A Protestant Revival in 19th Century Iran

We are all familiar with the “Jesus is coming” meme, and many of us are aware that Jesus isn’t the only savior on the way. Some religions are given to hopes of saviors in the future. It’s no surprise that many people hope to be saved, like a slumbering beauty longs for her Prince Charming, though that salvation may mean the destruction of the world. This desire has been expressed among Christians and Muslims for as long as Christians and Muslims have walked the earth.

In the 13th Century, the Joachamites announced the Antichrist would appear in 1260, and Christ himself soon thereafter. Around 1750, one of the founders of the Shaker movement made the following announcement:

Repent. For the kingdom of God is at hand. The new heaven and new earth prophesied of old is about to come. The marriage of the Lamb, the first resurrection, the new Jerusalem descended from above, these are even now at the door. And when Christ appears again, and the true church rises in full and transcendent glory, then all anti-Christian denominations—the priests, the church, the pope—will be swept away.

History is littered with such millenarian outbursts. We need not enumerate them all here.

One such revival, commonly called the Second Great Awakening, featured characters like Joseph Smith and William Miller. Miller was a Baptist preacher who got out his notepad and his Bible and calculated the ETA of end of the world. Smith, the self-styled American Muhammad, brought his own Kingdom of Heaven down to Earth.

Pioneers in Persia

A surge of missionary activity seems to have accompanied this revival, and for Protestant Christians, the mission almost always involves the distribution of Bibles. This generally means printing Bibles in the local vernacular, so translation is a prerequisite.

Iran in 1808

The New Testament and Psalms were first translated into the Farsi (Persian) language in 1812. The task was completed in Shiraz, formerly the capital of Persia under Karim Khan and a city with an established Armenian Christian population, by an Anglican priest and a man from Shiraz. Not much later (1820), Shiraz was visited by the missionary Peter Gordon, who asserted that Shiraz was fertile ground for missionary work, and, of all cities in Persia, ought to be the focus of missionary attention. By 1825, the missionary Joseph Wolff established a Christian school for Armenian children in Shiraz.

These missionaries were not trying to convert Muslims, though they would have been happy to do so. Evangelizing to Muslims was a dangerous business, as it meant leading Muslims into apostasy, a capital offense. The missionaries were, rather,  after Jews and Christians of wayward denominations. But their activities, and presumably much of their message, may have been familiar to the Muslims of cities that were targets of missionary action. The revival itself, thanks in part to the missionaries, was spreading among the native Christians of the Middle East, and quite predictably, some Christians were heard to be expecting the imminent return of Christ.


Things had not gone well for Persia since the death of Karim Khan in 1779. The rise of the Qajars in 1794 was a particularly barbaric affair. In 1813 and 1828, Persia suffered military defeats and lost much territory to Russia, then a Christian empire. The Shah attacked the British Empire (Afghanistan) in 1837-38, but he was rebuffed by the British. Western influence began to increase steadily across Persia. This, no doubt, emboldened Christian missionaries, just as it surely wounded Persian honor.

By 1822, William Miller had completed his calculations and began to preach about the nearness of the Second Coming. He began with general pronouncements, but eventually coughed up the details:

My principles in brief, are, that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.

As is well known, Christ missed his date with destiny. Miller then selected an alternative Jewish calendar that would permit Jesus to arrive by April 18 without the risk of being deemed rude. The revised deadline also passed without incident.

I can almost hear the missionaries declaring “the end is nigh” and Persians thinking, “what have we got to lose?” in reply. They could have used a messiah at least as much as any missionary, but a Persian messiah would have to be a Muslim messiah, a mahdi.

The Shaykhis

Sometime after 1826, a Persian named Sayyid Kazim turned his Shayki following in a distinctly millenarian direction [1]. Kazim preached that the Muslim Mahdi, whom he identified as the Christian Messiah, was somewhere in the world, waiting to be discovered. Kazim stated quite clearly that he had not met this messiah. When Kazim died in 1843, he left his followers searching across the land for the Mahdi.

