Presbyterian Missions History (4th of 12): The General Assembly Establishes the Board of Foreign Missions. An Extraordinary Mission Era Begins.

We feature a few of the great Presbyterian missionaries who, for the love of God, went to the ends of the earth.

I wrote here about the 1837 General Assembly and its disastrous decision to expel 60,000 members from the rolls for their support of mission agencies. But that same year the General Assembly established its own mission agency, the Presbyterian Foreign Mission Board. This board undertook the administration of the 44 Presbyterian missionaries who were already overseas with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission. The establishment of the Presbyterian Foreign Mission Board, had a positive effect, in that it set in motion a great era of mission advance. Hundreds of Presbyterian missionaries sailed to “the regions beyond” over the next 150 years. Many laid down their lives in the lands where they served, and are buried in far off places. On the Last Day, Christians from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East will rise up and call them blessed. I invite the readers to add more missionary names to these few I am honoring here.

Eli Smith (1801-1857). Eli Smith was born in Connecticut to Scottish Presbyterian parents. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) appointed Smith a missionary and he arrived in Beirut in 1827 at age 26. In 1830 Smith and another ABCFM missionary Harrison Gray Otis Dwight (1803-1862), were the first American missionaries to explore Kurdistan. The men traveled to Constantinople, then eastward across Anatolia, through Armenia, into Georgia. There, Smith contracted cholera. Too weak to mount a horse, he rode behind Dwight in an oxcart as the pair pressed southeast through the mountains toward Iran. Smith was by now deathly ill and unable to sleep due to constant swarms of mosquitoes. “I lay and wept like a child,” he recalled.[1] For three months, Smith, almost unable to move, recovered at a Swiss mission in Armenia. In November, with snow falling, the two set out again for Tabriz. Smith again fell ill. They were reduced to eating bread filled with “crawling creatures.” Finally, on December 18, 1830, with Smith so weak he could “neither walk nor stand,” the Iranian city of Tabriz came into view. There they rested all winter to regain their strength. When spring came, Smith and Dwight explored the Lake Urmiah region. Here they met Nestorians, a Christian people with a glorious mission past. Smith and Dwight enthusiastically recommended Urmiah as the center of a mission. Their two-year exploration concluded, Smith and Dwight returned to Trebizond, a Black Sea port. From Trebizond they sailed back to Constantinople. Eli’s first wife died near Smyrna (Izmir) Turkey, and his second wife died in Beirut. His third wife, Mehitable, outlived him. Eli Smith is buried in Beirut.[2]

Justin and Charlotte Perkins. Justin Perkins (1805-1869) and Charlotte Perkins (1808-1897) were the first missionaries to reside in Urmiah, northern Persia. The journey of 1830 undertaken by Eli Smith and Harrison Gray Otis Smith had pioneered the way for Justin and Charlotte to follow. In the years to come, the Perkins would lose six of their seven children to disease. In nearby Seir, where the missionaries spent the summers at a higher elevation, there are 59 gravestones; 41 belong to missionaries’ children; most died before the age of three. In 1836 Justin Perkins opened a school. Lacking paper and pencils Perkins taught math by drawing numbers in sand. Each student had a box of sand in which to cipher. After three years the number of schools reached twelve. In 1840 Perkins opened the first printing house in Urmiah. “The Lord’s Prayer” and “The Book of Psalms” were published in the Soryani, or Christian, script. Near the end of his life Justin and his wife returned to Massachusetts with their only remaining son.

Dan Beach Bradley (1804-1873) was the first missionary doctor to reside in Siam (now Thailand). He brought the first quinine to the country, to counter the effects of malaria. His wife Emilie Royce Bradley died in 1845, the tenth year of their residence in Bangkok. Only one of their four children lived to adulthood. In 1848 Dan Bradley, in the US on furlough, married Sarah Blachly, whom he met at Oberlin College while in the US. They had four children, all of whom lived to adulthood, Sarah died in 1893, having never left Thailand following her arrival in 1849.

