I recently discovered an interesting book, Sinai and Golgotha: A journey in the East, which was published in 1849. I enjoy finding the different accounts of Egypt written by visitors at this period. It was one among many written by travellers in the 19th century. The author was Frederick Adolph Strauss, a clergyman in the Cathedral at Berlin, who had visited the Middle East and published his travelogue. It is interesting that parts of his comments on the Coptic Orthodox Church were published widely in British newspapers at the time. There was an interest in the state of the Eastern Churches which such publications satisfied, and there was a desire to see them restored to life, as far as Western travellers considered them to be lacking energy.
When we read descriptions by Western travellers it is not necessary to take everything at face value. Indeed, in this first passage much of what he says is wrong, and is mere second and third-hand reporting of what had already been said about the Coptic Church. It is interesting and necessary to see that Western writers considered the Coptic Orthodox Church to be almost spiritually dead. This was the basis of the missionary work they conducted. Where it was thought that there were signs of spiritual life, it usually meant that there were signs that the Coptic Orthodox Church was acting in a way that the person writing understood and expected from their own Western background.
This is the first passage from Sinai and Golgotha…
THE COPTIC CHURCH IN EGYPT.
Notwithstanding the oppression of the Mahometan lords of the land, a small band of the Primitive Christian inhabitants of Egypt, the Copts, still remains. In the dissensions of the first centuries, which had particular reference to the doctrine of the Trinity and to the person of Christ, the Christian Christian Egyptians belonged to the party of the Monophysites, who, not accepting the opinion the universal Church, that there are two natures, the Divine and the human, in the one person of the God man, acknowledged only one nature. Since the beginning of the sixth century, when the doctrine of the one nature was rejected with great decision and asperity, Copts have been excluded as an heretical party from the Greek or Eastern Church.
Being much oppressed by the Patriarch of Alexandria, they, in the following century, facilitated the Mahometan conquest of the country; preferring union with the Mussulmans to an association with Christian brethren, holding different opinion to their own. The protection of the Arabians soon changed into oppression and cruel domination, but their prejudice against Christians remains unabated. Distrustful and suspicious, they have kept far aloof from all other Churches. They are, therefore, more formal and benumbed than others, and the ignorance of the clergy and people is greater than in the other degenerate churches of the East. Indeed the Coptic Church has even several usages in common with the Mahometans, particularly when they accord with Old Testament practices.
Thus the rite of circumcision is observed by them, as well as the stated hours for prayer. Their service greatly resembles that of the Greek Church, only that, instead of one holy of holies they have three or four altar chambers, enclosed by doors and railings, in each of which service is alternately held. Before the holy of holies is the reading desk for the Gospels, a pulpit, if it be there, is never used. The language employed is always the Coptic, although the people understand only the Arabic, and it is also unintelligible to the majority of the clergy. The exterior of the churches is very poor, and the clergy are also extremely indigent. The convents, of which there are several scattered about the country, are much impoverished, and often present to the traveller melancholy exhibitions of misery, so that the entire Coptic Church offers a most saddening appearance. Its followers are distinguished by a black or dark blue turban from the Mussulmans, who wear white, or, if they are of the lineage of Mahomet, a green one. Their services are conducted almost only at night, or ending at sun-rise.
Every conversation with a Copt draws forth the sad story of his misery; now, for the first time for many centuries, agitation for the better is evident, preceding especially from the present patriarch. The visit paid him convinced me how deeply he was grieved at the position of the Church. That he is an exception to his predecessors is evident, from the fact of his being the first for many years, who, as head of the Abyssinian Church, has learned the Abyssinian language, in order be able to exercise his care over ths hitherto forsaken Church without interpreter.
The Patriarch at the time Strauss was writing must have been Peter VII, who reposed in 1852. There are various accounts of miraculous events in his Patriarchate. Some of the interesting comments in Strauss’ writing, which reflect his own views and not always the reality, include the recognition that there are multiple altars in the churches, and that as far as he was aware, Coptic was the only language used in the Church services and was not understood by the laity, or most clergy. It is interesting that he suggests that sermons are never given in the churches. He also points out several times, that from his perspective the clergy and monastics were all very poor indeed. He is clearly wrong in considering that circumcision and hours of prayer were copied from the Muslims.
