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EARLY BURMESE PRINTING / JEWISH STUDIES & ICONOGRAPHY: Notes on the Epistle to the Hebrews: In Karen. [Title also given in the Karen Language]. Zoom



EARLY BURMESE PRINTING / JEWISH STUDIES & ICONOGRAPHY: Notes on the Epistle to the Hebrews: In Karen. [Title also given in the Karen Language].

 


Extremely rare - an extraordinary work of early Burmese printing by the prominent American missionary Elisha Abbott, ‘The Apostle of the Karens’, being a curious thesis likening the contemporary plight of the oppressed Karen people with that of the Jewish Christian Converts in the New Testament, with intriguing illustrations of Jewish iconography, written in the Karen language, published by the Karen Mission Press in Tavoy (Dawei), Tenasserim.


Author: Elisha Litchfield ABBOTT (1809 - 1854).
Place and Year: Tavoy [Dawei, Burma]: The Karen Mission Press / C. Bennett, 1851.
Technique:
Code: 66292

8°: Collation Complete - 236 pp., including bilingual title (English and Karen), 3 pp. ‘Preface’ in English, plus 5 woodcut illustrations on 4 leaves, interspersed with a single, but sometimes two blanks, original quarter calf over patterned cloth, re-backed with original spine with traces of original Karen title in gilt (Very Good, internally clean and crisp with only a few minor stains and off-setting, re-backed spine quite worn with surface loss).

 

This is one of the most unusual and curious works of early Burmese printing, being a treatise by the prominent American Baptist missionary, Elisha Litchfield Abbott, known as the ‘Apostle of the Karens’, likening the contemporary plight of the Karen Christians, who suffered fierce persecution at the hands of the Burmese government, to that of the Jewish Christian converts who endured oppression as described in the ‘Epistle to the Hebrews’ in the New Testament.  Written in the Karen language, employing Burmese characters, the work was published in 1851 by the Karen Mission Press in Tavoy (modern Dawei), in Tenasserim, southern Burma, under the supervision of the master printer Reverend Cephus Bennett.  The work is illustrated with fine woodcut images of Jewish iconography from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which are seemingly the first such images published in the region.

The Karen people are an ethnic group who speak a Sino-Tibetan language and whose territory straddles the interior lands of southeastern and far southern Burma (Tenasserim), as well as the adjacent regions of Thailand (Siam).  The Karen people were long brutally suppressed by the ethnic Burmese majority.  From 1813, when American Baptist missionaries began converting the Karen to Charitability, the Burmese government endeavoured to persecute them for their religious convictions. 

As the missionaries expanded their proselyting activities, printed books in the Karen language were critical tools.  The missionaries established the first printing presses in Burma, at Rangoon (operated 1816-24), Moulmein (today’s Mawlamyine,1830-55) and the Karen Mission Press at Tavoy (today’s Dawei, 1837-55), before re-consolidating their printing activities at Rangoon in 1855.  The missionaries published a diverse array of religious and educational titles in the Karen and Burmese languages, all of which are extremely rare today. 

While the missionaries and their Karen converts were safe to practice their faith in the regions of Tenasserim and Arakan following their conquest from Burma by Britain in 1826, the Karen Christians were still oppressed in Lower Burma.  Many of the titles printed by the American missionary presses, including the present work, were circulated as ‘underground books’ in Burmese-ruled territories, where they were specifically banned, as the Karen were forbidden by law from reading or possessing literature of any kind.

While Abbott’s book is principally printed in Karen, his ‘Preface’ is written in English, whereupon he explains the purpose of the work.  He expresses his belief that for the Christian faith to sustain itself in the Karen community long-term, “native churches, should be under the charge of native pastors”.  He notes that there were then about 80 Karen pastors operating across Burma, and that while “Many of them preach well and have current ideas of the Christian doctrine in general, and are good pastors…they do not succeed in interpreting the scriptures”, for they possessed virtually no formal theocratic education, nor did they have access to a libraries of seminal texts.  Abbott notes that the Karen pastors “…not only require to be taught by the Missionary, but to have what they are taught with them in their homes”.

The ‘Epistle to the Hebrews’, in the New Testament, is traditionally said to have been authored by Paul the Apostle (c. 5 – c. 64 or 67), although most modern scholars doubt this attribution.  It is regarded as one of the most beautifully written parts of Scripture and is thought to have been created for the benefit of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who faced severe persecution during the 1st Century AD for having converted the new faith.  Many Jewish Christians considered returning to their traditional faith.  The ‘Epistle’ urges them to hold true to their new path and to overcome whatever challenges comes their way.

