“Turkish Mission,” Church History Topics
The Church first established a presence in the Ottoman Empire in 1884, after Hagop Vartooguian, an Armenian Christian, wrote the president of the European Mission to request missionary lessons.1 Jacob Spori, a Swiss missionary, subsequently labored in Constantinople but found only a few converts.2
The strength of Islamic culture and other conditions in the empire persuaded Spori and later missionaries to direct their efforts toward minority religious groups, particularly Christians. Ottoman rulers had established a system that recognized three minority ethnic/religious communities—Jewish, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic—and granted each community limited self-government. The Armenians, the majority of whom lived in central Turkey, were the largest Christian group in the empire. Because their political influence was based on the size of their community, Armenian leaders often acted against people who left the Armenian Apostolic Church.3
In 1887 in Constantinople, a man named Dekran Shahabian heard the testimony of Ferdinand Hintze, a Danish missionary from Utah who had been serving as leader of the Turkish Mission. After returning to his home, Shahabian requested that Elder Hintze visit his town of Sivas in southern Turkey. Hintze baptized Shahabian, and the two preached the gospel in the surrounding area. Branches were soon created in Zara, Aintab, Aleppo, Alexandretta, and Beirut. Especially in Aintab, where Protestant influence had begun to undermine the social dominance of the Armenian church, “people flocked around [Hintze] by scores, and from early morning until late in the evening asked questions concerning the Gospel.”4
In Haifa, German Protestants had established a colony where they awaited the redemption of Jerusalem. A colonist named Johann Georg Grau noticed Hintze standing in front of his shop and saw this as fulfillment of a dream he had had that the Lord would send him a messenger. After his baptism, Grau was ordained an elder and began preaching.5 Because of greater success among the Armenians and German colonists, in 1889 Hintze moved the Turkish Mission headquarters from Constantinople to Aintab. Poverty remained a great challenge, as many converts lost their employment because of the social stigma attached to changing one’s faith. Even so, many members successfully saved enough money to emigrate to Utah.6
In 1903 Joseph W. Booth assumed leadership of the mission and ministered to Church members during a time of rising political tension. The Turkish Mission, headquartered in Aintab, closed in 1909, when political unrest made conditions too perilous for missionary work. The next decade, which witnessed the First World War and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, brought greater instability and violence for many civilians and left the small Aintab branch in disarray.
When Church leaders learned of the challenges faced by the Armenian Saints, they encouraged Latter-day Saints in the United States and in Aintab to combine their prayers and fast for deliverance. American members of the Church donated relief funds, and in the fall of 1921, returning mission president Joseph W. Booth helped the survivors of the Aintab branch migrate south to Aleppo, Syria. He and his wife, Mary Rebecca Moyle Booth, continued to assist the refugee Saints.
While Latter-day Saints maintained a presence in Syria and Lebanon, missionary work in Turkey declined in the 1920s. The first Latter-day Saint congregation in modern Turkey was organized in Ankara in 1979.