Tag Archives: Late 19th century missions

Review: The Cobra’s Den

Who: Jacob Chamberlain was the first Westerner to live in Madanapalle, India, in the state of Tamil Nadu. He translated the Bible and study helps into Telugu; preached in the vernacular language; treated thousands of medical ailments; and was a great force for bringing support to the overseas missions of the Reformed Church in America. His ministry in India stretched over thirty-seven years.

Overview: The Cobra’s Den is a compilation of writings about various aspects of missionary life. It is a fast read with short chapters and mostly simple language. Most of the chapters, like “Those Torn-Up Gospels,” pertain directly to pioneer missions among the unreached. Others, like “How I Keep My Study Cool,” deal more with the eccentricities of Chamberlain’s life in India. The overall thrust of the book shows that India was in a time a great religious transformation, in which the old Hinduism, with its superstitions and pilgrimages, was largely being cast off.

Meat: Chamberlain, along with his many native teachers and preachers, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ in over a thousand villages in southern India, mostly in Tamil Nadu. He faced many dangers from men and beasts, and also persisted in literary work for decades. His stories are exemplary and encouraging.

This book has plenty of interesting insights about missionary life, pioneer preaching, and a lot to say about missionary finances from the perspective of someone living in an undeveloped economy.

Bones: Chamberlain can be somewhat sensational in his depictions. (The title itself, of course, is meant to draw attention!)  The financial appeals are a little strange to read, since they are directed at a 19th-century audience. Nonetheless, his life of pioneer work was nothing to sneeze at.

Quotes:

“At two o’clock we were to go to the weekly bazaar to preach to the people who came together from fifty villages to buy and sell. Before that hour, however, I was on my bed with a severe pull of my arch enemy, the jungle fever, and could not rise. My assistants went without me. About sunset they returned, finding me on my cot, with the fever still burning, and said, “O sir, we have had such an interesting time. We had a succession of large and interested audiences, and at the close two men came up and asked earnestly, ‘Are you the Doctor Padre’s people? And Is he here? He promised to come and see us, but has never come. We want him to come, for we are all of us ready to give up our idols and join his religion.” (“The Surgeon’s Knife Dethrones a Hindu Idol.”)

Related: The author of The Cobra’s Den also wrote In the Tiger Jungle, a similar book of missionary stories.

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Nabeel Qureshi’s 19th-Century Predecessor Also Died Young

While we mourn the death of Nabeel Qureshi last week—and heaven celebrates his arrival—I have been thinking of a similar story from the vault of Christian missions in the Middle East. It is the story of a young Muslim intellectual who turned to Jesus, was taken under the wing of one of the greatest apologists of his day, toiled and travelled as a public Christian witness, and died tragically while in the height of his lifework. This is the story of Kamil Abdulmasih.

Kamil Abdulmasih (or Abdul Messiah) was a Syrian Christian in the 19th century. He had  befriended Cornelius van Dyck, the Bible translator, and Henry J. Jessup, a veteran missionary, and converted from Islam to the Messiah, reflected in his chosen change of name. As a young believer, he travelled with Samuel M. Zwemer to Aden (in present-day Yemen) and to Basra, Iraq. He was a bold but tactful witness to the Christian faith, and for several months spent much of his time witnessing to Muslims with Zwemer. Some of the last records of his life are about discussing faith with dozens of Muslims, sometimes for several hours at a stretch. You can read about them in a short book published by Henry H. Jessup about Kamil’s life.

After a short illness, he died on June 24, 1892, under mysterious circumstances. Before any of his close friends knew that he had died, Muslim funeral rites were being performed over his body, which was guarded by soldiers. Although Basra has some of the hottest summers on the planet, it seems obvious that the officials who surrounded him immediately after his death must have also played some part in expediting it.

The sudden death of this gifted and young disciple was one of those bitter trials which can only be relieved by reference to the unerring wisdom of God, who doeth all things well.

It is the opinion of’ those associated with him that he was poisoned, but the hostility of the government, the fact that he was buried in the Moslem cemetery, and that no postmortem would have been allowed make it impossible to obtain positive proof.

