Saturday, November 02, 2013

Book Review (#19 of 2013) My Life and Times in Turkey by Cyrus Hamlin

This is a follow-up to the post I wrote about Hamlin being a pioneer of what is now called "business as missions." Hamlin (Wikipedia entry) is a forgotten American gem and his book is both a fantastic look at both pre-1850's New England and life and politics in Istanbul in the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-1800s.

Hamlin's life begins rather un-remarkably, he was born into a fairly successful Maine farming family. Hamlin's father died while Cyrus was little and left the estate to his wife who then had to figure out how to run it. The family learns to farm through trial-and-error and the help of neighbors. Hamlin recounts holidays-- he laments how modern 4th of July celebrations have "lost the spirit of '76," for example. His mother was devout and church was a Sunday ritual. Hamlin and his family also shared a love of reading, and Hamlin (helpfully) records which books were available.

At sixteen, he moves to a city to begin an apprenticeship as a silversmith, something he is successful at. Eventually, he reaches a conversion point, embracing his Christian faith and pondering whether he is called to full-time ministry. Eventually, he decides to enter full-time study and is supported by his church in the effort. He completes a prep academy, a college, and then a seminary, with honors. He has an engineering mind, determining at one point to build the first steam engine in Maine. He finds he can lecture on certain subjects for the public for a fee to support himself, as well as fill pulpits while awaiting his appointment as a missionary with the American Board.

Hamlin provides a nice snapshot of the American Church and missions in that time. His family is appointed to Istanbul to work with the minority Armenian population there. He arrives and witnesses great persecution among Armenian Protestants, primarily from the Armenian Orthodox who Hamlin maintains are taking orders from the Orthodox heads in St. Petersburg, Russia. Hamlin eventually founds a seminary, but finds his Armenian students are too poor to study well. So, he ignores the criticism of his Board and builds a workshop to train them in marketable trades. This allows several to find employment enough to feed their families and pay for their ministry activities. Hamlin claims that ultimately the workshop provided enough funds to build thirteen Armenian churches, as a revival sweeps the area.

Hamlin also builds an oven for baking bread, catering to Western tastes. When the Crimean War starts, the British maintained a large hospital in the area and Hamlin becomes the sole contractor of bread (and later laundry services). He meets Florence Nightinggale, who cleans up the hospital.

Eventually, Hamlin is instrumental in founding Robert College, named after an American whose donations made it possible. After years of lobbying and struggling with Turkish-Armenian politics, Hamlin is eventually issued an Imperial edict to construct a building for the school and for it to fly an American flag and be under American protection, the first institution of its kind in the Ottoman Empire. That's a remarkable story, made more remarkable by the fact that Robert College still exists and is considered one of the best high schools in Turkey.

I loved this book for many reasons, and I learned a lot from it. I learn a lot from every book I read from the 1800s, and Hamlin, thankfully, wrote another about his time in Turkey and points me to many others written by his acquaintances. Five stars out of five.

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