded him as principal in Larnaca.34 Dr. Weir was a visionary, a genius deeply interested in Christian education. He designed a full school program, making intelligent use of contemporary American education theory. The school published its own newspaper, had interschool sports, a chorus, put on plays, sponsored service clubs, and took school trips on and off the island. Interestingly, Weir described his school against the backdrop of John Dewey’s philosophy rather than against a local Cypriot backdrop.35 The school’s reputation as an effective and lively place of learning spread, and students came from other countries to attend it. With many applicants, the school could afford to turn away the weaker students. Even during the Depression enrollment stayed strong. Graduates could soon be found in every business and government department on the island.
What was happening with the church during these years? After 1922 the Church grew because ethnic cleansing in Turkey sent many Armenians and Greeks to Cyprus. By 1928 there was a membership of 119, the majority Armenian. Except for a few Greek members, however, it was not an indigenous church. In 1925 the FMB sent the Rev Cloyd Caskey to Cyprus to devote his time solely to evangelism. Until then every minister had spent a large part of his time in school work. Caskey learned Greek and acted as a buffer between the Armenians and the Greeks in the church, but he brought few Cypriot Greeks into the church. In 1938 the Caskeys returned to the United States, E. Clark Copeland taking his place in 1945.
Why were Greek Cypriots so hard to convert? Why were the schools so much less productive of new believers than were the schools in Syria or China? Surely the main reason is that the Greeks already called themselves Christian. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church for centuries had successfully striven to hold its members, first against the Roman Catholic Church when French and later Italians ruled Cyprus, and then against the Turks. Every young Greek was taught that it is a “sin” to “change your religion.” A final reason may have to do with the missionaries themselves, who seem to have been comfortable with British rule and who did almost all of their work in English. The lack of identification with the Greeks in language or culture surely hindered the work of planting an indigenous Greek church. One mission strategy that seems not to have been considered by the Board was trying to revive and reform the independent Orthodox Church of Cyprus. The missionaries, in fact, knew relatively little about the Orthodox Church. Perhaps Weir thought along reform lines in the 1950’s, with a goal of “influence” on the whole island from the Bible teaching and moral instruction of the Academies; but sparking a reform in the Orthodox Church was never a planned strategy of the Board.36
In 1927 the mission, at the FMB’s urging, organized two churches, one in Larnaca, one in Nicosia. Each congregation had Armenian, Greek, and American elders and deacons. In 1928, at FMB urging, a “Local Council,” made up of Armenian, Greek and American representatives was organized to oversee the mission work in Cyprus. The Mission Board was responding both to new theorizing on mission techniques and to how the more successful RP mission in China was operating. The initiative for local control in China, however, came from the missionaries themselves, who pushed it strongly even against Chinese wishes.37 In Cyprus the missionaries had misgivings about the experiment and were not determined to see it through. In China, furthermore, the mission was working with only one nationality. In Cyprus the church contained both Greeks and Armenians and the schools contained Turks also. Things did not go well.
The Local Council lasted five years and was succeeded by a Synod-appointed Commission, made up of missionaries and local Christians, which oversaw the mission until 1974. In its five years’ existence, the Council took one decision: in 1933 it separated the Armenians and Greeks into separate congregations, making four churches altogether, with a pastor for the Greeks and a pastor for the Armenians. The Greek congregation in Larnaca soon dissolved when an elder was caught in immorality and the Greek pastor Demetriades was also caught in immorality and forced from office. Argos Zodhiates later served as the Greek pastor, 1937-1945, and then the Greek church had no Greek pastor for the remainder of the mission’s stay.38
In the early 1930’s a denomination-wide debate began on the schools, a debate which touched not only the schools in Cyprus but also those in Syria and China. But the debate focused especially on the schools in Cyprus which were less fruitful than the schools in the other fields in producing new church members and workers. The Board acknowledged in its 1931 report that
In some quarters there is a growing feeling that education as an instrument of missionary policy and as an evangelistic agency is pretty largely a failure. Even more, it is felt that the policy of establishing western institutions as preparatory to evangelization is foredoomed to failure if the aim is the building of an indigenous church.39
In response the FMB sent a delegation to Cyprus and Syria in 1931. It arrived in Cyprus in the midst of a Greek uprising demanding enosis (union) with Greece. The delegation planned a vigorous program of missionary work in the villages; recommended a plan to replace non-Protestant teachers with Protestants; and reaffirmed the schools as an effective and appropriate tool of evangelism. The schools were saved. The plans were not carried out. Evangelical teachers remained only about ten per cent of the faculty.
