Lectures shed light on LAU’s early history
The Rev. Robert Stoddard revealed interesting aspects of the life and work of Sarah L.H. Smith (1802–1836), founder of the girl’s school that evolved into LAU.
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The life of Sarah Lanman Huntington Smith, who founded the girl’s school that was later to become LAU, was celebrated in a series of lectures in late January.
The Rev. Robert Stoddard, former LAU vice president for Development, returned to Lebanon to deliver the lectures. They coincided with the 175th anniversary of Sarah’s first arrival to Beirut—then part of the Ottoman Empire—on January 28, 1834.
When marking LAU’s 75th year as a higher-education institution in 1999–2000, “we found that precious little was known about the school’s American missionary founder, the enigmatic ‘Mrs. Smith,’ and her little school for girls that evolved into our modern university,” Stoddard said. “Who was this mysterious woman who first dared to educate ‘Arab’ girls?”
Sarah was born in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1802 into a privileged and religious family. Her wealthy background didn’t deter her though from working with disadvantaged people. She and her friends founded a school and church for the Mohegan Indians who lived nearby, preventing the relocation of many tribal members by the government.
At the age of 31, Sarah married the Rev. Eli Smith, and together they travelled to Beirut as Protestant missionaries.
Upon her arrival, Sarah started teaching six to eight girls in the mission house, and in mid-1834 she became the head of Mrs. Smith’s Beirut Female Academy. Enrollment grew up to 40 and the curriculum expanded quickly, until her untimely death in 1836.
The school later evolved into the American School for Girls, which started a two-year college program in 1924 and became known as American Junior College for Women three years later. AJCW, which was expanded under the name Beirut College for Women in the late 1940s, became coeducational in 1973, and was renamed Beirut University College. The name was changed a final time in 1994 to Lebanese American University.
According to Stoddard, the university’s roots “go back further than those of the first college for women in the United States.”
Sarah not only spread Protestantism in Lebanon and inspired many American women to become missionary teachers, but her “exceptional God-given talents, daring vision, hard work and personal sacrifices helped transform” the Ottoman Empire, Stoddard said.
At the lectures, organized in collaboration with the Near East School of Theology and the National Evangelical Church of Beirut, LAU President Joseph Jabbra praised Stoddard’s commitment to tracing the university’s history.
Sarah’s school for girls “evolved into a major coeducational institute whose growth can only be a point of pride,” Jabbra said.
Stoddard dedicated one lecture to the life and legacy of Sarah’s husband. Smith is credited with the design of a new Arabic typeface, which became known as American-Arabic type. He was also involved in the initial phase of the Bible’s translation into Arabic.
Concluding his lecture series, Stoddard presented LAU with an 1845 edition of Sarah’s memoir, an American best seller compiled by her brother-in-law. Stoddard also offered the university a digital reproduction of her portrait made in 1833. The original piece, the only known picture of her, hangs in the Park Congregational Church in Norwich.
“I firmly believe that looking down from heaven upon LAU’s two campuses, Sarah is more than pleased with the ‘glorious superstructure’ that now rests on the foundations she started to build 175 years ago,” Stoddard said.
Stoddard first came to Lebanon in 1979 and served as BUC’s director of Development for North America for eight years. He later joined LAU as vice president for Development in 1999, and upon his retirement in 2005 he dedicated himself to studying the history of missionaries in the Middle East and the “mostly forgotten genesis of LAU.”
He will repeat his lectures in Norwich later this year for the 350th anniversary of the city’s founding.
Read more about LAU’s history.