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MAR ATHANASIOS AND THE AMERICANS

In the 1840s the young United States of America and the ancient St Thomas Christians of Kerala were, literally, a world apart. There was, however, a brief encounter between them in, of all places, Mosulin modern Iraq, then part of the Ottoman Empire. The individuals involved in the encounter were on the one part missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), and on the other Palakunnathu Mathew, a young qoroyo1 from Maramon, soon to be Mathews Mar Athanasios, the patriarchally-appointed Metropolitan of Malabar.

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was in origin a Congregationalist body (though with Presbyterians and other Protestants among its missionaries), founded in 1810, and sending out its first missionaries two years later. Within a few decades of its creation it had sent missionaries as far afield as China, Hawaiiand South Africa.2 An important area of work was the Middle East. One feature of the Board’s methodology was to work with indigenous preachers if they could be found. In the context of the Middle East this meant a willingness to work with the ancient Churches, in the hope that, once revived, they would bring the Gospel to their fellow countrymen.

For some of the ABCFM the work had a particular significance. This was especially true of one of the Mission’s most famous and prolific workers, Dr Asahel Grant.3 Grant (1807-1844) was a doctor from New York State who arrived initially in Urmia (in northwest Iran) to work among the Church of the East. In addition to the desire to revive this ancient community was the conviction of Grant and others that these Christians were the descendants of the lost ten tribes of Israel. Their re-awakening would thus complete the biblical prophecies about the gathering in of the whole of Israel and so usher in the thousand year reign of Christ. In the midst of extreme privation Grant found time to write a book seeking to prove this thesis.4

The hope and expectation that a re-awakened ancient Church would propagate the Gospel was shared by the Church Missionary Society (CMS), a voluntary society of the Church of England, founded in 1799, which in 1816 began work in Kerala in south-west India, hoping to awaken spiritually the indigenous Syrian Church and equip it to evangelise the subcontinent. The initial base for this enterprise in South India was a College – now usually called ‘the Old Seminary’ – at Kottayam, founded by Ramban Joseph Pulikottil, but after 1816 largely staffed and run by British missionaries.5

Mathew (1818-1877) came from a long line of Syrian priests of the Palakunnathu family who served the Church at Maramon in Travancore.6 One of his uncles was the malphono Palakunnathu Abraham, usually know as Abraham Malpan, who was one of the Syriac teachers at the College at Kottayam. The College served that section of the ancient St Thomas Christian community which was not in communion with Rome or under the jurisdiction of European prelates and Religious Orders. For about 140 years these ‘independent’ Syrians had been governed by a complex succession of native bishops and bishops from the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch who had travelled to India from the Middle East. The community had gradually been abandoning its latinised East Syrian script and rites as was assimilating to Syrian Orthodox usages. Into this process the CMS missionaries introduced insights from the 16th century European Reformation – principally the necessity for the Bible and worship to be in the vernacular, the need for personal conversion and holiness, and the removal of practices seen as ‘papal corruptions’ principally the invocation of saints and prayers for the departed. Mathew was one of the generation of boys who had received their initial education at the Syrian College, where his uncle had been deeply influenced by the missionaries’ teaching.7

All sections of the non-Roman Syrians accepted the supremacy of the far-off Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, though the Patriarch’s precise powers in India were undefined. In 1841, Mathew, with some – but by no means total – local support, set out to find the Patriarch in Deir al-Za’faran in the hope of being consecrated a bishop so that he might have the authority to reform his mother Church. By the 2nd May 1841 Mathew had arrived in Basra, after a sea journey of 59 days from Bombay/Mumbai.8 It is not clear when he left Basra, but he was heading for Mosul.

