Project Canterbury

Mary Bird in Persia

By Clara C. Rice

London: Church Missionary Society, 1916.

Chapter XII. The Present Opportunity in Persia

THIS book has been written and is concluded while the great European War is taking place, and a few words may be said regarding Persia's attitude towards that portentous series of events. Thoughtful men in Persia are puzzled by the present upheaval in the world, and many opinions are voiced. Some cannot understand how the conduct of Christian nations can be so different from the fundamental truths of their creed, and believe that the war may greatly help the spread of Islam. Others consider it as a judgment upon Russia for her (alleged) unprovoked desecration, by bombardment, of the shrine at Meshed, and are astonished that Great Britain should support, instead of oppose, Russia. This anti-Russian feeling naturally leads to pro-German, but not necessarily anti-British, sympathies. Many honour the stand taken by the British Empire in defending the weak and fulfilling treaty obligations. Others think the present melee is the outcome of Britain's refusal to help Turkey in Tripoli and the Balkan States. However, Germany has been unremitting in her efforts to stir up Persia against Russia and Britain; and for some time ill-feeling has been rapidly growing. But the inhabitants of Isfahan at least are now learning what they have long owed to the Allies, as Consuls, bankers, merchants, and missionaries have all temporarily withdrawn, as a protest against the weakness of the Persian Government. The consternation aroused by this step has been enormous. The doctors were implored to stay, but this would have greatly mitigated the punishment. Churches, schools, and hospitals are sealed up; but when the seals are broken Persia will realize, as never before, which Powers are her true friends, and so far as missionary work goes the opportunities will be marvellously enlarged.

Disregarding the special conditions brought about by the war, and also, with a passing mention, what may be called the past normal condition of Persian thought and attitude, it will be helpful to look at the new Persia, which has come into existence during the last few years, so that present needs and opportunities may be clearly grasped. During the past ten years a very great change has been evident. Persia's old civilization, her 2500 years of independence, her philosophy which has permeated Asia, causing her to be looked upon as "the mind of Islam," her poetry and art which have penetrated the West, her pride in her glorious past, these have indeed produced an intense self-satisfaction. For centuries Persia lacked public opinion, ideals, cooperation, trust, but was not conscious of the lack. This was her normal condition. Now, however, the situation is changed, while still clinging to her past greatness, she acknowledges her present weakness. There is a spirit of unrest and dissatisfaction abroad--she knows she is in difficulties, hence her self-satisfaction is lessening, she is awake and aspiring. This new condition creates a new attitude towards other nations, there is a spirit of friendliness, confidence, and open-mindedness, a thirst for knowledge of ways and means absolutely unknown in the Persia of the past.

To the writer's mind this new attitude produces specific needs which constitute an urgent plea for Missions in Persia. Some are outstanding, and must be noticed.

The need of knowledge is fundamental and may be taken first. Those who have read what has gone before of life and work among the Persians will realize the widespread ignorance which prevails. Persia is jealous of her nationality, yet she has gladly accepted, and is increasingly keen for knowledge, which she knows she must have and which only the West can give her, a knowledge of good government, of science, of medicine; and with this, education for her children.

The problem which presents itself to the Eastern mind to-day is largely intellectual; and while the Persian sees that little can be done for the present generation, he knows that for the rising one, education is a necessity. There is an intense desire on the part of the people to get themselves out of the backwater into which they have drifted. This applies equally to Parsis, Jews, and Moslems. The American Presbyterians have many excellent schools in the north and north-west of Persia, for both boys and girls. In Teheran they have more than 700 pupils in their schools, over 300 girls and 400 boys. The C.M.S. has a large and popular school for boys, which gives higher education in Isfahan. This, the Stuart Memorial College, was recently re-opened in a new and suitable building near the Musjid-i-Shah, which Persians consider the most sumptuous mosque in the Orient. The Society also has well-equipped schools for Moslem boys in Yezd and Kerman; and for Armenian boys and girls in Julfa, where many school teachers and hospital assistants are educated. In Shiraz, which has long enjoyed the reputation of being the literary capital, the Dar-ul-Ilm of Persia, the boys' school has been closed for want of an English head master.

