Presbyterians of the Past

Samuel G. Wilson, 1858-1916

Samuel Graham was born the third son of Andrew Wilkins Wilson and Anna Graham (Dick) Wilson in Indiana, Pennsylvania, February 11, 1858. Andrew operated a successful dry goods store which provided a good living for his household. The family home was built at the corner of Church and Seventh Streets for ten children, six boys and four girls. Sam attended the public schools in Indiana before entering the College of New Jersey in the fall of 1873 at the age of fifteen. He studied hard but still found time to play football for his class team. While attending Second Presbyterian Church in Princeton, he professed faith in Christ at the age of eighteen. Graduating with him in 1876 was his brother Robert Dick Wilson and other Presbyterians headed for ministry such as a future minister of Princeton’s First Church, Sylvester W. Beach, Professor William Brenton Greene, Jr., of Princeton Seminary, and James W. Lowrie would become a missionary to China serving for thirty-five years. The expected seminary choice for Sam would have been Princeton but instead he returned to his Pennsylvania homeland to Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny. Wilson excelled at the biblical languages and may have been steered to Western by his father who was on the board. The Presbytery of Kittanning licensed him to preach April 4, 1878. When Andrew heard his boy’s first message from a pulpit, he thought Sam just seemed too young, which may be why he lectured on Charles Hodge instead of preaching Scripture. Graduating Western the following April he returned to Princeton for a year of philosophy with James McCosh earning an A.M. in 1879 and then in the fall he went to Princeton Seminary for a year. After being ordained an evangelist by Kittanning Presbytery, June 19, 1880, he set sail for Turkey and then on to western Persia (Iran). 

Wilson’s primary work for his entire tenure in Tabriz, Persia was with what was initially called the Boy’s Training School. For the boys, he translated a catechism into Ararat Armenian (Old Armenian). In 1886 the school added a divinity program, at some point a girls’ school, and in 1890 the name of the entire complex was changed to the Memorial Training and Theological School. The change of name was due to an endowment from Mrs. William Thaw of Pittsburgh in memory of her deceased husband. In 1886 Samuel married Annie who was the daughter of missionary Samuel Dwight Rhea. For many years the duo operated the school alone but as the work became more established both missionary associates and short-term teachers from the States increased the faculty. It took the Wilsons a number of years to change the boys school curriculum from rote reading of the Koran to a curriculum including languages and sciences. The school at first had only Armenian students until Wilson convinced Muslim families to send their children and by the time of his death half of the 300 boys were Muslim. Wilson required daily chapel and regular Bible study from the outset, and these were at no point discontinued because of the Muslim students. The truth of Christ for Wilson was the greatest truth and he rejected the notion that the truth of mathematics, geography, history, and science should be taught without the truth of Scripture and Christ. It was not only in the school that Dr. Wilson was an evangelist. Even though his work was primarily in Tabriz, he preached in outlying villages on the Lord’s Day sometimes delivering three sermons in three different languages—Turkish, Armenian, and English. The school became the largest mission school in Western Persia and was influential in Tabriz.

During a visit to the United States in 1912, Wilson was seriously injured in a railroad accident. Despite needing further recovery from his injuries, he returned to Persia in 1914 as the First World War was getting underway. Wilson’s work during the war involved not only evangelism but relief work as the Armenians in western Turkey suffered greatly at the hands of the Ottomans. In November the next year he went back to the States to deliver a series of lectures at Western Seminary that were published in Modern Movements Among Moslems, 1916.

No easy work lies before the Church if it would … convert these masses to Christ. Christians should appreciate the greatness of the task. It is indeed a challenge to faith and only a faith which overcomes will undertake it. Such a faith will not falter.…Islam and its increase are calls to us to immediate and all-embracing efforts. A revived Islam, newly incited by the spirit of Mohammed, must be met by a revived Church inspired by the Spirit of Christ. Who can doubt the issue! (p. 111)

The relevance of Samuel Wilson’s words to the Christians of his era continue to have relevance today.

Before making his way back to Persia, he received a typhoid vaccination. Annie and the children stayed in the United States. The long trip back to Persia was grueling because the residual affects of his accident combined with possible complications from the vaccination weakened him. When he arrived in Tabriz in June the extraordinary welcome given him provided encouragement in the midst of weakness and the increasing chaos of the war. Unfortunately, Samuel Wilson had something in common with Jonathan Edwards. Edwards died of a smallpox vaccination and Wilson apparently died Sunday, July 2, 1916 of the typhoid vaccination, or possibly, he contracted the disease because the vaccination was ineffective. He was buried in Tabriz. Wilson was survived by Annie, a son, and three daughters. His greatest contribution to the work in Persia was skilled administrative work, business acumen manifested in purchasing property for construction projects, and proficiency leading and encouraging personnel.

In 1906 while visiting the United States he was honored with the Doctor of Divinity by both the Western University of Pennsylvania (became Pitt 1908) and Grove City College. Publications include Persian Life and Customs with Scenes and Incidents of Residence and Travel in the Land of the Lion and the Sun, 1895; Persia: Western Mission, 1896; “The Armenian Church in its Relation to the Russian Government,” The North American Review, January 1905, 88-101; Mariam: A Romance of Persia, 1906; “Bahaism an Anti-Christian System” in Bibliotheca Sacra, October 1915, 1-22; Bahaism and Its Claims: A Study of the Religion Promulgated by Baha Ullah and Abdul Baha, 1915, and numerous articles for Presbyterian and other Christian serials. Annie published a seven-page pamphlet, 1870 Then and Now—Persia 1920. To learn more about missions in Persia, read on this site Shushan Wright, died 1890.

Barry Waugh

Notes—The map of Presbyterian missions in Persia has Tabriz circled in Red. The header image of Tabriz, date unknown, is from a cigarette card held by the New York Public Library in its free use digital collection. Cigarette cards were inserted into packs beginning about 1890. The Necrological Report for 1917 published by Princeton Seminary. Princeton Seventy-Six, 1876-1916, Class Record Number X, provided the portrait and a memorial biography, pages 195-201. Robert E. Speer’s memorial article in The Moslem World, volume 7, number 2, April 1917, 191-195. Information about Rhea is from The Tennessean in Persia and Koordistan. Being the scenes and incidents in the life of Samuel Audley Rhea, 1869; Annie was born at Seir, August 24, 1861.


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