Monday, May 11, 2015

Eli Smith: Missionary, Scholar and Translator of the Bible (1801-1857)

Eli Smith Memorial Stone (II F 7)
At Plot II F 7 of the Anglo-American Cemetery, visitors will find a beautiful, new memorial stone. This stone does not mark the grave a new burial, but rather that for one of the pioneering American Protestant missionaries: Eli Smith.

Born on 13 September 1801 to a pious family in rural Northford, Connecticut, Eli Smith harnessed the opportunities emerging in Antebellum New England. At the age of sixteen, Eli entered Yale College in nearby New Haven, Connecticut and graduated with a B.A. in 1821. It was in New Haven that Eli made a public profession of faith to be recognized as an official member of the Congregational Church. After two years of teaching in Georgia, Eli returned to New England to pursue ministerial training at the Andover Theological Seminary, where he graduated in 1826. On 10 May of that same year, Eli Smith was ordained as a missionary for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Due to his proclivity in languages, Eli's designated station was Malta, where he would work with the Protestant press established on that small island in the middle of the Mediterranean to produce evangelical literature in a variety of languages.

Eli Smith left the United States on 23 May 1826. Following a short stay in Malta, Eli continued on to Beirut, in order to add Arabic to his expanding repertoire of languages. In 1827, he landed in Beirut, which was then a small city within the Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire. Eli commenced the study of Arabic, with his primary teacher being Tannous Haddad, a man who eventually become an important teacher and leader within the National Evangelical Church of Beirut

Like many young male missionaries of the ABCFM at the time, Eli’s early years were also spent in exploring the mission field. In 1829, Eli joined Rufus Anderson, the famous ABCFM secretary and policy maker, on a tour of Greece. In 1830 and 1831, Eli traveled with H.G.O Dwight through Asia Minor, Armenian and Persia, producing an important and influential account of their travels. In 1838, he traveled with Edward Robinson to Palestine, from which an important work of Biblical geography was produced. Smith also traveled regularly to Europe, particularly Leipzig, for his work with the mission press, which resulted in the creation of a new Arab Font, often referred to as the “American Font”.
“Eli and Mehitable B. Smith,” Courtesy, Andover Newton Theological Seminary, Newton Center, MA. All rights reserved.
Eli’s travels also brought him back to the United States, for both professional and personal reasons. During his first furlough to the United States, Eli married Sarah Lanman Huntington, from Norwich, Connecticut on 21 July 1833. In Sarah, Eli found not only a wife, but a missionary companion, who drew upon her work with the Mohegan tribe of Native Americans, and became an influential figure in the development of female education in the region. Unfortunately, Sarah died on 30 September 1836 and was buried in the cemetery of All Saints Church of Buca, near Smyrna (Izmir) in Anatolia. Five years later, on 9 March 1841, Eli married Maria Ward Chapin, from Rochester, New York. After only one year of service, Maria died from dysentery contracted during the birth of a son, Charles Henry. The grave for Maria is found next to Eli’s at the AAC, at plot II F 6. On 23 October 1846, Eli married his third wife, Mehitable (Hetty) Simpkins Butler. Hetty not only became a loving step-mother to Charlie, but mother to five of her own children: Mary Elizabeth, Eli Whitney, Sarah Butler, Edward Robinson and Benjamin Eli. Sadly, Eli Whitney, died as an infant and is memorialized in the Charnel House at the AAC. While the public memory of Eli focuses on his academic and evangelical accomplishments, the private letters held by Yale Divinity School and Harvard’s Houghton Library, reveal his deep love for his family as well as deep profound grief at the deaths of Sarah, Maria and Eli Whitney. Eli also developed close personal tied with his colleagues, both missionary and Syrian, most noticeably with Rahīl Aṭā, who first studied as a boarding student under Sarah Smith, and Rahīl’s husband, Buṭrus al-Bustanī.

But it is work as a missionary to Ottoman Syria, particularly in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, that Eli Smith is most commonly remembered. Eli’s strong command of Arabic allowed him to become an important preacher, teacher, translator and scholar within both the Protestant community as well as the cultural revival (the Nahḍah) that was unfolding within Arab society. In 1834, Eli facilitated the transfer of the ABCFM’s Arabic press from Malta to Beirut. This press, known as al-Matbaʿa al-Amīrikāniyyah or the American Mission Press, published both religious and secular works. Some of these works were pieces written originally by Eli or translated by him (a list of which is given below). Eli was active in the Syrian Society of Arts and Sciences, an influential cultural and educational society, whose other members included Eli’s close friends and colleagues William Thomson, Corneilius Van Dyck (plot II F 11), Buṭrus al-Bustanī, Nāṣīf al-Yāzjiī, John Wortabet (plot II F 10) and Mīkhayīl Mishāqa

Sifr al-Takwīn 1:1-6 [Genesis 1:1-6],” [1848-1853], manuscript digital facsimile, Arabic Bible, AC-36:1, N.E.S.T. Special Collections, Near East School of Theology, Beirut, Lebanon.