Here Abbott compares the circumstances of the Jewish Christians in the time of Paul to that of the contemporary Karen Christians in Burma, writing:

“I consider the epistle to the Hebrews to be peculiarly adapted to the Karen people.  It was written to establish the great doctrines of the Divinity and Priesthood of Christ.  Christ the son of God, crucifies – his death – the Great High Priest who hath entered the Holiest with his own blood, and ever liveth to intercede for us – redemption by faith in his blood-that is the central , the consummating truth in the gospel system; and the Karens, as the Hebrew christians in the days of Paul, have need to be exhorted and taught, to pass on from the first principles of christian doctrine, and the strive to apprehend and appropriate that great saving truth, from which, if they fall away, all else cannot save them.”

Moreover, the hortatory chapters from the 19th verse of the 10th chapter to the end of the epistle… [is particularly] applicable to the circumstances of the Karen Christian, especially those in Burmah. They are an oppressed, degraded race – the hand of tyranny is heavy upon them. And they are subject to persecution on account of their religion.”

Abbott’s work is illustrated by five woodcut images (printed on four leaves) of Jewish iconography from the time of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (built in the 6th Century BC, destroyed 70 AD), seemingly the first such images printed in the region.  These illustrations include: 1) The Altar of the Burnt Offering and the Menorah; 2) The Table of Shewbread; 3) An Interior View of the Temple with the Arc of the Covenant in the background, and the Menorah and Table of Shewbread in the foreground; and 4) A Jewish Man with an Ox.

The numerous blank pages interspersed throughout the work are were likely intended to be used by pastors for making notes (although all such pages in the present example have remained unused).

American Missionaries & Early Printing in Burma

Both the first publishing in Burmese script and the first printing to occur within Burma was motivated by Christian missionary zeal.  The first printed to book to employ Burmese script was the Alphebetum Baramanum (Rome, 1776), printed by the press of the Roman Catholic Church’s Propaganda de Fide office.  Closer to Burma, William Carey’s famous Serampore Mission Press (founded in 1800), located in the Danish enclave of Frederiknagore, in Bengal, created Burmese typefaces with the intention of printing educational book for missionaries as well as Christian books for proselytization activities within Burma itself.  The first such work was John Leyden’s Comparative Vocabulary of the Barma, Melayu and Thai Languages (1810).  Carey managed to strike up a cordial relationship with the Burmese Royal Court and in 1813 dispatched a printing press towards Rangoon intended to be used for both Christian missionary and Burmese official business; however, the ship carrying the press sank during a shipwreck in the Irrawaddy River before reaching its destination.

Meanwhile, the newly-formed American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions expressed interest in sending young American missionaries to Burma.  Adoniram Judson, Jr. (1788 – 1850) was selected as the first such emissary.  He arrived in Bengal in 1812, whereupon he became a guest of Carey in Serampore, who became the Burma mission’s prime regional sponsor.  Judson arrived in Rangoon in 1813 and commenced his ministry.

Carey generously donated a printing press, along with a set of Burmese and Latin type, for the use of the Burma mission; which was, critically, to be accompanied by Reverend George Hough, a missionary who was also a professional printer.

In 1816, Hough established the American Baptist Mission Press in Rangoon, the first publishing house in Burma.  The press became the epicentre of the activities of Judson and his brethren as they expanded their evangelical venture throughout the country.  The press produced several religious and educational works, all of which are incredibly rare today, while some titles are now thought lost. 

During the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-6), the American missionaries were forced to close the press in Rangoon, sending the equipment back to Bengal.  While the Burmese government’s fight was against Britain, and not necessarily the United States, it came to view all Westerners with suspicion. 

At this point, it is important to note that the ethnic Burmese people, being devout Buddhists, were not considered to be especially receptive to Christian proselytization, and this complicated the American missionaries’ increasingly uneasy relationship with the Burmese government.  The Burmese authorities permitted the missionaries to conduct modest operations in their territory if they did not cause too much ‘trouble’ with the ethnic Burmese people.  Their reluctant toleration of the missionaries stemmed from their well-founded fear of angering foreigners, so to avoid Western military.

The Burmese government was not, however, tolerant of Christian activities with respect to certain of its minority peoples, claiming that the introduction of new ideas could foment “rebellion”.  It held a special animosity towards the Karen minority, which had been brutally oppressed for generations.  Christian missionary contact with the Karen was specifically forbidden, and while the Burmese authorities refrained from prosecuting Western preachers directly, they zealously punished Karen peasants who attended Christian sermons, often in barbarically violent ways.

