Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

A Death in Dohuk: Roger C. Cumberland, Mission and Politics among the Kurds in Northern Iraq, 1923-1938

Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

A Death in Dohuk: Roger C. Cumberland, Mission and Politics among the Kurds in Northern Iraq, 1923-1938

Article excerpt


Presbyterian missionary Reverend Roger C. Cumberland was murdered in Dohuk, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, in June 1938. One eulogy remarked tersely, "... this is just another in the long line of martyrdoms that come to those who go into the hard places to witness by word and life to the love of God in Christ." (1) No matter how true that statement may be, it is quite inadequate for the man and his life. Cumberland, one of the pioneer mission workers in this region after World War I, served at a pivotal time in the formation of the modern Middle East, most particularly at the birth of the state of Iraq. Historical records are usually macro-level accounts of the large political, social, economic, and cultural events as interpreted after the passage of some period of time. However, another level of insight is achieved by observing how ordinary people experienced and were impacted by the large events. When available, these contemporary first-hand accounts, unfettered by historians' later hindsight, add a dimension of understanding. Roger Cumberland provides an example as he left a body of descriptive, remarkably astute, and candid letters that provide a rich source on his work among the Kurds and commentary on other aspects of the day. (2) He and his peers were the predecessors of today's generation of mission workers who face the same ethnic and religious factions, frustrations, opportunities, challenges, and dangers in many ways little changed from more than 75 years ago. Then as today the essential questions were whether a national state of Iraq would prevail against the many challenges, the role of Kurdistan in that state, and the fate of the Christian church in the environment.

The twenty-eight year-old Ventura, California native Cumberland, a 1922 graduate from McCormick Theological Seminary, arrived in Iraq in April 1923 to begin his work as a Presbyterian missionary. (3) He disembarked from the British ship The City of Harvard at Basra in the south with fellow passengers whom he described as "a motley gang: travelers, explorers, authors, those headed for home, with a majority of missionaries," but his ultimate station was in Mosul and later in Dohuk. He served for fifteen years primarily among the Kurds, and he became highly esteemed by the various populations in the area. (4)


Bom from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the State of Iraq became a British mandate in 1920. The country, its borders the product of the convenience of the European colonial powers, was never a coherent or logical national entity under the Ottomans or at any point afterward. The area had a long and rich history from Sumerian Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigress and Euphrates rivers declared by historians as the cradle of civilization, through many empires. The various empires--Akkadians, Elamites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and others all--left remnants of their peoples, cultures, and religions. The Romans introduced Christianity between the first and third centuries and Islam arrived in the seventh century. Indeed, the fourth caliph, Ali, moved the capital of the Islamic empire to Kufa (Iraq). Over the centuries, Mongols, Turkmen, Circassians, Armenians, Kurds, and a host of other peoples joined the ethnic mix, and the diverse religious constituency included Sunni and Shia Muslims, Zoroastrians, Yezidis, Druze, and Roman and Eastern Christians. Most of the ethnic and/or religious communities existed in tension with each other.

Protestant evangelical work in the Near East is often dated from 1812 when several groups began exploring the idea of missionary stations. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a joint operation of Presbyterian, Reformed Church in America, and Congregationalists, began work in Smyrna for Anatolia in 1819, Beirut for Syria and Palestine in 1823, and Urumia in Persia in 1835. …

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