Jerusalem YMCA: Relics of Mainline Missions

 Michael Limberg

Jerusalem YMCA, photographed from the front.
Photograph by author.

Wandering down a shady section of King David Street in Jerusalem, the weary traveler first sees a soaring tower. Walking closer, a large complex opens up, built with Jerusalem’s ubiquitous honey-colored stone in a blend of 1920s modernism and Oriental domes and arches. The sound of children calling in Arabic and Hebrew while they play on courtyard playgrounds echoes from a large sign at the entrance, where multiracial men and women in sports clothes contorting their body to spell out “YMCA.” The Jerusalem YMCA is a relic of the high tide of mainline American missions in the 1930s, but it is also a reminder of the long continuing history of mainline missions even as their work was eclipsed by newer evangelical organizations. The Jerusalem Y also remains deeply entangled in the national and international politics of the Middle East. And for me as a historian, exploring the history of the Jerusalem Y was a chance to understand some of the opportunities and challenges of missionary history.

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.

Quote from General Allenby’s speech dedicating the YMCA in 1933,
in three languages. Photograph by author.

The Jerusalem YMCA’s story is a reminder to historians to pay attention to the continued legacy of mainline missionaries in the foreign relations of the United States and in the social life of people around the world. The standard declension narrative of mainline missions, seen in classic works such as William Hutchison’s Errand to the World, emphasizes their fading support and eclipse by new evangelical missionary movements after 1930. It is true that by 1930, financial contributions and staff numbers for mainline missionaries went were in sharp decline. Yet many missionaries from those organizations remained abroad into the 1960s and beyond. Many of the schools, hospitals, and social centers they built remained in operation even as a number of them passed to new management.  Investigating the Cold War-era involvement of mainline missionaries in development work, humanitarian relief, or in other partnerships with the State Department is a promising field for further research. Many missionaries and their children moved into government service during the 1940s and 1950s. Even today, the Jerusalem YMCA holds a spot on the Board of Trustees for the U.S. Consul as a way to maintain a connection between their work and the State Department. Despite secularization and devolution, many missionary donors and former staff members remain vital sources of funding and political support for former missionary sites overseas. The YMCA of the US only passed full control of the Jerusalem YMCA to local leadership in 2009, and the Association still remains dependent on American donors. Continuing site operations and donor involvement means that mainline missions still matters for US foreign policy as well.

View of the Old City from the top of the tower. Photograph by author.
For me, getting the story of the Jerusalem YMCA has been a learning experience in the challenges and promises of missions history. There is a large learning curve to grasp the theological and organizational complexity of missionary boards, especially for those who (like me) start outside the religious history subfield. The “religious turn” in foreign relations history has been very fruitful but I have commiserated with several others as we struggled to grasp the nuances of different denominations, missions boards, or theological movements. Workshops, seminars, or reading lists that help young scholars in different fields learn how to do good religious history might be a useful way for organizations such as the American Society of Church History and the American Academy of Religion (or their individual members) to reach out and learn new things in return.

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?


Gale Kenny said…
Thanks for the post! The librarians at Columbia are archiving pieces of the Missionary Research Library that is housed at the Burke Library at Union. Many pamphlets from the interwar era are online:

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