Sayyid Kazim had appointed a successor, Haji Karim Khan Kirmani, who would steer the Shaykhis away from Kazim’s millenarianism and back toward the movement’s less radical roots, but Persia was ripe for a savior, and the new Shayki leader couldn’t steer the ship of faith quickly enough to stop violence from breaking out across Persia.

Among Kazim’s disciples (and Karim Khan’s flock) was a young merchant from Shiraz whom Kazim had instructed at length and presumably sent back to Fars to seek the Messiah. Soon after Kazim died, and shortly after William Miller’s final calculations fell through, the young Shaykhi declared himself to be the Messiah. He was a little late to be Jesus (according to Miller’s reckoning), but better late than never. The young messiah inspired a jihad throughout Persia, and was duly executed in 1850. The rebellion raged on for years, but was put down. Ultimately, the movement renounced violence and was rebranded “the Baha’i Faith.” They continued to endure violent royal reprisals, and they are persecuted in Iran to this very day.



[1] It’s doubtful that the Shaykhis existed as a millenarian sect before Kazim took over, but even if it had, it wouldn’t have been so before about 1824.

© 2012 Dan Jensen

2 comments on “A Protestant Revival in 19th Century Iran

  1. Baquia says:

    Interesting article. You attempt to weave together two separate narrative threads: the Second Great Awakening which was a Christian movement in the US focused on the return of Christ and the Shaykhi or Twelver Shiite movement which was focused on the revelation or return of the Hidden Imam.

    The link between them, as presented, is rather weak; a few unco-ordinated missionaries who settled in Iran is not enough to provide a persuasive argument that the Second Great Awakening shaped or in any way influenced the Shaykhi movement, which in turn seeded the Babi and finally the Baha’i Faith.

    By the time Wolff was actively doing missionary work in Iran, Shaykh Agmad had already formulated his ideological framework in Najaf and Karbila (in Iraq) and returned to Iran as a Mutjahid to spread his message.

    Likewise, Sayyid Kazim Rashti, was influenced much more by his master than by any itinerant Christian missionary he may or may not have come in contact with. I don’t think anyone else would seriously suggest otherwise.

    As well, while Persian translations of the Bible may have been a ‘new’ thing at the turn of the 19th century, all theologians in the Middle East studied in one common language: Arabic – the language of the Quran. As such, the Bible had been available in Arabic within Persia for a very very long time. So the fact that it was translated to Persian in 1812 is a nice little historical footnote but of no consequence to the real issue at hand.

    Finally, the language, context and theology of the two movements were completely incompatible and separate. While the Christians rejected the Muslims as ‘heathens’ or worse, Muslims accepted Christ as a messenger of God.

    Yes, there is a ‘coincidence’ that there were these two separate movements seemingly converging on one point: awaiting the return of their respective divine teacher at approximately the same time period.

    However, there were many other groups who had the same idea independent of them. For example, the German Templars who moved to Haifa.

    Of course, the explanation offered by the Baha’is is that this was part of a global consciousness that was slowly awakening and preparing for the arrival of a new cycle of revelation.

    Even if you do no subscribe to that explanation, you can’t deny that it is a more coherent description of what occurred.

    If you have any historical evidence that proves a direct link between the Christian missionary work and the Shaykhi movemement, please share. Otherwise, your assertion of such is just that.

  2. igneous1 says:

    Hi Baquia. Sorry it took me so long to find your comment. Sometimes legitimate comments get lost amid the piles of sneaky spam, and I don’t actively monitor this site.

    You write: “Of course, the explanation offered by the Baha’is is that this was part of a global consciousness that was slowly awakening and preparing for the arrival of a new cycle of revelation.”

    I agree with the idea that this was a matter of global consciousness arising. The difference is that I see it as a result of global events, interaction, and communication, rather than the magical universal spirit-force that most Baha’is believe in. I’m not saying that the Mahdi notion was born in the 19th Century (please see the earlier portion of the post). I’m suggesting, rather, that Islamic millenarianism may have been inflamed by different factors– *including* war and Christian missionary activity. Is this so implausible when compared to invisible spirit forces?

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