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Guest opinion: How a Christian missionary became the ‘American Lafayette of Iran’

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More than a century after his death, American Howard C. Baskerville is considered a hero by many in Iran. How has the honored memory of a Presbyterian missionary and Princeton graduate from Nebraska endured in a predominantly Muslim nation that has strained relations with the USA?

A recent Hinckley Institute poll found that Utahns are divided on how the United States should deal with Iran. Baskerville’s story provides a model for the United States and Iran to consider “rekindling a love lost.” If not love, perhaps a friendship built on empathy for any people seeking representative democracy. Baskerville inspires the real possibility de-escalating the drive to a war no one wants. 

Born in North Platte, Nebraska, on April 10, 1885, Baskerville was the son and grandson of clergymen. After graduating from Princeton University in 1907, the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission sent him to a mission-run school in Tabriz, Iran. In the 1900s Tabriz was a gateway to the West and “modern” ideas, not the least among them the ideas of citizenship and democracy.

When Baskerville arrived in Iran in 1908, the country was in throes of a constitutional movement. On one side were a coalition of western-educated intelligentsia, dissident clergy, members of the merchant class, nationalists and prominent tribal leaders. They sought to check Iran’s autocratic Qajar Dynasty by establishing a parliament and a constitution. On the other side were royalist forces allied with the Russian-backed shah, and conservative clergy who viewed the establishment of a parliament a threat to their authority and influence. 

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Howard C. Baskerville

Courtesy of Baskerville Institute

Students in Baskerville’s class came from the upper echelon of the merchant class and tribal leaders. He taught his students about George Washington and the American system. His students saw him as more than a teacher; he was a sympathetic friend who wanted to learn their language, culture and history. School officials became concerned about Baskerville’s increasing attachment to his students, their pro-democracy aspirations and the plight of the people in a city under siege.  

The American Consul, William Doty, warned Baskerville that he had “no right to interfere with the internal politics of this country and you are here to act as a teacher.”

“I thank you for your kindness,” Baskerville responded, “but I cannot remain calm and watch indifferently the sufferings of a people fighting for their right. I am an American citizen and am proud of it. But I am also a human being and cannot help feel deep sympathy with the people of this city. I am not able to go on teaching calmly and quietly while tragic events happen daily around me. I assure you I am not afraid of any fatal consequences and I am determined to serve the national cause of Persia.”

In his final class, Baskerville spoke to his students about the American revolution and the ideals of America’s Founding Fathers. He felt the Iranian constitutionalists’ ideals were similar to those that motivated them. He talked about the colonial powers Russia and Britain, and their designs for the country. On April 19, 1909, Baskerville and small group gathered to break through the forces blocking transfer of basic supplies to the city. Sadly, his party were outnumbered and poorly armed and. Baskerville was killed. 

The following day, thousands poured into streets to watch Baskerville’s funeral procession. A constitutional leader sent a telegram to Baskerville’s family that read: “Persia much regrets the honorable loss of your dear son in the cause of liberty, and we give our parole that future Persia will always revere his name in her history like that of Lafayette in America and will respect his venerable tomb.”

It is not surprising that Baskerville was the first American who received a tribute in the opening session of the Iranian parliament on Nov. 15, 1909. In 2003 Iranian artists designed a bust of Baskerville for the Constitution House in Tabriz.

Similar to the Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette who fought in the American Revolutionary War, and whose statue stands just to the north of the White House in Washington, D.C., the Baskerville bust in Tabriz stands as a reminder of Baskerville’s significance for Iranians. For Iranians, Baskerville symbolizes a relationship between Iranians and Americans that supported the pro-democracy aspirations of the Iranian people and their quest for social justice in an Islamic culture. Most remarkably while forthrightly aiming to convert Iranians to his religion, he gave his life to help them thrive even if they rejected his religious beliefs. This deep respect for human conscience can open American and Iranian hearts and minds to new possibilities as they face serious conflicts with each other. 

 On Feb. 11, 2020, leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran mark their 41st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, which upended more than a century of diplomatic and cultural ties with the United States. As much as the rulers in Iran want to celebrate their revolutionary fervor and continue with the unending cycle of mutual demonization and recrimination, they have not been able to erase the memory and legacy of an American who sacrificed his life for the cause of Iranian freedom and independence in April 1909, during Iran’s first revolution of the 20th century. 

Today, Iranians honor Baskerville, not as a foreigner, but as a global citizen who helped another nation defend its liberty and freedom. 

Bahman Baktiari is the executive director of the Baskerville Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah

Charles Randall Paul is president of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and a member of Baskerville Institute’s Board of Advisers