The Armenian Question and the American Missionaries

The American missionary activities in the Ottoman territory started with the arrival of two missionaries from the Protestant missionary organization named the “American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions,” which had been established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1810, in Izmir on 5 January 1820 (Lybyer ,1924, p. 802; Barton, 1906, pp. 747-748).

American missionaries, whose first objective was to convert Muslims and Jews to Protestantism, turned to the other Christians and especially the Armenians when they failed to be effective on those communities. They prioritized educational work and building schools. Educational work, which was the backbone of the American missionary activities in Anatolia, started with the opening of the first school in 1824. Therefore, the foundation of the missionary school system, which was going to cover the Ottoman geography like a web, was laid at that time. All of the intensity of the work in Anatolia was shifted to the Armenians in the 1840s, even the official name of the mission turned into “the Mission to the Armenians.” The characteristics of the schools that were opened in this process also changed in connection with this. In addition to the theological schools, whose main purpose was to provide religious education and to train the officials who would work in religious institutions, they opened teacher training schools, kindergartens, vocational schools, special training schools for the blind and the deaf, nurse training schools, health care schools, trade schools, and engineering schools. Higher education schools and college-type schools were opened starting in the 1860s. By the time one reached 1913-1914, the education system of the American missionaries in the Ottoman geography had reached an enormous scale. According to this, there were 23,679 pupils who were enrolled in 473 primary schools, 5190 pupils enrolled in 54 secondary schools, 2621 pupils who were enrolled in 11 colleges, 24 students who were enrolled in 4 theology schools, and 738 preparatory students; which meant a total of 32,252 students (Kocabaşoğlu, 2000, p. 48, 55, 58; Orvis, 1915, pp. 37-38, 61).

The most important work area of the missionaries after building schools was publishing activities that aimed at supporting education. The missionaries established printing houses in Malta in 1822, then in Izmir, Beirut, Istanbul, and Antep in order to publish religious publications and to meet the needs of the education activities for published materials. In these printing houses, they published numerous books, tracts, brochures, and periodicals on religion and other fields in Armenian or in Turkish using Armenian letters. Until the middle of the 1850s, the number of pages of the books and tracts that were published, and most of which were were in Armenian, reached 121,780,000. The number of published pages that were published from 1833 until 1910 varied between 20 and 50 million annually. At the outbreak of the First World War, the amount of the total investment in the 96-year process from the beginning of the American missionaries’ work in the Ottoman geography reached 20 milion dollars with the publication activities (Kocabaşoğlu, 1988, p. 269, 271, 273, 277-283; Kocabaşoğlu, 2000, p. 38, 65-67, 111-114; Dwight, 1856, pp. 318-319; Dutton, 1910/1911, p. 356; Arpee, 1936, p. 153).

The missionaries had effects on the Ottoman Armenians in many aspects. According to the historian of Armenian origin, Suzanne Elizabeth Moranian, as a result of the education by the American missionaries, the Armenians moved away from the Ottoman lifestyle, which they had lived for centuries, and adopted a Protestant lifestyle (Moranian, 1994, s. 73-74, 84). The missionary activities caused great harm to the Ottoman social order and territorial unity. The missionaries indicated education laid the foundations of “a free society,” they felt proud of the fact that the Bulgarian students they educated acted as leaders of the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire and they taught that the same result could be achieved for Armenia. They caused the environment of conflict to be maintained because of the messages they disseminated and the actions they carried out. The missionaries, who took it upon themselves to be the apostles of Enlightenment, steered the Armenians to oppose all kinds of administrations (including the Gregorian Church) that obstructed their freedom (Moranian, 1994, pp. 79-80).

Edwin Munsell Bliss, who was a missionary of the American Board, tried to defend himself by saying that the missionaries did not incite revolutionary feelings within the Ottoman society and that they were against revolutionary movements. On the other hand, he admitted that they caused the awakening of intellectual development through the curriculum they provided and that this led people to revolt in the face of pressures and that it had a fragmenting impact (on the Otoman society) (Bliss, 1896, p. 321; Moranian, 1994, p. 81). Although the momentum of Armenian nationalism were the Russian Armenians and those Armenians who were educated in Europe, the local language and history studies that were conducted at the missionary schools fed the Armenian nationalism and led to its being adopted by large masses (Moranian, 1994, p. 82, 84-85).

