Historical Precedents
> Biblical Reference > Historical Precedents > Quotations & Writings > Commentary
> Home > Historical Precedents > Church > The Pastor, Culture & Public Duty > "Asa Jennings: The Pastor Becomes an Admiral" -- [1922]
> Category

Asa Jennings – The Pastor Becomes an Admiral [1922]

On Thursday, September 21, 1922, American Methodist minister Asa Jennings rode into the harbor of the Greek island Mytilene aboard the Italian cargo ship Constantinapoli. Accompanying him were some 2,000 refugees he had rescued from the Turkish city of Smyrna. Yet he knew that hundreds of thousands faced likely death at the hands of the Turkish army if he failed to intervene. So he formulated a plan. In telegrams to Greek authorities in Athens he identified himself as chairman of the American Relief Committee in Mytilene and asked for 20 ships to stage a daring rescue mission. After a series of exchanges, the final reply came in one sentence: “All ships in the Aegean placed under your command to remove refugees from Smyrna.”1 The pastor had become an admiral, and he steamed back to Smyrna in a race against time.

In the wake of World War I, Greece had invaded Turkey with hopes of restoring a Christian empire with Smyrna at its heart. But that dream was destroyed in 1922. Turkish nationalists vanquished the Greek army and pushed west into Smyrna. With the Greeks retreating, Muslim forces unleashed a literal firestorm on Smyrna’s “infidel” inhabitants. They hated the city because of its Christian influence, affluent culture, and vibrant commerce, all of which were an affront to Islamic pride.

So beginning on September 9, Turks murdered, raped, looted, and destroyed the city.2 They doused buildings with petroleum, lit a massive fire, and cut the city’s fire hoses.3 As refugees fled the inferno, a throng of people were trapped on a narrow quayside on the Aegean Sea. Without outside help, those who were not deported to the interior of Anatolia would die from disease or murder at the hands of the Turks.4 The New York Times summed up the situation with the headline: “Smyrna Wiped Out.”5 To make matters worse, American and European battleships sat within sight of the shore under orders not to intervene. The captain of the British Iron Duke, for instance, ordered the band to strike up a tune to drown out the cries of desperate refugees.6

Under those conditions, Reverend Jennings felt compelled to act. As soon as his fleet of Greek ships landed in Smyrna’s harbor, the crowd struggled frantically to board. “Women lost shoes in the scrum. Hair was torn out and couples separated.”7 Turkish soldiers beat back evacuees with the butts of their rifles to slow their advance while British and American soldiers could only watch but not help.8 Still, thousands at a time poured onto the awaiting ships, as day after day until the end of September, Jennings’ armada continued rescue operations. All told, his mission helped reduce the half million refugees to fewer than 50,000,9 and eventually, they too were able to escape.10

Jennings, by his own admission, knew nothing about ships except “to be sick in them.”11 But lack of expertise did not stop this industrious minister when lives were at stake. Even the international community’s largely unresponsive posture toward the crisis did not deter him. He knew the Church could not wait for secular authorities to take the lead and that moral outrage was useless unless it blossomed into humanitarian aid. And when grateful refugees on one ship fell at his feet and kissed his shoes, Jennings hid in his cabin.12 Such is the mark of a pastor who alleviates human suffering with the compassion of his Lord.


Giles Milton, Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a Christian City in the Islamic World (New York: Perseus, 2008), 359.


Ibid., 249-371.


Ibid., 305-308. Turkish historians claim the fire was an act of sabotage by Greeks and Armenians. Yet scores of witnesses testify that the Turkish army deliberately set fire to Smyrna.


Ibid., 355.


For this information, see the captions under photos located in ibid., 204-205.


Ibid., 319-320.


Ibid., 363.


Ibid., 362-365.


Ibid., 370.


Ibid., 372.


Ibid., 359.


Ibid., 357.