One of the leading activities of the missionary organization known as the American Board in the Ottoman lands was to train future Protestant clergy. For this purpose, the organization opened the Bebek Seminary under the management of Cyrus Hamlin (1811-1900) in 1841. The board planned that students from Anatolia, as well as from the Armenian and Greek populations living in or near Istanbul, would enroll in this school. The reason why Istanbul was chosen as the location for the school was that the non-Muslim population in this city was more urbanized and wealthier as compared to other regions. Another reason was that non-Muslims from other regions were constantly travelling back and forth to this city for commercial reasons or for seasonal employment; this meant that they could be communicated from this city easier. The missionaries thought that while the education and general level of competence of men in schools were rapidly improving, women fell behind. Girls should be trained according to the Protestant understanding in religion. They should receive education in sciences and general home economics and as such be good candidates for marriage to the young men who were trained at the Bebek Seminary. In this way, the inequality would be removed and the two genders would be brought together on an equal level. The Theology School for Girls dedicated to education for girls opened in Pera in 1845. The first class consisted of eight Armenian students.
Armenian clergymen fiercely opposed to the Pera School. As a result, the missionaries relocated the school in the village of Bebek across the Bosporus in 1850. However, due to the continuing opposition of Greek and Armenian clergymen, three years later, the missionaries decided to move the school to Hasköy. The main reason why Hasköy was chosen was that there was a larger and wealthier Armenian population living there. This made it much easier to find students for the school. After being run by a missionary family for ten years, the seminary became a corporation, and its management was entrusted to a director.
In addition to the Director Harriet M. Lovell, there were other notable people on the teaching staff: Abigail P.D. Goodell, Seraphine H. Everett, Maria A. West, and the young Armenian Armaveni, who had been raised by missionaries. In the Hasköy period, Sarah E. West, Baron Krikor and Baron Abraham joined the personnel. Natural science and mental philosophy were added to the curriculum at that time; the content of existing lessons was also strengthened.
The four-year curriculum of the Pera School consisted of the following subjects: reading the Old and New Testaments, catechism, classical Armenian, arithmetic, ethics, contemporary history, English, geography, writing, religious music and dress-making. The school also provided extracurricular activities such as Sabbath programs, a book club, monthly prayer meetings, Friday meetings, public rites, and a program which gave the girls the opportunity to lecture at the local school in Beyoğlu. Biblical readings and teaching in the girls’ native language were essential. Among the textbooks available at the school were Frederick Emerson’s North American Arithmetic, and System of Natural Sciences, Thomas C. Upham’s Intellectual Philosophy, Memoir of Mary Lothrop, prepared by the Epistle Community of America, Thomas Hopkins’ Child’s Book on the Soul, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Francis Wayland’s Moral Science and Todd’s Questions Book. Another aspect of the school’s activity was that the students were required to perform chores. Accordingly, the girls would do the ironing, prepare and clear the table at meals, wash dishes and carry water. They did not do laundry or cook meals. In addition, the girls sewed handiwork and clothing that one of the teachers sold in order to generate funds for scholarships.
In 1862, the American Board decided to relocate the Bebek Theology School to Merzifon, and the Theology School for girls was to follow. The reason for this decision was that after the students came to study in Istanbul and saw the city’s prosperity, they were unwilling to go back to their hometowns and live in relative poverty, failing to re-adapt to their old lifestyles and clothing.
In 17 years between its foundation in October 1845 and the relocation to Merzifon, 128 girls were enrolled. 83 of these were from Istanbul and surrounding areas. The distribution of the 45 students who came from Anatolia was broken down into 5 from İzmir, 2 from Bursa, 2 from Tekirdağ, 13 from İznik, 3 from Bahçecik, 2 from Adapazarı, 1 from Bilecik, 6 from Trabzon, 3 from Merzifon, 2 from Tokat, 1 from Erzurum, 1 from Athens and 3 from Diyarbakır. 37 of the aforementioned 128 students completed the four-year education. 60 of these students received less than two years of education. Half of the total became members of the Protestant Church and 18 married local pastors.
According to the data given above, we can evaluate the religious education and conversion of Ottoman non-Muslim women in the nineteenth century. In this population, which was dominated by traditional family life, a young girl’s stay as a boarding student for four years away from home was a new and notably important step. Furthermore, the fact that one-third of these girls came from rural areas made the experience that the Theology School offered even more significant. Thus, it is possible to say that the Istanbul American Theology School for Girls played a leading role in the education of non-Muslim girls. As a matter of fact, this institution educated most of the wives of the pastors and teachers who were trained at Bebek Seminary. In addition, girls who graduated from Pera Seminary for Girls had a strong presence in the teaching staff in local schools that were opened by Protestants in Protestant neighborhoods. Non-Muslim family and education models, influenced by western lifestyle, gained in popularity in the first half of the century.
The school moved to Merzifon and continued its education as the Merzifon Girls’ Boarding School until 1912. In 1924, it was reopened as the American School of Life for Girls and became a four-year secondary school. It was closed permanently in 1938, due to lack of enrollment and financial problems.
Anderson, Rufus, History of the Missions of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, to the Oriental Churches, Boston: Congregational Publishing Society, 1872.
Benjamin, Mary Gladding, The Missionary Sisters, Boston: American Tract Society, 1860.
Fensham, Florence A., Mary I. Lyman and H.B. Humphrey (ed.), A Modern Crusade in the Turkish Empire, Chicago: Woman’s Board of Missions of the Interior, 1908.
Prime, Edward D.G., Forty Years in the Turkish Empire or Memoirs of Rev. William Goodell, New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1883.
Stone, Frank A., Sömürgeciliğin Hasat Mevsimi, tr. Ayşe Aksu, Istanbul: Dergâh Yayınları, 2011.
West, Maria A., Romance of Missions, New York: A.D.P. Randolph & Company, 1875.