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Presbyterians in Egypt

July 28th, 2020 | 20 min read

By Onsi A. Kamel

Writing a report of his time as a missionary in Egypt, Andrew Watson had this to say about Egypt’s Christians: “In general, the Copts are a simple-minded, devout, religious people, with great reverence for the Scriptures.”[1] The stated goal of this nineteenth-century mission had been to convert Muslims to Christianity, so it is striking that Watson and his fellow American Presbyterians wound up attempting to convert the Coptic Orthodox to Protestantism. Their attempts to convert the Coptic Orthodox contrast sharply with the attitudes of the English Protestant missionaries who preceded them. [2]

The British and American missions were, admittedly, similar in several respects: both worked—or intended to work—for the eventual conversion of the Muslim population in Egypt, both focused on education, and both were self-consciously Protestant and saw one another as co-religionists.[3]

There was, however, one glaring difference of approach between the English and the Americans: the English missionaries wished to strengthen the Coptic Orthodox Church’s structures and educate her priests (admittedly, to make them more Protestant in theological orientation), but the Americans hoped to convert the Coptic Orthodox to Presbyterian Protestantism.

So what was it about the Scripture-revering Egyptian Christians that Watson and his American colleagues found wanting? Why this crucial difference in approach, especially from two groups of missionaries who held, and recognized themselves to hold, substantially similar theological commitments? In short, while both the English and the Americans recognized substantial material differences between themselves and the Coptic Orthodox, the English nevertheless saw sufficient formal similarities with the Coptic Orthodox to accept them. This episode offers important lessons about contemporary Protestant and evangelical culture, values, and, ultimately, ecumenical blind spots. It demonstrates that ecclesial culture, even more than doctrine, has often determined how American Presbyterians have related to other Protestants.

The English: The Mission Society

Protestants began missions to Egypt in earnest in the 1600s, almost one hundred years following the first Jesuit missions. Whereas the Jesuits attempted to secure the submission of the Coptic Orthodox to the papacy and reform Coptic Orthodox practice to accord with Roman Catholic practice, the first Protestant missionaries (Germans) hoped for the “rejuvenation of the ancient Eastern Orthodox Churches, which according to their judgment, had departed from the evangelical truth.”[4]

The English Church Mission Society began missions in Egypt in the early 1800s, continuing the Protestant model of seeking to “rejuvenate” the churches. Their first missionary to Egypt, Rev. William Jowett, met with the Coptic Patriarch in 1818 to discuss “the possibility of the mission assisting the church.”[5] Jowett seems to have been warmly welcomed by Coptic Orthodox clergymen, secular and religious alike.[6] For the next few decades, missionaries from the Church Missionary Society labored with scant resources and few people.[7] Nevertheless, they managed to maintain a presence in Egypt until 1865, when the last missionary died, before returning to Egypt with the English occupation in 1882.[8]

Like the German missionaries before them, the English were interested neither in proselytizing to the Coptic Orthodox laity nor in enfolding the Coptic Orthodox Church into the Anglican Communion.[9] Rather, their goal was to convert Muslims by pursuing a strategy of “strengthen[ing] the structures of the [Coptic Orthodox] Church.”[10] The mission society hoped to help them “flourish in a predominately Muslim state.”[11] Thus, the English did not want to convert the Orthodox to a form of Anglicanism; rather, they wanted to the Coptic Orthodox Church to remain the national church of Egypt, much like the Church of England functioned in England.[12]

Having seen that Coptic Orthodox religious education and theology had been stunted by centuries of Islamic discrimination and the resulting conversion of the majority of the Coptic Orthodox to Islam, the English determined to work for the education of Coptic Orthodox children and clergy. In the 1820s and following, the English missionaries undertook the study of Arabic and began distributing Arabic-language Bibles.[13] By the mid-1830s, they had established a number of schools in Cairo, for boys and girls, and counted a few Muslim students in their number.[14] In the 1840s, the Church Mission Society began teaching Coptic Orthodox clerics theology. Initially, the missionaries seemed displeased with the quality of their recruits. Nevertheless, they graduated a number of priests, a bishop, and possibly—though not probably—a Coptic Pope, Cyril IV, widely known for his erudition and reforms of the Church.[15]

In short, then, the English goal was conversion of Egyptian Muslims to Christianity, and their strategy for accomplishing this task was the revitalization of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The CMS missionaries attempted this through the establishment of educational institutions for Coptic Orthodox children and priests. The results of this program, it should be noted, were decidedly mixed.

