Brief Reflections from Turkey on the Second Haystack Centennial

Ken & Betty Frank - Turkey Our unique American Board library in Istanbul has a copy of the Proceedings of the 97th Annual Meeting of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), Oct. 9-12, 1906. It was a grand gathering held at Williams College over several days, celebrating the centennial of the Haystack Prayer Meeting of 1806 that led to the incorporation of the ABCFM.

Our unique American Board library in Istanbul has a copy of the Proceedings of the 97th Annual Meeting of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), Oct. 9-12, 1906. It was a grand gathering held at Williams College over several days, celebrating the centennial of the Haystack Prayer Meeting of 1806 that led to the incorporation of the ABCFM.

We are struck by the gap that the speakers saw between themselves in 1906 and the Haystack period, one hundred years earlier; and also by the second one hundred year gap between many of us in 2006 and the first centennialists.

A general theme in 1906 was that those who emerged a century earlier from the Haystack were giants, heroes, people of immense faith who risked their lives in “the great work of world evangelization,” determined to overcome all obstacles in fulfillment of their vision and calling. “We can do it if we will” was their slogan. The 1906 speechmakers recalled these past heroes to inspire their audience to emulate them in zeal, to be worthy of that ancestry. They eloquently stimulated enthusiasm for “foreign missions” and lamented what they saw as neglect of the Haystack vision. George Gates said in regret, “We believe in automobiles a hundred times more than we believe in missions.” (p. 52)

But the gap between the centennialists and the original Haystack generation was not simply one of a loss of revivable fervor. During the first 100 years of the ABCFM, the record of how ABCFM missionaries behaved among other cultures in the world as a result of the Haystack enthusiasm, and what was learned from that experience, fed back into re-thinking the concept of mission. Gates saw that in the Haystack generation, “four or five lads were setting out for a mostly unknown work, their philosophy of missions going little beyond converting a few heathen here and there…But if the world’s conception of foreign missions has not grown in a hundred years, then are missions undivine; for what is of God is alive and grows.” (p. 47)

The second gap of 100 years since 1906 comes from a growing realization that America, with its ideals and its energy, may not be any better or worse for humankind than any other nation or civilization. Some may even argue that a hyper-powered America in the 21st century is proving to be a global disaster, as would any nation with such power and in such a dominant position. Instead of “enlightening” the world, it may be time for thoughtful Americans, and American Christians in particular, to humble themselves and work cooperatively with others for the common good. The common global good, which includes international justice and respect for the lives and dignity of all persons regardless of religious affiliation, is a value that resonates with stories out of which Christians live. Christians work for justice and for the common good in response to a loving God who has freely given life to all creatures.

What can we affirm from the Haystack generation as energizing today’s ideas of Christian mission in the United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ? One thing would be openness to God’s call. Knowledge of the world and its people changes; contexts change; empires rise and fall; wars rage; disasters strike; human populations continue to increase; the earth is more and more abused. The Haystack generations are almost unrecognizable in this flux and upheaval. Yet across the centuries we still recognize their willingness to risk themselves for where they felt God called them to serve.

We say today that God is still calling; God is still speaking — thank God. Our call is not the call to the Haystackers, and so our response is not theirs. Our world, our context, our self-understanding is not theirs. Our sense of mission cannot be theirs. As was said in the 1906 centennial, “what is of God is alive and grows.” Seeing the growth and change in mission over the last two hundred years makes us feel alive, receptive to truth, self-critical, and opens us to receive new wisdom for service.

Ken & Betty Frank

Ken & Betty Frank serve as missionaries with the American Board in Istanbul, Turkey. They share the job of General Secretary of the American Board. They also serve on the board of the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program (IIMP).