Reflections from Turkey on the Second Haystack Centennial

By Ken & Betty Frank - Missionaries in 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. Reading many of the speeches from that meeting, I am struck by the gap that the speakers saw between themselves in 1906 and the Haystack period of 1806, one hundred years earlier; and also by the second one hundred year gap between many of us in 2006 and the first centennialists. In both cases, religious and cultural chasms arise from the accumulation of memory and experience, the changing of contexts, and our faith in a still-speaking God.

A general theme in 1906, one hundred years after the Haystack Prayer Meeting that led to the incorporation of the ABCFM, was that those who emerged 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. Seen from one hundred years later, these Haystackers were exemplars of power, trust, and strength, on fire with the goal to “bring the world to Christ” and provide “spiritual enlightenment” to “heathens” and “natives.” The 1906 speechmakers recalled these past heroes to inspire the current generation to emulate them in zeal, to be worthy of that ancestry. They eloquently stimulated enthusiasm for “foreign missions” in their audiences and lamented what they saw as neglect of the former Haystack vision. George Gates said in regret, “We believe in automobiles a hundred times more than we believe in missions.” (p. 52)

Whether it was their intention or not, both Gates and other speakers such as John Denison put their fingers on reasons why the zeal for proselytizing people in other countries may have flagged. The gap between them 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 what ABCFM missionaries were actually doing among other cultures in the world as a result of the Haystack enthusiasm, and what was being 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 two of us have worked as missionaries in Izmir, Turkey, for more than 20 years. Our first ABCFM predecessors there were two young men from the Haystack generation, Pliny Fiske and Levi Parsons. They were around thirty years old when they arrived in 1820, the first ABCFM appointees in what was then the Ottoman Empire. The expectations on them were unrealistic. They were being sent into what was unknown to the ABCFM. They were supposed to learn several classical and local languages, describe the cultures and religion of the people they met, preach, teach, write reports, and so on. Each man died not long after arrival.

But throughout the 1800s more ABCFM personnel followed these two men and found a receptive audience among some people in the Orthodox Christian communities. The orthodox churches have been rooted in the Middle East for two thousand years. What happened during this interaction between the eager American missionaries and the local Christians was noted by some of the centennial speakers. American Board missionaries made discoveries about the civilizations of the Ottoman Empire that challenged the Americans. This new knowledge added to their growing global awareness of the diversity and complexity of the world. They saw that a larger view of God, and God’s relation to all people, is required. They realized limitations in their own measures of history and philosophy. They were stretched into speaking new languages, expressing their thoughts in unfamiliar ways, expanding their spirits, and finding within themselves the wherewithal to adapt.

What was learned over the one hundred years from Haystack to 1906 resulted in more extensively nuanced and alternative visions of what Christians were to do in the world, based on first-hand knowledge of cultures and civilizations and their role in this larger horizon. We also see in the centennial speeches the appearance of the “social gospel,” meaning the claim that it is insufficient to induce other people only to accept certain creeds; what is required from Christians is holistic ministry to individuals and their communities in all of their physical, social, and spiritual needs.

By the time of the first Haystack Centennial, the ABCFM was heavily invested in the Ottoman Empire, the heart of which is today’s Turkey. On the eve of World War 1, about one-fourth of the world-wide ABCFM budget was spent in this area alone, with more than 200 missionaries present at any one time. Their work centered on schools, clinics, hospitals, orphanages, and other social service institutions, in addition to theological training, publishing, and other support activities for local Protestants churches. Most of this work occurred among communities of Orthodox Christians. There was almost nothing done with the majority Muslim population. The Americans admitted they were not accepted in this area.

What about the second one hundred years, from 1906 to 2006? Where did Haystack lead? The ABCFM closed its doors, and an era, in 1960. A fresh organization, the United Church Board for World Ministries (UCBWM), closely tied to the newly formed United Church of Christ, shouldered the assets and mission work of the ABCFM but implemented a new emphasis. The post-World War 2 atmosphere of decolonization and the formation of independent governments saw its mirror image in the move by the UCBWM to hand over foreign mission property, assets, and programs to local, independent churches. Where the first Haystack generations regularly fostered paternalistic relations with Christians in other countries – a relation sometimes owned by Protestant groups abroad who came begging like children for money and protection – the UCBWM generation preferred to see overseas Christians as equals. It was in such a spirit that the World Council of Churches was formed after World War 2, in parallel with the formation of the United Nations.

Meanwhile, ABCFM work in Turkey had taken a remarkable direction. Five years after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War 1 as an ally of Germany, a nationalist movement arose that overthrew the empire and built on its ashes a Turkish Republic. The massacres of Armenian Christians during World War 1, and the Muslim-Christian population exchanges between Turkey and Greece in 1923, meant that ABCFM missionaries in Turkey had lost the communities which they had been serving in religion, health, education, and publishing. With few exceptions, the related institutions were closed or in ruins.

The new Turkish republican government was decidedly secular. It welcomed ABCFM missionaries to stay and operate the remaining schools and health centers but only under secular conditions. That is, there could no longer be work by foreigners that was tied to the Christian church and its doctrines and rituals. Schools and hospitals were required to serve the entire nation without mention of religion. More than half of the ABCFM missionaries did not resume their work in Republican Turkey, thinking that it was not worth the investment of money and time if there was no opportunity for proselytization.

Those ABCFM missionaries that remained in Turkey after 1923 found themselves more and more serving a Muslim population under the modernizing secular conditions. This was a new experience. Before this time, if any Muslims had dealings with the missionaries’ services, it was on the missionaries’ turf. Now the tables were turned. Missionaries worked on Turkish terms according to their conditions. In general the missionaries found their services exceedingly welcome. The country had been devastated through war, and the missionary institutions provided continuity and models for progress. After all, when the Americans saw Turkey’s secularism, its disestablishment of religion, and the desire to follow European models in economics and law and to institute democracy, they knew from their own culture what this scenario was all about. They felt they could contribute something to building the new nation. Many subsequent graduates of the American Board schools became key figures in the development of Turkey and in Turkey’s role in global politics.

A concept of Christian mission in Turkey thus developed in which American Board and then UCBWM missionaries interpreted their ideals in a strictly secular context. This further complicated and elaborated the global picture of relations between the world’s peoples that began to be learned in the first century after Haystack.

The UCBWM in turn closed its doors in 2000 when the United Church of Christ restructured itself. A new body within the UCC, Wider Church Ministries, inherited the UCBWM work, but this work was now considered part of a joint program with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). These two denominations call their joint program the Common Global Ministries Board.

Shortly after it was formed in 1996, the CGMB announced five guiding principles for prioritizing its international work: the personal embodiment of mission; a partnership relationship with overseas institutions; evangelization, meaning finding new ways “to sing the song of faith”; the healing of creation, which includes medical and environmental efforts; and interfaith relations. Most recently the CGMB has announced a criterion of “critical presence” for making decisions about where it is to work overseas. This way of putting things is far from the expressions of the Haystack generation, as well as from many of the centennial speeches of 1906.

The gap of 100 years since 1906 is much more than one of time, or one of loss of fervor. There is 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. It brings to mind the Haystack image of charging off zealously with the truth into the unknown. 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. That 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. To work only for the good of Christians or the Christian church in today’s context of global awareness is a form of selfishness. The God that Christians know is both loving and just.

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 the sense of risk and commitment. Another 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.

But 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 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).