Protestant Attempts to Influence the Coptic Orthodox Church

Part II – The Orthodox Resistance to Protestant Missions

In the first paper in this series we have established that the early Protestant missions held a negative view of the life and spirituality of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and considered it their duty to either reform the Church, that is thoroughly Protestantise it, or convert the members of the Orthodox Church and establish new Protestant congregations to which they could commit themselves. The strategy, which many of the major missions adopted, was that of reaching the youth of the Coptic Orthodox Church so that future generations of clergy and leaders would have already adopted Protestant ideas and practices and would therefore encourage the adoption of these Protestant teachings in the wider Orthodox community. The intention was to create educational facilities where it would be possible for selected Coptic Orthodox youth to be isolated from their peers, and made subject to Protestant worship and teachings, with the constantly implied judgement that traditional Coptic Orthodoxy was not entirely Christian and certainly not suitable for the modern world.

The previous paper indicated that Pope Boutros VII had welcomed the Anglican missionaries of the Church Missionary Society because it had seemed that they were interested in learning more of the Coptic Orthodox tradition. Their influence became so significant at this time that even the nephew of Bishop Michael of Esneh had been placed in their care to receive theological education in preparation for the priesthood. Nevertheless as described earlier, the first boarding school was considered to have failed in producing the outcomes the Protestant missionaries had hoped for.

Pope Boutros VII departed in 1852 and it was not until 1854 that his successor, Pope Kyrillos IV, was enthroned. At the beginning of his short patriarchate the American United Presbyterian Mission arrived in Egypt. This organisation held a much more negative view of the Coptic Orthodox Church. While the CMS might have considered the Orthodox community to be spiritually dead and burdened by superstition, it did hope that through the teaching of Protestant beliefs and practices the Orthodox Church could be renewed by abandoning what it understood to be the errors of Orthodoxy. The AUPM, on the other hand, held out no such hope for the Coptic Orthodox Church. The only possible means of salvation for Orthodox believers was to abandon Orthodoxy and become members of the Protestant congregations they were establishing.

The AUPM arrived in Egypt in 1854 and benefitted from the growing influence first of the British Government in the country, and then that of the Americans. We are fortunate that Protestant missionaries were faithful in their correspondence to supporters and directors in their home countries as this provides us with a detailed description of both their motivations and activities. In the case of the AUPM, one of their missionaries, Gulian Lansing, published an account of his ministry in 1865, and a selection of Official Correspondence with the American Government in 1862.

In 1860 the AUPM had purchased a boat, the Ibis, to allow them to travel up the Nile into Upper Egypt, where they expected to be able to see success in their Protestant mission. Lansing writes of the Copts of Upper Egypt…

The Copts of the Upper Country are for the most part poor and simple-minded peasants, and it is usually among the poor and un-sophisticated that the Gospel has the freest course.[1]

Lansing has already reported the lack of interest among the more educated Copts of Alexandria, especially those working in various posts of the Civil Service. The hope was that those who lacked education would be more likely to respond to their Protestant influence. In the description of his activities Lansing describes how Copts have turned to some of the Protestant books being published in Arabic, as a means of resisting the encroachment of Catholicism only to find ‘that they have undermined their own superstition.’[2]

This is indeed the continuing view of the Coptic Orthodox Church on the part of these later missionaries. It is not an ancient Christian community in need of renewal and support, but a superstitious relic of the past that needs to be replaced. Much of the early part of Lansing’s account of his missionary activities concerns his travels up the Nile in the Ibis. His first port of call was the town of Bibbeh, where he set off with his colleagues for the Coptic quarter carrying a bag of books he hoped to sell. The priest there did not give him a warm welcome, so he found a group of Christian children and asked them to call their parents and friends to come for books. It is not unreasonable to indicate this continuing strategy of Protestant missions in seeking to reach the adult community through the means of their children. Lansing has a conversation with a few Copts there, and is disturbed by their ignorance. One says that his religion consisted of ‘fasting when the priest fasted, and feasting when he feasted[3]’. What is noteworthy is that Lansing, as a Protestant, views this as devoid of any spiritual content, while an Orthodox reader would reflect on this statement as saying something significant about life in the Church and in relation to the priest.


