American Missionary Colleges in Beirut & Kyoto


A review of Learning to be Modern: American Missionary Colleges in Beirut and Kyoto 1860-1920, by Aleksandra Kobiljski.

In a beautifully written dissertation, Aleksandra Kobiljski tells a new and compelling story: the transformation of “the evangelical project of converting the heathens and preparing for the second coming of Christ into a largely educational and medical enterprise” (p. 5). The dissertation is based on an in-depth analysis of sources that originated primarily in three locations: the ABCFM (American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions) based in Boston, missionaries turned educators who established the Syrian Protestant College (later renamed the American University of Beirut) in Lebanon, and their colleagues who established Dōshisha University in Kyoto. In its global discussion of the transformation of the missionary project into an educational project, Kobiljski’s work is unique in the historiography on Japan. More broadly, it is one of only a handful of works that study Japan as part of a multi-archival research project that includes in-depth research in Japanese sources as well as in sources from other regions and in other languages. Some recent examples include Cemil Aydin’s work on how conceptions of the fairness and prejudice of Western great powers played into pan-Asian and pan-Islamic visions of world order (The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); Christopher Hill’s comparison of historiography and nation-building in Japan, France, and the United States (National History and the World of Nations: Capital, State, and the Rhetoric of History in Japan, France, and the United States, Duke University Press, 2009); and T. Fujitani’s comparison of Japanese soldiers fighting in the United States army and Korean soldiers fighting in the Japanese army during World War II (Race for Empire: Koreans as Japanese and Japanese as Americans during World War II, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). Kobiljski’s work has the potential to contribute to this literature, whose comparative methodology sheds new insight on various aspects of Japanese history.

The dissertation is primarily divided into two sections. The first is a connected history of how the events that led to the establishment of the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut enabled the subsequent establishment of Dōshisha University in Kyoto. Chapter two, which follows the introductory chapter, details the establishment in Beirut of the Syrian Protestant College, founded by missionaries who believed that the missionary project could no longer be limited to evangelizing. If it was to compete with Jesuit and Arab institutions, it had to embrace an educational mission. The lobbying of such missionaries convinced the ABCFM board in Boston that educational institutions were worth establishing. The third chapter makes a fascinating connection when it describes how the establishment of the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut in 1866 enabled a young Japanese missionary, Niijima Jō, to establish Dōshisha University as a Christian college in Japan. After the president of the Syrian Protestant College and one of its main benefactors reported on the health of their college in Beirut at an ABCFM meeting held in Vermont in 1874, Niijima rose to demand the establishment of an analogous institution in Japan.

Having described how Dōshisha University grew out of the earlier experiment in Beirut, the second part of the dissertation turns to a comparison of the institutional structure, architecture, and education at these two institutions. Kobiljski shows how architectural plans drawn up by the New York architect George Post were transformed by local builders in Beirut and Kyoto. In a revealing passage, she explains how concepts of rationality, order, and purity were expressed in the ways in which clock towers and meticulous landscaping came to define these two protestant colleges (p. 107). In a final chapter, Kobiljski describes two conflicts that came to define these two institutions. In the case of Beirut, the conflict revolved around Darwinism. In Kyoto, it was about the definition of the college as a Christian institution, a characterization that came into conflict with the Buddhist clergy in Kyoto and, more importantly, with the educational agenda of the Meiji state.

Kobiljski’s dissertation tells a story that would remain hidden if this were a single-country study. With her multi-country approach, she shows how a global missionary movement affected the local histories of education in Lebanon and Japan and, on the other hand, how global forces like the missionary agenda of the ABCFM were transformed by local forces. This approach is made possible by the global nature of the ABCFM missionary enterprise led and by the rich archival depository that it left behind. Kobiljski’s in-depth research into these archives reveals a trove of interconnections and parallel transformations that will be of interest to a broad range of historians.

Raja Adal
Oberlin College


Dōshisha Archives
Doshisha hyakunen shi
ABCFM Papers
American University in Beirut Archives

Dissertation Information

The City University of New York, 2010. 220 pp. Co-Advisors: Beth Baron and Barbara Brooks. Dissertation Committee: Donald Scot, Carol Gluck, Thomas Bender.

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