The Americans of Urumia

The author honors the memory of American missionaries who arrived in the Lake Urumia region of northern Persia in the 1830s. They opened the first schools for girls in the country. They trained the first doctors. They printed the first books and hymns. They buried their children in the cemetery located in nearby Mt. Seir. Some missionary children who lived to adulthood studied at the university in America, then came back to Urumia as missionaries themselves. Look up “Still We Will Go On” in the dictionary and you will probably find their names. During the hundred-year period covered in this book, America was trusted by Persians far more than any European nation.

The author, Hooman Estelami, a professor at Fordham University, gives special attention to four notable missionaries: Justin Perkins, Asahel Grant, Joseph Cochran, and William Ambrose Shedd. Perkins arrived in 1834, and a year later was joined by Asahel Grant. Joseph Cochran and William A. Shedd were born in Persia and spoke Assyrian and Persian fluently.

Urumia in the 1830s was a city of 25,000. Only 600 of them were Assyrian Christians. But thousands more Assyrians lived in hundreds of Christian villages in the surrounding area. The missionaries visited every village. Establishing schools was their first priority. By 1836 the Urumia School for Boys opened and by 1838 a boarding school for girls had begun. In 1839 the first printing press in Persia began operation in Urumia. “Printing helped increase the level of literacy among the Nestorians on a scale unimaginable through any other means.” In 1880 the first Westminster Hospital of Urumia, modeled after American hospital systems, was built and became the very first medical college in all of Persia.[1]

The missionaries were sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). This was at first a cooperative effort by Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Dutch Reformed denominations in the US. (The Dutch Reformed discontinued its association with the ABCFM in 1857, since the Reformed church believed it could independently train missionaries and raise needed funds on its own.)[2]

Hooman Estelami, the author errs when he writes that the Assyrian Christians were the descendants of the Assyrian Empire. From my book:

The Nestorians who submitted to the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century were given the name Chaldeans. There is no historical connection to the ancient Chaldeans. Protestants arrived two centuries later and fabricated a name for the Nestorians who had not become Catholics. That name was Assyrians. Contrary to a widely held assumption, the Assyrians and Chaldeans of today are not the descendants of these ancient peoples. All suggestions that the modern-day Chaldeans and Assyrians are related to the ancient Chaldeans and Assyrians (evidence supposedly based on physical resemblance and language) have been disproved.[3]

A long time ago, before the Roman Emperor became Christian, the Persians were receptive of the missionary message. When Christianity became a Roman religion, Persian authorities became concerned that Persia’s Christians may feel greater loyalty toward Rome. This resulted in the persecution of Persian Christians, and in some cases the disbanding of Christian congregations. The peak of these persecutions took place under the rule of the Persian King Shapor II around 350 AD. Persia’s Christians had to take refuge in the mountainous regions of Kurdistan.[4]

Nestorius. In 428 AD Nestorius, a Greek-born graduate of the Theological School of Antioch, became the bishop of the Roman Church in Constantinople. Nestorius opposed the teachings of Cyril, bishop of Alexandria. The discord grew so great that the emperor called a church council to meet at Chalcedon. There, in 431, Nestorius was deposed and exiled to Egypt, where he died. Nestorius said, “I cannot speak of a God being two or three months old. . . . If the Godhead of the Son had its origin in the womb of the Virgin, then it was not a godhead like that of the Father, and He who was born could not be homoousios with the Father, which was just what the Arians denied Him to be.” (Arians said that if God was born, then there was a time when He did not exist.)[5] Nestorius said that he would be glad to be anathematize a thousand time if it would bring great numbers of people to salvation through Jesus Christ. In time, the

Church of the East came to be called “Nestorian,” though never by its own adherents.