Cornelius Van Dyck (1818-1895)[3] Missionary doctor and Bible translator in Sidon and Beirut, Syria (as it was then). Van Dyck advocated that decisions being made by the ABCFM in New Haven be made closer to the field.

Daniel and Sophia McGilvary. Daniel McGilvary (1828-1911) was first missionary to reach northern Siam. It took months for McGilvary to make the 400 mile trek through the jungle. His wife Sophia Bradley McGilvary (1839-1923) was the only surviving child of Dan and Emilie Bradley. Sophia was able to join him later. Daniel and Sophia McGilvary founded the Laos Mission; three of their children joined the Laos Mission upon reaching adulthood. Daniel and Sophia remained in Chiang Mai until their deaths. McGilvary College of Divinity at Payap University in Chiang Mai is named for Daniel McGilvary.

Roger and Harriet Cumberland. Roger Cumberland (1894-1938) and Harriet Gunn Cumberland were the first missionaries to reside in Duhok, northern Iraq. Two children died at birth. Two more children, Wendy and Janet, were born outside the country. Roger Cumberland successfully converted a Kurdish man and his wife in 1937. In 1938 Roger Cumberland was martyred. He is buried in the missionary cemetery in Mosul. I feature his story in Ethnic Realities and the Church: Lessons from Kurdistan.

William and Lucy Sheppard. Pioneer missionaries in the Congo. We featured William and Lucy Sheppard here. The Sheppards, along with Samuel Lapsley, were the first Presbyterian missionaries in the Belgian Congo. William Shepherd (1865-1927) is best known for publicizing the atrocities committed against the Kuba and other Congolese peoples by King Leopold II‘s militias. The Sheppards resided in the Congo for 20 years, 1890-1910. Read about them here.

Joseph Cochran. Son of missionary parents, Joseph Cochran (1855-1905) was born in Persia and learned to speak five languages. While studying in the United States his met his future wife, Katherine Talcott Hale. In 1880, Joseph Cochran opened the first hospital in the country of Persia. This was the Westminster Hospital, located in Urmiah. The first generation of Iranian doctors was trained there. He died of typhoid fever and is buried at the missionary cemetery in Mt. Seir.

Charles William Forman (1821-1894). Charles Forman was a missionary in Lahore, India (present day Pakistan). He opened a school for higher education that bears his name today, Forman Christian College. He and his first wife, Margaret, had seven children. After she died Forman married Georgina Lockhart and had three more children. Five of his children became missionaries in India.

Norval Christy. Dr. Christy was an eye surgeon at the Taxila hospital in Pakistan. His innovations in the process of examining patients and operating on patients made it possible for hundreds of surgeries to be conducted each day. Critics were won over by Dr. Christy’s meticulous record keeping. Today the entire world follows the interocular lens transplant procedure developed by Dr. Christy. He performed about 180,000 eye surgeries at Taxila hospital. [4] The reader can listen to Dr. Christy’s remarkable story here.

[1] Robert D. Kaplan, The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite (New York: Free Press, 1993).




Presbyterian Mission History. This is Blog #4 in a series 12:

  1. What Francis Makemie Envisioned : Beneficial Relationships between Presbyterian Churches and Mission Agencies
  2. What Early Presbyterian Churches Enjoyed: Denominational Support for Voluntary Societies
  3. How the General Assembly of 1837 Expelled 60,000 church members on account of their partnership with mission agencies.
  4. The General Assembly Establishes the Board of Foreign Missions. An Extraordinary Mission Era Begins.
  5. Exemplary Presbyterian Missionaries of the 19th Century
  6. Exemplary Presbyterian Missionaries of the 20th Century
  7. Ninety-Five Notable Presbyterian Missionaries in Gerald Anderson’s Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions
  8. The Extraordinary Rise of Presbyterian Women’s Mission Societies following the Civil War
  9. What the General Assembly of 1902 Endorsed: Recognition and Regulation of “Special Interest Organizations.”
  10. Time to say Good-bye, Perhaps. How Everything Seems to be Ending.
  11. This is not the End. The Holy Spirit Enables New Mission Initiatives.
  12. Presbyterian Mission History: A Bibliography.