A little later in the volume Lansing describes reaching Assiut. There was already a small school there with five Coptic boys being taught by a certain Ibrahim. It would seem that on an earlier visit the Bishop of Assiut, with other leading Copts, had been convinced that a school would be a positive development in the town, and had even provided a school room for the use of the AUPM teacher. It would seem that this produced some tension with the traditional teachers in the place, the blind Areefs, who taught the hymns and prayers of the Church in Coptic. What does Lansing think of this curriculum? He refers to the ‘dead Coptic prayers’[4], and speaks of a meeting of the ‘sect’, when the Coptic bishop called together those with an interest in the matter.

It is interesting that Lansing describes the Bishop of Assiut as ‘noted for his monkish austerities’,  and it is perhaps a shame that he does not appear at any time to have sat down with such a man and asked him in detail to describe his Orthodox Faith. He relies, it would seem, only and always, on his own external observations and judgements based on a predisposition to elevate Protestant values and disregard those of Orthodoxy.

What is most important is that the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril IV, is mentioned in connection with this school. Five children of important local Coptic laity had enrolled their children in the school while it was under the patronage of the Bishop. When the school was under threat of closure a letter was sent to Pope Cyril IV asking him to send a competent teacher, if the Protestant Ibrahim was not acceptable. No response was forthcoming, and so these leading Copts determined to send their children to the Protestant school being established outside the patronage of the Church. Thus it was that Ibrahim was found teaching five students when Lansing arrived in Assiut. But what is most interesting is the following passage…

The Patriarch, elevated to his seat by the influence of the English consul in Cairo, and in spite of the strong opposition of Abbas Pasha, who was then on the throne, had forgotten the Protestantism which he professed while yet a monk, and violating the pledges of reforming the Church which he had then taken, had recently been guilty of various acts of opposition to our cause, and petty persecutions of Protestants.[5]

What a remarkable passage! Certainly Pope Cyril IV is remembered as a reforming Patriarch, but clearly the Protestants in Egypt had hoped that his election would place someone sympathetic to their teachings and beliefs at the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Is Lansing suggesting that the election of Pope Cyril IV was influenced and even facilitated by the English consul in Cairo because he was thought to have Protestant views? Surely we can see that the strategy proposed by the Protestant missions described in the first paper in this series might almost have come to fruition if they had been able to place a convert to Protestantism on the throne of St Mark.

Yet Pope Cyril IV, while rejecting Protestantism, made great efforts to improve the situation and the condition of the Coptic Orthodox community. He himself established schools, famously introduced a printing press, and held regular meetings with the priests of his diocese to instruct them in the faith. There was no need then or now to confuse renewal of the life of the Church with Protestantism, and clearly Pope Cyril IV, whatever the expectations of the Protestant missionaries, intended to renew the Church in accordance with Orthodox rather than Protestant principles.

Nor were the Protestant missionaries hesitant in using any possible tensions between the Coptic laity and their Patriarch as a means of separating them from unity with the Church. Lansing does himself no great favours when he writes…

I did all I could to prepare the minds of those whom I met for the Patriarch’s answer, and I found the occasion a very opportune one, for the Patriarch had just sent his agents to levy on the sect a heavy tax to assist in building the new church which he had recently commenced in Cairo. This scheme was already a very unpopular one with the people, and it did not help it any when I told them that I had been credibly informed before leaving Cairo that he had sent to Europe an order for 25,000 piasters worth of images for the new church…. Human nature too is everywhere the same, and I found them very ready to listen to me in a matter in which their pockets were concerned.[6]