The ABCFM. Its founders were inspired by the Second Great Awakening. All of the mission funds were received through private donations, and no funding from the American government was provided to support it.[6]

The Great Experiment: The missionaries were instructed to not attempt to create an independent church, but to help the Nestorians achieve religious revival. The ABCFM believed that the strategic location of the Assyrians villages surrounded by Muslims could possibly become a force in advancing Christianity in the region.[7] Other missionaries arrived from France, Britain, Germany and Russia. “There was perhaps no missionary field in the world where so many rival Christian forces were at work as in Urmiyah at the beginning of the 20th century.”[8]

It is hard to read of the deaths of missionary children. Justin and Charlotte Perkins would lose six children due to a range of diseases. In the missionary cemetery in Seir, where the missionaries spent the summers at a higher elevation, there are 59 gravestones; 41 belong to missionaries’ children, and most died before the age of three.[9]

The Lancaster system of learning. Missionaries adopted an interesting educational system that allowed the number of students to increase fairly rapidly. The older and more senior students were first taught in a classroom by a master instructor. The younger or junior students were assembled into small learning groups, each led by one or more of the senior students who had been taught directly by the master instructor. The system enabled the more senior students to become instructors for students that were junior to them. This system allowed for the rapid expansion of the number of educated students. New schools could be established with newly minted master instructors in a relatively short period of time. The number of schools grew to exceed 60 in nearly 60 villages in the following years.[10] The Mission eventually supported nearly one hundred schools throughout the Urumia region and provided healthcare services to those of all faiths.

Massacres. A century or more of peaceful relationships between Nestorians and Muslims in Kurdistan of Turkey came to an end in the 1840s. Thousands of Nestorians perished in 1842, 1843 and 1846. In Persia the Assyrians grew dissatisfied with the superstition of their own religion and asked for the missionaries to form them into a new church. Despite the instructions given to the missionaries when they set out, this separation eventually happened.

Asahel Grant. Grant’s story is told in my book and comprehensively in Fever and Thirst. Grant lost his wife and two daughters to disease. He sent his two sons back to New England to be raised by friends. He wrongly believed that the Yezidis were “The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.” He built a school in the mountain city of Ashitha, where there was an abundance of water. Unfortunately, a rumor took hold that it was a fort for English soldiers—why else would you need windows on every side?

Cochran’s wife wrote: “Last week there was a dreadful murder of an Armenian Christian. Until today all the Armenians have closed their shops from fear, and the city is in rather a disturbed state.” She described how quickly some in Urumia had turned against her husband on account of his faith.[12] There was widespread misinformation that by joining the Russian Orthodox Church, local Christians would enjoy greater levels of protection from Russia.

All, all was lost in the First World War. How can one speak of the unspeakable? In the early 1920s the Persian government ordered the Americans to leave Urumia. The thousands of trees planted by the missionaries were uprooted; the roofs caved in, the printing press was made inoperable. The cemeteries and the ruins of the hospital and schools give silent witness to the cost born by many to go and live in the regions beyond.

Blincoe, Robert. Ethnic Realities and the Church: Lessons from Kurdistan, a History of Mission Work, 1668-1990. Pasadena, CA: Presbyterian Center for Mission Studies, 1998.

Estelami, Hooman. The Americans of Urumia. Bahar Books, 2021.

[1] Hooman Estelami, The Americans of Urumia (Bahar Books, 2021). 8-9
[2] Ibid. 11. See Herman Harmenlink’s research: “The Ecumenical Relations of the Reformed Church of America,” Journal of Presbyterian History, 1967, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 71-94.)
[3] Robert Blincoe, Ethnic Realities and the Church: Lessons from Kurdistan, a History of Mission Work, 1668-1990 (Pasadena, CA: Presbyterian Center for Mission Studies, 1998). 236
[4] Estelami, The Americans of Urumia. 23-24
[5] Ibid. 26
[6] Ibid. 44
[7] Ibid. 48
[8] Ibid. 58
[9] Ibid. 71
[10] Ibid. 75
[11] Ibid. 177
[12] Ibid. 232-233