The sad facts are as follows:

On Friday, June 24, 1892, Kamil died. Early in the morning Mr. Zwemer was called to conduct the funeral of the carpenter on board a foreign steamer. Owing to the extreme heat he did not call on Kamil before going home to breakfast. Mr. Cantine called on Kamil in the morning and found him suffering with symptoms of bowel disorder, violent vomiting and purging. Dr. Riggs, who was himself sick, sent him medicine by a servant. The heat was intense, and many of the people were prostrated with fevers. Kamil lived near the harbor, and the missionaries nearly two miles distant in the native quarter. At five o’clock p. m. Mr. Zwemer went to call on him and help him. Yakoob Yohanna, a Christian native, met him half way and told him of Kamil’s death. He hastened to the house, and found it occupied by Turkish soldiers, mullahs, and people who had seized his papers, sealed up his room, and were busy with Moslem prayers over his body. They protested that he was a Moslem. Mr. Zwemer insisted that he was a Christian, and begged and entreated that he should be buried with Christian burial.  The evidence of his Christian faith was among the papers they had seized. But it was vain to resist this very exceptional display of armed force.

Mr. Zwemer left the body and went to the Turkish waly, and to appeal to the British consul. Meantime Mr. Cantine arrived, and Mr. Zwemer had to hasten away on receipt of a note stating that Dr. Riggs was very ill, and with high temperature.

At 10.30 p.m. Mr. Cantine came with the news that the Moslems, in spite of his protest, had performed their funeral rites and buried Kamil. But the seal of the British consul was added to that of the Turks on the room containing his property. The next day the whole town was talking over the event. Many of the Moslems told the missionaries that they knew Kamil to be a Christian and a man of pure and upright life, that he was converted from Islam, and a preacher of Christianity.

The exact spot where the Moslems buried him could never be found. The consulate did not succeed in securing his little property, but his books and papers were afterwards sold at auction, excepting the few claimed by the missionaries as their personal property.

The evidence of foul play in his death is regarded as very strong:

I. He was a young man of strong physique and had not been long unwell.

II. Had he died from ordinary disease none but his companions would have known it, and the missionaries would have been told of it before any one else.

III. It is regarded as impossible that the Turks and mullahs could have prepared his body for burial, sealed all his property, and had the military police agree to oppose any help or interference on the part of the missionaries, in so short a time as that which intervened between his death and their arrival. The washing and enshrouding of the body according to Moslem custom is a long and elaborate ceremony, and the sheikhs and mullahs must repeat the Kelimat ash-Shehada, or word of witness, ‘There is no deity but Allah, and Mohammed is his apostle,’ at every ablution, and three times after the washing, when three pots of camphor and water are poured over the body.

The following are two of the prayers recited by Moslems at a funeral:

God is Great.
Holiness to thee, oh God,
And to thee be praise.
Great is thy Name.
Great is thy greatness.
Great is thy praise.
There is no deity but thee.’

O God, forgive our living and our dead, and those of us who are present and those who are absent, and our children and our full-grown persons, our men and our women. O God, those whom thou dost keep alive amongst us keep alive in Islam, and those whom thou causest to die let them die in the faith.

Those who place the corpse in the grave repeat the following sentence:

We commit thee to earth in the name of God and in the religion of the prophet.

IV. Government officials were on hand to take possession of all his effects and seal up his room before his Christian brethren could arrive.

There is every indication that poison had been given him by some unknown persons, either in coffee, the usual eastern way of giving it, or as medicine.

V. The burial took place in the evening and the place of interment was concealed.

VI. According to the Moslem law, a male apostate (murtadd) is liable to be put to death, if he continue obstinate in his error. If a boy under age apostatize, he is not to be put to death, but to be imprisoned until he come to full age, when, if he continue in the state of unbelief, he must be put to death.” According to Dr. Hughes, quoting from the book “Sahih ul Bukhari”  “Ikrimah relates that some apostates were brought to the Khalifa Ali and he burnt them alive; but Ibn Abbas heard of it and said that the Khalifa had not acted rightly, for the prophets had said, “Punish not with God’s punishment (i. e., fire), but whosoever changes his religion, kill him with the sword.”

