A very fine, unpublished letter by pioneer missionary to Syria, William Bird [1823-1903].
The son of missionary, Isaac Bird, William was born in Malta in 1823, graduated Dartmouth College in 1844, and Andover Seminary in 1850. He was married to Miss Sarah F. Gordon in 1853, and left Boston for Beirut in March of that year, reaching his destination in the following June .
William and Sarah Bird were people of indefatigable faithfulness. Their entire missionary career was spent on the slopes of Lebanon at Abeih and at Deir il Komr. Their only absence occurred when forcibly driven from their station by the Druze Massacre in 1860. The station was entirely destroyed and the work broken up in the violence. Their reponse? They remained on furlough in the United States for two years while hostilities settled down, returned to Abeih, and began to rebuild. Their calling had not changed.
The present letter is a charming and unpublished example of missionaries corresponding a supporting Sabbath School, answering questions about their work in Syria, and stirring missionary zeal among the young to pray, give, and if possible go to the mission field.
"Missionary Society of the Eighth District Sab. School. Waterford Ct. Care of Henry P. Haven Esq. New London. Ct." Then stamped, "Forwarded by J. M. Gordon. Treasurer A.B.C.F.M. Boston"
The Letter, in its Entirety:
"Deir il Homr, June 25, 1856
To the Sab. Sch. in
Waterford, Ct. District No. 8th
My dear young friends,
I think it very probable that your school has changed a great deal since the P.M. I was there & addressed you. Many duties & weakness of eyes have prevented my writing before.
What you sent, was, as of course you know, duly received by the Treasurer at Boston, & had been applied to the teaching of ignorant youth the reading of the Holy Scriptures. May you all ever feel a deepening interest in sending the Gospel to the benighted.
My station is now Deir il Homr, which means the Convent of the Moon (Deir is pronounced with ei like long a in fate). It is on the range of mountains called Mt. Lebanon & about 2,500 ft above the level of the Sea. We are at a nearly equal distance from Beirut & Sidon & perhaps five miles from the shores of the blue Mediterranean, of which we just get a peep. Mountains are on every side of us. Our little city is said to contain a population of about 6000. Nearly 5000 of them are Roman Catholics & the rest Druses* with the exception of between 100 & 200 Jews. The population of the district of which I have the charge is not far from 20,000 more or less. In this large number of immortal souls, there are only two that we have received into the church. How much indeed to be done.
Perhaps you may know that this station was not commenced until lately. I came here last October. You would like to hear about the schools here. We have about 80 scholars in regular attendance, besides ten or a dozen others. A little less than one half of them are girls. Some of the boys are studying arithmetic, geography, & grammar in their own Languages & others are learning to read & write. We teach those who can read in the New Testament. These poor children are almost all of them Catholick, & pray to pictures & to the Virgin Mary. Their parents & the priests teach them the most absurd stories about the saints & nothing is too silly for them to believe. The priests are very much opposed to the children's coming to our schools, but their parents are so desirous of having them educated that they will send them. We are rejoiced & encouraged to see so many willing to oppose the clergy in this thing. We hope that by means of the Bible many of the parents as well as the children will become enlightened. Indeed it has been so already to some extent. Nowhere in Syria do I think the people so eager for an education. A large portion of them are aware of the errors of their church, & some openly attack them. We very much need the presence of that Spirit without whose co-operation Paul may plant & Apollos water in vain.
The house we live in was built by the secretary of the late Emir Bshir or governor of the mountains. He was a great opposer of the Gospel in his day & one of the main pillars of the Papal power in this part of the country. In a war, 16 years ago, the house was pillaged & left in ruins. The owner died a son & of exile in Constantinople. His house has been partly rebuilt & so what was once the castle of the enemy has become the place for evangelical school & preaching. Our best friends here, whose influence brought us to this pace are the sons in law of that persecutor & his grandchildren are among the most constant attendants upon our schools.
This city itself is the stronghold of Popery in these mountains & a place of great influence. There is a great work to be done. The people are woefully ignorant & exceedingly bigoted, but the truth is gilding the mountain & sending down some rays aslant into the deep valleys & waking up men here & there from the slumber of ages.
We have two little Arab girls in our family, whom we are endeavoring to train up for usefulness. Indeed, I should hardly say little, for one of them is almost grown up. They have been with us over two years & we have great hope of them. The fathers of them both are members of the church, tho ones of them about a year ago was we trust taken to a better world. Both of them have brothers, who have recd their education at the Abeih Seminary. The youngest of these girls taught her father how to read.
If you could only come out here & see the poor, ignorant, ragged children learning to read, sitting down cross-legged on the mats, many of them with the Word of God in their hands. You would rejoice in such a good work, & be glad to deny yourselves so as to send to them or to those like them, the blessed Gospel. Don't forget the poor heathen children. Remember them in your prayers. I trust also that you all will welcome to your hearts that Savior who died equally for them & for you.
Hoping to hear from you again, I remain,
Very good, legible condition with original folds; some small tears at hinges, but very stable.
*The Druse religion emerged in Egypt in the 11th century as an amalgam of Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.