Dwight, who was among the most senior of the Protestant missionaries, indicated that in the 1820s the old Armenian was thought to be incomprehensible by a large section of the Armenian community and that the Armenians had lost their monther tongue and were speaking only Turkish. Therefore, Dwight pointed out that in addition to numerous books and translations, their most important work was the fact that the Bible was published in a simple, pure, and mature form of “modern Armenian” in one volume and he emphasized that the Armenian nation would appreciate more how valuable this modern Armenian is for them 50 years later compared to the present time – meaning this feeling of appreciation would be for the contributions of the American missionaries to the Armenian national awakening (Dwight, 1850, p. 9; Dwight, 1856, p. 318). As a matter of fact, the American missionaries preferred to use modern Armenian instead of classical Armenian in all of the religious and non-religious publications. Moreover, they prioritized the use of the Armenian mother tongue among those Armenians who only spoke Turkish and thereby, they united the Armenians who were Ottoman subjects on the basis of the same language. This undermined the thought of Ottomanism, which had been developed to save the empire in the process of fragmentation in the 19th century and which expressed a quest to unite the Ottoman people on a common platform (Moranian, 1994, p. 71, 86).

The missionaries placed the Armenians at the focal point of their activities in the Ottoman territories and they underlined that they were different from the Turks in terms of their thoughts and behaviors. Therefore, they develoepd and advanced the Armenian awakening, social mobility, and nationalism. They increased the tension between the Turks and Armenians even more. The Ottoman Armenians started to attribute a new meaning to their own language and historical past as a result of the education they received at the missonary schools, they became displeased with their fate, and they acquired this perception that they were absolutely superior to their Muslims neighbors (Moranian, 1994, pp. 86-87; Earle, 1929, pp. 403-404).

The missonaries tried to shape the American policy regarding the Armenians by establishing close ties with the American policy makers. As their areas of activity in the Ottoman territories expanded in terms of quality and quantity, the missionaries began to appeal to the American government and to pressure it more for the protection of their interests. They played a determinant role in the selection of the American staff that worked in the Ottoman Empire in order to ensure diplomatic protection and to monitor their interests more effectively (Reed, 1972, p. 234). This situation can be seen in the observations of General Geo. B. Williams, who had the opportunity to follow the American missionary activities closely because he had commercial ties with Turkey in addition to such ties with Russia and China, and who was in the Ottoman Empire for a long time. He indicated that some American consulates that were established in the Ottoman geography had no other purpose than to instigate the Ottoman subjects, and primarily the Armenians among them, to revolt against the government and to protect them in these rebellions. According to Williams, these consulates were opened in places where there were no commercial purposes to be protected and no American interests to be promoted. The consulates were administered by the missionaries without a beneficial or legitimate national interest and they carried out their activities for the missionary interests (Weightman, 1906, pp. 890-891).

The American missionaries, who had direct relations with the American diplomatic officials, attributed special importance to the Armenian incidents that concentrated between the years 1894-96. Although they claimed to dislike the Armenian revolutionaries, who incited the Armenian community to revolt, they shared their aspirations and displayed a hypocritical attitude by supporting the revolutionary movement. The American Board pressured the American State Department to intervene in the Ottoman Empire, which was seen as likely to collapse, and to take diplomatic and military measures. The Board used all the means it had in order to inform the American public opinion regarding the Armenian Question and pressured the newspaper representatives to publish the letters that came from the missionaries. This missionary organization facilitated the organization of rallies with a large participation in New York, Boston, and other cities, called on prominent civil servants to join these rallies and many religious communities participated in this “Crusade” (Reed, 1972, pp. 233-235).

The missionaries wrote books and articles on the “Armenian Question” and the “Eastern Question” to influence the American public opinion and foreign policy makers. The most notable of these is the book of Frederick Davis Greene, who wrote on the 1894 incidents as a missionary, and therefore, with the impact of the sympathy he felt for the Armenians. Greene used a long excerpt from the book of the British historian Edward Augustus Freeman named The Turks in Europe in order to increase the impact on his readers and his power of manipulation and he made a suggestion to solve the “Armenian Question:”

“The Turk came in as an alien and barbarian and encamped on the soil of Europe. At the end of five hundred years, he remains an alien and barbarian encamped on soil. (…) His rule during all that time has been the rule of strangers over enslaved nations in their own land. It has been the rule of cruelty, faithlessness and brutal lust; it has not been government, but organized brigandage. His rule cannot be reformed (…) For an evil which cannot be reformed, there is no remedy, only to get rid of it. Justice, reason, humanity demand that the rule of the Turk in Europe should be got rid of; and the time for getting rid of it has now come.”