VII. Kamil’s own father once wrote him virtually threatening to kill him as an apostate.

In these days the sword is not generally used to dispose of apostates from the faith. Strychnine or corrosive sublimate are more convenient, and less apt to awaken public notice, especially where an autopsy would not be allowed.

It may be that Kamil’s father used the language simply for intimidation, for I can hardly believe him to be so utterly devoid of natural affection;  but religious fanaticism, whether originating in Arabia or in Rome, seems to override all laws of human affection or tenderness.

The Lord himself, the chief Shepherd, knows whether his loving child Kamil is worthy of a martyr’s crown. We know that he was faithful unto death. He fought the good fight, he kept the faith, he finished his course. His life has proved that the purest and most unsullied flowers of grace in character may grow even in the atmosphere of unchristian social life. It mattered not to him who buried him or where he was buried. He was safe beyond the reach of persecution and harm.

I have rarely met a more pure and thoroughly sincere character, sine cera.  From the beginning of our acquaintance in “our flowery bright Beirut,” to his last days on the banks of the Tigris, he was a model of a humble, cheerful, courteous, Christian gentleman.

Kamil’s history is a rebuke to our unbelief in God’s willingness and power to lead Mohammedans into a hearty acceptance of Christ and his atoning sacrifice.

We are apt to be discouraged by the closely riveted and intense intellectual aversion of these millions of Moslems to the doctrines of the Trinity and of the divinity of Jesus Christ. But Kamil’s intellectual difficulties about the Trinity vanished when he felt the need of a divine Saviour. He seemed taught by the Spirit of God from the first. He exclaimed frequently at the wonderful scheme of redemption through the atoning work of Christ.

El fida, el fida,” “redemption” he once said to me, “redemption, how wonderful! I now see how God can be just and justify the sinner. We have nothing of this in Islam. We talk of God’s mercy, but we can not see how his justice is to be satisfied.” What the Mohammedan needs above all things is a sense of sin, of personal sin, and of his need of a Saviour. (Henry H. Jessup, The Setting of the Crescent the Rising of the Sun: or, Kamil Abdul Messiah, pp. 137-144. Philadelphia: Westminster Press,1898.) 

Kamil’s story is being put back into print by Pioneer Library. Click here to see the new edition.

Review:  Candle in the Dark: The Story of Ion Keith-Falconer

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Ion Keith-Falconer, Arabic scholar, prominent cyclist, and pioneer missionary to Yemen.

When: 1856-1887.

Where: The book covers his training and travels in Scotland, England, Germany, Egypt, and Yemen.

Overview: This is the authorized biography of Ion Keith-Falconer, published within a year of his unexpected death by a friend who knew him at Cambridge. It is still the most complete biography of him available.

Keith-Falconer came from a noble Scottish bloodline. He was definitely a son of privilege; but to his credit, he used this privilege to support Gospel work. He liberally supported urban evangelistic work, not only with money, but with his own sweat.

He was an exemplary academic and excelled in Arabic and other Semitic languages at Cambridge. Before he went to Yemen as a missionary with the Free Church of Scotland, he was offered a lectureship in Arabic by Cambridge, and accepted, if only because the requirements were so light, and the benefits so obvious—he would only have to lecture once annually at the minimum.

He also exemplifies “muscular Christianity.” He stumbled into fame as a cyclist when the sport was just budding into existence on college campuses.

He began to seriously consider missions in late 1884, and left for Yemen in November 1885 for a trial visit. He returned with his family a year later, in November 1886, but within just a few short months, he succumbed to several bouts of malaria, and died at the age of 31.

Meat: Keith-Falconer is in many ways the prototypical missionary of the Arabian Peninsula. He taught that hospitals and academic work were an appropriate avenue for missionaries there, and many followed in his wake.

The announcement of his death coincided closely with the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, and as a result, many were moved to consider the mission field after he died.

Bones: The author, Sinker, was an academic and sometimes gives too much detail on Keith-Falconer’s academic life at the expense of his personal life. An ideal biography would give a better sense of Keith-Falconer’s habits and daily life.