After World War II the schools renewed their call for American teachers to come to Cyprus. There was little response.40 The ratio of evangelicals to non-evangelicals on the school staff was one to ten. In 1948 there was a wave of confessions of faith among the students, about 60 in all, but none of them became church members.
In 1955 a four year guerrilla war began against British rule. The schools were in an awkward position, having to deal with nationalist sentiment among its Greek students in schools which also enrolled Turkish students. The missionaries themselves had differing political sympathies: some preferred continued British rule, others sympathized with Greek aspirations, some favored the Turks. Finally in 1960, the British granted the island its independence with a constitution that set up complicated power sharing between the Greek and Turkish communities and provided for a military presence on the island of mainland Greek and Turkish army units. The British continued to maintain two large bases. Ending an era for the mission, Clark Copeland left Cyprus in 1960, and Dr. Weir retired in 1961.
Reorientation Cut Short: 1961-1974
Independence for Cyprus in 1960, the retirement of Dr. Weir, and the final granting of autonomy to the Armenian church in 1962 set the stage for reorientating mission work in Cyprus.41 A 1960 FMB deputation rejected closing the schools, opting instead for a new wave of short term teachers with this difference: they would teach half time and evangelize half time. The deputation also set the goal of founding a local Bible school to train local leaders, as had been done in China. In short, the deputation reasserted the long-neglected goal of establishing an indigenous Greek church. No plans were made for the Turks.42
Before much could be done, strife between the Greek and Turkish communities broke out in 1963, and the communities drew further apart. UN soldiers came in to maintain a shaky peace, and Turkish students withdrew from the Academies until about 1970. The Board sent its first shortterm teacher evangelists in 1965. It gave them training in missionary methods, but the training did not include serious language study.
The Greek church in Larnaca and Nicosia had been slowly losing ground for years. It had only 14 members in 1964 and was reduced to a preaching station. Membership now began to climb slowly, reaching 21 in 1968 and increasing more rapidly after 1970 so that the church was reorganized in 1973 with newly elected elders. In 1968 the FMB sent another deputation to Cyprus. It reported that
the Board and Mission in Cyprus have been involved through these past eighteen years in a struggle to realign our work. Progress has been painfully slow in changing the thinking of personnel who had developed habits of work along other lines.43
The Board again directed the Commission to begin planning for a Bible School and directed the schools to begin dropping classes in six years if it could not staff them with evangelical teachers. It set a ceiling on school size. The long-term missionaries on the field did not see how to carry out these plans. They made no move to establish a Bible School. Furthermore, dropping classes was clearly impractical in a school which had to maintain a coherent curriculum.
But in 1968 the Board did something which did change the mission. It sent out four young short-term missionaries, one more in 1969, and four more in 1970.44 These nine missionaries had all received a training in missionary methods which was highly critical of the school/institution approach to missions.45 With the self-confidence of youth and the arrogance of the 1960’s, they set about their work, brushing aside the views both of the older missionaries and of the older Greek members of the church. Events now moved quickly.
From 1968-70 over a hundred young people made professions of faith, not just from the Academies but from at least three other schools on the island. Dick Ayres, the most aggressive and effective of the young evangelists, was refused a visa to stay beyond July, 1970. The government was sufficiently provoked by the young missionaries that they granted visas to Edgars and Pipers in 1970 only on the condition that the men teach full time, presumably to keep them too busy to cause trouble. In 1970 the boarding departments were closed as the mission began to withdraw from school work.
