The Impact of the American Missionary on
Syria During the Eighteenth Century

Mounir Farah
The contribution of the American missionaries during the first fifty years of their presence in Syria extended into numerous fields. They undertook research and wrote about the geography of the area, its archaeology, neteorology, customs, and music. Besides their memoirs, travelogues, and books on varied subjects, they published articles in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, the Bibliothece Sacra, the New Englander, and the Missionary Herald. However, their most outstanding contribution by far was in the field of education. Their work in this field made a lasting impact and influenced the course of history of modern Syria and to an extent other Arab countries. It also contributed to the positive image that the Syrians had of the United States during the nineteenth century.
Upon their arrival in  Syria, the American missionaries discovered a grave lack in educational facilities. The vast majority of the Syrian male population did not read or write, and almost all the women were illiterate. The few schools which existed in Syria at the time were strictly religious. Founding schools and promoting learning was considered a commendable and a necessary act of benevolence by the missionaries. Moreover, translating and disseminating the Scriptures would be meaningless, unless the people were taught how to read them.
The educational enterprise of the missionaries began in 1824 with the establishment of a school in Beirut and the employment of a native teacher, Tannus al-Haddad. It started with seven students in july and grew to sixty by September. By 1870, this modest beginning had grown to an extensive system of thirty-one schools, two seminaries, and a highly respectable college. It was supported by a printing press  and by activities of learned societies. Its contributions were remarkable particularly in the fields of higher education and female education.

Higher Education

By the 1850's, the missionary schools had become well established. These schools, along with  recently founded Orthodox and Catholic parochial schools, were graduating students who could go further to higher education. The desire of the Arab community for higher education, as was reported by Harry Jessup to the ABCFM in 1856, "has risen to a sort of passion."  The American mission in Beirut considered the possibility of founding an autonomous institution for higher education for several years. Then on January 27, 1863, it voted to establish the Syrian Protestant College. The Reverend Daniel Bliss was elected President and was entrusted with the task of raising the needed funds. Bliss left for the United States in August of the same year to discuss the matter with the  ABCFM and t solicit contributions. He was able to raise one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) in the United states during the Civil war before he went to England to raise more donations. With the assistance of several notables, including Samuel Tildan who became a governor of the State of New York and the Democratic  candidate for president in 1876, the collages was chartered and incorporated in the State of New York in 1863.
A preparatory department was established for the college in 1865. A few months later, Bliss returned to Beirut and the Syrian Protestant College commenced in the fall of 1866. The freshman class consisted of fifteen students. The Syrian Protestant College was the first modern institution of higher learning in Syria. The original curriculum was four years of liberal arts. In 1867, a medical department was added. Eventually, the college became a highly prestigious university and was renamed the American University of Beirut in 1920. On the occasion of graduating the first class in 1871, an Arabic journal published in Beirut commented that the college "is teaching us modern sciences, our [Arabic] language, love of our homeland, and loyalty to our state. It deserves our gratitude." In another commentary later that year, the same journal wrote:

It is incumbent upon us to thank these foreigners [Americans] when they labor for our success and progress in learning, as they reciprocate for what they had received from us in the pastcenturies.

Female Education

Formal education for girls was non-existent in Syria before the coming of the American missionaries in the 1820's. From the very beginning of their mission, the American evangelists sought to provide education for girls. The task was difficult and met with resistance and sometimes ridicule. A missionary, J. Lorenzo Lyons, was once telling a group of young men in a remote area about the intention in Tripoli to open a school for girls. Their response later described by Harry Jessup:

They seemed half amazed, half disgusted, of them observed "a school for girls? What good will it do to teach the women? You had better establish a school for young men and teach English!" We told them that ... if mothers were educated, the sons would be more likely to be intelligent and well informed.

Soon after their arrival in Syria, the missionaries sought to enrol girls in their schools. This was possible when the girls were at pre-puberty age. By 1826-1827 their number ranged between thirty and fifty-one. However, it  was difficult to attract older girls unless they had a segregated school of their own. The tradition of separating the sexes was prevalent among the Christians as well as the Muslims of the Middle East in the nineteenth century, and more so among the later. Furthermore, a girl in her early  teens was supposed to prepare for becoming a wife and a mother. She would accomplish that by assisting and by being close to the older women in the family. The missionaries  reported  that in 1833 they had six schools, one of which was for girls. In 1834, two schools for girls were established, one in Beirut under the direction of Sarah Smith with an enrolment of twenty-five and another in 'Alaih under the direction of Mrs. Martha Dodge for fourteen students most of whom were Druzes. Mission families also tool "female boarding-scholars" into their homes. Their total ranged between seven and eleven girls. Boarding schools for girls were subsequently established in Beirut, Abaih, and Aleppo in 1850. Other schools were founded during the 1850's and 1860's.
The most notable of the mission's effort in female education was the establishment of an independent female seminary (high school) for girls in Beirut in 1862. The Mission raised sufficient funds to construct a new building to house the seminary. the school moved to its new location in 1866 and became the forerunner of the Beirut College for Women.
By the late 1860's the average of the total annual number of students in American missionary schools, exclusive of the Syrian Protestant College (SPC) and the Beirut Female Seminary, exceeded one thousand pupils, nearly two hundred of whom were girls. In 1870, the number of students at the SPC was seventy-six and at the Female Seminary was seventy-five.