What is harder to accept is his opinion that the Coptic Orthodox Church was formal (having only an appearance of religious service), benumbed, degenerate and ignorant. Such a view was commonplace, and failed to consider the inward life of the Church, comparing only the externals with what was known in the West. It is not surprising at all that Anglicans and Evangelicals and other Protestants saw themselves as rescuing the Egyptian Christians from spiritual darkness.
The position of the Copts has deeply affected the English Church ; which, with a spirit of christian love, that has put all other churches to the blush, has sent two missionaries to Cairo, Dr.Lieder, from Erfurt, and Kruse, from Elberfelt. Lieder is at the head of a seminary in which young men are trained for the Coptic Church ; and from their want of any previous instruction, it is certainly a very arduous undertaking. The Patriarch is present at the examinations, and has promised afterwards to provide situations for the youths, which would otherwise be a difficult matter. He particularly wishes that a thorough knowledge of the Coptic language should be imparted.
Dr. Lieder has instituted close investigations as well into the language as into the history of the Coptic Church, and it is to be hoped that they may soon be made known to the public. There is also a boy’s school under his superintendence, in which a hundred children are instructed by Coptic teachers, while Mrs. Lieder conducts a well-attended girl’s school. All these children remain the whole day in the spacious schoolhouse, and take their meals there ; and the selfsacrificing love with which Lieder and his wife devote themselves to these various institutions, is much to be admired.
No-one should doubt the genuine Christian sentiments which were behind these efforts at the education of youths of the Coptic Orthodox Church at the hands of Protestant missionaries, especially in this early period. The education of girls was especially important. As far as Strauss was concerned, these youth began their studies with little or no education at all. While the Patriarch appears to have been most concerned that an education in the Coptic language be provided. Thus far, well and good. But it was the case that Seminary education for the Church was now being provided by a well-meaning Protestant missionary, Dr. Leider, who had his own vision for the Coptic Church, whether or not he was providing instruction in the Coptic language.
Strauss describes this activity in a little more detail, saying…
The more catechetical duties are performed by the other missionary, Kruse, quite in the spirit of the Wupperthal. He distributes tracts and Bibles in the Arabic language, and accompanies these with exhortations. He has appropriated a room in his house to christian books for general use ; and either Kruse or his assistant, an enlightened Copt, is always ready to explain them, or to converse with such as may desire it. A large number of Copts resort there to receive religious instruction. In addition to this, Kruse undertakes mission journeys to various parts of Egypt, where he distributes Bibles and Testaments, and seeks, by conversation, to arouse the minds of the clergy and people.
A collection of sermons in the Arabic language has also been made, for the use of the clergy. There are abundant evidences of the blessed results of such mission journeys. The Copts have schools in all parts, in which reading, writing, and arithmetic are taught; for they are the scribes of Egypt, and when any thing is required to be read or reckoned, they, the former lords of the land, are applied to; and in this way they have preserved a species of power, notwithstanding their present state of degradation. The children are taught to read from the Bible, as the Mahometans are from the Koran, although the entire school often possessed but a single copy of one book of the Scriptures. Through Kruse’s activity every school has now at least one Bible, and every child a part of the same ; so that the Word of God will be again made known through the children to the parents.
Again, there is no need to doubt the sincerity of these two missionaries, Lieder and Kruse. Strauss aludes to Wupperthal, a region of South Africa where not long before two Protestant missionaries had established a mission church. This was entirely what he recognised was happening in Egypt. The catechesis, or instruction, which Kruse was supplying was based on Protestantism, as was the desire for as many as possible to have the Bible themselves. It is not that Christians should not read the Bible, but Protestantism is based on the idea that each Christian should read the Bible and decide for themselves what it means and says. This was the intention in the case of all the distribution of Scriptures which Kruse was engaged in. Based on the very poor opinion they held of the Coptic Orthodox Church this was intended as an act of mercy and compassion. But we might well wish to insist that they had not properly understood the Church and the Faith at all.
