I Am a Pilgrim, a Traveler, a Stranger: Exploring the Life and Mind of the First American Missionary to the Middle East, the Rev. Pliny Fisk (1792–1825), by the Rev. Dr. John Hubers, introduces us to a man whose pioneering ministry in the Ottoman Empire has gone largely unnoticed since his memoir was penned in 1828 by a seminary classmate in 1828, just three years after Fisk’s untimely death in Beirut.
His name was Pliny Fisk and he belonged to a cadre of young New England seminary students whose evangelical Calvinism led them to believe that God was opening up a new chapter in the life of the Church which included an aggressive evangelism outside the borders of Christendom. Fisk and his friend, Levi Parsons, joined that effort in 1819 when they became the first American missionaries sent to the Ottoman Empire.
What makes Fisk’s a particularly interesting story is that he and Parsons were not only the first American missionaries to make this journey, they were among the first Americans to take up residency in the Muslim majority world. This is what drew John Hubers’ interest in writing this account, particularly given his own long involvement with Christian ministry in the Muslim world. “It’s a story that needs to be told,” says Hubers, “as it not only gives the foundational narrative of Christian missions in the Muslim world, it also reveals how far we’ve moved beyond the Orientalist memes that informed that early mission.”
Hubers’ primary purpose in telling this story is to examine the Orientalist memes that shaped Fisk’s mindset and ministry, asking whether or not his encounter with the Ottoman religious other pushed him to modify his stereo-typified categorizations. But he is also interested in the man himself; attempting to re-capture a voice and view that has otherwise been lost to us.
This is the story of Pliny Fisk, America’s first missionary to the Muslim world.
The following is an interview with the author, the Rev. Dr. John Hubers, Professor of Missiology and Director of Global Education at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. Previously he served as the Supervisor of the Reformed Church in America’s Mission Program in the Middle East and South Asia.
What drew your interest to this project, Dr. Hubers?
My wife and I spent thirteen years serving with the Reformed Church in America’s global mission program in the Arabian Gulf and Egypt. This, combined with my interest in the history of Christian-Muslim relations fed a fascination with the way perceptual conceptualizations of the religious other are transformed through dialogical encounters. To put this more simply, I have a particular interest in the way our perceptions of people of different religious persuasions are impacted when what we imagine about them is challenged by actual encounters.
Why Pliny Fisk?
I had done a similar research project on Samuel Zwemer who was the pioneering missionary to Arabia from my own denomination, the Reformed Church in America, and initially considered expanding on this for my dissertation. But what fascinated me about Fisk is the great contrast between his theoretical conceptualization of Middle Eastern peoples with what he discovered, or should have discovered, when he came to live among them. Zwemer had a lot of eye witness material to draw on when he was preparing for his mission. Fisk had very little. His conceptualization of Middle Eastern peoples was almost purely theoretical before he went to the field. Here, you might say, was the best test case for determining how a life encounter with the religious other transforms theoretical conceptualizations.
Was there anything that surprised you in doing the research?
Yes, although if I reveal what surprised me most I’ll give away the ending to the book! I don’t want to spoil it for those who would like to read it.
Well, let me put it another way: what did you discover about Pliny Fisk that you found most interesting?
Without giving away too much I would say that what fascinated me most was the complexity of his character. What the reader will discover in Fisk’s story is a man who was both deeply embedded in the rationalist discourse of the Enlightenment Era and fully committed to a biblically grounded evangelical narrative, the classic clash between rationalism and spirituality; religion and science. This was not unusual for evangelical Calvinists of his era, but because of a strong analytical bent what it meant for Fisk was an internal conflict that was never fully resolved.
Do you see anything in Fisk’s story that might help Christians develop more positive interfaith relations at a time when such relations are so critical to society in general?
