The Baskerville Newsletter
March/April 2021 Vol I, No. 4
A Publication of the Baskerville Institute
AMERICAN PRESBYTERIANS IN IRAN
emeritus professor of modern history, Boise State University
In October 1997, I flew from Mashhad to Shiraz. My hotels in both cities greeted guests with enormous banners proclaiming, “DOWN WITH USA.” At Mashhad airport, however, a mullah asked me where I was from. When I replied “America,” he threw his arms around me, declaring, “Tell the American people, the Iranian people love them!” How to explain this contradiction?
Before the Second World War, as the State Department wrote in 1934, American interests in Iran centered largely around the activities of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. The original mission to the Assyrian Church of the East was sent by the Boston-based, Congregational American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which established a station at Urmia, western Azerbaijan, in 1834. In 1871 the American Board transferred responsibility for the mission to the New York-based Presbyterian Board, which immediately began to expand throughout northern Iran, establishing stations at Tehran, Tabriz, Hamadan, Rasht, Qazvin), Kermanshah, and Mashhad by 1911.
The original intention of the mission was to revitalize the “decadent” Assyrian Church, to restore its ancient role as a missionary force for Christ. In practice, however, the American missionaries did two quite different things. First, they sought to convert Iranian Christians to American Protestant Christianity. Unsurprisingly, this effort was resisted by the Assyrian “Old Church,” which also was wooed by a Paris-based Roman Catholic “Lazarist” mission, by the London-based Archbishop of Canterbury’s mission, and by the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church. Americans and Lazarists succeeded in establishing small, schismatic Protestant and Catholic churches. The English mission at Urmia refused to establish a separate Church and withdrew from the field in 1914, more or less at the same time that the Assyrian Old Church decided to enter communion with Moscow.
Although the original brief of the mission did not include seeking Muslim converts, that certainly was the hope both of those who funded the mission and of missionaries on the field. But they had to tread carefully, because missionary presence was at the sufferance of the Iranian government which forbade proselytization of Muslims. Most converts to “the American Church” came from Iranian Christian communities, Assyrian and Armenian, and from Judaism.
The secular work of the American mission, however, had a much more enduring impact than proselytization. From the beginning of the mission’s existence, American missionaries sought to bring Iranians the blessings of literacy, science, and modern medicine. Although they phrased this work as “bait for the gospel hook,” to me it seems clear they believed it essential for their religious purpose to enable Iranians to read the Bible and other religious literature. Schools – for girls as well as boys – were fundamental to their work, teaching an American based curriculum which, in the twentieth century Yahya Armajani, himself a mission schools alumnus, was to call “a panacea for the ills of the country.”
As part of this work, missionaries also established the first Iranian press to print from moveable type. Thus, they were present at the start of Iran’s “Gutenberg revolution.” In Europe this revolution marked the dawn of “modern times,” as growing literacy stimulated demand for reading material and inexpensive literature, printed from moving type, stimulated demand for education. This self-perpetuating dynamic caused religious and political ferment, in Iran in the twentieth century as it had in Europe four hundred years earlier.
Presbyterians also established hospitals in their stations. Medical missionaries tended to the ill, alleviating suffering with the tools of modern science, and they trained nurses and medical assistants on the field. In times of famine and epidemic disease especially, they undertook “relief” work, seeking to feed the hungry, to tend the ill, and to ward off disease by instituting science-based sanitary measures.
Despite the tendency of all Iranian religious communities – Christians and Jews as well as Muslims – to regard them as unwelcome rivals, the American Presbyterians were admired for their secular work. In particular, they were viewed favorably because, unlike their Russian, English, and French competitors, they had no obvious connection to state-sponsored political interests. Before 1953, Iranians did not see the USA as an imperialist power. Indeed, because of the rhetoric of American history and politics, America before the anti-Mossadegh coup seemed an anti-imperialist power in Iran, opposing both Russian and British imperialism and seeking to rebuild international order on cooperation rather than on compulsion and war.
In creating this positive vision of America among Iranians, three Americans stand out: Howard Baskerville, Morgan Shuster, and Samuel Jordan. Baskerville was a short-term teacher in the Tabriz mission’s school for boys during the Constitutional Revolution. In Spring 1909 he resigned from the mission and surrendered his US passport in order to join the fight against the Russian-backed forces of Mohammad Ali Shah who sought to crush the new Iranian parliamentary government. He died in the struggle, “an American martyr for Iranian freedom.” (Next month, in the Institute’s series of conversations, Bahman Baktiari will discuss Baskerville and the events leading up to his death.)
In 1911 the new Iranian Parliament hired Morgan Shuster as its Treasurer-General, tasked to try to bring order to the chaos of Iranian government finances. His brief time in Iran both won him many friends among Constitutionalists and enmity from anti-Constitutionalists, whose interests he sought to crush. Shuster’s efforts were sharply resisted by Russia and Britain, their new alliance against Germany cemented by partitioning Iran into “spheres of influence.” At their insistence, in December 1911 Shuster was sent back to America where he published descriptions of their Strangling of Persia. (Last month Kelly Shannon presented a brilliant description of Shuster’s time in Iran to the Baskerville Institute’s webinar.)
Unlike the brief interventions by Baskerville and Shuster, Samuel Jordan spent his entire career in Tehran from 1898 until his retirement in 1940. He transformed the small elementary school for boys established in1872 into a high school, then into the American College of Tehran (later Alborz College of Tehran), accredited by the New York State Regents to issue baccalaureate degrees. Alborz educated a significant number of Iran’s westernizing twentieth century elite, even as it preached “democracy” and the dignity of physical labor. Shortly after Jordan died, in the summer of 1952 – in the midst of Dr. Mossadegh’s premiership and the oil nationalization crisis which preceded the 1953 coup – nearly a thousand Alborz alumni led by Ali Asgar Hekmat, Allahyar and Jehanshah Saleh, and Abol Ghassan Bakhtiyar paid tribute to him. Nationalized in 1940, the institution continues today as a premier Iranian secondary school. In the 1950s a new avenue in northern Tehran was named for Jordan. Although the Islamic Republic changed its name to “Africa,” in popular speech the street and its district are still known as “Jordan.” To my mind, this reinforces the oft noticed conundrum that although “America” is worthy of “death,” Iranians “love the American people.”
Forthcoming Baskerville Institute Lectures:
- Professor Michael Zirinsky, March 22, 2021, 12:00 pm ( US MT) 2:00 pm (EST) ( attached)
- Reza Aslan, April 23, 2021, 12:00 pm ( US MT) 2:00 pm (EST).
Baskerville Lecture & Conversation Series
The Baskerville Conversation Series with Professor David Menashri: Iran & Israel: From Close Friendship to Bitter Enmity,” February 1st, 2021, 12:00 pm ( US MT), 2:00 pm EST. 9:00 pm Tel Aviv time.