A little further on he writes…
Besides these numerous objects, the missionaries hold a service in Arabic every Sunday afternoon in the seminary; … The youths themselves form the choir, and lead the singing.
We know from other accounts that the Seminary students were expected to attend this Arabic service at the Seminary, where it was the prayers of the Anglican Church which were offered, and not those of the Coptic Orthodox Church. There is no need to dismiss the prayers of the Church of England, but as Strauss describes, these were indeed missionaries, and it was their own faith and practice which they were seeking to introduce into Egypt, and through the Seminary they organised, into the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Strauss takes a trip up the Nile with his travelling companion, and returning to Cairo he visits a small village school as he comes to the ruins of the ancient temples. He records…
In a small and dirty mud hut squatted about sixteen ragged boys, who were learning to read from the Bibles given them by Kruse. I examined some of them, and they really read with great fluency. But when I asked them some questions about the festival of Christmas, which they had recently celebrated, and the Epiphany; about the birth of Christ, and the history of his death, they could tell me nothing; and the schoolmaster excused their ignorance by saying that the elder boys were absent. He seemed to consider it his duty to instruct them merely in reading and writing.
This encounter perhaps illustrates that the missionaries were doing a good thing. They were indeed encouraging basic education in many places. But travellers such as Strauss were not always able to see what was happening and made their own judgements. It would be better to consider that the young boys were willing to read in Arabic, but were either shy, embarrassed, or did not want to draw attention to themselves when asked about the feasts and the life of Christ. This need not represent ignorance at all, though there is no need to go to the other extreme and suggest that this basic education was not necessary. Strauss does not seem able to recognise that could tell me nothing in many cultures often means would tell me nothing.
A little further down the Nile we read…
In the schools we visited we heard most edifying hymns in the Arabic and Coptic languages. All our questions about Christ remained unanswered, as the elder boys were assisting, by their songs, the festivities of a wedding. One of them, who arrived before our departure, and who was intended for a clergyman, was able to sustain a common conversation.
It is encouraging that Strauss found the hymns being sung by these children something memorable and commendable. He still expects the children to answer his questions about Christ, and there are lots of reasons why they might not want to answer him. But when he took the time to listen and observe them at prayer he reports their hymns as being edifying, even though he has given such a poor report about the Church at large.
His views about the Coptic Orthodox Church are expressed again when he says…
The gospel of Christ was announced, and Egypt received the word with joy; churches rose on the banks of the river, and the desert was peopled with monks and hermits. Men taught of God rose up, from whose writings we are thankful even now to learn. …the old curse again appeared in the Christians of the land, who, contending about the doctrines of Christ, forgot the life in Christ. Parties and divisions arose, destitute of the bond of love, and the time came for the candlestick to be taken away... Spiritual darkness and ignorance reign in the country, which once shone as a light in art and science to all the lands.
This is a summary of what was believed about the Coptic Orthodox Church in the middle of the 19th century by the various Protestant missionaries and travellers who visited, and by those British Christians who read and heard their accounts. The Coptic Church had been established in great hope and had seen wonderful blessing, but in the earliest times it had forgotten the life in Christ, fallen away from love, and had its candlestick taken away by God. Everywhere there is spiritual darkness and ignorance! No wonder the Protestant missionaries felt obliged to come to Egypt if this was their view.
Strauss was sure that the prophecies of Isaiah were to be fulfilled in the Protestant missions which were now beginning in Egypt. The Lord shall smite Egypt ; he shall smite and heal it: and they shall return to the Lord, and he shall be intreated of them, and shall heal them.
This account is interesting because of what it reveals about Strauss as a visitor to Egypt before 1849, and the extent to which his own preconceptions colour his experience and his understanding of what he encounters. The Protestant missions which he commends were certainly engaged in by those with honest intentions. But they were predicated on a particular interpretation of the state of the Church in Egypt, an interpretation which could be reasonably challenged at the time, and in the present.