Great keenness is manifested by the Persians in the education of girls. A few years ago they said, "Let our women learn to cook and sew, and we are satisfied." Now they urge the present necessity of schools for their girls, so that their grandchildren may not be possessors of their own heritage of gross ignorance. There is an absolute eagerness among the girls themselves for education, thus raising the marriage age, and helping the moral and physical well-being of the nation. Many schools have been opened by Persian women. This sign of awakening is in itself a challenge! In Isfahan the C.M.S. has a large school for Mohammedan girls, also one for Parsi girls in Yezd, and it is hoped that girls' high schools will shortly be opened on the other side of the city of Isfahan, and in Kerman and Yezd.

We cannot afford to despise or neglect education as a powerful missionary agency in a land like Persia. It results in a marvellous breaking down of prejudice and often definite soul winning. Boys and girls go out into life with high ideals, stronger characters, and broader minds, because of their contact with those who seek, however unworthily, to serve the Lord Christ.

Another great need of Persia to-day is the uplift of her womanhood. Woman's position will in the near future be a burning question in the East. The great national movements of to-day involve enormous changes for women, making the danger intense. With the change there may be great advance, but only if the women are ready for it. They must be taught, and helped to understand their place and power in God's world, and both men and women must be led to a just appreciation of their relative positions. There are evident signs that the women of Persia will demand emancipation before long. In recent years both in Teheran and Tabriz they have shown what they are capable of doing. Women of the higher classes in the principal cities are anxious for intercourse with Europeans, and warmly welcome women missionaries to their houses.

Another of the crying needs of Persia is for physical healing. The medical work is constantly growing and increasingly valued by the people. There are large and well-equipped hospitals in Isfahan and Yezd. In Kerman, new hospitals, very much needed, are in course of erection, but can only be completed as funds come in. A ward in the women's hospital here is being built to the memory of Mary Bird, all the beds in which, it is hoped, will be supported and some endowed by those who know what her life and work have meant to Persia and its women.

But Persia's religious needs are paramount. There are great movements going on in the Moslem world. Different schools of thought are closing up--there is much cohesion of movement, willing or unwilling, but very rapid, and apparently to prevent threatened disintegration. Persia, like all other Moslem lands, is seething with thought. There are many seekers after trvith. Some have given up the quest and become materialists; many are indifferent; others have accepted the teaching of Abdul Baha; while numbers have grasped the truths of the Gospel, yet from timidity, or from contentment with their intellectual conviction and secret belief, keep back from open confession of Christ.

There is, too, a new attitude in Persia towards Christianity. A great deal of indifference still exists, yet, compared with the past, the change is remarkable. In St. Luke's Church, Isfahan, which owes its erection in 1909 to the faith, courage, and energy of the late beloved Bishop Stuart, there is a regular Sunday service for Mohammedans. This church was built to seat 500 and at the time few thought it would ever be full. Eight or nine hundred men and women have often presented themselves for admission, while the ordinary weekly congregation numbers 250. To those who know Persia it is marvellous that without let or hindrance these hundreds come publicly to a Christian service. Many may come out of curiosity, but the fact remains that they do come, and listen reverently to the Gospel. It is certain that many of them are hungering and thirsting after righteousness, for Islam offers so little that really satisfies. Mohammedans are universally looking for the return of the one whom they call the twelfth Imam, and the traditions tell them that Jesus Christ will come with him. Hence they are very keen to hear about our Lord's return; the Book of Daniel specially interests them, and the portion of the Old Testament containing this book is largely bought at the Bible depots. Many are reading the Bible with an open mind.

A special evidence of freedom of thought and conscience is seen in the fact that men of education and independent position are asking earnestly to be taught of the things of Christ.