A member of the Yemen mission, James Robson, later produced a bite-sized biography, Ion Keith-Falconer of Arabia (1923), which essentially abridges the material found here.

Quotes: “Still, it seemed as if some scheme ought to present itself in which Christian zeal and linguistic power might work hand in hand, or rather, shall I say, in which his intellectual attainments and his learning might be to him something more than a mere parallel interest, existing side by side with, but having no connection with, work for Christ.” (loc. 2116)

“The efforts already made to Christianize Mohammedan countries have produced commensurate results.” (loc. 2724)

“The heathen are in darkness, and we are asleep. . . . While vast continents are shrouded in almost utter darkness, and hundreds of millions suffer the horrors of heathenism or of Islam, the burden of proof lies upon you to show that the circumstances in which God gas placed you were meant by Him to keep you out of the foreign mission-field.” (loc. 2797)

Review: Heroic Bishop (Arab World Pioneers Book 4)

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Thomas Valpy French, missionary bishop in Lahore (present-day Pakistan). He lived a long life and pioneered in a wide region in ministerial education and preaching.

Eugene Stock, a member of the (Anglican) Church Missionary Society who wrote many volumes of missions history, narrates the story.

Overview: Bishop French pioneered the Anglican bishopric of Lahore in present-day Pakistan. He helped establish a cathedral and a theological school there, in which he taught in several languages. Amazingly, in his eighties, French chose to pave a way to Oman, where he interacted with James Cantine and Samuel Zwemer. He died trying to secure passage into the interior of Arabia, which today we know as Saudi Arabia. Stock’s retelling of French’s life story is concise and inspirational.

Meat: Missionary biographies almost always impress us with the uniqueness of God’s calling and preparation in the individual life. What’s impressive about Bishop French’s life is his evangelistic zeal and his pioneer passion.

Bones: The author leaves the reader to wonder at French’s linguistic prowess—however, Zwemer points out in his own autobiography, that French’s literary Arabic was very difficult for native Arabs to understand. Christian biographies of the period (the early 20th century) tend to be brief and overwhelmingly positive, skimming over any details that might put a damper on the theme.

Uganda's White Man of Work book cover

Review: Uganda’s White Man of Work

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: The main subject of this biography is Alexander MacKay, English pioneer missionary to Uganda, but we also hear about Henry Stanley, Robert Ashe, Bishop James Hannington, the Uganda Martyrs, and many others.

The author, Sophia Lyon Fahs, was born to Presbyterian missionaries in China. This is her only missionary biography.

Where: The Kingdom of Buganda, the predecessor to today’s Uganda.

When: 1849-1890. (Published 1907.)

Overview: Alexander MacKay was a practical pioneer missionary to Uganda. His missions group required a litany of practical skills to survive and thrive in Uganda: road-building, carpentry, farming, and teaching, to name a few.

He was invited by the Ugandan king, Muteesa I, and was able to stay longer than many of the other missionaries he worked with, though it was only 12 years. He suffered much at the hands of the vacillating kings of Uganda, who one day said that the religion of Christ was the best, and the next executed missionaries for fear of an outside invasion. The kings also pandered for many years to Arab traders, who conspired against the missionaries, traded in guns and slaves, and sought to promote Islam. The missionaries seemed especially successful, though, in their literacy programs, which were a great service to Ugandans. Despite persecution and martyrdom, the story is by and large a triumph of modern missions.

This book was written for a younger audience, so the story is quite easy to follow.

Meat: The reason this book gets five stars is its scope. The book is almost a condensed history of Ugandan missions. Rather than merely celebrating the work of one man, the author shares the stories of others which both preceded and followed that of MacKay. Before MacKay came, Henry Stanley—the same Stanley that found Livingstone—was told by Uganda’s king to send missionaries to share the Christian message in full with him. In passing, we hear the story of Bishop Hannington, and the Uganda Martyrs, who were executed by King Mwanga II between 1885 and 1887. Finally, we catch a glimpse of the stage of the tremendous church growth in Uganda in 1900.

Bones: This book might simplify or skim over some of the stories; we cannot assume, for example, that all of Uganda’s churches are healthy, or that it has no need of missionaries today.

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