August 29: Robert James Dodds, D.D.

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Missionary to Syria

A timely reminder to pray for the Christians in Syria

Robert James Dodds was born near Freeport, Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, on August 29, 1824. His parents were Archibald and Margaret (Davidson) Dodds. Possessed from his youth with integrity of character and amiability of disposition he was dedicated to God for the work of the ministry. At an early age he began his classical studies under the direction of his pastor, the Rev. Hugh Walkinshaw, and made such rapid progress and proficiency in all the departments of literature taught in a College, that he was recommended as sufficiently advanced to begin the study of theology in the spring of 1844. He studied theology in the Allegheny and Cincinnati Seminaries, and was licensed by the Pittsburgh Presbytery, June 21, 1848.

At the meeting of the Reformed Presbyterian (Old Light) Synod in 1847, the Mission of Hayti [i.e., Haiti] was organized, and Dodds was chosen as a missionary for that foreign field, for which purpose he was ordained sine titulo [i.e., “without title,” – typically, without call to a specific congregation] by the Pittsburgh Presbytery, on November 24, 1848. The Mission, however, was soon afterwards abandoned, and as he was not sent out, he used his time to good advantage by supplying the pulpit for churches lacking a pastor. Rev. Dodds was at last installed as pastor of the Rehoboth congregation in Stanton, Jefferson county, Pennsylvania, on June 18, 1852. He traveled widely throughout the region around the church and was exposed to many dangers, but by his missionary spirit and zeal for the cause, was blessed to build up a flourishing congregation with many branches.

At the meeting of the RP Synod in 1856, the Syrian Mission was established and Rev. Dodds was chosen as one of the missionaries for this new field. Accepting the appointment, he was released from his charge over the Rehoboth congregation on May 24, 1856. Then with the Rev. Joseph Beattie, their families and some others, set sail for Syria on October 16, 1856. He first settled in Damascus, where he learned the Arabic language, and in October of 1857, relocated to Zahleh, a town at the foot of Mount Lebanon. In May of 1858 he was compelled to abandon the work in this town due to threats and persecution from the priesthood. Making a tour of exploration through Northern Syria, as far as Antioch, he passed through Latakia, and, being favorably impressed with its location, began to make arrangement for occupying this new location. In the autumn of 1859, he, Dr. Beattie, and the others moved to Latakia. Suitable buildings were located and Dodds worked here for some eight years with good success.

When an unexpected opening occurred in Aleppo, and the Mission decided it was advisable to seize the opportunity, Dr. Dodds was appointed to this field in May of 1867. Here he remained, constantly busy with the work of the Mission, until his death. During the summer of 1870, he visited the Mission in Latakia, and while there suffered an attack of fever. During a subsequent journey to Idlib, he contracted a severe cold which he could not shake off. In the beginning of December, he next suffered from a small hemorrhage of the lungs, which was made worse when he contracted typhoid fever. The Rev. Robert James Dodds died at his home in Aleppo, Syria, on December 11, 1870.

As a preacher, his sermons were rich in Scriptural truth and illustration. He was not a popular orator owing to a hesitancy in his speech, and he was more spiritual than ornate; more thoughtful than rhetorical; more anxious about conviction than elegance of style. He was admirably adapted with every qualification for a successful missionary. He was a good classical scholar, and made such proficiency in the study of the Arabic tongue that he was able to preach a sermon in that language in eighteen months after beginning the study of it. He was a remarkably cheerful man, uniform in his feelings and sympathetic in his disposition. His intellectual character was marked with keen and vigorous reasoning powers, a retentive memory, and the ability to concentrate his ideas. Among his earlier publications is, “A Reply to Morton on Psalmody,” (1851). His writings are principally letters to the Foreign Mission Board and were published in the denominational magazines of the Reformed Presbyterian Church. He translated the Shorter Catechism into the Arabic language, and was engaged in writing and translating other works for the use of the Mission. He was honored with the degree of Doctor of Divinity by Monmouth College in 1870. He was Moderator of the RP Synod of 1866.

[excerpted from History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of America, by William Melanchthon Glasgow (1888, reprinted 2007), p. 484-487.

Dodds’ work “A Reply to Morton on Psalmody can be found at archive.org, here. No other works by Rev. Dodds have been discovered on the Web at this time.

For Further Study:
The early days of the RP Syria Mission are recorded in letters from the Rev. J. Beattie, published in volume 4 (1866) of The Reformed Presbyterian and Covenanter. On pages 8-9 of the January 1866 issue (4.1), we read in part:

Letter from Rev. J. Beattie.
Latakiyeh, October 31, 1865.

Dear Brethren–Ere this reaches you, you will, in all human probability, have seen and conversed with Mr. Dodds, and have learned from him particulars in reference to the Mission, up to the time he left. He and family, in company with Mr. Morgan and family, a missionary of the American Board, occupying the nearest station to the north of us, set sail from Latakiyeh in the beginning of August last, at the close of our summer term, and just after one of the most interesting events in all the past history of our mission—our first communion in Arabic. We had the pleasure of admitting five native brethren to our fellowship on that occasion, and while it was with no little hesitation and anxiety that we concluded to receive them, I am happy to say that their general deportment since the time of their public connection with us has been such on all occasions as to justify our actions. May God add to this little number daily of such as he will have to be saved. . . “

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  1. Dr, Bruce C. Stewart’s avatar

    In light of the present tensions and atrosities in Syria today, we can be thankful for the ministry of the RP Church in establishing a vital Mission in Syria including not only mission congregations, but schools and hospitals. From this Mission, workers also went out to establish work in Turkey and Cyprus. Only eternity will tell of the extent and blessings of that Mission.

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