This would hardly be a Christian manner of carrying on a conversation in almost any circumstances, since Lansing seems determined to do all that he can to undermine the respect for the Orthodox Church and her leaders among the ordinary people. But he cannot hide his contempt for Orthodoxy, and on an occasion in Luxor, when the Bishop invited him to read the Gospel in Arabic, and then to expound it, which he did for over 45 minutes, he left the Church saying to himself…

Poor, poor people, who have nothing but this for their souls.[7]

On the one had as Orthodox Christians we rejoice in this description of one who despises all that we hold most precious. Yes indeed we are poor people and there is nothing else that will fill our souls but the gift of Christ Himself in the Liturgy. But how blind Lansing and these other Protestant missionaries must have been to see nothing at all in the sacraments of the Church but superstition.

A little later he has a long conversation about fasting with a devout Coptic tailor. He records their discussion…

Poor Keddes and his friend would not sit down with us to breakfast. When I found out that the former was fasting, literally fasting, and not merely exchanging an animal for a vegetable diet as is done by most of the Eastern Christians. The Coptic fasts are terribly severe… I talked with him and his friends a long time, endeavouring to teach them that the Master had not placed upon them this heavy yoke, but failed to convince them. He utterly disdained dependence on his fasting or other works in the matter of justification and acceptance with God, but contended that in these warm climates they needed these long fast in order to mortify the flesh, and the lusts thereof. Poor man…. May he speedily be brought into the perfect liberty of Christ.[8]

The commitment which Lansing had made to spread the Protestant teachings in Egypt might be commendable, but it seems that he never considered it necessary to understand the Orthodox teachings and practices which he wished to replace. Even when he meets a thoughtful, devout and spiritual Coptic Orthodox, who can explain confidently why he fasts, Lansing is left unmoved, and rather considers the man to be worthy of pity for having submitted to such spiritual discipline. We should not be deceived by Lansing’s account. Not every Copt was ignorant in spiritual matters. Not every Copt was lax in the practice of the faith. But he was himself entirely unable to grasp the spiritual treasures which were held in often very humble and simple vessels.

We need not continue to travel up the Nile with Lansing and his AUPM colleagues. We have seen enough of their methods, and their attitudes towards the Coptic Orthodox Church. One final passage from his account will perhaps show the fundamental opposition which such Protestantism always offers towards Orthodoxy. He writes about the scandal caused in Cairo when after communion in the English Church the remains of the Eucharistic loaf were consumed by Muslims and any other non-Christian servants who were present. Lansing uses this as an opportunity to point out the greatest fault of the Coptic Church. He writes…

… a pernicious error, that there is still in the Church a priesthood besides that of Christ, that the ministers of the Church are priests… This may be called the capital error of the Coptic Church. Oh that she might be brought to see that the holy communion is a commemorative and not a sacrificial ordinance… If the Coptic Church could be convinced of this… she might be considered a reformed Church.[9]… I was forced again to sit by while they went through with the meaningless ceremony.

At least the missionaries coming to Egypt with an Anglican background had some sense of the sacraments and the priesthood, but the Presbyterian missionaries of the AUPM believed that the Eucharist was the heart and soul of the errors of the Coptic Church and that it was not only an error to consider the Liturgy to be a priestly sacrifice, but it was harmful and dangerous. It was, as far as Lansing was concerned ‘a meaningless ceremony’. Such were the views of these Protestant missionaries at the time of Pope Cyril IV. As we turn from this detailed source let us leave with the opinion of Lansing in relation to the Coptic Orthodox veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary…

It was the Feast of the Virgin, and they were repeating the twenty-four chapters of fulsome and blasphemous praise to her which the Coptic Church has borrowed from the Greeks. Oh how sickening are the exhibitions of blind superstition.[10]

It is hardly surprising that those holding views such as these found themselves beginning to face more direct opposition from the authorities of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Anything other than opposition would be to capitulate before the complete subversion of Orthodox faith and practice.