The Karen people were amazingly receptive to Christian teachings, and this proved to be both a great opportunity and a challenge for the Christian missionaries.  They were determined to proselytize, convert the Karen and distribute ‘underground printing’, but this could be done only at great risk.  The missionaries soon formed a secret, underground network of newly minted Karen pastors and congregations in Lower Burma, mainly near Rangoon and Bassein (Pathein), involving Karen migrants who had left their native territories for these major centres.  Baptism ceremonies were often held at night to provide cover.  For the first decade of the Christian missions it was considered too dangerous to venture into the Karen lands proper, lest it provoke official Burmese reprisals.

Upon the conclusion of the First Anglo-Burmese War, in 1826, Britain gained possession of the Burmese regions of Arakan (modern Rakhine State, coastal western Burma) and Tenasserim (far southern Burma), which then extended as far north to include Moulmein (Mawlamyine), which became the capital of British Burma.  Lower Burma, including Rangoon and Bassein remained Burmese territory. 

The East India Company (which governed the region on behalf of the British Crown) now ruled much of the native lands of the Karen people, plus Arakan where many Karen refugees had fled from Burmese persecution.  However, the EIC leadership quite disliked missionaries, considering them to be a nuisance to their commercial mandate, and they were generally banned from operating in their Indian territories.  However, the more pious elements at Whitehall pressured the EIC into reluctantly permitting American Baptist missionaries to operate in their Burmese domains.  Unlike in Burmese-controlled territory, there was no restriction on religious interactions with Karen peoples or the distribution of literature.  Missionaries were also afforded some measure of British military protection against any hostility from local unrest. 

The American missionary, Reverend George D. Boardman, founded Christian missions at Moulmein in 1827 and Tavoy (Dawei) in 1828, in British-held Tenasserim, for the express purpose of ministering to the Karen people.  A mission in Sandoway (Thandwe), Arakan was founded in 1835 to serve Karen migrants.  Despite these safe beachheads, the missionaries continued to maintain convert ministries with the Karen in Lower Burma, often at fantastic risk.

In 1830, the American Baptist Mission Press was re-established at Moulmein by the missionary and master printer Cephus Bennett (1801-85), resuming its production of educational and religious tracts. 

In 1837, Bennett established the Karen Mission Press at Tavoy, as the Karen communities of Tenasserim were viewed to be especially receptive to the missionaries’ overtures.  Bennett remained at Tavoy to supervise the operations of the press, including the production of the present work.

The Karen Mission Press produced several intriguing titles (with the text usually printed in Karen), all of which are extremely rare today, for example: Francis Mason’s The Karens: or memoir of Ko Thah-Byu, the first Karen convert. By a Karen Missionary (1842), his Synopsis of a grammar of the Karen language (1846) and his Flora burmanica, or, A catalogue of plants, indigenous and cultivated in the valleys of the Irrawaddy, Salwen, and Tenasserim (1851); Jonathan Wade’s Karen Dictionary (1844) and his Thesaurus of Karen knowledge comprising traditions, legends or fables, poetry, customs, superstitions, demonology, therapeutics, etc. (1847-50); E.B. Cross’s An introduction to the science of astronomy, designed for the use of the higher Karen schools (1848) and his View of Ecclesiastical History (1851); and D. L. Brayton’s Questions on Matthew, with explanatory notes and practical remarks in Pwo Karen (1852).  Additionally, Francis Mason edited The Morning Star, a monthly magazine printed in the Karen language by the Karen Mission Press.

Following the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852-3), Britain conquered Lower Burma, which included the major cities of Rangoon and Bassein, placing virtually all the Karen peoples’ Burmese lands under EIC rule.  The American missionaries were henceforth permitted to ‘come out of the dark’ and to expand their ministry without fear of Burmese reprisals.

In 1855, the American Baptist Mission Press was moved back to Rangoon and the Karen Mission Press and the operations at Moulmein were folded and consolidated into the Rangoon office.  This was technically done for reasons of efficiency, although it must be admitted that Abbott’s departure from Burma in 1852 was a severe blow to the Tavoy mission and the funding of its press.

From 1855 to 1870, the American Baptist Mission Press “was responsible for nearly all book printing in Burma”.  Following that period, the publishing industry in Burma began to open-up upon the establishment of a variety of both government run and private commercial presses.  However, the American Baptist Mission Press remained important, progressively expanding the quantity and diversity of its production, being described in 1910 as “one of the best-equipped missionary presses in the world”.