Mathew was not the only person trying to reach Mosulat that time. Two American missionary couples – Colby and Eliza Mitchell and Abel and Sarah Hinsdale of the ABCFM – were also heading to the city.9 They had sailed from Boston on 12th January 1841, landing at Beirut on 12th March. There they were delayed by the complications of procuring Ottoman travel documents. Not until May did they sail to Aleppo, where they found that the caravan to Mosul had already departed. The four inexperienced Americans therefore had to arrange their own mules and guides. They set off overland on 28th May, arriving at Diyarbakir on 12th June. By this time the heat was becoming intolerable and they tried to travel on at night as much as possible. Already Colby Mitchell’s health was beginning to fail. He almost certainly had malaria, and by 26th June he was ‘clearly deranged’.10 He died the following morning. The local Muslim Kurds refused to allow the grief-stricken missionaries to bury him in their graveyard, so the body had to be transported, strapped to a horse, to a Syrian Orthodox village seven miles away, where a grave was dug in the noonday heat, and Colby Mitchell laid to rest.

The next day the survivors set out again for Mosul, but Eliza Mitchell’s health collapsed and she had to be carried in a litter for most of the way. They arrived at Mosulon 7th July. Five days later Eliza Mitchell, ‘deranged and in agony’,11 died. Abel and Sarah Hinsdale were themselves too sick to attend her.

Eliza Mitchell was buried in the graveyard of a Syrian Orthodox Church in Mosul. It is possible that Eliza owed her last resting place to the good offices of Mathew who had himself just arrived in Mosul. The city was at the time the centre of attempts by Roman Catholic missionaries to win the Syrian Orthodox over to papal obedience. Their activities are described in a letter from Abel Hinsdale, dated 4th January 1842:

The emissaries of the papal church are on the alert, making every effort to poison the minds of the people with their corrupt doctrines. No less than seven Romish priests have come to Mosul since our arrival…. They have opened a school free of expense for the Christian children, and have already thirty or thirty five pupils under their influence. It is said that large sums of money have been sent to aid them in their work; and recently a wax image (fit emblem!) has come from Rome, possessing the divine power of remitting, for a certain length of time, the sins of those who honour it with a kiss! an easy method of procuring indulgence. The kiss, of course, must be paid for.12

The turmoil had understandably made the local Christians suspicious of European Churchmen. This included the Americans until Mathew spoke in their defence:

Having been duped by the plausible pretences of the Papists they [sc. the Syrians of Mosul] were at first cautious in their advances [to the missionaries]; but a priest from the Syrian Christians in India, named Joseph Matthew, on his way to be ordained Metropolitan by the Syrian Patriarch in Mardin, did much to dispel their fears, and promote friendly relations with the missionaries.13

Permission for Eliza Mitchell to be buried in a Syrian Orthodox cemetery may have been one of the fruits of Mathew’s reassurances.

In a situation such as that which existed in Mosulin 1841 it is not surprising that Mathew found an instant affinity with the Americans. He would have shared their antipathy to Rome – his own community’s declaration of independence from Rome (as it was popularly understood) at the Coonen Cross oath in 1653 was a significant element in its self understanding, and as recently as 1799 there had been a major attempt to subject them again to Roman obedience. Not until the arrival of British Residents and missionaries had ‘Roman aggression’ ceased. Mathew would also have recognised in the Americans the same Bible- and conversion-based faith that he had seen in the CMS missionaries who had taught and influenced him.

On the 24th August, Asahel Grant, having learnt of the death of the Mitchells and the Hinsdale’s illness returned to Mosul and found Mathew already established there:

I was rejoiced to find on my arrival in this city a Syrian priest named Joseph Matthew from the mission college in Malabar, preaching with great fidelity to his brethren of the Jacobite Syrians, by which the attention of many of them has been directed to a more evangelical view of the Gospel. He appears to be a truly pious man, has a good knowledge of the English language and is very intelligent in religious subjects. He has gone to receive episcopal ordination from the patriarch, with the design of returning to India. He gave us much interesting information regarding his people, and confirmed my suggestion that they are, in part, at least, of Jewish or Israelitish descent – a fact which he says is well known among themselves and confirmed by their entire resemblance to the ancient or black Jews in the midst of them….14

By the end of September 1841 Mathew and his translator Micha had left for Deir al-Za’faran.15