A native doctor, recently baptized, opens his dispensary to the missionary, and welcomes a Gospel address for his patients. In a room in the men's hospital, Isfahan, the hospital catechist, an educated man of good family, may be found day after day reading and talking to a small band of men, who drop in whenever they have time, sure of a welcome. In the hospitals and dispensaries there is great readiness to listen to the teaching, and far more freedom than there used to be. Many are only too glad to get an opportunity of learning about Christ, of Whom they may have heard from some former patient. Inquirers are constantly coming from the villages for instruction and not medicine.

In Kerman there is a remarkably liberal spirit, probably due in some degree to the religious differences among the Persians themselves, Shaikhis, Bala-Saris, Ezelis, and Bahais being numerous; partly also perhaps to the presence of adherents of other religions in their midst, Jews, Christians, Parsis, and Hindus. The intercourse of Kerman is chiefly with Teheran, the seat of government; hence the importance of influencing those who may be future leaders in the affairs of their country.

The native Church in Persia is now an established fact, but many are the questions concerning its membership and administration. Great stress is laid on the necessity in almost all cases of a full year's probation, with specified instruction, for each catechumen before baptism, also that if possible all should learn to read. Close co-operation in educational and literary work with other societies is also being aimed at. Women missionaries have been granted certain voting powers at the missionary conferences. This is a pressing question affecting the status of women in the native Church. The shepherding of the converts is of supreme importance. They are severely handicapped by their heredity and environment, which are unchanged, while a spiritual faith makes their outlook on time and eternity absolutely new. Each convert in his or her household and family circle stands for Christianity, and is a hinderer or a hastener of the Kingdom of God in the land. Many are real students of the Bible, of which a revision is considered needful. The language of the present version is too learned for the uneducated, and in any case the Bible which will be acceptable to the learned man will be difficult for the untaught woman to follow. "Daily Light" has recently been translated for the use of converts. In addition to the weekly services for Moslems, there are Sunday services for Christians, and Bible classes, which are well attended. Both religious and secular education are possible for the children of converts.

As elsewhere, the need of workers is intensified in this time of crisis of opportunity. The work is encouraging beyond belief, and the enormous widening of opportunity calls, and will call still louder, for a greater enlargement of the plan of campaign. The only limitation is caused by the inadequate supply of men and women to do the work. The Persians are as eager as ever for medical work, but education largely absorbs their thoughts. Missionaries are welcomed socially wherever they like to go, and the people come in ever-increasing numbers to hear "the old, old story of Jesus and His love." Help is largely given by the Armenians, much of their present attitude towards missionary work being the result of the work set on foot by the late revered Dr. Bruce. Converts from Mohammedanism and Hebrew Christians are also loyal fellow workers in schools and hospitals. Miss Bird knew the value of such helpers and the importance of their training. She wrote:--

"Humanly' speaking, foreigners can never evangelize a nation, but they must train the first generation of workers, and for this we need the best material England can give us. As a Mission we ought to be looking ahead, and preparing for even greater things that our God will work for us."

Mary Bird's working time after she wrote these words was very short--it is difficult to realize what a gap she has left. But one thing is certain, that others are needed to fill that gap. The secret of her power did not lie in great gifts or attainments, but in an ever-impelling confidence in the love and power of God. This is not the time to sound a retreat, to withdraw from the position already occupied for our King. God's call is imperative and urgent. Advantage must be taken of the present trend of things in Persia, and while giving of our best in the way of medical and educational help, the greatest emphasis must be on the spiritual task of making Christ and His truth known. We build not merely for to-day, but for all time, even for eternity; and it is necessary to foresee the development of present tendencies, and the outcome of forces which are now silently at work. No one can take in God's great design for the human race without an enlargement of desire and of ability to take his share in it. Granted a larger and truer comprehension, offers of service, gifts of money, and understanding prayers will be needed--not impossible things to ask or to give for such a Leader and such a cause. "The kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ"; Christ must reign; His Kingdom is spreading, victory is assured. Let us work with brave hearts and quiet minds, in this the day of our Lord's appeal, which comes to us afresh through the world's new and complex needs, and through the understanding and the power which God has given us with which to meet those needs.

God is working His purpose out, as year succeeds to year:
God is working His purpose out, and the time is drawing near,--
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.


Tamám shud.

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