 

Elisha Abbott: “The Apostle of the Karens”

Elisha Litchfield Abbott, contemporarily known as the “Apostle of the Karens”, was one of the most zealous and effective early Christian missionaries in Burma.  He was born in Cazenovia, New York in 1809 and studied theology at the celebrated Hamilton College in Clinton, NY.  Upon graduation, Abbott volunteered for overseas missionary service and was assigned to Burma.

Abbott arrived in Moulmein on February 10, 1836, and immediately set to work, rapidly learning the Karen language, travelling tirelessly around the countryside, converting Karen people, recruiting Karen ministers, and setting up churches in villages.  He was soon aided by his wife, the former Miss Gardiner, whom he married at Tavoy in April 2, 1837, and who showed the same passion for the cause.

Abbott bounced all over British Burma, variously based in Moulmein, Tavoy and Sandoway (Thandwe).  He also took the immense risk of operating in Burmese-ruled Lower Burma, where preaching to the Karens was expressly illegal.  While he and his fellow Western missionaries avoided direct penalties for their activities, several of his Karen converts suffered persecution at the hands of Burmese officials. 

Abbott became renown for giving marathon sermons to massive crowds and converting hundreds of Karen people to Christianity in as single day.  Contemporaries described him as “an impassioned and captivating force”.  On December 24, 1837, he gave a 14-hour long speech in Bassein (interrupted only by brief breaks) that became a legendary event in local history.

Abbot was also a writer, who in addition to the present work and numerous newspaper articles, produced the Catechism (1843) and Abbott’s Arithmetic (1852), a curious book on mathematics, both published by the Karen Mission Press.

While precise statistics are not known, Abbot converted tens of thousands of Karen people to Christianity and helped to establish 50 Karen churches.  He was also the leading instructor of Karen ministers, conducting numerous sessions of week-long seminars across the land.

In contrast to some of his fellow missionaries, Abbott believed that Christianity would only survive in Burma long-term if the Karen people could be taught to run their churches in a self-reliant manner, without ongoing Western assistance.  While Westerners needed to play a role in conversion and getting things off the ground, political instability ensured that they may not always be present in Burma to maintain the faith, the leadership of which must be taken up by Karen pastors.  Abbott’s motto was “American support for Americans, and Karen support for Karens”, and while no missionary was more generous towards the Karen people with his time and resources, all the help he rendered was in the service of building a foundation for Karen self-reliance.

Abbott never gave any consideration to his health and worked and travelled ceaselessly in a climate that was world-famous for being hard on Western constitutions.  On January 27, 1845, his wife died suddenly of some tropical illness.  Abbot was devastated, and his own health, which was never good, began to deteriorate rapidly; soon his pulmonary pains were so great that he could not attend to his duties.  Later that year he took a leave of absence and retuned to America.

Abbot’s native climate agreed with him and his health improved, such that he embarked on speaking a tour of the north-eastern United states.  American audiences were enraptured by his exotic and dangerous experiences in the service of Christ in Burma, and he was deluged by an immense wave of financial donations, far exceeding anything that was normally raised by American overseas missionaries.  This money amounted to so great a sum that it formed an endowment which funded Christian activities in Burma for decades to come.

Abbot retuned to Burma in 1847, where he resumed his previous breakneck pace.  He continued his great success of conversion and parish building.  In 1851, in Sandoway, Abbott penned the present work, which was his most ambitious and interesting publication.

In 1852, Abbot, once again, fell seriously ill and had to leave Burma for America – for what became the last time.  Residing in Fulton, New York, his health did not recover, and he died on December 3, 1854, at only the age of 45 – having given everything for the Karen missions.

 

References: British Library: 11103.a.17; San San May, ‘Early Printing in Burma’, in Southeast Asia Library Group Newsletter, no. 42 (December 2010), pp. 32-40, note especially ‘list of books printed at Maulmain, Tavoy and Rangoon before 1855 which are in the British Library’, no. 40 (p. 38); Cf. [On Early Printing in Burma:] Patricia Herbert and Anthony Crothers Milner (eds.), South-East Asia: Languages and Literatures: A Select Guide (Honolulu, 1989), pp. 9-10; [On Early Christian Missionaries in Burma:] Harvey Newcomb (ed.), A Cyclopedia of Missions: containing a comprehensive View of Missionary operations throughout the World (New York, 1855), pp. 198 – 214; [On Abbott’s Bibliography:] Winfred Hervey, The Story of Baptist Missions Abroad (St. Louis, 1886), pp. 423-9.

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