On the 2nd February he was consecrated Metropolitan of Malabar with the name Athanasios by Patriarch Elias II, assisted by ‘Cyril Metropolitan, who am Matthaeus’ and ‘Cyrillus Bishop, whom am Malcho’ as co-consecrating bishops who ‘with all the Fathers … called out three times, Axios, Axios, Axios, our exalted Father Mar Athanasios’.16

In the spring of 1842 the newly consecrated Mathews Mar Athanasios returned to Mosul.17 By the end of May Grant was writing of four Syrian schools and a small English class which the Americans had managed to establish, adding, ‘I am happy to add that an arrangement has been effected with the evangelical Syrian bishop from India before mentioned, to retain his services for some months longer, as an assistant to our mission.’18

According to Mar Athanasios, he spent several months at Mosulat the request of the Patriarch, as the Syrian Orthodox bishop was absent from the city. In fact there is no contradiction between the two statements. For both Syrian Orthodox and American Presbyterians the aggressive Roman Catholic mission, which sought to win Orthodox to Roman obedience, was the common enemy. Mathews Mar Athanasios’ effective campaign against them was thus to the advantage of Syrian Orthodox and missionaries alike. In a letter dated 11 March 1843 (and now preserved in the archives at the Mar Thoma Seminary at Kottayam) written from Bombay to his friend the Reverend George Mathan, Mar Athanasios writes of his time in Mosul where the Syrian Christians were pressed by the Muslims on one side and the Roman Catholics on the other.19 In a letter to the Revd John Tucker, secretary of the Madras Corresponding Committee of the CMS, he describes how he preached twice every Sunday to crowded congregations, but that the ‘Papists’ threw stones and spat at him.20

It is likely that Grant’s statement that Mar Athanasios was ‘retained’ by the mission is of significance. It suggests that he was paid by them. For Mar Athanasios this was no doubt a providential way of acquiring the sums necessary for his return to India.

We have only glimpses of Mathews Mar Athanasios’ activities in Mosul. The bishop himself described ‘the American missionaries [as] doing much good amongst the independent Nestorians of Kurdistan’.21 On 6th June 1842 Mar Athanasios and Hinsdale accompanied Grant on the first day of his journey from Mosul to Urmia. Before they parted, ‘the bishop led in prayer (in English) for a blessing upon each of them and on that dark land, and thus they parted. With the bishop Dr Grant never met again ….’22

Independent evidence of Mar Athanasios’ collaboration with the Americans is given by the Revd George Percy Badger, a priest of the Church of England, who arrived in Mosulin November 1842. Badger judged Mar Athanasios ‘a man of much intelligence, fluent in English and open about his intention to reform the Church in India.’23 Badger did not, however, approve of Mathew’s being on ‘intimate terms with the … American Independent missionaries resident at Mosul, and constantly joining in their religious services’.24 At this stage in his career Badger was 27 years old and had only been ordained a few months earlier. He was an ardent ‘Puseyite’ (as the early Tractarians were often called) and looked with disdain on non-episcopal Christian traditions. He had already done his best to discredit the Americans in the eyes of their Patriarch Mar Shimun.25 His widowed mother and sister (who was married to a member of the Church of the East) did not approve of his anti-Americanism.26

Grant returned to Mosulon 17th December 1842, having heard that Abel Hinsdale was seriously ill. He reported that Mar Athanasios had departed for India a few days earlier.27 Misfortune continued to haunt the mission; on 26th December Hinsdale died. He was buried in the ground of the Syrian Orthodox Church of St Thomas. Badger refused to attend his funeral ‘out of principle’ then tried to explain to the Syrians that the missionaries’ service was ‘essentially pagan’.28

Back in Kerala, Mar Athanasios did not forget his American companions. On 15th February 1845 he wrote to Ashahel Grant, describing how things had gone for him in Kerala:

After my arrival here, there was a great deal of quarrelling among us; but, by the blessing of God, there is rest now. I have been visiting all the Churches in the interior of Malabar. The people receive me with great joy, and hear the word of God gladly. I trust that God, in his good time, will remember and have pity upon us, and exalt us from our fallen estate.29

Grant never received Mar Athanasios’ letter. By the time it was written he had been dead almost two years, having died on 24th April 1843, another victim of the heat and disease of West Asia. Another martyr for Christ.