A more recent volume, describing the developments in this Protestant mission to the present time allows us to discover the sort of resistance which the Coptic Orthodox Church mounted to the influence of Protestantism. This volume, American Evangelicals in Egypt[11], notes that by 1897 the evangelical Protestant community had about 5,300 members, the great majority of whom had been persuaded to abandon their Orthodox faith. It is reasonable to conclude that this figure was much lower than the expectations of the first missionaries, who had hoped that their message would even bring about the Protestantisation of the whole Coptic Orthodox Church.

The first resistance to Protestant influences took the form of the establishment of new Coptic schools, following the example of Pope Cyril IV who instituted a very successful Patriarchal school. The awakening Coptic community realised the benefit of education for its children, but the cost of relying on Protestant teachers with an increasingly obvious agenda was too high for the Church to accept. The Church also began to discourage her members from purchasing and reading the books being printed and distributed by the Protestant missionaries. These were usually written with the intention of undermining the Orthodox Faith and Practice of the Copts. One Copt spoke of urging his friends to stop reading one such book because it was removing the pegs of the water wheel one by one, that is, it was undermining the Orthodox Faith one aspect at a time.

Excommunications began to be used against those who were most obvious in their Protestant adherence. One such was a monk, Bashoi[12], who had come under the influence of the Protestants. Indeed he received their teaching on matrimony, and against that of the monastic state, and determined that he would abandon his monastic vows and take a wife. This caused great scandal, and he was excommunicated by the Church. A similar case was that of the monk Makhiel who also fell under the spell of the Protestant missionaries[13]. Lansing mentions him, and describes his monastic life as ‘the empty routine of Coptic prayers’. He was sent as an assistant to the Bishop of Ethiopia who had been consecrated at that time and spent seven years in service in Ethiopia. He returned to Egypt by a long and circuitous route and found himself in the company of Protestant missionaries who convinced him of the truth of their teachings and the errors of Orthodoxy. His views came to the ears of the Patriarch in Cairo and refusing to abandon his Protestant views he was also excommunicated[14]. This event also took place under the Patriarchate of Cyril IV, which suggests that whatever his views about a necessary reform of the Church, he was not a Protestant at all.

We can see that attitudes towards Protestantism were also changing under the Patriarchate of the successor to Cyril IV, who was Demetrius II. He had been the Abbot of St Demiana, and Lansing had recalled spending time with Father Makar, the Abbot’s assistant. When he returned after the election of the Abbot as Pope and Patriarch he found that Father Makar, the new Abbot, was not as welcoming. He says…

Then I found him in our long walk a very interested and attentive listener to the doctrines of Protestantism… Now he is cold and stiff and distant.[15]

It is reasonable to imagine that Lansing very easily and very often mistook a respectful attention to the conversation of a Western visitor as being a deep interest and agreement with what he was saying. This might especially be so of a simple monk. But when that monk became Abbot, and when the Abbot become Pope and Patriarch, it was no longer necessary to be quite so respectful of manifestly erroneous opinions.

That Patriarch, Demetrius II, became personally aware of the influence of the Protestant missions when he found his own brother reading a Protestant translation of the Bible. There was apparently a furious argument between the brothers, and Demetrius felt that it was necessary to begin a determined resistance to Protestantism[16].

Charles Watson, the son of one of the Protestant missionaries says…

This persecution was not an accidental outbreak of fanatical jealousy and hate. It was a deliberate plan in which the government lent its authority and influence to make effective the efforts of the Coptic Church to wipe out Protestantism forever.[17]

In the first place the Khedive Ismail revoked the exemption from military service which had applied to those enrolled in Protestant schools. This made them less attractive to those Copts who had relied on this exemption to preserve their sons from various forms of conscripted service. Secondly the Pope visited many of the places in Upper Egypt where small Protestant communities were being formed and issued a Patriarchal Bull against Protestantism which was read aloud in all the Churches, and which is appended to this paper in full[18].

