Anthony Norris Groves, first Protestant missionary to Baghdad

Few missionaries have suffered such difficulties as the Anthony Groves family endured when they left England and moved to Baghdad in 1829. No difficulty was more daunting than learning the Arabic language. Groves began to pray that God might miraculously enable him to speak the Arabic language, as the apostles did on the day of Pentecost:

And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:9-11)

Anthony Norris Groves was an English dentist who became a deeply committed Christian when he began studying the Bible in the company of John Darby and the other founders of the Plymouth Brethren movement. Groves sold his dental practice and made plans to travel overland to Baghdad through Russia. We reviewed Groves’ biography, Anthony Norris Groves, Father of the Faith Mission, here. Below we concentrate on Groves’ difficulty learning the Arabic language. He wishes for, and earnestly prays, that God might give him the gift of being understood by his hearers, the way the apostles were understood on the day of Pentecost. His biographer, Robert Bernard Dann, is able to refer to Groves’ journals in giving us insight into Groves’ longing and praying for the gift of tongues.

Reaching Baghdad in December 1829, bewildered by the sounds of conversations in Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Turkish Kurdish, Syriac and Hebrew, Anthony Norris Groves envied the apostles effortlessly addressing a cosmopolitan crowd in which “each one heard them speaking in his own language.” He admitted, “I feel the languages to be a great barrier. Whether the Lord will pour down this among the other gifts in the latter days I do not know, but at present it is a great exercise of the missionary’s patience.” But if there is any gift that my soul longs for,” he said, “it is to be able to speak to everyone in his own tongue, wherein he was born, the wonderful works of God.” Long hours spent in hard study of vocabulary and grammar appeared to bring but small progress. “The Lord doubtless sees in this reasons of immense weight, or he would again bestow upon us the gifts of the Spirit as before.”[1]

Language barriers and all the sufferings endured by Groves and his fellow missionaries in Baghdad were endured to prove that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Seasick on ocean voyages, walking beside pack animals over trackless wilderness even before arriving in Baghdad, unable to help when cholera swept through that city and bodies were left for days on the streets. He wrote, “In this world’s history, great things are not accomplished but by great sacrifices.”[2] But who could know, beforehand, the immense hardships that he and his family would face: learning the Arabic language, discovering the ancient feuds that hardened the Baghdad population against one another, wanting to open a school where the light of logic and problem solving might begin. Or this:

The continuous battle against vermin, the unpleasant smells, the flies and mosquitoes, the physical weariness brought on by stomach troubles, the unremitting heat of summer, the constant street noise, the Call to Prayer waking the whole family every night, the fretfulness of children cramped within the confines of a small house shared by colleagues. A seasonal infestation of fleas tormented the whole family for about six weeks in early summer. By mid-August temperatures reached 118 F. in the shade and 158 in the sun.[3]

When John Parnell and other missionaries eventually reached Groves in Baghdad, they felt overwhelmed by the strangeness of the Arabic language. They decided the time had come for all of them to pray in earnest for the restoration of those miraculous gifts which had characterized the earliest days of the church and which, Parnell believed, had been withheld on account of unbelief and worldliness. Without the manifest power of the Spirit there seemed little likelihood that preaching and distributing literature would achieve very much in a place such as Baghdad. Feeding the poor, healing the sick, opening schools: it all seemed “utterly ineffectual in breaking down of the barriers that Mohammedanism raised to the spread of the gospel.” Groves wrote in his journal, “Surely we might expect signs and wonders at their hands, as the hands of the apostles.”[4]

Four years later Norris Groves was in India, facing a fresh assortment of languages, and he was moved again to enquire wistfully, “Do you think that the full measure of the outpouring of the Spirit promised in Joel will be sent down to prepare the harvest of the Lord before the sounding of the seventh trumpet?”[5]

John Parnell joined Groves in Madras. They heard that in far-away Britain a charismatic movement was evidently afoot, blessed by the supernatural gifts of the Spirit, that might at last equip the church for the missionary task. Parnell resolved to find out more. Reaching London in 1837, he enquired about recent developments. [But] closer examination led the majority of Parnell’s friends to conclude that the manifestations—the tongues, the prophesyings, the healings—were for the most part spurious. And the tongues were evidently of no missionary value, as no foreigner could actually understand them.[6] Nothing of the Pentecostal miracle came upon Groves or his family or missionary colleagues. They did their best to learn the languages of Baghdad and Madras by employing teachers and making themselves practice, that they might preach the word and make Christ known.

[1] Robert Bernard Dann, Father of Faith Missions–the Life and Times of Anthony Norris Groves (USA: Authentic Media, 2004). 282

[2] Ibid. 124

[3] Ibid. 134

[4] Ibid. 283

[5] Ibid. 283

[6] Ibid. 284