I would say absolutely. What we see in Fisk and his compatriots is an attitude that lingers in the Christian community today, an attitude that seeks simplistic characterizations of the religious other as a way of bolstering communal identity. The Orientalism this represents has not disappeared under the influence of Edward Said’s strong critique of such characterizations. If anything, post 9/11, it has gotten more pervasive. What we are seeing particularly in conservative evangelical circles today is a revival of some of the worse kind of mischaracterizations of the Middle Eastern other, particularly the Muslim other, even to the point of resurrecting medieval stereotypes. The recent conflict raised by a Wheaton college professor’s public embrace of a common Muslim-Christian monotheism simply underscores why it’s so critically important to examine the historical record of Christian-Muslim relations. While Fisk’s story may seem antiquated, there may be things here that can help inform the current debates.
You mention the controversy at Wheaton over the claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I’m curious what you found in Fisk’s story that might speak to this issue.
What’s most interesting here is something I don’t necessarily highlight in my book, but which is there for anyone to see. This is the fact that these 19th century evangelical missionaries who were otherwise strongly derogatory in their assessment of Islam and Judaism, assumed as a matter of course that Muslims, Christians and Jews worship the same God. There is no hesitancy here. It isn’t even a matter of debate, but rather an assumption that was apparently so widespread that even the general public accepted it. The contrast between this and the current at times antagonistic debate about this belief provides at the very least an interesting contrast.
What is your greatest hope in terms of what you want readers to take away from this book?
What I hope is that they might see something in Fisk’s story that will help them sort out for themselves the best way to approach the sometimes prickly relationships between Christians and Muslims. I want them to find echoes of their own struggles in Fisk’s struggles to make sense of these relationships not in order to duplicate his own thought processes, but rather to ask: “was he right or wrong to take this approach? If right, how can it inform my own approach? If wrong, how can I avoid falling into the same trap?”
As a historian of Christian missions this is always my hope – that we can draw life lessons from the stories of those who have gone before us.
Read an excerpt from I Am a Pilgrim, a Traveler, a Stranger: Exploring the Life and Mind of the First American Missionary to the Middle East, the Rev. Pliny Fisk (1792–1825), by the Rev. Dr. John Hubers, here:
Cultural historian Hilton Obenzinger believes that the text-based approach to mission taken by Fisk and Parsons had a powerfully transformative effect on Ottoman society over time even though the transformation effected was not one they either sought or anticipated.
The missionaries’ task was “the universal diffusion of the word of life.” (Parsons, 20), and they sold or gave away thousands of Bibles and tracts in Arabic, Greek, Turkish, Hebrew, and other languages to pilgrims, merchants, and clerics who had never before seen any book treated as a commodity or given away free as propaganda, much less religious texts in the vernacular. The two missionaries set out for spiritual combat against entire civilizations in a complex textual and linguistic field completely unfamiliar to them: in the Ottoman Empire, religious affiliation was entirely communal and firmly bound by authoritative — and authoritarian — clerical interpretation of sacred text, whether Koran, Torah, or Bible. The strange disbursements of the Protestant “Biblemen” along with their ambitions for religious and social mobility, individual conversion and direct communication with the deity, for example — threatened more than religious sensibilities. These missionaries were diffusing market relations, introducing both the machinery and the mentality of print-capitalism, a decisive component in the development of nationalist consciousness. The seed planted by Parsons and Fisk played a significant role in generating, particularly among the Christian minority in Lebanon, a nascent Arab nationalism. (Obenzinger, 245)
Obenzinger’s thesis underscores a gap that existed between what Fisk and Parsons intended to achieve and what they actually achieved, which, as noted in the introduction, is also the underlying premise of the work of Ussama Makdisi and Samir Khalaf. Khalaf is unequivocal about this.
The establishment of the “Syrian Mission” and all the compelling socio-cultural transformations it initiated and sustained were consequences of fortuitous and unintended consequences. . . .The ardent emissaries carried over with them a set of basic premises, values, and expectations which served to sustain their evangelistic precepts. Yet, in virtually all respects, what they ended up doing was antithetical to their original and avowed intentions. (Khalaf, xv)
Fisk, of course, could not have understood nor appreciated these long term “unintended” consequences, but he did understand that there was a gap that existed between the transmission and reception of the message he wished to convey. And the fault, as he saw it, was almost entirely the inability or unwillingness of his hearers to grasp the simple unadorned Truth of the Gospel.