With the inspiration and initial assistance provided by the CMS, the Coptic Orthodox Church did eventually institute educational reforms, leading to the “so-called Coptic Renaissance” and widespread teaching of Coptic, the traditional Coptic Orthodox liturgical, and sometimes Scriptural, language.[16] Nevertheless, the flourishing of learning in the Coptic Orthodox Church did not lead to conversions from Islam in any serious numbers, and the reforms faced serious hostility from conservative Coptic Orthodox clergymen.

But how did the English view the Coptic Orthodox Church? The answer sheds greater light on the refusal of English missionaries to attempt to convert the Coptic Orthodox to Protestantism. Two dimensions of the English view of the Coptic Orthodox are apparent: first, the English believed the Coptic Orthodox Church to be in grave error on a number of important theological issues. Second, however, the English viewed the Coptic Orthodox as formally similar to their own Church of England, such that they hoped to reform it rather than weaken it. The English understood that building up the Christian community in Egypt—and strengthening its key institution—would be better for Egyptian Christians and for Egypt as a whole.

This is not to say the English missionaries didn’t harbor grave reservations about the theology and practices of the Coptic Orthodox Church. They did, taking particular exception to what they perceived as the disordered and undisciplined liturgies of the Copts, who appeared to care little about the liturgical reading of the Scriptures and often made such noise that the priest could not be heard over the voices of the congregants. [17] To the Anglicans, Coptic Orthodoxy was rife with “superstition”; the Coptic Orthodox believed in holy relics, venerated icons, and fasted as though their salvation depended upon it.[18] The English were particularly offended by what they considered to be the dead, “thoughtless” ritual of the Coptic Orthodox.[19] Strikingly, the critique leveled by the English against Coptic Orthodoxy is not dissimilar to those classically leveled by Protestants against Roman Catholics. In short, when English saw the Coptic Orthodox Church, they saw a true church trapped in superstitious, dead rituals and beliefs—but they saw a true church.[20]

This is in part because the English also saw in Coptic Orthodoxy formal similarities to the Church of England. They recognized the Coptic Orthodox Church, like the Church of England, to be “autocephalic…[and] possessed of distinctive traditions.”[21] Additionally, the Coptic Orthodox had their own “history of contention” with Roman Catholicism and the papacy.[22] Finally, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Church of England were also organized as episcopal polities. Both were governed by a Primate (for the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and for the Coptic Orthodox, the Patriarch of Alexandria), with numerous bishops under the Primate, and priests below the bishops.

In short, then, the English saw in the Coptic Orthodox Church a kind of formal family resemblance to their own church: both had identical church polities, both were autocephalous and national in character, and both had a history of disputes with Roman Catholicism, including a refusal to submit to the papacy.

The Americans: The Presbyterian Mission in Egypt

The Americans shared the English’s material differences from Coptic Orthodoxy but lacked the formal similarities by which the English recognized the Coptic Orthodox Church as having integrity.

The first American Presbyterian missionaries to reach Cairo were Revs. Thomas McCague and James Barnett, who arrived in 1854.[23] They had been commissioned by the Associate Reformed Church (or, as it would later become, the United Presbyterian Church of North America). More missionaries settled by the mid-1860s, and they immediately began holding Presbyterian services. Eventually, the American Mission would help establish the Coptic Evangelical Church, now the “largest Protestant sect in the Near East” and the American University in Cairo.[24]

Like the Protestant missionaries who preceded them, the Americans’ goal was the conversion of Muslims to Christianity.[25] Their strategy, however, in stark contrast to their European forebears, was not the rejuvenation of the Coptic Orthodox Church, but rather the conversion of the Coptic Orthodox to Presbyterianism. The Americans believed that the English model of assisting the Coptic Orthodox to produce “regeneration…from within” had failed to lead to either regeneration or the conversion of Muslims.[26] As a result, they structured their mission around converting the Coptic Orthodox to Protestantism.[27] The Americans would travel from place to place by riverboat, allowing them regular access to a large number of rural communities.