All evangelistic work was still being conducted in English in 1970, but some of the new converts came from Greek schools and knew no English.46 So Pipers and Edgars began having young converts lead Bible studies in Greek, and they set about learning Greek themselves. In 1972 the FMB sent Ken Smith and Ted Donnelly to Cyprus to investigate and make recommendations. They drew up a plan to center mission work on the church, establish a Bible training center, and continue moving the mission’s work into the Greek language. The Board called Smith and Donnelly to go to Cyprus, sending Donnelly to Athens for a year to study Greek full time.
In 1973 Donnelly came to Cyprus and the Greek church was reorganized with new elders. Donnelly became pastor of the Greek church and began preaching in Greek. Edgars moved to Famagusta to begin a new center of work there. Training of young men began. Meanwhile, the FMB moved swiftly to hand the schools over to another authority. Over the objections of some of the older missionaries and many of the Greek members of the church, the FMB decided to hand the school in Larnaca over to an association of alumni. The Nicosia school was given to an association of evangelical Christians.
Then war came. A revived guerilla organization had been setting off bombs for over a year in an effort to topple the government of Archbishop Makarios. Then in July, 1974, the ruling military junta in Athens engineered a coup against him. In a dramatic escape, he avoided assassination, but a new puppet government declared union with Greece. Six days later the Turkish army invaded, and within a month had taken the northern forty per cent of the island, creating 200,000 refugees. Many church members soon emigrated. Taking their cue from Athens, Greek Cypriots expressed anti-American outrage: they had expected the US to stop its ally Turkey from ever actually invading. During the fighting some of the missionaries left the island. Greek members of the church told some of the remaining missionaries that they should leave. Within weeks the FMB decided to withdraw most of its personnel from Cyprus and close its mission there. In 1976 Synod granted the Greek church its autonomy amid continuing recriminations over the fate of the American Academy in Larnaca which had been given to an alumni association to run.
The Greek church in Nicosia continues to the present, with a smaller affiliated group in Larnaca. In Larnaca there is also a small church begun by Adam Mastris, who had joined the RP Church in the early 1970’s in Famagusta, returned to the island from Ireland. Ron and Kathy Stegall came back to Cyprus to help the church get started. Then Bill Sterrett with his Cypriot wife Pitsa left their missionary work in Japan to return to Cyprus. Bill is now the church’s pastor and also a Bible teacher at the American Academy.
The main goal of mission work is to establish the church of Jesus Christ in new places. Our work in areas once belonging to the Ottoman Empire resulted in a church in Syria and a much weaker church in Cyprus. Neither one is closely tied to the RP Church today. In Mersine war destroyed the church. In a part of the world where the Gospel was once strongly established, our mission work did not result in any massive turning to the Lord. In this regard it was no different from the mission work done by any other church in the Middle East.
Many missionaries worked selflessly for many years witnessing and doing good works. Altogether our church sent seventy missionaries to Syria and Mersine and seventy-four missionaries to Cyprus, a total of almost one hundred fifty. Some missionaries were truly outstanding people with great gifts and perseverance. The founding missionary in Syria, the Rev. Robert Dodds, was an outstanding leader; Dr. Metheny as doctor and everything else in Syria and Mersine cannot be matched for personal impact and unending labor; Dr. Weir was an outstanding teacher and leader in Cyprus.
On the whole, the missions moved too slowly to organize local churches, got sidetracked in building schools which make their own inexorable institutional demands, and in Cyprus erred in not learning the language or identifying closely with the people of the island. On the whole, the Foreign Mission Board maintained the goal of establishing churches as primary, prodding the missionaries in both Syria and Cyprus to work more directly toward that end. But the Board is to be faulted for sometimes laying down new lines of work, especially in Cyprus, without being sure that the missionaries were in agreement and would implement the Board’s vision. It also generally failed to provide sufficient training in the language and culture of the areas to which missionaries were sent.
In the end it was Jesus who determined when each mission would end. The nations are in His hands, and He permitted the doors which were once open to close. Because He rules the Church, it grows and expands despite the errors and weakness of His servants who indeed hold the Gospel in earthen vessels. To Him be the glory. Amen.
Balph, James M. Fifty Years of Mission Work in Syria, Latakia, Syria, 1913.
Board of Foreign Missions, Yearbooks, 1956, 1957, 1958.
Carson, David, A History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America to 1871, University Microfilsm, 1964.