The American experience in Syria prior to 1870 was predominantly the American missionary experience. The involvement of other elements, such as, the United States State Department and the United States Navy was frequently an adjunct of or related to the missionary enterprise. Despite the friction and bitterness which the missionaries generated in the first two decades of their presence in Syria, their work in subsequent decades managed to win the hearts of the common people and the respect of community leaders.
The American missionary effort in the field of education was outstanding not only because of what it established, but more so for what it engendered. The fear of Protestant "invasion" drove other sects into intense rivalry. the Catholics sent their own missionaries, opened many schools, and their Jesuits founded the second modern university in Syria, St. Joseph in 1875. The American missionary Dr. Cornelius Van Dyke was asked once about his destination as he was travelling on his donkey through a village. He said that he was going to a village to open two schools. A villager asked him, "Why two schools?' He responded, "Because as soon as I open one school, the Jesuits follow and open another one." The Orthodox Christians opened their own schools with their own resources and some assistance from the Russian Orthodox Church. By then end of the century, Beirut, with a population of about one hundred and twenty thousand people, had thirty-six schools for girls with an enrolment of 6,768 and sixty-seven schools for boys with an enrolment of 8,705.
The American missionaries were also instrumental in the spread of printed materials in Arabic. Their press which they bought to Beirut in 1834 was not the only Arabic press in the area. There were six other presses. However, the American press became the most active and the leading Arabic press in the area. By 1860, it had printed more than 112 million pages, and by the end of the 1860's it had exceeded 150 million pages. Although a substantial number of these pages were religious in nature, many were school texts and readers in Arabic grammar.
Education, printing activities, stress on the use of Arabic language, and teaching Arabic grammar and literature in their schools were a certain factor in the rise of Arab nationalism at the turn of the century. Although the concept of Arab nationalism was an idea that only few might have contemplated before 1870, the seeds for it had been planted, in part, due to the work of the American missionaries. When the circumstances were ripe for its rise before World War 1, Arab nationalism had pillars to stand on, some of which were erected by the diligent effort of the American mission.
The missionaries were instrumental not only in the introduction of modern ideas, values, and practices of the West but also in introducing to Syrian society some modern amenities such as the potato (1827), the sewing machine (1854), the organ (1854), the camera (1856), and kerosene lighting (1856).
The American missionary presence and activities acquainted a large number of Syrians, particularly Syrian Christians, with life and opportunities int he United States. Indirectly, the American mission expedited the move to emigrate from Syria to the United States. Some Syrians arrived in the United States for touring, living, or soliciting assistance as early as 1853. However, the massive emigration did not begin until the 1870's. Correspondence between emigrants and their relatives and friends encouraged further emigration and enhanced the image of the United States in the eyes of the Syrians. The flow of monetary assistance from the former to the latter contributed to the improvement in the material standards of the recipient, most of whom were Christians, and broadened the gap between the living standards of Christian villagers and their Muslim counterparts.
Certainly, Syrian society would have reached "modern times" without the endeavours of the american missionaries. But it is just as certain that modernisation would have taken place more slowly and at a later time.
Objectively requires that whatever judgement one may have regarding the United States' Middle East policies in the second half of the twentieth century , one should not allow that judgement to interfere with a  fair evaluation of the work of America's missionaries in that part of the world a hundred years earlier.
To claim that the aim of these missionaries during the nineteenth century was to carry out imperialistic policies, as did Ferrukh and Khalidi in their al-Tabahir (see chapter 1 of this dissertation), is a distortion of two facts. Firstly, the American missionaries went to Syria with purely religious goals in mind. They sought neither political nor economic objectives, as the two authors claimed. Secondly, during this period of the nineteenth century at least, the United States had no imperialistic designs in Syria, as the two authors assumed. Furthermore, the statement of the same authors that the American missionary "was never able to free himself from the service of his government," (see chapter 1) is refuted in chapters 3 and 4 where it is shown that the missionaries' connection with the United States government was to serve their own religious goals and not to carry out any fictitious design by this government. Professor A.L. Tibawi's contribution to the study of the modern history of Syria is highly commendable. However, his denial of any role for the American missionaries in the rise of Arab nationalism is a denial of the role of education, the teaching of standard Arabic language, and the role of printing and dissemination of information in this rise. The American missionaries made valuable contributions in each of these areas.
The eminent scholar Muhammed Kurd Ali was objective in his evaluation. Nevertheless, his general statement that the missionaries "endeared foreign countries to the hearts of their [the missionaries'] pupils" should not be applied to the work of the American missionaries. They instilled love and admiration in the hearts of their students for the Arabic language and its literature. Indirectly, they promoted appreciation for Western institutions and values, rather than love for other countries. Kurd Ali did not separate those institutions and values from the countries of their  origins. Such separation might be difficult and challenging to make. But it would be necessary if one is intent on evaluating the aims of the missionaries.