The Ottoman rulers, fearful their Armenian subjects might be siding with Russia, began a campaign of deportation and mass killings that resulted in about one and a half million deaths. A similar persecution started against Assyrian Christians.
William Ambrose Shedd was born January 24, 1865, in the mountain village of Seir, near Urmia, in today’s Northwestern Iran, near Turkey. About one quarter of the population at that time was Assyrian, and predominantly Christian. According to William’s second wife and biographer, Mary, 30,000 Christians lived in the area around Urmia and 70,000 in the Kurdish mountains. The laws of the country were considerably in disfavor of the Christian population, who continued to be mistreated by Muslims without an opportunity to redress.
This large number of Christians moved the American Board of Commission for Foreign Missions to send a group of missionaries to the area. Two of these were John Haskell Shedd and Sarah Jane Dawes, William’s parents.
After completing their basic studies, William and his older brother Charles went on to study at Marietta College, in Ohio, where their grandmother and aunt lived. He returned to Urmia on occasions, to visit his parents. When he graduated from Marietta, he offered to oversee the mission for a short time, in order to give his parents a much-needed respite.
Called to the Mission Field
He immediately learned his limitations. “I need guidance and especially moderation,” he said. “I wish I knew how to be firm and yet gentle. More and more I feel my weakness in comparison with the work given me to do.”
At their return, he went back to the States to study at Princeton College, where he began to feel a calling serve in the missions, particularly to Muslims. “It seems to me that it is the hardest missionary problem and one in which there are the fewest ready and competent to engage.”
After his graduation in 1892, he was ordained as minister of the gospel in the Presbyterian Church, and returned to Urmia, where his father’s health was declining. By the time John died in 1895, William was ready to take his place.
His vision was to widen the scope of the mission beyond the limitation of the Christian community in Urmia, in order to reach other Christian communities in the mountains, as well as their Muslim neighbors.
Many Muslims in the area were friendly to Christians, but based their friendship on the belief that Islam and Christianity were fairly similar. Shedd agreed that finding common ground is a good start, but it should not be seen as the end of the discussion:
“I do not believe there is a single doctrine in which the teachings of the two religions are really identical,” he said. “In admitting identity, the danger is that the truth of Christianity be minimized. For example, forgiveness by free grace is fundamental to both religions; but in Islam the basis is God’s absolute will, and in Christianity, it is His justice and righteousness manifested in the Atonement.”
He also believed that the doctrine of God’s immanence in human lives and history “secures the Divine Presence in a real way,” while the Islamic doctrine of successive imams or prophets secures it only “in an illusory way.”
But he also learned much from the people around them, and had “great hopes that Orientals will some day state truth in new and beautiful ways. They have a power of illustration and explanation that is very striking.”
On a personal level, he said, “Dealing with the legalistic and literalistic conception carried to extremes in Orthodox Islam has made me prize as never before the liberty of the Gospel, the freedom from Law, and the whole conception of Christianity as a power by grace.”
In April 1903, William married another missionary, Louise Wilbur, from Riverside, California. They had two daughters. Louise was an invaluable help to William, whose health had never been very strong. He suffered, among other things, from corneal ulcers that forced him to work in the dark for long periods of time. In 1909, he was diagnosed with “incipient tuberculosis.” “The name ‘tuberculosis’ is not pleasant, and I have been rebellious, but I have no right to be, of course,” he wrote to a friend.
William recognized God’s grace in preserving his faith through the trials. “It is Christ who holds me to the faith, and not the theory of the faith that makes Christ credible,” he said.
The Assyrian Genocide
In 1913, persecutions against Christians intensified, and the start of World War I only made things worse. Both Iran and Turkey became the scene of rivalries between foreign powers – mostly Russia and Britain. This was the time of the Armenian genocide, when the Ottoman rulers, fearful their Armenian subjects might be siding with Russia, began a campaign of deportation and mass killings that resulted in about one and a half million deaths.
A similar persecution started against Assyrian Christians. In this case, it was not mandated by the government, but was brought out sporadically by local rulers or Kurdish tribes. As the deaths mounted, Shedd tried to intercede with the Turkish authorities, with little success.
The mission became a place of refuge for thousands. In one occasion, it was taken under siege. Food was scarce but wheat was relatively inexpensive, so that, by pulling together all their resources, the missionaries were able to give each person one 10-ounce loaf of bread every day. In one occasion, they fed 15,000 people at once.