Christou, C.C., Biographical Notes of a Greek Cypriot Village Boy, Nicosia, 1980.
Coleman, Mrs. John, “Historical Sketch of One Hundred Years of Covenanter Foreign Missions,” Covenanter Witness, May 19, July 4, November 7, 1956.
Downy, Janet, “Life of David Metheny,” unpublished manuscript, about 1950.
Glasgow, W. Melancthon, History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, Hill & Harvey, Baltimore, 1888.
Hutcheson, Carlene, “A Brief History of the Reformed Presbyterian Mission to Cyprus,” unpublished manuscript, 1995.
McBurney, Charles, Reformed Presbyterian Ministers 1950-1993, Crown and Covenant Publications, 1994.
McFarland, A.J., Eight Decades In Syria, The Publication Board, Covenanter Witness, 1937.
Panayotides-Djaferis, Hercules, The Reformed Presbyterian Mission to Cyprus: A History and Evaluation, Masters Thesis, 1995.
Peoples, John, “Reminiscences of Work as a Doctor in Mersine,” unpublished, about 1962.
Robb, Alice, Hoi Moon Fifty-Five Years of Reformed Presbyterian Mission Work in South China, Board of Foreign Missions of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, no publication date, about 1970.
Sanderson, Marjorie Allen, A Syrian Mosaic, The Board of Education and Publication Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, 1976.
Smith, Alvin W., Covenanter Ministers, 1930-1963, Guttendorf Press, Pittsburgh, 1964.
Thompson, Owen F., Sketches of the Ministers of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America From 1888-1930, no publisher given, 1930.
Weir, W.W., C.E. Caskey and Barnabas Constantinopoulos, A Brief History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the Island of Cyprus. The Board of Foreign Missions of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, 1939.
Weir, W.W. “The American Academy,” introductory brochure, 1951.
1 McFarland writes concerning the Crimean War, “British and, incidentally, American prestige in Turkey were thus greatly increased, and our missionaries found access to the country less difficult than it might otherwise have been.” Eight Decades in Syria, p. 1 During our mission’s first years Turkish authorities supported them, not always effectively, against local opposition.
2 Our mission in China is beyond the scope of this paper, but war and revolution also ended our work there.
3 The innovation of Boards in Presbyterian church government occasioned considerable debate in many Presbyterian churches. In our church the danger of Boards becoming insulated from the church as a whole and developing their own agendas has been much mitigated by our small size and by the practice of electing most Board members directly from the Synod.
4 McFarland, op cit., p. 30, observed his death with the note that he “fathered the work of foreign missions.” Glasgow, History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America, writes, “At the organization of the Foreign Mission Board in 1856, he was chosen Chairman of the Board, and to his mature judgment, wise management, and industrious correspondence, largely depended the success of the enterprize.”
5 Wylie, 1844-1883; Somerville, 1883-1915; Wilson, 1915-1945; Hennning, 1963-1998. Between Wilson and Henning several men were Corresponding Secretary for a few years each.
6 Limited biographies of each are available, but FMB minutes and correspondence would have to be available to evaluate properly the role and contribution of each of these long-tenured Corresponding Secretaries.
7 Dodds wanted to evangelize Muslims rather than nominal Christians. If he had aimed his work at Sunni Muslims, the government probably would have expelled him, but Alaweets were at best “heretical” Muslilms.
8 About the time our mission began its work a renegade Alaweet published a book about their teachings in Beirut. The Alaweets invited him to a feast in his honor and seated him on a rug over the mouth of a well. They filled it with stones the moment he sat on the rug and fell in. Balph, Fifty Years of Mission Work in Syria, pp 31-34, 40-41. The best-known Alaweet today is the present President of Syria, Hafiz al-Assad.
9 quoted in David Carson, A History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America to 1871, p. 205.
10 The biography of David Metheny remains to be written. He was compassionate, bold, tireless, skilled, visionary. He pioneered the mission in Mersine and badgered Synod into beginning the mission in China. Ordained as a minister, though he had not completed Seminary, he preached and healed. He also oversaw much of the mission’s building and seemed to know all the building trade. Other missionaries accused him of hiring laborers to watch him work. He was also a skilled musician and artist. Asked shortly before he died whether he wished to be taken home for burial, he replied no, he wished to be buried where he had born his testimony for Jesus.
