Sarah and Her Sisters: American Missionary Pioneers in Arab Female Education

This book is about Sarah Huntington Smith (1802-1836) and other missionary women—Sarah’ sisters—who opened the first schools for girls in Lebanon (Syria). These women and their husbands were New England Congregationalists adhering to the Reformed doctrines of John Calvin.[1] Sarah Huntington married Eli Smith when she was 33. That same year she and her husband sailed for the city of Beirut, a town of no more than 8000 inhabitants. (Beirut’s population increased to 15,000 by 1841. Urban improvements under Ibrahim Pasha include the enlargement and cleaning of the Beirut port, the establishment of a quarantine area to the East of the port (what is known until today as the Karantina area), the extension of a viaduct from Nahr al Kalb (Dog River), North of Beirut, and the attraction of trade and consular representation to the city.)[2]

Sarah Huntington Smith was the founder of the Beirut Female School, known today as the Lebanese American University. Sarah lived in Lebanon only five years before dying of tuberculosis (“consumption,” it was called then. Many of the women missionaries featured in this book succumbed to tuberculosis, cholera, strep and measles, diseases which are treated with antibiotics today.) Other missionary women followed Sarah, establishing schools for Arab girls of every religion and teaching them to read and write and cipher and to think for themselves. The graduates of these schools grew up to be the first generation of women anywhere in the Ottoman Empire to teach in the universities and enable thousands of Arab women to think for themselves.

In 1823, Pliny Fisk, the first Protestant missionary to reside in Lebanon, had written, “If a missionary were disposed to open a school, there are probably few places in Syria that would be more promising than Beyroot (sic) itself.”[3] Fisk would not live to see the day when, in 1834, Sarah Huntington Smith would establish the first such school. When the first missionary women arrived, Arab women came in great numbers to look at them and to hear them.

One unusual trait they observed was how the American men treated their wives, serving them first at the table and assisting them with every little thing. Conversely, the missionaries were shocked by how Syrian men of all sects appeared to treat their wives. “The women are treated as slaves,” wrote Abigail Goodell. “When they go out they wrap themselves in a large white sheet and neither walk or eat with their husbands. To ask a man about his wife’s health is an almost unpardonable offense.[4]

Abigail Goodell and Ann Bird opened a school for Arab boys. “They faced fierce opposition from the local clerics—Greek and Maronite especially—who saw Protestant attempts at schooling as a threat to their authority. They warned their people not to ‘drink or disseminate the poisonous Protestant doctrine.’ Nevertheless, within a year 50 children were attending the missionary school.[5] More schools were established by the Lancaster method, by which teachers supervised older students to tutor younger students. Soon 300 children were enrolled in thirteen schools. To the delight of the missionaries, more than one hundred of the students were girls. Enter Sarah Huntington Smith of Norwich, Connecticut.

Before Sarah sailed for Syria she was a missionary to the Mohegan Indians in her home state of Connecticut. (The Mohicans are a different tribe, farther north). Only a hundred Mohegans still survived when she began her mission in their homes, which is to say in their huts. Sarah would move from home to home asking if she could teach the children. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 had the disastrous effect of removing all Native Americans from the East Coast to regions west of the Mississippi. But an exception would be made if the Native Americans were educated and civilized, or made a start in that direction. If Sarah failed in her mission to educate the children, the tribe would be removed to the west. The Mohegans are on their own land until today, made wealthy in recent years by the casino on their land. They credit Sarah Huntington for saving their culture and their homeland.[6]

Sarah’s childhood and adolescence coincided with the Second Great Awakening, which was sweeping the newly formed United States in the early 1800s. Revival meetings occurred throughout New England. Congregations were growing and new churches were being established. The Awakening stimulated the beginning of home and foreign mission enterprises. By a providence of God, William Carey’s easy-to-assemble instructions had recently brought within reach of common men and women the power to establish mission societies. Sarah’s father, Jabez Huntington, was a founding member of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission.

Eli Smith was 33 and home on his first furlough from the Near East when he met Sarah Huntington. He wrote to her, asking for her hand in marriage and she agreed. They were married in her home church, Second Congregational Church of Norwich, CT.

Their sailing ship took 54 days to complete the trip to Beirut. Sarah set up house and struggled greatly to learn Arabic. She was a vegetarian, having come to believe in the method of staying healthy taught by Reverend Sylvester Graham. For three years she and Eli and the other missionaries would endure dangers from invading armies—Greek, Egyptian, and Turkish—as the Ottoman government began to lose its grip on Syria. There were also martyrs, as in July 1834 when her friend Eliza Thomson died in a peasants’ revolt in Jerusalem. Despite the uncalming times in which she lived, Sarah began to see the possibility of opening a school for Arab girls. A missionary donated $200 for the building, and this enabled Sarah to set in motion a series of educational advancements that would change the world for hundreds, then thousands, of Arab women. A stone tablet in front of the National Evangelical Church in downtown Beirut commemorates “the first edifice built in the Turkish Empire for a girls’ school, erected in 1835 for Mrs. Sarah L. Smith, its first teacher.”[7]

But after only one year in her role as school director Sarah’s strength was ebbing. No remedy could be found. Eli took her with him on a sailing ship to Smyrna, where he, as the master printer for the mission printing press, was taking a set of Arabic letters to be set in iron and sent to Germany for casting. Their ship foundered on a shoal. All passengers and crew—a total of 18—were lowered onto a boat and coaxed to a sandy finger of land miles from the shore. They were marooned. “Tragically, all of Eli’s valuable books, manuscripts, Arabic fonts, a rare history of Syria, invaluable travel journals and sermons were lost, as were Sarah’s detailed journals and letters, a sum of money and their medicine chest.”[8]

A rescue of a sort was made possible by a crew that extorted the rest of their money. But Sarah’s condition worsened, and on September 21, 1836, the third anniversary of her departure from Boston, Eli wrote that Sarah breathed her last “and her soul took its final departure to be forever with the Lord.”[9]

Brave missionary women followed Sarah Smith’s pioneering educational work among Arab girls in Syria. Rebecca Williams Hebard operated the Beirut Female School for four years (1836-1840), and she was followed by Betsey Tilden (1840-1843), and so on. Other schools opened, as we have seen, in Mount Lebanon, Aleppo and Abeih. The first boarding school for girls opened in 1835. The record indicates that several missionary women contracted diseases which brought their early deaths. Warring local factions, even Christians taking up arms against Druze or other Christians, sometimes necessitated the closing of the schools. It is a tribute to the stubborn sense of God’s calling that the missionaries overcame the many perils and setbacks they were forced to endure.

[1] Robert Stoddard, Sarah and Her Sisters: American Missionary Pioneers in Arab Female Education, 1834-1937 (Beirut, Lebanon: Hachette Antoine, 2020). Preface

[2] Samir Khalaf and Philip S. Khoury, Recovering Beirut : Urban Design and Post-War Reconstruction, Social, Economic, and Political Studies of the Middle East (Leiden ; New York: Brill, 1993). Appendix

[3] Stoddard, Sarah and Her Sisters: American Missionary Pioneers in Arab Female Education, 1834-1937. 13

[4] Ibid. 16

[5] Ibid. 17

[6] Ibid. 29

[7] Ibid. 44

[8] Ibid. 66-67

[9] Ibid. 71