This is apparent already in one of the first conversations Fisk recorded in Smyrna. This was a conversation with a young Greek Christian named John Issaverdous. Issaverdous apparently enjoyed Fisk’s company. He frequently visited and appeared to become as close as anyone to becoming a genuine friend to Fisk.
On this occasion Fisk and Issaverdous read scripture together. Their texts were John 1 and Matthew 24 which led Fisk to offer what he considered to be a perfectly reasonable explanation about how God could be human and divine, seen and unseen. But Issaverdous didn’t get it.
He stated the difficulty in the declaration no man hath seen God & the account given of Moses in the Mount. — I find no difficulty in my own mind, yet I find it extremely difficult to make it plain. (Fisk Diary, vol. 1, entry for February 11, 1820)
In this case Fisk’s response could be read as a critique of his own inability to communicate as well as he would have liked in Italian. But on other occasions Fisk would express a similar frustration over what he perceived to be the inability of his conversation partners to grasp a truth to which any reasonable person would readily assent.
“It became rare in today’s scholarship to find a serious scholarly study on the missionary work in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the Arab Near East, though such literature is still strongly needed to develop a comprehensive understanding of missionary thought of that significant era. In this longed for volume, John Hubers offers us an admirable analysis of such missionary work in the Arab World. He eruditely takes missiological studies an original step forward by tackling the yet understudied question of how the interaction with the non-Christian imaginations of the indigenous Oriental groups challenged, impacted, and even transformed not just these missionaries’ understanding of these imaginations, but, more intriguingly, their very own Christian faith alike. The result is an ably and lucidly developed thesis, and an innovative, thought-provoking, and excellent volume that must be in the library of every teacher, student, and lay reader interested in this subject.”
—Najib George Awad (Dr. Phil; Dr. Theol. Habil.), Hartford Seminary, CT
“Drawing upon deep archival research and newly available sources, John Hubers’ I Am a Pilgrim, a Traveler, a Stranger delivers a much-needed, fresh analysis of the life and ministry of Pliny Fisk, the first Protestant American missionary to the Middle East.”
—Thomas S. Kidd, Distinguished Professor of History, Baylor University
“This book examines one of the first American Protestant missionary enterprises to the Middle East. For a world that is highly dependent on intercultural and interfaith relations, this publication provides important insights. For those interested in the encounter between the United States and the Middle East, this study on its pioneering stage is an essential read. The book provides a glimpse of hope that hearts can be changed and bridges of understanding built.”
—Mitri Raheb, President, Dar al-Kalima University College
“In this account of the brief missionary career of Pliny Fisk, Hubers has given us an intricate analysis of the ways in which an imagination schooled in the Bible, the Enlightenment, New England Protestantism, and the lives of missionary heroes could impose and maintain an objectifying and estranging distance even from the most hospitable ‘other.’ This book will be a fascinating case study (and warning) for anyone interested in the possibility of fruitful inter-religious encounter.”
—Mark N. Swanson, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
“The story of Pliny Fisk (1792-1825), ABCFM’s first missionary to the Middle East, is as salutary today as it was tragic then. Shaped by the Orientalism of the times, blinded by the presumptions of Western superiority, and constricted by the doctrinal straitjacket of his Calvinism, Fisk’s social isolation was guaranteed, and his failure as an emissary of the Gospel assured. A perpetual outsider, detached and critically aloof from the religious and cultural others among whom he lived out his missionary vocation, he is a pitiful figure. His story and its lessons bear hearing in our time of nationalistic hubris fueled and ignited by ignorance. For those who have ears to hear, eyes to see, and the humility to self-examine, there is much to ponder. Hubers is to be thanked for writing a story that is surprisingly contemporary in its lessons.”
—Jonathan J. Bonk, Director, Dictionary of African Christian Biography; Research Professor of Mission, Center for Global Christianity & Mission, Boston University School of Theology