11 See for example, Roland Allen, Missionary Methods, St. Paul’s or Ours, 1956, 3rd edition. Mr. Henning used this book in teaching missionary methods to short term missionaries going to Cyprus in the late 1960’s.
12 Boarding students had worship twice daily, weekly church services, Bible study, Bible memorization and catechism learning as well as other lessons. Christians supervised their play.
13 His story is given at length in the accounts by Balph, McFarland, and Sanderson.
14 The Ottoman Empire, even at its most hospitable to foreign missionaries, never permitted the evangelization of Sunni Muslims. Following traditional Islamic teachings they would permit conversions to Islam and even to Christianity from other religions; but Sunni Muslims could not convert to Christianity.
15 Yakob Jureidiny in 1882, Salim Haddad and Isa Haurani in 1890, Abraham Jukkie and Daoud Saada in 1892, and Michail Luttoof in 1902
16 Without examining mission minutes or FMB minutes, it cannot be known why none of these men was ever installed as pastor. Possibilities are the well-known Middle Eastern mistrust of everyone by everyone; unreadiness of any Syrian congregation to support a pastor; unreached standards of the missionaries for a pastor. In China the missionaries at their initiative, the FMB going along, began forcing the Chinese Christians in our churches, at first against their will, to begin taking organizational and financial responsibility for their churches and the attached schools and medical facilities. See Alice Robb, Hoi Moon.
17 See the account of our South China mission by Alice Robb, Hoi Moon.
18 The mission of the Irish RP Church likewise oversaw the organizing of churches in Alexendretta, Antioch, and Soudeia. Although it doesn’t come into this story, the Irish Reformed Presbyterian Church was also doing mission work in Syria during the same years as our church was. There was much cooperation between the two missions, including some intermarriage and exchanging of personnel.
19 Maybe he was suspect because he had studied abroad and had a foreign wife. Maybe Awad did not trust Madany or want to share his pulpit with a younger and more educated man.
20 Marjorie Sanderson, A Syrian Mosaic, p. 101.
21 Oral communication from Ken and Marjorie Sanderson based on their continuing correspondence with friends in Syria.
22 Janet Downie, Life of David Metheny, unpublished manuscript, written about1950.
23 Miss Jennie Dodds (1893), the Rev. and Mrs. A.J. McFarland, Mr. C.A. Dodds (1898), Miss Zada Patton (1906) Dr. John Peoples (1907), Miss Elma French (1907), the Rev. and Mrs. Robert Willson (1908), and French Carithers (1913). In the period from 1885-1914 the RPCNA sent abroad dozens of missionaries, a huge number for so small a church. After World War I enthusiasm for missions waned and far fewer Covenanters volunteered to be missionaries. Only in the late 1960’s did a comparable flood of new missionaries volunteer, this time for Cyprus.
24 Some Armenians, like some Greeks. had been dreaming for some decades that they would take over the Empire themselves from the failing hands of the Ottoman Sultans. Armenian schools had resurrected the Armenian language from books, making it a spoken language again. By the 1890’s some Armenians were also pioneering terrorism as a tactic with which to unsettle a state and gain power.
25 Evangeline Metheny was the daughter of David Metheny. For much of her missionary career she worked in Alexandretta under the oversight of the Irish RP Mission, so her story is not included in this account. She was a remarkable woman and her biography also waits to be written. She herself wrote the book North and East of Musa Dagh.
26 Turkey in 1900 was about 30 per cent nominal Christian under the Sultan. Ataturk reduced the Christian population to about 3 per cent.
27 During its first decades the Syian Commission oversaw work in Cyprus as well as in Syria and Mersine.
28 The struggle lasted from 1900 to 1909. Nationalist fervor demanding union with Greece grew in the same years.
29 from a letter to the retired Easson, quoted in Panayotides-Djaferis, The Reformed Presbyterian Mission to Cyprus: A History and Evaluation, p. 30. Note the presence of an Armenian, Greek, and Turk in the church together! This would be something new in Cyprus.
