Protestant Attempts to Influence the Coptic Orthodox Church
Part I – The first Protestant missions in Egypt
This paper is concerned with what it means to “stand fast and hold the traditions” which we have been taught, in an age when the members of the Church are liable to be influenced by a very wide range of alternative cultures and lifestyles, many of which are inimicable to the Orthodox Faith and Life. It will especially consider the first influence of Protestant missionaries in Egypt. For many past centuries, the faithful Christian members of the various Orthodox communities have lived out their Orthodox Faith in situations of relatively stable social and religious environments. There have been wars and rumours of wars, there have been periods of persecution, but generally speaking the culture of Egypt, or Syria, or Ethiopia, or any of the countries in which Orthodoxy had been established has changed slowly and such changes as have taken place have been accommodated in a more or less successful manner.
But over the last century and a half the Orthodox Churches have found themselves facing an increasing and even overwhelming tide of cultural and religious influences, and the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria has not been immune from the pressures these influences have produced.
The Church Mission Society first sent missionaries to in Egypt in the 1820’s and concentrated much of its activity and energy on the Coptic Orthodox Church. Even before them, in the late 18th century, Moravian Protestant missionaries had been seeking to spread their Protestant teachings in Egypt. It might seem strange that Western, Evangelical Protestant missionary societies should direct their ministry towards an ancient Orthodox Christian community, but these Protestant missionaries, and those who followed them, though undoubtedly motivated by good intentions, had a very low view indeed of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
One of the Moravians had reported that he..
“..found the hearts of the Copts like stone. Hence he went to Behnessa, where he gained access to the hearts of the people and was blessed to the conversion of some of the Copts in the power of the Holy Ghost….He did much to recommend the simple saving Gospel of Jesus Christ”.
Just a few years later another Moravian missionary, writing in 1774, says..
“He rejoiced to see the ‘Word of the Cross’ finding entrance into the hearts of not a few among the Copts”.
It was not until 1823 that the Church Mission Society commenced its own activities in Egypt. At this early date we read that the first workers for this organisation..
“Travelled up and down Egypt, visiting the Coptic schools, distributing portions of the Scriptures, and making known the true Gospel”.
These few examples are provided to allow us to see that from the beginning it was the opinion of these Protestant missionaries that the Coptic Orthodox Church lacked the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or promoted a false Gospel. They considered that they were bringing the Christian life and message to those who were ignorant of it. Thus we read of Coptic Orthodox Christians being converted, as if most were not properly Christians, and we read of the true Gospel being preached, as if the Coptic Orthodox Church were not built upon the Apostolic witness to the Gospel.
Now it might perhaps be considered that reference to only one volume describing Protestant missionary activity among the Copts does not prove very much at all. But in fact all of the histories of these organisations speak in the same way, and quite naturally so. It would be offensive indeed to preach the Gospel to those who already lived by the Gospel, but if it could be said that the Coptic Orthodox Church was altogether deficient then this mission to those who were not really Christian becomes commendable, as far as the Protestant missionaries and their supporters were concerned.
Another Protestant history of mission in Egypt says the following..
“Ignorance of the way of salvation is nearly the same among Copts, who have not been subject to Protestant influences, as among the Moslems. The former know Christ as the son of Mary; but of salvation by the grace of God through belief in a crucified Saviour, of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, of Christian life in Christ, and the indissoluble connection between true faith and a pure life of obedience, they seem as ignorant as the followers of Mohammed”.
This at least has the advantage of making abundantly clear that the Protestant missionaries did not consider the Coptic Orthodox to know salvation in Christ, and therefore they were the natural objects of the Great Commission, ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel’. Even in those works written by missionaries who seem most sympathetic, there is a strong and over-riding sense that the Coptic Orthodox Church bears witness to a Christian Church of the past, rather than the present. Another author writes…
“The mere fact of the existence of the ancient Coptic churches of Old Cairo… is proof positive to the modern missionary that Christianity can be introduced into Egypt from without”.
And elsewhere the same author writes…
“Their beliefs are in many respects corrupt, and among the poorer Copts great ignorance prevails and strange superstitions”.
This is, unfortunately, only to repeat the views, widely held, about the nature of the Coptic Orthodox Faith by the Protestant Missionaries and their supporters. Another author, writing of the value of primary schools organised by the Protestant missions says…
“There must be, first, primary schools, where, from the earliest years, the principles and practices of our holy (Protestant) religion would be taught, and where habits and customs so numerous and so utterly inconsistent with the Christianity of God’s Word would be rooted up”.
It is clear from these sources that the Protestant missionaries from the 18th century into the 19th and 20th centuries, viewed the Coptic Orthodox Church as a community which retained some faith in Jesus Christ, but had little or no knowledge of salvation, and no experience of the Christian life. It was this opinion which motivated and inspired their mission to Copts, and it was this opinion which directed their activities.
