|Jerusalem YMCA, photographed from the front. |
Photograph by author.
In 1919, Archibald Harte, an employee of the U.S. Young Men’s Christian Association, arrived in Jerusalem determined to “do everything possible for the people and the land, in order to bring to the people righteous prosperity and to make the land again a land of milk and honey.” After securing a million-dollar gift from a wealthy American donor, Harte oversaw the construction of a huge YMCA complex in Jerusalem. The facility boasted a gymnasium, pool, sports field, library, an American-style soda fountain, and space for lectures, religious services, and vocational classes. The impressive building showcased modern technology and architecture and symbolized the commitment of U.S. missionaries to help the Holy Land. The Jerusalem YMCA has survived many changes and challenges over the decades since its construction. Arab, Jewish, British, and American members fought over racial and religious tests for admittance in the 1930s. Its façade still bears scars from the 1946 Irgun bomb attack on the King David Hotel across the street. Amos Gil, the current CEO, remembers growing up nearby in what was, until 1967, a poor Jewish neighborhood exposed to Jordanian sniper fire from the Old City walls. During the intifadas or more recent fighting in Lebanon and Gaza, Arab members coming from the Old City braved checkpoints to reach what Gil describes as an “oasis” of peace.
from General Allenby’s speech dedicating the YMCA in 1933, |
in three languages. Photograph by author.
|View of the Old City from the top of the tower. Photograph by author.|
In addition, the bar for missionary history has been raised substantially by recent work incorporating international sources to study reception and the agency of local participants. Heather Sharkey’s American Evangelicals in Egypt, a stellar example of this, was one book that shaped how I have worked for my dissertation. I started in the YMCA archives at the University of Minnesota and papers from individual missionaries at Yale Divinity School, but I also have used papers from Zionists in the United States and Palestine and newspapers published in Jerusalem to dig out elements of the story. Overseas work is difficult but increasingly important and something that institutions should support. Foreign relations and missions scholars might also be good resources as more historians begin exploring transnational expressions of evangelicalism or Pentecostalism.
Family connections and papers held by children or grandchildren of missionaries are also an important source for missions scholars. I was fortunate enough to make contact with the son of the General Secretary who opened the Jerusalem YMCA in 1933. His stories and a few remaining family letters were very helpful in getting a perspective outside of the organizational records. Many of this generation of missionary kids are now aging or have passed away, so the last chance for these sorts of connections may be at hand. It will be interesting to see if any new collections of papers are donated or opened for research as this generation passes.
I am curious about how missions history could be enhanced by greater integration of digital history tools. I have seen some very interesting use of word infographics to do discursive analysis of missionary letters, and the recent Mormon missionary database looks to be a pathbreaking new source in that subfield. A number of archives, particularly Yale Divinity School’s Special Collections, have worked to digitize missionary papers and photographs. On the whole, however, this seems an underserved field ripe for further experimentation. I have a few ideas I hope to start developing this spring and summer, such as a database with basic biographical information to help track missionaries in a specific place or across their postings. Are there any other digital projects out there missions scholars should know about?