30 ibid., p. 32.
31 The school eventually grew to around 500 students, was coeducational, and included Turks as well as Greeks, Armenians and others.
32 Weir gives a list in his Brief History of the Work of The Reformed Presbyterian Church in the Island of Cyprus, pp. 32-33.
33 quoted in Panayotides, op cit, p. 37.
34 McCarroll became pastor of the Second New York Church. In 1946 he became the first president of the American Mission to the Greeks formed after World War II to provide relief to evangelical Christians in Greece. He was chosen as a trusted figurehead who would help the Greeks work together peacefully. Eventually the brother of Argos Zodhiates (see below), Spiros, took over the organization which now has a worldwide reach for evangelism and relief.
35 See Weir’s article in 1951 in what appears to be a brochure for the school in which he acknowledges his debt to the New School Movement, but rejects much of Dewey’s philosophy “as undermining Christian faith.” “The former [Dewey] is an emphasis on humanism, on expediency, on experiment. The latter [Christian] is an emphasis based on ideals regardless of present expediency, and on the assumption that some things may be regarded as fixed, not requiring further experimentation.” p. 16.
36 see Panayotides, op cit, p. 67 for the goal of “influence.”
37 see Robb,Hoi Moon, op cit.
38 Zodhiates’ parents were Cypriot but were living in Egypt. He was trained at the UP Seminary in Egypt and by A.J. McFarland. In 1945 he went to Greece to serve a congregation there, and then to Boston where he gathered a large congregation. He was planning in the late 1970’s to divide his time between Cyprus and Boston when he suddenly died of a heart attack. Argos Zodhiates was a tireless worker, a planner, and a great preacher. Had he stayed with the church in Cyprus after World War II, the history of the mission might well have taken a different path. In 1948, the Greek church held an election for pastor, giving six votes to C.C. Christou, and five votes to Barnabas Constantinopoulos. With the votes so evenly split, it seemed wise to the Mission not to ordain either man.
39 Synod Minutes, 1931, p. 56 quoted in Panayotides, op cit, p 43. A former member of the FMB, F.M. Foster, published a pamphlet entitled, “Would the Apostle Paul be Headmaster of the Cyprus Academies?”
40 Mostly people who had been missionaries before World War II came. The Rev Thomas Hutcheson, who had been a short-term teacher, came in 1949 with his wife to teach to Larnaca. Thomas Edgar, whose wife was a Greek Cypriot, also returned to teach in Larnaca and became the school’s principal after Weir retired. From Syria came the Sandersons and the Chester Hutchesons.
41 After independence the Armenians began emigrating and the church was soon reduced in size. Blanch McCrea, head of the Girls School in Nicosia, retired in 1967 and was ably succeeded by Ruth Reade.
42 Many years before, in 1896, the Rev. R.J. Dodds, overseeing the new Cyprus mission from Syria, proposed that two missionaries be sent to Cyprus, one to work among the Greeks, one to work among the Turks. No attempt was made to implement his suggestion regarding the Turks. Panayotides, op cit, p. 21.
43 Covenanter Witness, 3 September, 1969, p 5 quoted in Panayotides, p. 66.
44 Dick Ayres, Bill Sterrett, Dan Copeland, and Kathy Elliot came in 1968, Ron Stegall in 1969, Don and Boni Piper and Bill and Gretchen Edgar in 1970. Patricia Boyle came in1971 to teach in Larnaca. The Board also sent out the not young Rev.Paul Wilson and his wife Peg in 1969, and the Rev. and Mrs. Alvin Smith, who stayed only briefly. Finally, in 1972 the Rev. Ken Smith and his family arrived along with the Rev. Ted Donnelly and his wife Lorna from Ireland. These eighteen people in four years was the greatest outpouring of missionaries in so short a time since the early part of the century.
45 Their teacher was the Rev. Robert Henning, Corresponding Secretary of the Board. He used the book by Allen, Missionary Methods : St. Paul’s or Ours.
46 Of the thirteen short-term and long-term missionaries on the field in 1970, only Dan Copeland regularly conversed in Greek. No one knew Turkish.