From an early period in the 19th century it became clear that it was difficult to introduce the Protestant faith and spirituality to adult Copts. The decision was therefore made that by reaching the children of the Coptic Orthodox community it would be possible to gain greater number of converts, and in due course to influence the direction and nature of the future Coptic Orthodox Church. We have seen this programme referred to in the preceding reference, but we also have a comprehensive correspondence between members of the Church Mission Society which describes their intentions in great detail.
The Anglican representatives had been welcomed by the Coptic Patriarch, Peter VII, who had been willing to receive whatever assistance the Church of England might be able to propose. It was during the Patriarchate of Pope Peter VII that the representatives of the Russian Czar also proposed some form of protection for the Coptic Orthodox Church. The growing influence of various Western powers in Egypt certainly required the Patriarch to respond with a degree of caution to all such approaches. He must also have considered that the Anglican efforts to translate the scriptures and other materials into Arabic and provide printed editions might well benefit the Church. Nevertheless the Church Missionary Society reported that the relations they had been able to develop with Pope Peter gave them confidence for the success of their mission. The Pope addressed himself to the Archbishop of Canterbury in a letter which approves the projected establishment of an Institute to train young Copts for the priesthood, under the organisation of a Church of England clergyman. But the same letter also insists that whether the project succeed or fail the costs of the Institute would not be borne by the Coptic Orthodox Church, and most importantly the Pope writes…
“This we have accepted with entire approbation because of the EnglishChurch being drawn towards our Coptic Church of St Mark”.
The CMS missionaries had decided to stress the fact that the Church of England was also an episcopal Church, and it would also seem that there had been some impression given that the Church of England wished some relationship with the Coptic Orthodox Church rather than seeing the Coptic community as in need of conversion to Christ.
The CMS proposed the establishment of a boarding school for between twelve and fifteen young deacons. It was especially to be a boarding school so as to…
“..promote individual conversion, as far as it depends from human means; and to have therefore these favoured subjects under the immediate eye of the Principal of the Institution, not only to have their minds constantly influenced and surrounded, as it were, by a Gospel spirit, but to preserve them particularly from the bane of the demoralising usages by which they might be infected from without”.
We see that the students were to be isolated from the companionship of those outside the Institution, so that they might be detached from the rites of the Coptic Orthodox Church which are described as ‘demoralising usages’. Indeed the whole programme of this Institute was designed…
“… with a constant intention to render them all, what for the future may make them, fit for the preaching of the Gospel, as well if chosen for the ministry in their own Church, as if not, for general or specific Missionary purposes”.
The intention of all this activity was therefore to prepare these Coptic Orthodox youth to preach the Protestant message whether these youth became priests in the Coptic Orthodox Church or served as essentially Protestant missionaries in other ministries. This collection of correspondence reveals that the CMS intended to use the Anglican services of Evening Prayer in Arabic to attract the students who would be required to attend, and any others who might be drawn by curiosity. Nor is even this intention without a manifest criticism of the Coptic Orthodox services and rites. Indeed in one letter it is reported…
“I believe that our edifying, evangelical Church service will attract many people, and that it cannot otherwise than produce a beneficial effect upon their minds, the more so if they compare it with the unevangelical, and in dead languages, deadening liturgies of their own Churches”.
It might be excusable to discover that these Protestant missionaries had a great treasure which they wished to share with the members of the ancient Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. But in fact they could not have had a lower estimation of the value of the Orthodox rites and spirituality of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The liturgies are not only different to those of the CMS Missionaries, but they are considered in every sense to be deficient and worthy of criticism. Indeed what criticism could be more severe than to state that the rites of the Coptic Orthodox Church are not only unevangelical, that is, contrary to the Gospel, but also deadening, that is causing spiritual harm.
If we consider the curriculum which was proposed to be used in this Institute, we find that Arabic would be taught, to prepare students to be missionaries. Coptic would be included, though the missionaries write…
“It is to be pitied that this dead language must be introduced into this institution, yet it is unavoidably necessary”.
The missionaries also wanted to ensure that students became fluent in English, with the aim of producing men able to translate Protestant texts into Arabic. They were greatly concerned that the influence of the French in preceding decades had allowed ‘Popery’ to gain precedence in Egypt. Other practical subjects such as Mathematics would be taught. But so too would Doctrine, of which it is said…
“The lecturer on this important branch of education ought carefully to avoid all party peculiarities and give the doctrines as revealed to us and warranted in the Word of God”.
Here we see where the greatest threat to the Orthodox Church was intended. Students, who would be expected to enter the priesthood of the Coptic Orthodox Church would not be taught the doctrines of the Church, but those Protestant teachings which the Protestant missionaries found in their reading of the Scriptures. It should be stated again that clearly these missionaries had good intentions, but they entirely failed to consider the Coptic Orthodox Church as a living expression of the Church of Christ, so much so that the missionaries in Egypt were able to write to their supporters in the West saying…
“I hope and I pray that our Committee will be able to grant this additional boon to the Coptic Church. A Church which gives, fallen as it is, great hope … that it may again be revived, by the grace of God, that it might become a Gospel-Lighthouse to the nations …”.
