The Quran in East and West: Manuscripts and Printed Books

An American Missionary to the Nestorians in Qajar Iran > Justin Perkins (1805-1869)

Perkins was born on a farm in Massachusetts, and educated at Amherst College and Andover Theological Seminary.  In 1835, he and his wife Charlotte Bass (1808-1897) became the first American missionaries in Qajar Iran (1794-1925), when they established a mission in Urmia, in western Azerbaijan, under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM).  Unlike many of the first generation of American missionaries in the Middle East, the Perkins survived the first years and remained in Iran for more than two decades.  In 1860, when the family was on their second furlough in the United States, Perkins made the unusual decision to return to Urmia without his wife and their only surviving son.  Only in 1869, shortly before his death, did Perkins leave Urmia for good.

In Iran, the Presbyterian minister became an eminent scholar of Syriac.  Having learned the local vernacular from the Nestorian clergy, Perkins developed an alphabet for the writing of Neo-Aramaic. which he called modern Syriac.  He established a press at his mission and printed, among others texts, his translations of the New Testament (1846) and the Old Testament (1852) in both liturgical Syriac and Neo-Aramaic.  The availability of religious literature in the local vernacular promoted literacy and the writing of non-religious literature among those who did not belong to the Nestorian clergy.  Nowadays Nestorians refer to themselves as Assyrian Christians.

In 1839 Perkins sent fourteen letters with sketches of the people of Urmia (spelled Oroomiah by Perkins) to the Inquiring Society at Union Theological Seminary; in the scans the folds are still recognizable.  In the early 1840s, Perkins drew on these sketches for the illustrations of his memoir A Residence of Eight Years in Persia among the Nestorian Christians with Notices of the Muhammedans (Andover, Mass.: Allen, Morrill & Wardwell, 1843).  From Perkins' American perspective, Christians and Muslims looked very much alike.  If he had not further identified his subjects in the accompanying notes, not all sketches provide clues for deciding who is a Nestorian, a ShiÊ¿ite, or a Kurd.  On the next page, the sketches are not accompanied by Perkins' own captions, which only appear on the screen if an item is activated with a mouseclick. 

The Burke Library (Columbia University Libraries) / 3041 Broadway at 121st Street / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 851-5606 /