Greene refers to these expressions, which were written 17 years before, and asks: “does it not now apply with equal force to the discontinuance of the same régime in Armenia?” (Greene, 1895, p. 117, 119-120)  

The calling of the missionary organizations on the American government through the publications, rallies and financial support activities that they had in favor of the Armenians reached their peak in the aftermath of the Samsun Rebellion in 1894 (Curti, 1988, pp. 119-130). As a matter of fact, the American government sent two battle cruisers named “San Fransisco” and “Marblehead” to the Turkish territorial waters on 5 April 1895 using the excuse of protecting its citizens who were missionaries (The New York Times, April 6, 1895). It seems that this support was not deemed sufficient because Cyrus Hamlin, who was the founder of Robert College, wrote a letter to an Ohio senator and called on the American administration to protect both the Armenians and the interests of the missionaries. Hamlin targeted Sultan Abdulhamid in his letter, he recommended sending a battle ship to the Turkish territorial waters as was done before and he emphasized that this would not constitute “a declaration of war.” He included the following expressions, which contain prejudice, for the implementation of this recommendation by the American government:

“The present Sultan, Hamid, came to the throne with an inveterate dislike to all Armenians who would not apostatize (…) The nations, our own especially, have for two years been giving the Sultan carte-blanche to do as he pleases; and his pleasure is the extermination of all Armenians who will not Islamize, the expulsion of the American missionaries, the destruction of their property (…)”

(Hamlin, 1896, pp. 279-281).

Another aspect of the impact of the American missionaries on the Armenian Question is the attacking of the missionaries by the Armenian revolutionaries in order to ensure the intervention of the Great Powers (Grabill, 1964, pp. 14-15). The Armenian revolutionaries predicted that an independent Armenia could only be established through the intervention of the Great Powers, as was seen in the examples of Greece and Bulgaria. Therefore, they sought to manipulate America to intervene politically or militarily in favor of the Armenian cause. Within this context, Mark Sykes, who was the architect of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, pointed out as follows in the visit he made to the region in the aftermath of the 1895 Zeytun rebellion to the fact that the Armenian revolutionaries were targeting American missionaries:

“The (Armenian) revolutionaries from abroad were always preapred to provoke a massacre in order to induce the (Great) Powers to assist them. I have a good reason to know that these wretches actually schemed to murder American missionaries, hoping America would declare war on the supposition that the Turks were the criminals.”

(Sykes, 1988, p. 71, 78)

The letters, articles and books sent by the missionaries, which increased in number after the 1894-1896 rebellions and which focused on disparaging the Turks and exalting the Armenians, were effective in spreading the image of the “Unspeakable Turk” and the “Terrible Turk” in both America and Europe (Hurewitz, 1953, pp. 167-168; DeNovo, 1963, p. 104).

Nevertheless, the Dispatch and Settlement practice of 1915 provided a momentum to the new aid campaigns geared towards the Armenians, for whom the American missionaries made the most investments in the Ottoman territories. An attempt was made to cause agitation in the public opinion and to strenghten the hatred of the Turks by using the American press in order to ensure large-scale participation in these aid efforts. The origin of the articles and news reports that were published in the Washington Post newspaper between the years 1915-1916 and that focused on the Armenian deaths after the Law on Dispatch and Settlement was mostly witnesses and often Armenian refugees. The Armenian refugees, who were presented as witnesses, acted with prejudice when conveying the incidents and they exaggerated the number of Armenians who died in order to cause trouble for the Ottoman government and to force Russia and other allied states to help. In the news reports on the Armenian incidents that originated in the allied states, the Ottoman Empire was depicted as a “sinner” and the effort to get the United States involved in the war on the side of the allied powers is palpable. In the reports in question, the missionaries were shown as reliable sources and it was thought that they would not cover up the reality with national prejudices because they were Americans (Taylor, 2009, pp. 65-66).

The American public opinion was formed based on the information that originated in the missionaries in the First World War years and especially in the aftermath of the 1915 Dispatch and Settlement practice. The missionaries poisoned the American people with regards to the Turks, they organized aid campaigns for the Armenians, whom they believed deserving of achieving independence, and they established an aid organization in 1915. Therefore, they tried to keep the Armenian cause alive and they looked forward to the days in which the American government would intervene in the “Eastern Question” in favor of the Armenians. This attitude shows how much importance was attributed to the power of propaganda by the missionaries and how much they relied on it. The assessments of Alexander Powell, who worked at the American consulates in Syria and Egypt in the first years of the 20th century and who continuously traveled in the Islamic areas for 20 years, that amount to confessions, are striking in terms of indicating how anti-Turkey propaganda was used and how it shaped the prejudices that were created against the Turks:

“Propaganda, in the political sense of the term, was created by ourselves as a war measure, as a legitimate weapon in our struggle with the Central Powers (…) The fact is that the American people have been misinformed and blinded by a propaganda against the Turk (…) It is merely shallow to say that the Turks massacred the Armenians, that they have always misgoverned subject races, that they are no good and never will be, and leave it there (…) The political propaganda against the Turk has extended over many years, been utilized by European nations to excuse their own political or territorial designs. To this (propaganda) bombardment, the Turk has had no opportunity to reply; first, because he has had few, if any spokesmen in Western Europe and the United States, and secondly, because the cables and columns of the West European and the American press have been, to all intents and purposes, closed to him.

