THE NESTORIANS - LETTER
TO THE EDITOR OF THE. TIMES.
Sir,-As the appeal of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in The Times of Saturday for funds in aid of a mission to this interesting remnant of the ancient Syrian Church makes no mention of what has been and is still being done for them by the American missionaries, it is but simple justice to that excellent body of men to supply this omission in the Society’s advertisment. Permit me to do this as a visit some years ago to Oroomiah, one of the chief districts of the sect and the head-quarters of the American Mission to it enables me to speak with some personal knowledge of the facts.
Encouraged by the reports of Messrs. Smith and Dwight-whose “Researches in Armenia and Persia” still forms one of the best books of Turco-Persian travel-the American Board of Commisioners for Foreign Missions, so long ago as 1833, decided on opening a mission to the Nestorians, and in the following year Mr. Perkins, their first agent reached the scene of his future 35 years’ labours. Two years later he had so far mastered the then unwritten venacular of the sect as to reduce it to writing. About the same time he was joined by Dr. Grant, a medical missionary who rapidly acquired influence, not merely among the Nestorians, but with the Mussulman population on both sides of the frontier. The staff was further strengthened and its efficiency increased by a printing-press,which in 1844 issued a complete translation of the New Testament in the vulgar dialect by Mr. Perkins, to which, ten years later he added a similar version of the Old Testament, both printed for the first time from type modelled from the best Syrian manuscripts. Many thousand copies of religious and elementary educational were also printed and circulated, and schools, conducted by the missionaries and their wives, till a sufficient staff of native teachers had been trained, were opened at Oroomiah and in all the larger villages of the plain and the adjoining hill country, with the object less of proselytizing than of educating the young and civilizing the adult members of the sect. In 1870 the mission was transferred to the “American” Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, under which it has since been conducted on the old lines, with the result of now including above 80 self-supporting congregations under native pastors, and schools with more than 1,000 pupils-no mean sum of accomplished good work among a community numbering in all only about 70,000 souls, of whom some 20,000 have been long ago converted as “Chaldeans” to the faith of Rome, and so are beyond the influence of any Protestant missionaries whatever. The aim of both the American Boards being rather to reform than to make converts, the religious instruction given has throughout been unsectarian and based simply on the Bible, which the Nestorians, more than any other Eastern Christians, profess to regard as the ultimate rule in both faith and morals. With this has been combined secular school instructions of both boys and girls, as also the teaching of mechanical trades, the whole with a measure of success, which in its social results has had few parrallels in missionary history in the East. The original object of the mission was, of course, to reform the old Chruch, but more than 40 years’ experience has proved this to be, if not hopeless, at least a still to-be-accomplished-work. The main body of the sect and its ignorant clergy still cling as obstinately to their corrupted dogma and ritual as they did 50 years ago.
If the aims of the proposed mission of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel be to reform these, there is ample work before it, and I heartily wish its agents God-speed. But if its purpose be merely to repeat previous unsuccesful attempts to bring the sect into nearer relation to our Anglican communion, it will have less sympathy from all who know everything of the present condition and wants of Eatsern Christianity. In any case, as the society’s appeal is silent as to what has already been done among the Nestorians by the American agents it is, as I have said, but fair to thos admirable men and women-worthy members of a body whose “marvellous combination of piety and common sense,” as Lord Shaftesbury well said, has made them by far the most successful missionaries in the East-that the ungenerous omission should be supplied.
I am, &c.
42, Notting-hill-square, Dec. 29. J.C. McCOAN