Presbyterian missionaries in Egypt were not afraid of shaking things up, a speaker told those attending the Presbyterian Historical Society Luncheon at the 220th General Assembly on Tuesday (July 3).

“American Presbyterian missionaries were social radicals,” said Heather Sharkey, associate professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, in an address about the impact of missionaries on Muslim and Christian communities in Egypt.

From the arrival of the first Presbyterian missionaries in Egypt in 1853, Sharkey said, the mission enterprise challenged the accepted norms of Egyptian society. Their “radical” acts included opening schools for girls as well as boys and for people from humble backgrounds as well as the elite. Adult education was also a big innovation, Sharkey said.

The missionaries sought to eradicate diseases by opening hospitals. They also championed maternal and neonatal care.

Sharkey said the missionaries “promoted radical ideas about Christian collective life. For example, they sought to convince Egyptian Christians that it was not immodest for females to participate with males in worship. In many Egyptian churches there were partitions in the pews to separate men from women.

In contrast, said Sharkey, “the missionaries thought families should sit together.”

She described how missionaries helped protect a Muslim man who announced that he had become an atheist—a crime punishable by death in an Islamic state. They realized that “full freedom to choose religion must include full freedom to reject religion as well.”