William Shedd and the Genocide of Assyrian Christians

William Shedd and the Genocide of Assyrian Christians

William Ambrose Shedd was born January 24, 1865, in the mountain village of Seir, near Urmia, in today’s Northwestern Iran, near Turkey. About one quarter of the population at that time was Assyrian, and predominantly Christian. According to William’s second wife and biographer, Mary, 30,000 Christians lived in the area around Urmia and 70,000 in the Kurdish mountains. The laws of the country were considerably in disfavor of the Christian population, who continued to be mistreated by Muslims without an opportunity to redress.

This large number of Christians moved the American Board of Commission for Foreign Missions to send a group of missionaries to the area. Two of these were John Haskell Shedd and Sarah Jane Dawes, William’s parents.

After completing their basic studies, William and his older brother Charles went on to study at Marietta College, in Ohio, where their grandmother and aunt lived. He returned to Urmia on occasions, to visit his parents. When he graduated from Marietta, he offered to oversee the mission for a short time, in order to give his parents a much-needed respite.

Called to the Mission Field

He immediately learned his limitations. “I need guidance and especially moderation,” he said. “I wish I knew how to be firm and yet gentle. More and more I feel my weakness in comparison with the work given me to do.”[1]

At their return, he went back to the States to study at Princeton College, where he began to feel a calling serve in the missions, particularly to Muslims. “It seems to me that it is the hardest missionary problem and one in which there are the fewest ready and competent to engage.”[2]

After his graduation in 1892, he was ordained as minister of the gospel in the Presbyterian Church, and returned to Urmia, where his father’s health was declining. By the time John died in 1895, William was ready to take his place.

His vision was to widen the scope of the mission beyond the limitation of the Christian community in Urmia, in order to reach other Christian communities in the mountains, as well as their Muslim neighbors.

Many Muslims in the area were friendly to Christians, but based their friendship on the belief that Islam and Christianity were fairly similar. Shedd agreed that finding common ground is a good start, but it should not be seen as the end of the discussion:

“I do not believe there is a single doctrine in which the teachings of the two religions are really identical,” he said. “In admitting identity, the danger is that the truth of Christianity be minimized. For example, forgiveness by free grace is fundamental to both religions; but in Islam the basis is God's absolute will, and in Christianity, it is His justice and righteousness manifested in the Atonement.”[3]

He also believed that the doctrine of God’s immanence in human lives and history “secures the Divine Presence in a real way,” while the Islamic doctrine of successive imams or prophets secures it only “in an illusory way.”[4]

But he also learned much from the people around them, and had “great hopes that Orientals will some day state truth in new and beautiful ways. They have a power of illustration and explanation that is very striking.”[5]

On a personal level, he said, “Dealing with the legalistic and literalistic conception carried to extremes in Orthodox Islam has made me prize as never before the liberty of the Gospel, the freedom from Law, and the whole conception of Christianity as a power by grace.”[6]

In April 1903, William married another missionary, Louise Wilbur, from Riverside, California. They had two daughters. Louise was an invaluable help to William, whose health had never been very strong. He suffered, among other things, from corneal ulcers that forced him to work in the dark for long periods of time. In 1909, he was diagnosed with “incipient tuberculosis.” “The name ‘tuberculosis’ is not pleasant, and I have been rebellious, but I have no right to be, of course,”[7] he wrote to a friend.

William recognized God’s grace in preserving his faith through the trials. “It is Christ who holds me to the faith, and not the theory of the faith that makes Christ credible,”[8] he said.

The Assyrian Genocide

In 1913, persecutions against Christians intensified, and the start of World War I only made things worse. Both Iran and Turkey became the scene of rivalries between foreign powers – mostly Russia and Britain. This was the time of the Armenian genocide, when the Ottoman rulers, fearful their Armenian subjects might be siding with Russia, began a campaign of deportation and mass killings that resulted in about one and a half million deaths.

A similar persecution started against Assyrian Christians. In this case, it was not mandated by the government, but was brought out sporadically by local rulers or Kurdish tribes. As the deaths mounted, Shedd tried to intercede with the Turkish authorities, with little success.

The mission became a place of refuge for thousands. In one occasion, it was taken under siege. Food was scarce but wheat was relatively inexpensive, so that, by pulling together all their resources, the missionaries were able to give each person one 10-ounce loaf of bread every day. In one occasion, they fed 15,000 people at once.

They also provided medical assistance, as much as possible, and supplemented the diet of the sick with tea, eggs, and milk. While, at this point, few people died of actual starvation, about 35 died daily of diseases their weary and malnourished bodies could not fight. The crowded environment worsened the situation. Typhus, typhoid, and cholera ran rampant, without regard for the missionaries and their children. Soon, Louise fell ill, and died a few days later. As William’s second wife Mary wrote of that time:

“We dwelt so long in the valley of death with the sick, the hungry, the dying, the never-ceasing wail, hands outstretched for what we could not give, and our own number coming down one after another, that each went about his work knowing that he might be next. Yet we managed to keep fairly cheerful and frequently found occasions for laughing.”[9]

In some ways, William noticed, the severity of the situation was their “salvation.” “The sense of our own weakness and the inadequacy of all the means at our disposal had the double effect of making us quick to use every possible means and of throwing us back into the arms of the Heavenly Father. … We were never alone. … The Great Companion who longed to have His friends near at the time of the agony of Gethsemane, who looked down from the Cross on their faces, was with us, closer and more real than ever before.”[10]

Every Sunday, the gospel was preached, and the Lord’s Supper was distributed to hundreds of desperate people. “The need of repentance, the power of prayer, the forgiving spirit, dependence on God's love, and the hope of eternal life beyond the reach of earth’s alarms were the topics most often presented,”[11] William wrote.