Eli’s most famous accomplishment however was his role in producing a new translation of the Bible into Arabic. Commencing in 1848, the process followed that Buṭrus al-Bustanī would first translate the work from the original languages, Nāṣīf al-Yāzjiī would revise the grammar, while Eli would review the drafts. Eli supervised the first proofs printed at the American Mission Press, which were circulated to colleagues and returned with corrections that he would implement. By 1857, the Pentateuch and all of the New Testament had been translated by this arduous process, but had not received its final revision. Unfortunately, Eli did not live to see this work completed, which was continued by his colleagues Cornelius Van Dyck and Yūsuf Al-Asīr and became one of the most popular versions of the Arabic Bible.

On 11 January 1857, Eli Smith died in Beirut after suffering from a long battle with cancer. He was originally buried at the Mission Cemetery on the Mission Compound in Downtown Beirut, next to the building that housed the American Mission Press that he established and the small office where he worked on the Bible translation. In 1960, his grave, like many of his colleagues, were removed from the Mission Cemetery to the Anglo-American Cemetery. At some point the memorial stone for Eli Smith was severely damaged. It remained in this state until the Anglo-American Cemetery Association together with the family of Eli Smith’s descendants, the Leavy family of New Haven, Connecticut, and with the support of Rev. Issa Saliba, were able to facilitate its restoration. In December 2014, a new memorial stone for Eli Smith was erected, while that of his second wife, Maria, was restored. Through this the legacy of Eli Smith, “for 30 years missionary of the ABCFM in Syria, scholar and translator of the Holy Bible”, is honored and remembered.

Published works written, edited or translated by Eli Smith

Missionary Sermons and Addresses (Boston: Perkins and Marvin, 1833).
Researches of the Rev. E. Smith and Rev. H.G.O. Dwight in Armenia: including a journey through Asia Minor, and into Georgia and Persia, with a visit to the Nestorian and Chaldean Christians of Oormiah (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1833). [co-authored with H.G.O. Dwight].
Kitāb dalīl al-ṣawāb fī uṣūl al-ḥisāb (Beirut: American Mission Press, 1837).
Kitāb al-bāb al-Maftūḥ fī aʿmāl al-rūḥ (Beirut: American Mission Pres, 1843).
Biblical Researches in Palestine, and Adjacent Regions (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1841). [co-authored with Edward Robinson; 3 volumes].
Kitāb al-mabāḥit fī itiqadāt baʿaḍ al-kanāʾis (Beirut: American Mission Press, 1854).
Tarnīmāt li l-ʿibāda (Beirut: American Mission Press, 1852). [co-authored with Buṭrus al-Bustanī and Nāṣīf al-Yāzijī].  
Majmūʿ Fawāʾid (Beirut: American Mission Press, 1851-1856).
Al-Kitāb al-Muqaddas (Beirut: American Mission Press, 1865). [co-translated with Buṭrus al-Bustanī, Nāṣīf al-Yāzjiī, Cornelius Van Dyck and Yūsuf Al-Asīr].

Secondary literature on Eli Smith

Dexter, Franklin Bowditch. Biographical Notice of Graduates of Yale (New Haven: n.s., 1913), 80-83.
Khoury, Yousef Quzma. (ed.). (1990). Al-Jamʿiyyah al-Suriyyah lil-ʿUlum wa-al-Funun, 1847-1852 (Beirut: Dar al-Hamra, 1990).
Leavy, Margaret R. Eli Smith and the Arabic Bible. New Haven, CT: Yale Divinity School Library, 1993.
Leavy, Margaret R. “Looking for the Armenians: Eli Smith’s Missionary Adventure, 1830-1831.” Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 50 (1992): 189-127.
Leavy, Margaret R. “The Making of a Missionary: Eli Smith at Yale, 1817-1821.” Journal of the New Haven Colony Historical Society 41:2 (1995), 20-37.
 “Obituary Notice of Rev. Eli Smith, D.D.” Missionary Herald 53:7 (1857), 224-229.
Saliba, Issa A. “The Bible in Arabic: The 19th-Century Protestant Translation.” The Muslim World 65 (1975), 254-263.
Stoddard Jr., Robert D. “The Rev. Eli Smith, 1801-1857: Evangelical Orientalist in the Levant.” NEST Theological Review 30:2 (2009), 202-222.
Stowe, David M. “Smith, Levi,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 626. [online].
Tibawi, Abdul Latif. American Interests in Syria: 1800-1901: A Study of Educational, Literary and Religious Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966).
Zeuge, Uta. “Die Mission des American Board in Syrien im 19. Jahrhundert: Implikationen eines transkulturellen Dialogs”. ThD. Thesis. (Wien: Universität Wien, 2014).

Also see the entry on Eli Smith on Find-a-Grave.

Christine B. Lindner
11 May 2015
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Eli Smith: Missionary, Scholar and Translator of the Bible (1801-1857) by Christine B. Lindner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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