This is a time to recognize silver linings.
The Pliny Fisk journals were added to the Middlebury College library in the 1930s, but it took nearly 80 years before they made their undergraduate academic debut in a class hosted in Special Collections. Preparing for classes that make those 200-year-old primary resources relevant to undergraduates always feels a little like a mad rush. Providing insight on the journals’ contents has meant flipping through pages right up to class time to discover interesting passages to share. I always find them, but it is disconcerting.
Working in Special Collections during the COVID-19 outbreak gave rise to isolation and working remotely. A disruption, but also an upheaval with benefits, in particular: time to focus on transcribing the journals that have intrigued me for years.
The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) appointed Fisk to their first Palestine Mission in 1818. It was Fisk’s first, and only, mission. He arrived in Smyrna (now Izmir) Turkey in 1819 during the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and for the first year of his mission – the first 80 pages of his 1821-1823 journal – he recounts the atrocities suffered by Greeks at the hands of the Turks. The Catholics also receive a fair share of criticism. In one of many stories, Fisk recalls giving a German Bible to a Bavarian Catholic who tells Fisk “I shall be obliged to keep it hid for if one of our Priests here should see it they will think I am going to turn Protestant.”
Roughly 280 pages in length, the journal contains firsthand descriptions of customs, events, food, dress, politics, religious theory, death, the plague, language learning, landmarks, travel, tourism and the progress of his mission. Whether exploring the Pyramids by candlelight or arguing with a Catholic, from describing a failed balloon launch (the disappointed crowd stoned the balloon) to learning Hebrew and Arabic or navigating the Nile, Fisk’s journals reflect the experience of one of the first American evangelical Protestants to travel throughout the Middle East, and are a crucial guide for the ABCFM missionaries to follow.
My time of isolation has also been one of outreach and the Fisk journals will emerge as scholarly gems.