+ John Fenwick

  1. A qoroyo is a reader – one of the Minor Orders.
  2. For an account of the origins of the Board see Rufus Anderson, History of the Missions of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to the Oriental Churches, Boston, Congregational Publishing Society, 1873, vol.1.
  3. For biographies of Grant see Thomas Laurie, Dr Grant and the Mountain Nestorians, Boston, Gould & Lincoln, 1853, repub. Piscataway, Gorgias Press, 2005 and Gordon Taylor, Fever and Thirst: An American Doctor Among the Tribes of Kurdistan, 1835-1844, Chicago, AcademyChicago Publishers, 2008.
  4. Asahel Grant, The Nestorians or The Lost Tribes,London, 1841, repub.Piscataway, Gorgias Press, 2004.
  5. The history of the CMS ‘Mission of Help’ and of the Syrian College are told in P. Cheriyan, The Malabar Syrians and the Church Missionary Society, Kottayam,CMS Press, 1935.
  6. N.M. Mathew, History of the Palakunnathu Family, Maramon, Tiruvalla, Palakunnathu Kudumba Charitram Committee, 2003.
  7. For details of the early part of the career of Mathews Mar Athanasios see John Fenwick, The Forgotten Bishops: The Malabar Independent Syrian Church and its place in the Story of the St Thomas Christians of South India, Piscataway, Gorgias Press, 2009, pp.413-460.
  8. Some details of his journey can be found in a document in Mathew’s handwriting in the Mar Thoma Seminary Archives at Kottayam (MTS/A/229).
  9. Some details of his journey can be found in a document in Mathew’s handwriting in the Mar Thoma Seminary Archives at Kottayam (MTS/A/229).
  10. Taylor, Fever and Thirst, p.177.
  11. Taylor, Fever and Thirst, p.181.
  12. The Missionary Herald, vol. 38 (1842), pp.263-264 [= Salibi/Khoury, p.404f].
  13. Anderson, History of the Missions, vol.1, p.205.
  14. Extract from Grant’s Journal, published in The Missionary Herald, vol. 38 (1842), pp.257-263, reproduced in Kamal Salibi and Yusuf K. Khoury (eds), The Missionary Herald: Reports from Northern Iraq 1833-1870, Amman, Royal Institute for Inter Faith Studies, 1997, p.403. Also quoted in Cheriyan, CMS, p.303.
  15. Laurie, Dr Grant, p.206.
  16. From Mar Athanasios’ susthaticon, text in Colonial Church Chronicle (May 1872), p.188f. Patriarch Yacoub III confirms the names of the two bishops (Syrian Church in India, p.179).
  17. Laurie, Dr Grant, p.214.
  18. Letter dated 30th May 1842, in The Missionary Herald, vol. 38 (1842), pp.459-460 [= Salibi/Khoury, p.433].
  19. MTS/A/226.
  20. CMS/ACC 91 02/05; letter from Athanasios Malabar to Tucker, dated Bombay 14th March 1843. The CMS archives are housed in the Special Collections section of the University of Birmingham library.
  21. CMS/ACC 91 02/05; letter from Athanasios Malabar to Tucker, dated Bombay 14th March 1843.
  22. Laurie, Dr Grant, p.219.
  23. Badger, Rituals, vol. 1, p.71.
  24. ibid.
  25. Taylor, Fever and Thirst, pp.253-270.
  26. Taylor, Fever and Thirst, p.254.
  27. Laurie, Dr Grant, p.281.
  28. Taylor, Fever and Thirst, p.257.
  29. Quoted in Laurie, Dr Grant, p.219. The relative peace that Mar Athanasios reports was about to be disturbed by the arrival in Kerala of the Syrian Patriarch’s envoy, Yoakim Mar Koorilose, in 1846.



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