They established schools for children, teaching “Arabic and English, Arabic grammar, arithmetic…a lesson in the Scriptures, a few remarks thereon, and prayer.”[28] The missionaries often required that the families of students enrolled in their schools attend their churches. By the middle of the 1860s, at least six such schools existed, including three for girls.[29] The Presbyterian missionaries also began training local Egyptians to become Presbyterian ministers. Owing to their Arabic-language services, the Presbyterians slowly but surely began making Coptic Orthodox converts: “By 1900 the Egyptian census enumerated 12,500 Protestants out of a total Coptic…population of 612,000.”[30]

Regardless, the Americans also failed to achieve their goal: very few Muslims converted. Still, the Americans did make converts from Coptic Orthodoxy to Presbyterianism, and both the English and the Americans even succeeded in sparking reform within the Coptic Orthodox Church. Pope Cyril IV instituted educational reforms for the clergy and even encouraged the burning of images.[31]

The Americans: Relation to the Coptic Orthodox Church

The English wished to strengthen the Coptic Orthodox Church, stimulating reform from within, while the Americans established an evangelical Protestant rival to it. Why? After all, both were Protestant, both believed the Coptic Orthodox to have succumbed to corruptions, and both wished to bring a Protestant gospel. What differed between the two? Earlier theories foregrounded English failure to convert Muslims, and the American recognition of this failure, as driving the American change in strategy.[32] This was, doubtless, one factor in the change in American strategy, but it was not the sole or even primary factor.

The Americans shared the reservations of the English about the content of Coptic Orthodox theology, but they lacked any formal similarities with the Coptic Orthodox Church. When the British looked upon the forms of Coptic Orthodoxy, they saw something of themselves. The Americans did not. Instead, they saw jarring contradictions at the level of religious form. This can be seen by both investigating the differences between American Presbyterianism and Anglicanism that rendered the latter formally similar to Coptic Orthodoxy and by understanding how the concept of “simple religion” functioned as a shibboleth for the American Presbyterians.

As was mentioned above, the English shared the episcopal form of church governance with the Coptic Orthodox. Both had priests, bishops, and archbishops (or patriarchs). The Americans, by contrast, were Presbyterians with “little respect for the hierarchy of bishops that characterized Coptic Orthodoxy and Anglicanism.”[33] Furthermore, the Americans lacked a national church and so were not inclined to value its function as the English had.

In addition, the English saw formal similarities to Coptic Orthodoxy in their own history. Both contended against the papacy, both had fallen victim to “corruptions” and “superstition.” The English had reformed and, as a result, presumably held out greater hope that the Coptic Orthodox could tread a similar path. By contrast, the Americans saw in Coptic Orthodoxy only the formal similarities to Roman Catholic worship: “The confessional is nearly as important in the Coptic Church as in the Roman Catholic, and transubstantiation is the universal belief.” [34]

Perhaps the most important formal difference, however, can be best understood by examining the American ideal of “simplicity.” For the Americans, the gospel was a “gospel of purity of doctrine and simplicity of worship.”[35] Purity of doctrine consisted in the gospel of “salvation by faith in a crucified Saviour…the necessity of a change of heart through the Holy Spirit…[and] Christian life in union with the risen Saviour.”[36] Simplicity of worship meant the eschewing of later Christian traditions—including emphases on fasting, which the Coptic Orthodox greatly valued—and elaborate ritual in worship.[37] American Presbyterian worship centered around the preaching of God’s Word.[38] Indeed, even the English did not abide by gospel-simplicity as well as they might have: “No sooner had the [American] missionaries got partially settled than they concluded to open an English service for…the profit of any others who might prefer the simple forms of Presbyterianism to those of Episcopacy.”[39]

In the minds of the Americans, the Coptic Orthodox Church, because of “centuries of oppression,” had fallen victim to malformed, ornate religion.[40] It had lost the simplicity of the gospel: “Persecuted, despised, forbidden or denied the means of education….they, year by year, gave themselves up to formalism.”[41] The Americans likened the Church to a “mummified human body taken out of the tombs.”[42] It had the shell of Christianity, but it was dead inside.