Let us be clear, what is being described here is the hope that the Coptic Orthodox Church will become so Protestantised that it would be able to conduct Protestant missionary work in the surrounding countries, and this Protestantisation will only take place by the exclusion of all those aspects of Orthodox faith, practice and spirituality which the Protestant CMS missionaries find so objectionable. The Protestant missionaries and their supporters thought it for the best but were unable to find the spiritual riches which were already present in and preserved among the Orthodox Christians of Egypt.
In 1847 it was noted that the Bishop of Esneh, Amba Michael, had entrusted the care of his young nephew entirely to the Protestant missionary, Leidner, “and that as he had dedicated him to the priesthood, he now submitted the whole of his theological studies to me”. It is reasonable to conclude that in the few years since the establishment of the CMS Institition the influence of these Protestant missionaries had already begun to reach those at the highest level in the Church. Nevertheless in 1848, just a year later, Leidner submitted another report in which he expressed the view that the Institution was not achieving the ends which had been hoped for it, and proposed that the project be modified or abandoned. Consequently the Institution was closed.
But of course, as previous references have shown, this was not the end of the Protestant ambition to convert the Coptic Orthodox Church to Protestantism through the education of the youth. Even as late as 1896 American Protestant missionaries could write…
“Such was the Coptic Church, and such were the Coptic people… Christian in name, Christian in form … well typified by the mummified human bodies taken out of the tombs”.
At the time of the establishment of the short-lived Institution to train young Coptic Orthodox men in the teachings of Protestantism there were already hundreds of other Coptic Orthodox children being taught in schools, and being inculcated with a particular Protestant interpretation of the Scriptures. The missionaries are perhaps to be commended for seeking to reach Muslims with some form at least of the Christian message, but they continued to view the Coptic Orthodox community as one which needed to be reached anew with the Christian message and were unable to respect the Coptic Orthodox Faith as one which had preserved Apostolic integrity. Through the establishment of day and boarding schools the missionaries hoped to influence as many Coptic Orthodox youth as possible, both to accept their Protestant interpretation of the Scriptures and to experience a Protestant conversion to Christ.
In the following decades the Protestant missions continued to gain a following, and a number of congregations were established, drawn mostly from people who had been persuaded from among the Coptic Orthodox community. The next Paper in this series will examine those decades in which the first adult Coptic Orthodox converts separated themselves from the Coptic Orthodox Church and established Protestant congregations under the direction of Western missionaries. But it will also consider the growing unease with which the hierarchy of the Church viewed these developments and the actions which were taken to combat the threat these Protestant missions posed.
If this were simply a matter of historical record it might not matter, but even as recently as November, 2009, reports in the Egyptian press described a controversy between the Coptic Orthodox and Protestant communities caused by the revelation of CD which documented plans to try to convert the Coptic Orthodox community to Protestantism in just two decades. Nor does it seem that the preferred means of converting the Coptic Orthodox through ministry directed at the youth has changed over the last 160 years. In the early years of the Protestant missions towards the Coptic Orthodox it was hoped that Copts would be converted within the Orthodox Church and influence the direction of the Church, and the development of a Protestant outlook, from inside the ranks of the leaders and most active Orthodox members. It would seem that many Protestant groups today are more than willing to adopt the same strategy.
Bearing in mind the negative views which the Protestant missionaries held of the Coptic Orthodox Church, it is surely necessary for all faithful Orthodox Christians to be aware that Protestant influence, both now and then, is directed towards the well-intentioned goals which Protestants hold, and is not based on any desire to positively encourage and support the life of the Orthodox Church. The intended effects of such influence, which are no less than the subversion of the Coptic Orthodox Church, must surely be a cause for concern and caution wherever such influence arises, as later papers will consider.
- Association for the Furtherance of Christianity in Egypt. Letters and Papers: concerning the Coptoc Church in relation to the Church of England, under the Primacy of Archbishop Howley 1836-1848 (AFCE, London: 1883)
- Gollock, Minna, River, Sand and Sun (Church Missionary House, London: 1906)
- Roome, William J.A, Blessed be Egypt (Marshall Bros, London: 1898)
- Watson, Andrew, American Mission in Egypt (UPBP, Pittsburgh: 1924)
Father Peter Farrington
 1 Peter IV:17.
 2 Thess II:15.
 Watson, 1924, 22.
 Ibid, 28.
 Ibid, 32.
 Roome, 1898, 17.
 Matt. XXVIII:19.
 Gollock, 1906, 84.
 Ibid, 34.
 Roome, 1898, 17.
 AFCE, 1883, 55.
 Ibid, 63.
 Ibid, 64.
 Ibid, 65.
 Ibid, 67.
 Ibid, 69.
 Ibid, 74.
 Ibid, 97.
 Watson, 1924, 59.
 The International, Nov 10, 2009. http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/africa/evangelicals-woo-egyptian-copts