Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

An Overview of Religious Medicine in the near East: Mission Hospitals of the American Board in Asia Minor (1880-1923)

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

An Overview of Religious Medicine in the near East: Mission Hospitals of the American Board in Asia Minor (1880-1923)

Article excerpt


George E. Post, who worked as a professor of surgery at the Syrian Protestant College, believed that the opening of a medical school and hospital in Antep by missionaries from the American Board (hereafter the Board)1 would yield a multitude of benefits. Post expressed his views as follows:

As soon as the Central Turkey College has trained a sufficient number of men in its Department of Letters it should establish a Department of Medicine. This department will add greatly to the dignity of the Institution in the eyes of the people. It will attract young men from the non-Protestant sects into the Literary Department, in order to prepare for their medical course, and so hold them longer under religious influence; it will give Protestants a new means of honourable competence in a land where bigotry shuts up the doors of employment, and withdraws patronage from the hated sect; it will add to the power of the Protestant body as a means of doing good; it will bless the sick poor by its dispensary and hospital, and give them spiritual as well as bodily healing. It will break sectarian fanaticism, and bind Muslim, and Christian, and Jew in the bonds of a common belief in a science linked with Christian faith, and an art sanctified by Christian love. It will secure native cooperation in endowment, and protect the Institution from outbreaks of religious intolerance and violence. It will ever be associated, in the minds of the people, with Him who went about healing the sick.2

Not long after Post expressed these views, construction began on mission hospitals in several of the principal cities of Asia Minor. The first mission hospital was built in Antep. Almost all of the Board hospitals established contact with the local poor and destitute first. Local communities came to realize that the American doctors were healing poor patients, and this awareness gradually led them to turn to mission hospitals for their medical needs. The population that received medical services through mission hospitals came from a wide cross-section of ethnic and religious backgrounds. Late Ottoman historical studies on missionary activities frequently emphasize that the Muslim population of the Empire strongly rejected missionary activities. As a result, missionaries were compelled to pursue their activities among non-Muslim populations.3 The Board missionaries employed a range of missionary tools, including activities within religious and educational institutions. It is well known that these missionary activities were mainly influential among Armenians and Greeks; however, the provision of health services enabled the missionaries to also reach out to a considerable number of Muslim patients and their relatives.

The underlying motivation behind the construction and operation of American mission hospitals was governed by a series of complex dynamics. Hence, this study will first focus on how these American mission hospitals functioned in Ottoman lands beginning from the 1870s onwards, along with their patient profiles and sources of revenue. Second, the study will shed light on the altruistic aspect of these health services. Finally, I will touch on how Ottoman governments perceived the interaction between these Board missionaries and the Empire's poor and needy subject population.

Medical Missions and American Hospitals in Asia Minor

Pioneering missionaries with a thorough knowledge of medicine arrived in Asia Minor during the 1830s, beginning the history of medical missions in the region. Dr. Asa Dodge, Dr. Asahel Grant, Dr. Henry Lobdell, Dr. Azariah Smith, and Dr. Henry Sergeant West engaged in the very first medical missions in prospective mission centres such as Sivas, Antep, Beirut, Mardin, Diyarbakir and Mosul.4 These medical missionaries of the early period shared a common characteristic: in these aforementioned geographical areas they worked to lay the groundwork and create a favourable environment for the prospective activities of particular associations they represented. …

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