Saim Abd al-Samid was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey, probably in the late 1870s (there remains much research to do before his story can be fully known). He was a member of an upper-class family, and received an excellent education, graduating from “the highest official institution” of that city as a civil engineer/surveyor. Whether it was his family ties or his professional accomplishments that were responsible, in 1901 he arrived in Aintab, Syria (now Gazientep, Turkey), as a member of the city council where he was known as Saim Effendi (Effendi being a Turkish title indicating Saim’s place in Ottoman society).
Aintab is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating back to the ancient Hittites, and being known in the history of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, Byzantines, and other conquerors. At the turn of the 20th century, Aintab was home to about 45,000 people. Two-third of the population were Muslim, as was Saim Effendi; one-third were Christian, largely Armenians. In 1901, when Saim Effendi arrived at Aintab, that town was home to one of the Latter-day Saints’ two largest branches (the other being Aleppo, 60 miles to the south). “Largest” is a relative term, of course; after more than 15 years of proselyting in Turkey and Syria,
the Aintab branch had a few dozen members, led by missionaries “from Zion.” In 1901, those missionaries included Joseph Wilford Booth of Alpine, Utah, who, by the time he died in Haifa, Israel, in 1928, had devoted 30 years of his life to the Saints of the Middle East, during multiple missions and while working for their survival and support during short returns home. Elder Booth’s companion was Lester Mangum, another young man of Utah County (he is the “Mangum” of BYU’s “Knight-Mangum Hall”).
Given his social standing, education, and apparently secure financial situation, it is not surprising that Saim Effendi was a cosmopolitan young man who sought out the company of other interesting men, including English-speaking foreigners. Within a short time of his arrival at Aintab, Saim Effendi had made the acquaintance of the Mormon missionaries. Saim Effendi called often at the mission headquarters, and sometimes escorted the elders on visits to gardens and prominent people where they could not have visited on their own. Sometimes he assisted the elders with their language studies, and sometimes he answered their questions about local customs and Islam. Once he brought a nice inkstand and gave it to Elder Mangum as a gift specifically to encourage him in his language study. They chatted about politics, and religion, and social behavior.
Sometimes Saim visited during days when Church meetings were scheduled. He attended testimony meetings that spring, and once when he happened to be at the mission home for a young people’s meeting, he joined in to speak “very interestingly on the social relations of the young people of different sex. This is a notable event for us as it is probably the first speech ever made by an Islam [Muslim] before a congregation of Saints.”
One day the conversation between Saim Effendi and Elders Booth and Mangum somehow turned to the subject of tithing. Saim was intrigued by the subject and asked many questions. The elders explained tithing, and its uses among the Saints. According to Elder Booth, Saim “accepted the principle and expressed his desire to be numbered among the tithe payers.” From that day, he paid tithing to the elders, but asked that his name not be recorded on the Church’s books – that could have caused him problems with his family and government.
Soon after this development, Elder Booth was called away to work with the Saints in other parts of the mission. With Elder Booth inaccessible, and while waiting for his own president, Albert Herman, to arrive in Aintab in Elder Booth’s place, Elder Mangum was at a loss for counsel when an unprecedented event happened in early August. He turned to apostle Francis M. Lyman, the president of the European Mission, for advice:
A circumstance has arisen for which I have no sure precedent … an Islam officer has asked for baptism. …
About a year ago he heard of the Mormons and upon coming to Aintab some six months ago he hunted us up and has since been quite an earnest investigator, with the result above named. Our natural explanation of the Trinity, he says, attracted and held him from the first.
Of course you are well enough acquainted with affairs in this land … to know that for an Islam to openly declare a change of faith is almost equivalent to court death. Realizing this, he asks for secret baptism and confirmation, having in view an early migration … Even if he should wish to declare his intentions openly I should hesitate to grant permission because of our undefined relations with the government. …
Therefore my question is simply this: Under the circumstances is there any objection to baptizing the young officer as he wishes? He asks for baptism now because of the added strength and light which he believes that ordinance will give him.
President Lyman’s advice was simple: “Let the young officer come to us [in England] and be baptised on his way to Zion if he does not wish to wait till he gets [there].”
Writing to a friend in October, Elder Mangum reported:
There is also a young man of Constantinople, who is city engineer, and a member of the city council of this place, that will leave at the earliest opportunity. I should have baptized him some time ago, but Apostle Lyman advises that this action be postponed until after his departure from this land. Of course, at the best it could have been only a secret baptism, but the Apostle thinks even this too risky. If I could have the honor of baptizing the young man and it were my only baptism while here, still I should count my labors far from being small. He is one of those whose faith is the moving principle in their lives, and his friendship is not lightly esteemed.
But Saim abd al-Samid would not wait. Albert Herman, another elder in the Turkish Mission, reported to Salt Lake:
The Aintab branch is also making headway. An Islam of Aintab holding a government position as civil engineer secretly got baptized into our faith, we gave him a long trial and got convinced of his veracity; he will have to keep himself secret till ready to immigrate, otherwise his life might be taken, we proposed to him to get baptized when out of the country, but he was too anxious and would not wait. The first Mohammadan in the Ch. of J. Ch. of L.D.S. I pray, that this also might be kept secret among you.
Saim was baptized on 19 November 1901, by Elder Mangum, in Aintab. He soon afterward notified Elder Booth, who recorded in his diary, “Received letters from Pres Herman and Lester Mangum of Aintab. They inform me of … the baptism of that tried friend Saim Effendi, on the 19 ult by Elder Mangum and his confirmation by Pres A. Herman. This is the first Islam that has ever joined the church to my knowledge.” That baptism was reported in the Millennial Star in December (“Elder Lester Mangum of the Turkish Mission, in a letter from Aintab, Syria, reports a baptism there on the 19th ult.”) But the name of the new convert was not publicly reported. In fact, you might notice that in none of the quoted correspondence is Saim’s name recorded … yet enough details were reported to identify him, had their mail been seen by unfriendly eyes …
(To be continued)