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Eli Smith - Pioneer Bible Translator

The influence of Reformed missions on the Arab world and particularly the Arabic language and culture has been far reaching. Pioneer missionaries in the Arab and Muslim worlds enjoyed a great deal of zeal for the spread of God's word. Translation of the entirety of Scriptures into the Arabic language constituted the top priority for Reformed missions in the first half of the 19th century. Accomplishing such an endeavour in a very rich and complex language was not a simple undertaking. It required highly qualified and gifted people. One such a person was Eli Smith.

Eli smith was born in Northford, Connecticut, USA on September 13, 1801 to a Presbyterian family of Scottish descent. He graduated from the prestigious Yale University in 1821 and worked as a schoolteacher for two years. After sensing a divine call to the Gospel ministry, he attended Andover College from 1823 to 1826 where he completed his ministerial training. Soon after his graduation he was called and ordained for missionary service on the Mediterranean island of Malta. In Malta, he set out to learn the local language, Maltese, which is a mixture of Arabic and Italian. For centuries Malta had been a geographical and cultural bridge between the European and Arab nations.

Very soon after settling in Malta, Smith became fascinated by the Arabic language, since it served as a major medium for scholarly studies and research in past centuries. Taking the Gospel to a small Roman Catholic population in Malta no longer appealed to the Rev. Smith. His language study compelled him to develop a much wider vision. His missionary burden and zeal shifted towards the millions of Arabic-speaking people south and east of the small island. His compelling arguments persuaded his sending missionary agency (at the time called the "American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions", of the PCUSA) to agree to his wishes to study the Arabic language. Little did they know how historic and far-reaching that shift would turn out to be. Clearly, Eli Smith was the man the Lord wanted to use to spearhead the spread of the Gospel among the Muslim people.

Without delay, Rev. Smith travelled to Beirut, Lebanon in 1827 where he set out to give his attention to the study of the Arabic language. A year later, the Turkish/Greek war affecting the entire region, forced him (and several other missionary personnel) to move temporarily back to the safety of Malta. He insured, however, that he was equipped with the necessary tools to continue his study of Arabic.

In December 1833, after a year's furlough in the USA, Smith returned to Beirut. This time, a gifted helpmate accompanied him. Within one year, Mrs. Smith established the very first school for girls in Lebanon. During the same year, 1834, Rev. Smith succeeded in persuading the mission board to move the American Printing Press, from Malta to Beirut. By that time he had become quite competent in speaking, reading and writing Arabic. He gathered around himself a "fellowship" of prominent native Arabic language scholars who had been converted to the Reformed faith. Smith, together with them, initiated a historic effort not only to translate the entire Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Arabic but also to provide the first Psalter-hymnal and an Arabic version of the Westminster Confessional standards for the growing Arabic-speaking Reformed communities. He gave his personal attention to textual studies of ancient translations of portions of Scriptures in Semitic languages in which he had become an established authority. (He was also quite competent in ancient Greek, Latin, Turkish and Italian, in addition to biblical Hebrew and Greek.)

Eli Smith's life was not free of suffering. The health of his young wife declined and she died within ten years of their marriage. Her death brought him immense sorrow. This coupled with the many long hours of study, research, preaching, teaching, lecturing, training, writing and pastoral care, regional church visitation and the very heavy burden of establishing and expanding the printing press all contributed to the decline of his health.

In 1847, he returned from another year's furlough in the USA with his new wife, Henrietta Butler. His renewed energies allowed him to activate a team of Arabic language scholars, which he co-chaired with two very important Christian converts, Nasif Al-Yaziji and Butros Al-Bustani. The team set as their top priority the completion and publication of the Arabic Bible as soon as possible. This became the supreme goal in life for the three of them. In the meantime, Smith led the very formidable task of preparing the Arabic type set for the printing press to accomplish the project.

At the end of 1856, Rev. Smith's health had become very poor. A few weeks later, on January 11, 1857, he died in Beirut. His dream of completing the translation of the Arabic Bible had not been fully realized. Yet, even during the last few hours of his earthly life, he maintained the witness of a true servant of God, encouraging his believing visitors to live lives of faithful service to Christ and his unconverted visitors to take hold of the one true Saviour who alone gives everlasting life.

At the urging of the rest of the members of the team, his colleague, Dr. Cornelius Van Dyke, took Eli Smith's place on the team for the completion of the Arabic Bible. Three years later, in 1860, the Lord enabled them to fulfill his dream. In the meantime, the Arabic printing press brought about a revolution in knowledge, education, journalism, etc. The fact that the Arabic Bible was the first major mass-printed volume in the Arabic language meant that Arab readers and Arabic language scholars of all sorts could not avoid reading it. Within thirty years, the Reformed witness was well established throughout the region.

Learn more about the work of MERF and its ministries through a variety of articles. These deal both with current work and the history of missions in the Middle East.


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