Uta Zeuge-Buberl: “I Have Left My Heart in Syria”: Cornelius Van Dyck and the American Syria Mission
This article has been published as: Uta Zeuge-Buberl, “‘I Have Left My Heart in Syria’: Cornelius Van Dyck and the American Syria Mission,” Cairo Journal of Theology 2 (2015): 20–28 (pdf). The pdf contains footnotes and page numbers.
Cornelius Van Alan Van Dyck (1818-1895) was one of the most prominent American missionaries sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to their mission in Ottoman Syria in the nineteenth century. In studies on Syria’s cultural awakening in the second half of the nineteenth century, the nahḍa, Van Dyck, or al-ḥakīm (the wise) as he was often called, is well remembered as a polymath, who contributed modern textbooks on different subjects to Syria’s new educational institutions. Above all he is known for completing the translation of the Bible into Arabic with its first edition published in 1865. Van Dyck’s remarkable achievements often overshadow the fact that he actually began as a missionary doctor in Syria, preaching the Gospel while curing the people’s diseases. This article will focus on his first thirty years in Syria, which can be marked as a period of transformation and change in his life. Van Dyck slowly distanced himself from the Syria Mission by embracing more liberal views and discovering his love for science and the Arabic language.
On August 13, 1818, Van Dyck was born in Kinderhook, New York, into a family of Dutch immigrants. He studied medicine at the Jefferson College in Philadelphia and took his first job a as teacher of chemistry in a girl’s school when he was eighteen years old. Being a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, Van Dyck was sent by the ABCFM as missionary doctor to Syria and reached Beirut on April 1, 1840. Before his departure, he neither received theological training nor any introduction into the Arabic vernacular—circumstances that were to change soon after his arrival in Syria.
The Syria Mission repeatedly asked for more missionaries to be sent to improve its efforts with the Syrian Christians and Muslims. The ABCFM, therefore, requested its two missionary doctors in Syria, Cornelius Van Dyck and Henry De Forest, to pursue additional theological training in order to work as preachers. Van Dyck’s father, a country doctor, had wished to see his son in the ministry of the church. Realizing the possibility of having a second chance at fulfilling his father’s wishes, Van Dyck began studying theological books. But in 1845 he expressed his doubts to Rufus Anderson, corresponding secretary of the ABCFM, saying that he was uncertain whether he should become a minister: “at present my whole heart is drawn towards the sacred office. But the required qualifications, the responsibilities, the magnitude of work are points which make me hesitate.” Van Dyck finally received his ordination on January 14, 1846, in ʿAbeih, southeast of Beirut, where the mission had established a school and a church. Only one year later Van Dyck wrote to Anderson that he was suffering from feeble health due to the amount of labour—not uncommon among the missionaries at that time. In addition to his sacred office Van Dyck and his friend Buṭrus al-Bustānī, who was employed as a “native assistant” by the mission, were commissioned to establish the new mission seminary in ʿAbeih in 1846. Van Dyck taught geography and biblical studies, whereas Bustānī taught arithmetic, Arab grammar and defining of words. Except for an Arabic grammar and an introduction to arithmetic the missionaries had no Arabic textbooks for the variety of subjects they offered in the mission schools. Only after establishing the American Mission Press in Beirut (AMP) in 1834 and employing competent Syrian helpers were the Americans able to start printing new school material.
Within a few years Van Dyck had acquired such Arabic fluency that he was able to write textbooks on geography, algebra, geometry, logarithm, trigonometry, and natural philosophy for the ʿAbeih seminary. He and Bustānī would sit together for nights on end creating suitable material for their classes. It was a long process, which required a lot of additional studies of the two men “to ensure the necessary accuracy in thus composing text books for [the] future“.
In 1851 the ABCFM assigned a new task to Van Dyck. After his colleague Simeon Calhoun was installed as head of the ʿAbeih seminary, Van Dyck, William M. Thomson, and the native preacher John Wortabet were sent to Sidon to establish a new mission station and a native church in Ḥāṣbeiyā, seventy kilometers from Sidon. Van Dyck enjoyed his “pleasant residence” and the “interesting field” in Sidon, but after six successful years as a minister and physician he had to move back to Beirut. Eli Smith, head of the AMP and mission library, had since 1848 been translating the Bible into Arabic with his assistants, Buṭrus al-Bustānī and Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī. When he died in 1857, the project was unfinished. In 1851 the mission had already considered the possibility of Van Dyck assisting in the translation of poetical parts of the Bible because of his great competency in the Arabic language. After Smith’s death it was beyond question that Van Dyck was the only member of the mission able to finish the translation. But he was not at all eager to leave Sidon “for the whirl of the multitude, the case hardened and the dusty roads and lanes of Beirut.” As a center of culture and trade, Beirut eventually offered plenty of opportunities for Van Dyck to become more than a missionary doctor.