Unlike the simple worship of Presbyterians—centered on preaching, prayer, and song—which they believed fit well with the simple gospel, the form of Coptic Orthodox worship was “long, lasting about three hours, and consisting of reading, chanting, praying, accompanied with the burning of incense, the beating of cymbals, and the procession of the host around the church.”[43] Thus, whereas the English saw something of the forms of the Church of England in Coptic Orthodoxy, the Protestants saw only an Egyptian variant of Romanism, complete with transubstantiation and a papacy.[44]

Crucially, however, the Americans saw the Coptic Orthodox as, at heart, a simple people who were victims of the encrustations of tradition. In other words, implicitly, the Presbyterians seem to have believed the Coptic Orthodox to be naturally fitted for the Protestant gospel, if only it were shared with them. Nevertheless, owing to Islamic persecution, the Coptic Orthodox had actually, Watson claims, strayed nearly as far from the path of salvation as Muslims.[45] Still, because of their aforementioned simplicity and “the great reverence of the Copts for the Word of God,” they began diligently reading the Scriptures in spite of their bishops’ disapproval.[46] They were well-disposed for the promulgation of the Protestant gospel.


What can today’s Protestants learn from this historical episode? Obviously, in the first instance, theological commitments—or religion’s “material elements”—matter a great deal. The English and American evangelicals shared goals and tactics precisely because both groups were Protestant. Still, doctrinal commitments were matched in importance by formal similarities in religious observance. While the Americans and the English agreed that the Coptic Orthodox were in error, the Americans could not see themselves, their forms of worship, their history, or their model of church governance reflected in the forms of Coptic Orthodox religion. As a result, they related to Coptic Orthodoxy in a manner diametrically opposed to that of the English.

This significantly impacted the American approach, for better and worse. American Presbyterians in Egypt helped build a major Protestant church and an international university—no mean feats. Furthermore, I should note that I write as one who is personally grateful for much of what American Presbyterians did: they converted my great-great-grandmother. Her son, Faheem Girgis, became a Presbyterian minister in the Evangelical Coptic Church.[47] My Protestantism is thus a family legacy originally bequeathed by American Presbyterians.

Nevertheless, their approach also wound up alienating many who remained in the Coptic Orthodox Church, hardening them against reform and ultimately consigning Egyptian Christians to recapitulate sixteenth-century European fights on nineteenth-century Egyptian soil. Not all debates should be interpreted through the lenses of the Reformation, and where Rome or Constantinople or Alexandria have reformed themselves or may be open to persuasion, we ought to celebrate and seek to deepen our bonds of communion with them on those grounds.

But instead of joining with the English and continuing their legacy after their mission ended, thereby creating the conditions for real change within Coptic Orthodoxy, American Presbyterians worked at cross-purposes. The English understood that assisting the Coptic Orthodox in the task of reformation would be more effective in the long run, given the power, national character, and ancient pedigree of the Coptic Orthodox Church; the Americans opposed the only institution capable of bringing Protestant insights to all Egyptian laymen.

This illuminates a distinctly American feature of Presbyterianism: its tendency to undervalue the import and authority of strong, extant institutions. By dividing Egyptian Christians, Americans also created wounds in the Coptic community that have yet to heal. This highlights the serious costs—spiritual, cultural, and institutional—of division and should spur us to form deeper ties across ecclesial lines where and when it is prudent.