Within the text of this Bull the Pope instructs all faithful Orthodox Christians to:

  1. Stop reading Protestant books.

  2. Burn any Protestant books which have been obtained.

  3. Do not accept any Protestant teaching whether by word or letter.

  4. Do not have anything to do with Protestants or help them establish their missions.

  5. Beware of the influence of Protestants both inwardly and outwardly.

Copts were instructed to withdraw their children from Protestant schools. Some villagers were beaten by the local authorities for attending Protestant meetings. Church members were instructed not to sell or rent land to Protestants to allow them to establish their missions and schools. Those who adopted the teachings of the Protestants were to be excommunicated.

It might seem that these actions were harsh, but the future of Orthodoxy depended on a strict response to those who were teaching and accepting the false doctrines of Protestantism. There could be no compromise. Indeed in 1869 a group of Protestant Copts, young men who had been converted from Orthodoxy, broke into a Church in Assiut and tried to destroy all the icons in the Church as an expression of their rejection of the Orthodox Faith and Tradition[19].

In a similar example of the natural character of Protestantism the Protestant mission found itself divided by the secession of one of their own pastors. B.F. Pinkerton, together with some of the Egyptian converts, professed the views of the Plymouth Brethren movement and separating from the Presbyterians founded what was essentially a schismatic group of congregations, some of which still persist to the present time.

This period was much more dangerous for the Coptic Orthodox community, as the Protestant missionaries had no respect or sympathy for the Orthodox Tradition at all, and intended to replace it with their own congregations since it seemed unlikely that they could persuade the Coptic hierarchy to abandon almost all of the teachings of Orthodoxy. As Pope Cyril IV, and especially Pope Demetrius II, became aware of the great threat posed by Protestantism a robust response was developed. At first this expressed itself in a growing coolness and lack of co-operation but finally it required a firm and explicit condemnation of Protestant teachings, and the disciplining of those who adopted Protestant beliefs.

The Papal Bull of Pope Demetrius II was a significant and considered response to the threat of Protestantism, and it remains a significant text. It contains a detailed analysis of the Papal understanding of the issues at hand and is far more than a knee-jerk reaction to a personal threat to his authority. That he took the effort of travelling all the way from Cairo to Assiut so that he could particularly address the growth of Protestantism there is a measure of the awareness in the mid-19th century of the necessity to resist Protestant influences with vigour. It was clear, by the patriarchate of Pope Demetrius II, that Protestantism was no friend to Orthodoxy and would subvert the Coptic Orthodox Church if it were allowed to do so.

Very little has changed. The response of Pope Demetrius is still well worth reading and his instructions well worth observing.


Father Peter Farrington

[1] Lansing, Gulian. Egypt’s princes : a narrative of missionary labor in the Valley of the Nile New York. 1865 p 11.

[2] Lansing,  op. cit., p 13.

[3] Lansing,  op. cit., p 24.

[4] Lansing,  op. cit., p 29.

[5] Lansing,  op. cit., p 30.

[6] Lansing,  op. cit., p 31.

[7] Lansing,  op. cit., p 49.

[8] Lansing,  op. cit., p 97.

[9] Lansing,  op. cit., p 99.

[10] Lansing,  op. cit., p 171.

[11] Sharkey, Heather. American Evangelicals in Egypt. Princeton University Press. 2013. p 18

[12] Lansing,  op. cit., p 368.

[13] Lansing,  op. cit., p 369.

[14] Lansing,  op. cit., p 373.

[15] Lansing,  op. cit., p 389.

[16] Heather J. Sharkey. American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Kindle Location 590). Kindle Edition.

[17] Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt., Kindle Locations 594-596.

[18] The Evangelical Repository and United Presbyterian Review. New Series Vol VI.  Philadelphia. 1867 p 353

[19] Heather J. Sharkey. American Evangelicals in Egypt: Kindle Location 617).

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