The following spring, the siege ended, giving way to the hard work of reconstruction and healing. And the threat of violence was by no means over.

It was during this period of watchful respite that William married for a second time. His new bride, Mary Lewis, had been a missionary in Urmia for fourteen years.

The Challenge of Public Office

The Russian Revolution of 1917 threw the Russian army into a state of anarchy and brought more instability in the region. Shedd was invited to offer his services as chairman of the Relief Committee, a position he found consistent with the assistance he had been providing.

He also used his position to oppose a systemic persecution of Christians. This public stand generated hostility. “Dr. Shedd was accused of about everything, from recruiting an English army and bribing the Governor, to robbing the mails and stealing Relief funds,”[12] Mary wrote.

Shedd was faced with a difficult choice: disengage himself from any public office, and lose the opportunity to protect the Christian population, or keep his position and make compromises that will inevitably bring criticism. “I need not say that the situation is a delicate one and must be handled carefully,” he wrote. “I anticipate there will be complaints against me at Teheran, and if the purpose of our diplomacy is merely to avoid complaints, I may be blamed. But if it be to try to help secure order in the country for ourselves and others, I do not see how I could follow any other course.”[13]

His coworkers were impressed by his wisdom, humility, patience, and “his ability to see what was usable even in the worst of men, and to command that service as well as the love and respect of the man behind it.”[14]

His wisdom was tested again in 1918, when a new wave of violence brought a thousand Kurdish and Persian refugees to the mission in search for relief. Once again, Shedd provided for their needs within the limits of his abilities. The Assyrian Christians, however, could not understand how he could help their enemies, especially after the assassination of one of their patriarchs – an act which, in their culture, required vengeance.

Eventually, the Christians organized a resistance against the Turks. At that point, Shedd had to admit they had a right to defend their lands. “It is not a question of fighting between Moslems and Christians, but the question of the armed Christians repelling Turkish troops who have invaded the country.”[15]

The Last Flight

The situation reached a climax on July 31, 1918, when a group of Armenian refugees arrived in Urmia, Kurds and Turks fast approaching behind them. At that point, the inhabitants of Urmia had no choice but follow the Armenians. By staying in their homes, they would have just been sitting targets.

The missionaries stayed, together with those who were too ill to flee. But Shedd decided to go with the refugees, for two reasons: the Turks had blamed him for all the problems, and would have probably taken revenge, and the refugees begged him to go with them.

The trip was long and adventurous, with Shedd riding in the rear to stave off the approaching enemy. By the time they arrived at the British camp, they breathed a sight of relief – everyone but Mary, who saw her husband exhausted and overtaken by fever. She placed him on a cart and tried to bring relief to him, but nothing helped. The British doctor was away and the only person with medical experience at the camp lacked supplies. Eventually, he died, as did several thousands of other refugees, mostly from diseases they had contracted during the journey.

Those who were able to move on, did. Mary reached a group of American missionaries. She later discovered that thousands of Christians who had not gone on the march had also died. Even most of the missionaries at Urmia had died, some by the sword and others by diseases the Turks and Kurds brought with them. A renewed attack killed even more. Overall, the total number of Assyrian Christians killed at this time has been estimated at 275,000.

Not the End

“Is this the end?” Mary wondered. “A thousand years of missionary life have been given to the peoples over there. For eighty years Christ has been preached and the principles of His Gospel have been taught through word and deed by missionaries sent from our own land, while thousands of His followers there through the years have witnessed by life and by death to the faith that was in them.”[16]

Is this the end? She remembered the promise in Psalm 126:5, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy.” “God has not left Himself without witness here,” she thought.

She also remembered some words William had written two years earlier, and placed them at the end of her book: “May God grant and may we who know so well the wrongs that have been borne, so labor that the cause of these wrongs be removed. That will be done when Christ rules in the hearts of those who profess His name and is acknowledged by all, not merely as a great prophet but as the Saviour for Whose coming prophecy prepared the way, Who is the fulfillment of revelation, and in Whom human destiny will find its goal.”[17]

[1] Mary Lewis Shedd, The Measure of a Man: The Life of William Ambrose Shedd, Missionary to Persia (New York: George H. Doran, 1922), 49.

[2] Ibid., 52

[3] Ibid., 111

[4] Ibid., 113

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 133

[8] Ibid., 134

[9] Ibid., 179

[10] Ibid., 184, 186

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 224

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 228

[15] Ibid., 243

[16] Ibid., 279

[17] Ibid., 280

Simonetta Carr