In forming the estimates of the Turk, his character, aims, problems, and future, the American public has placed too much reliance on the opinions and prophecies of arm-chair experts. Probably 99 per cent of the editorials on Turkish affairs in American newspapers are written by men who have themselves never been to Turkey and who, I will wager, do not number a real Ottoman among their acquaintances (…) Another cause of American misconceptions regarding Turkey is traceable to the missionaries (…) For half a century or more, these missionaries provided our chief sources of information on conditions in the Near East and Middle East, and by them public opinion in the United States on these subjects (the Christian minorities, particularly the Armenians) was largely moulded. Having been rebuffed by the Moslem Turks and welcomed with open arms by the Christian Armenians, they espoused the cause of the latter (…) At the close of the Great War it was the missionaries, and those associated with them, who were largely instrumental in establishing the remarkable organization which eventually came to be known as the Near East Relief. The organization, whose ramifications extended into every community in the United States, automatically became the champion of the Turkish Christians.   I am not suggesting that the Near East Relief indulged in political activities – but, it became an instrument of anti-Turkish propaganda (…) One of the local (Constantinople) members of the press and of a relief organization told some friends openly that he could only send anti-Turkish dispatches to America because that is what gets the money!”
(Powell, 1925, pp. 23-24, 28, 31-37)

As it is known, the “Near East Relief” that Powell talks about is the missionary aid organization that was established in 1915 and whose name was changed to the “American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief” after four years. The missionaries asked President Wilson to call upon the American people on 22 October 1916 in order to fully get a response to their propaganda aimed at the American people. The Turks were disparaged and the Armenians idealized in the communiques that were published after this was accepted and the aid campaign in Anatolia was presented as a national “Crusade.” The United States joined the war on the side of the Allied Powers in April of 1917 and the Armenians were prescribed to have an independent state under the protection of a defending power within the official commentary of the “Fourteen Points,” which President Wilson declared on 8 January 1918. At the Paris Peace Conference, President Wilson also accepted to undertake the mandate responsibility regarding Armenia, which was set forth to be established in Eastern Anatolia, on behalf of his country, provided that this would be ratified by the American Congress.

He relied on the special interest of the American people in Armenia –which was shaped by the missionaries – for the ratification of the mandate by the American Congress. This mandate, which was designed independently of the objectives of the Turkish national struggle (1919-1920), was not ratified by the American Congress and this meant that the Armenian cause was lost in America. However, President Wilson accepted to determine the borders of the allied project whereby some part of Eastern Anatolia would join the Republic of Armenia and a greater Armenia would be created because he had promised his allies (British Empire and France) before. In line with this, President Wilson included in Armenia an area that was greater than the one determined by the Allies at the London Conference for the Armenians – as an extension of the sympathy he had for the Armenians (DeNova, 1963, p. 103-104, 122-123; Grabill, 1968, pp. 49-50; Sachar, 1953, pp. 92-93, 160; Allison, 1953, p. 44, 82; Howard, 1974, p. 47; Helmreich, 1996, p. 225). However, the Turkish national war of liberation and the victory that was achieved rendered these border plans void.

In conclusion, American missionaries prepared the intellectual infrastructure of the Armenians’ turning towards independence with the education they provided and the language studies they conducted; they also paved the way for them to adopt revolutionary ideas more easily. Therefore, the Armenians reacted more easily to the incitements of the revolutionary Armenians to start rebellions and armed themselves, regardless of whether the incitements came from abroad or not. Later on, the missionaries carried this topic to the diplomatic area and contributed to the internationalization of the Armenian Question. The American missionaries dramatized the Armenian deaths that emerged as a result of the rebellions, and abused and exaggerated the figures related to the casualties. They tried to manipulate the Western powers, firstly the British Empire and the USA among them, to solve the “Eastern Question;” in other words, to liquidate the Ottoman Empire by keeping the Armenian cause on the Western agenda.

American missionary activities have an important role in the transformation of the Armenians whereby they moved away from their position of a “loyal nation” within the Ottoman society and acquired a rebellious and secessionist identity. Nevertheless, the missionaries, who had a contribution to the formation of the mental infrastructure that caused the Armenians to rebel, failed to push the foreign policy of their country to a position where it would be required to defend the Armenian cause to the end. While The USA did not officially participate in the Lausanne Conference, which was one of the most important phases of the Eastern Question and the Armenian Question and which made the Armenian cause history in terms of the territorial claims, the Allied states, and firstly the British Empire among them, which encouraged the USA to undertake the Armenian mandate, pushed the Armenian cause to the backburner and turned all of their attention to Mousul and the capitulations issue. In short, the Western states, which had a role in the emergence and development of the “Armenian Question,” left the Armenians alone when they thought that they did not serve their interests anymore.


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