Finally, American Presbyterians today must beware the degree to which felt kinship (or alienation, as the case may be) at the level of religious form animates our choice of ecclesial allies. To give a somewhat sensitive example: despite the fact that Presbyterians and Baptists disagree on several fundamental doctrines—the nature of baptism, the structure and content of the covenants, political theology, and ecclesiology—they nevertheless see themselves as closely related, even while, objectively, Presbyterians hold much more in common theologically with their fellow magisterial Protestants. To what degree do somewhat arbitrary cultural similarities and values—like “gospel simplicity”—drive such dynamics? To what degree should they?

All of this should lead American Presbyterians, in particular, to examine the role of culture in shaping both ecclesial life and theological identity. At any rate, this Presbyterian thinks it is time to focus on identifying and seeking to work with those who share our main theological convictions—time for American Presbyterianism to give up caring more about religious form than substance.

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  1. Andrew Watson, The American Mission in Egypt: 1854 to 1896 (Pittsburgh: United Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1898), 58. It should be noted that simplicity is not, for Watson, a slur. This will become important subsequently.
  2. Vivian Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt: The Challenges of Modernisation and Identity (London ; New York : New York: I.B.Tauris, 2011), 28. The English sent their first missionary in 1818, and the Americans followed soon after.
  3. Heather J. Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 25.
  4. Alastair Hamilton, The Copts and the West, 1439-1822: The European Discovery Of The Egyptian Church, 1 edition (Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 61-62; Otto F. A. Meinardus, Christians in Egypt: Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Communities, Past and Present (Cairo ; New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2006), 105.
  5. Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt, 28.
  6. Meinardus, Christians in Egypt, 102.
  7. Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt, 20.
  8. Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt, 20.
  9. Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt, 28. It is worth noting, however, that the English did eventually establish an Episcopal Church in Egypt.
  10. Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt, 28.
  11. Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt, 28.
  12. Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt, 33.
  13. Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt, 28.
  14. Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt, 29.
  15. Meinardus, Christians in Egypt, 102. Meinardus reports this as straightforward fact; Sharkey, however, writes merely that the CMS “took some credit for influencing” him; Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt, 33.
  16. Stewart, The Copts and the West, 277.
  17. Sedra, “Modernity’s Mission,” 216.
  18. Sedra, “Modernity’s Mission,” 217-218.
  19. Sedra, “Modernity’s Mission,” 218.
  20. Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt, 28.
  21. Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt, 33.
  22. Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt, 33.
  23. Stanley H. Skreslet II, “The American Presbyterian Mission in Egypt: Significant Factors in Its Establishment,” American Presbyterians 64, no. 2 (1986): 83–95, 83.
  24. Skreslet II, “The American Presbyterian Mission in Egypt,” 86.
  25. Skreslet II, “The American Presbyterian Mission in Egypt,” 86.
  26. Skreslet II, “The American Presbyterian Mission in Egypt,” 87.
  27. Skreslet II, “The American Presbyterian Mission in Egypt,” 88.
  28. Watson, The American Mission in Egypt, 84.
  29. Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt, 36; Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt, 31.
  30. Skreslet II, “The American Presbyterian Mission in Egypt,” 83.
  31. Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt, 33.
  32. Skreslet II, “The American Presbyterian Mission to Egypt,” 87.
  33. Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt, 34-35.
  34. Watson, The American Mission in Egypt, 57.
  35. Watson, The American Mission in Egypt, 15.
  36. Watson, The American Mission in Egypt, 58.
  37. Watson, The American Mission in Egypt, 89.
  38. Watson, The American Mission in Egypt, 74.
  39. Watson, The American Mission in Egypt, 74.
  40. Watson, The American Mission in Egypt, 59.
  41. Watson, The American Mission in Egypt, 59.
  42. Skreslet II, “The American Presbyterian Mission in Egypt,” 89.
  43. Watson, The American Mission in Egypt, 57.
  44. Skreslet II, “The American Presbyterian Mission in Egypt,” 58, 89, 201; Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt, 35.
  45. Watson, The American Mission in Egypt, 58.
  46. Watson, The American Mission in Egypt, 187.
  47. I have actually made the final edits to this piece by hand with a fountain pen given to him in 1922, upon his graduation from high school.

Onsi A. Kamel

Onsi A. Kamel is a PhD student in Philosophy and Religion at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in First Things, Ad Fontes, and Mere Orthodoxy.