First, he became the new head of the AMP, which the ABCFM had actually wanted to close since 1844. Rufus Anderson constantly demanded that the printing work should be kept “subservient to the pulpit” and that more efforts should be spent on preaching. Like his predecessor Smith, Van Dyck now had to fight for the AMP’s continuance, arguing that the new Arabic Bible had to be printed in Beirut to serve the final goal of the mission. Van Dyck was not hesitant to admit that the press was the “only point where [the] Mission stands ahead of all other missions in the great field.” This was obviously a subtle critique of the mission’s small success in the areas of preaching and converting. The budget of the AMP was constantly reduced, leaving the financial burden on European and American Bible societies. Van Dyck did not agree with the policy that did not allow the AMP to spend earnings from its book sales on new publications or reprints. In a letter to Rufus Anderson, he argued contentiously that none would have noticed if the AMP spent its income for urgently needed books. He therefore asked:
[W]ill the P[rudential] C[ommittee] give the permission asked and allow us to print one Hymn Book with clear consciences; or shall we have to do it without such permission and guilt our consciences as we best can?
Van Dyck pointed to the inevitable interconnectedness between the evangelistic and educational work of the mission, which depended on the printing of religious tracts and textbooks.
In 1865 he traveled to the U.S. in order to superintend the electrotyping of the recently finished Arabic Bible. He resided in New York for two years and spent his time well by teaching Hebrew at Union Theological Seminary and using this salary to obtain additional training in ophthalmology and a doctoral degree in theology at Rutgers College in New Jersey. Van Dyck was eventually offered a chair at Union, but after a two-year absence from Syria, he replied: “I have left my heart in Syria and thither I must return.’’ His missionary colleagues felt relieved, for they had feared Van Dyck would accept a new position in New York. Due to its weak condition, the Syria Mission heavily relied on Van Dyck and his manifold skills.
After his return to Syria in 1867 Van Dyck discovered that the female boarding school, run by the Syrian Protestant Miḫāʾīl ʿAramān, had severe financial problems. Hence, the ABCFM wanted to transform it into an American boarding school with an American staff. But Van Dyck opposed an “Americanization” of the Syrian institution: “I call it a failure, and I’d rather shut it up or give the building to the Syrian Protestant College than to try to make an Americanized female boarding school of it.” He pointed to the ABCFM’s original aim to encourage indigenous Protestant institutions to become self-supporting. Van Dyck’s position on the matter was clear: He wanted the ABCFM to withdraw slowly from the mission field in Syria, in order to clear the way for an independent Syrian Protestant community. The ABCFM finally agreed to support the institution’s independence by organizing different funds. The female boarding school eventually became American after it had come under the auspices of the Presbyterian Women’s Board of Missions.
The aforementioned Syrian Protestant College (SPC), an American institution of higher education, was established under an independent Board of Managers in 1866. While still residing in New York, Van Dyck accepted the chair as medical professor and established the medical department with his former missionary colleague John Wortabet, a Syrian Protestant. When Van Dyck had to justify his new position before the ABCFM, he mentioned the low salaries of the missionaries of the Syria Mission, which compelled them to take additional jobs. Even though he requested to receive a lower salary from the college than his colleagues, the ABCFM criticized Van Dyck’s additional job at the SPC. Van Dyck replied that he would work more for the college if the ABCFM would be willing to reduce his salary, small as it was.
In 1870 the Syria Mission was transferred to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions because the ABCFM could no longer maintain all of its mission enterprises due to budgetary constraints. In spite of his discord with the ABCFM, Van Dyck wrote in a farewell letter to his former employer:
When requested a year or more since, to leave the mission and devote myself to work in the Syrian Protestant College, I replied: “No! I have served the Board thirty years, and the connection has been one in which I have enjoyed great happiness in my work, and I hope to die in its service.”
Several farewell letters were printed in the sixty-sixth volume of the Missionary Herald, the periodical of the ABCFM. Interestingly the Missionary Herald omitted a phrase from Van Dyck’s letter. It quoted “Now the tie is severed!…” but did not add “and the question of remaining in connection with the Mission is an open one.”
In 1870 Daniel Bliss, president of the SPC, announced in his annual report that Van Dyck would now be able to obtain a full professorship. Van Dyck resigned from his position at the AMP in the early 1870s but still remained in connection with the Syria Mission, preaching from time to time in the mission church.
In the meantime Van Dyck’s popularity as a scholar and author in Ottoman Syria had developed independently from the missionary circle. On his fiftieth anniversary of residence in Syria the American missionaries were but one of many congratulants from different religious denominations and institutions. On November 13, 1895, the “Nestor, the veteran of fifty-five years,” Cornelius Van Dyck died of typhoid. The American missionary Henry Harris Jessup later wrote: “The whole city felt his death as a personal bereavement, and his funeral was attended by men of all sects and nationalities.” Al-ḥakīm Van Dyck, who “left his heart in Syria,” achieved more than his former missionary colleagues and became widely regarded amongst the Syrians as one of them. PDF
Uta Zeuge-Buberl studied Protestant Theology in Tübingen, Beirut, Berlin, and Vienna. Since 2011 she has served as a research assistant at the Institute of Religious Studies and Intercultural Theology, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, working on a project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) about “Networks of knowledge: American missionaries and the cultural scene of 19th century Syria.” She recently received her doctoral degree from the University of Vienna, Austria, for her dissertation entitled “The Mission of the American Board in 19th Century Syria: Implications of a Transcultural Dialogue.”