The Arabs and the Anglicans: Samuel Gobat and the Nineteenth Century Protestant Bishopric in Palestine

In the nineteenth century, British Protestants moved to Palestine for the purposes of missionary work among Arabs and Jews. One of most important early Protestant missionaries to Palestinian Arabs however hailed from Switzerland. Samuel Gobat, like most Swiss from Bern—he was born there in 1799—imbibed the throaty Calvinism downstream from the Genevan Reformation. Gobat received most of his education in Switzerland and later in Paris and London.  In the latter two cities he began learning rudimentary Arabic and cultivated an interest for what was then called the Oriental languages. He learned Ge’ez, a language spoken in what is now Eritrea, and served as a missionary in Ethiopia in the late 1820s and early 1830s. Although Gobat was not British, he attached himself to the Anglican Church Missionary Society. His de-facto institutional affiliation remained with the Church on England for the rest of his life.

At the end of Gobat’s time in Ethiopia he moved to Malta in order to study Arabic intensively. From 1839 to 1842 her served as a sort of ad hoc missionary performing a variety of roles for the Church Missionary Society. In 1846 his life changed dramatically. The Church Missionary Society had been cultivating local parish work in the Ottoman province of Palestine. Two Protestant governments—Prussia and the United Kingdom—provided the bulk of the financial and institutional backing for missionaries. Cooperation between to the two took ecclesiastical form as well. In 1841, with the support of Anglicans, Calvinists, and Lutherans, the Church of England and the Evangelical Church in Prussia, created a protestant bishopric for Palestine. The first bishop, Michael Solomon Alexander, was a convert from Judaism to Anglicanism who spent most of his time trying to gain Jewish and Muslim converts to Protestantism. Gobat replaced Alexander when the latter died in 1845, and he broadened the aims of missionary efforts in Palestine and prioritized converting Arab majority. Proselytizing Muslims was forbidden by Ottoman law, and so Gobat urged Anglicans in Palestine to concentrate their conversion efforts on Greek Orthodox Arabs. This infuriated high churchmen in the Church of England and incensed the Russian funded Orthodox hierarchy in Jerusalem.

Gobat’s episcopacy lasted for nearly thirty years and proved relatively successful given nineteenth century Palestine’s cacophony of religious and racial groups. He maintained the support of British Evangelicals—the Earl of Shaftesbury wrote the preface to his biography—and managed to keep his diocese relatively unified despite the fractious nature of converts from various cultures and religions. Gobat’s position in Jerusalem, wrote his biographer, “was not always an easy Not that the people there are more sensitive and captious than elsewhere; but there are so many different nationalities living not only side by side, but in close relation to each other.” The close connections “that existed among the Protestant congregations at Jerusalem, or at least among many members of the same, rendering the whole evangelical community more like one large family,” but there was a less desirable “reverse side” to the intimacy of the diocese “owing to the weakness and imperfection of human nature” which “easily led to piques and discord.”[1]

[1] Samuel Gobat, Samuel Gobat, Bishop of Jerusalem: His life and work (London: James Nisbet, 1884), 364.


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