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“To Promote the Cause of Christ's Kingdom”: International Student Associations and the “Revival” of Middle Eastern Christianity

  • Deanna Ferree Womack

Abstract

This article traces the presence in the Arab world of international Christian student organizations like the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) and its intercollegiate branches of the YMCA and YWCA associated with the Protestant missionary movement in nineteenth-century Beirut. There, an American-affiliated branch of the YMCA emerged at Syrian Protestant College in the 1890s, and the Christian women's student movement formed in the early twentieth century after a visit from WSCF secretaries John Mott and Ruth Rouse. As such, student movements took on lives of their own, and they developed in directions that Western missionary leaders never anticipated. By attending to the ways in which the WSCF and YMCA/YWCA drew Arabs into the global ecumenical movement, this study examines the shifting aims of Christian student associations in twentieth-century Syria and Lebanon, from missionary-supported notions of evangelical revival to ecumenical renewal and interreligious movements for national reform.

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Deanna Ferree Womack is Assistant Professor of History of Religions and Multifaith Relations at Emory University's Candler School of Theology and director of the Leadership and Multifaith Program (LAMP) in Atlanta. Her research focuses on Arab Protestantism, Arab-American encounters, and Christian-Muslim relations in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Middle East. Womack is the author of Protestants, Gender and the Arab Renaissance in Late Ottoman Syria (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). A version of this article was presented at the 2016 Winter Meeting of the American Society of Church History in Atlanta.

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1 In 2017, nearly 4.9 million Syrians were registered refugees and 6.3 million were displaced within Syria. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Syrian Arab Republic: Humanitarian Snapshot” (January 31, 2017), accessed March 27, 2018, https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/syrian-arab-republic-humanitarian-snapshot-31-january-2017-enar. In 2016, with assistance from the YMCA of the USA World Service, the YMCA in Lebanon issued a major fundraising appeal: “Supporting Our Neighbors in Need: YMCA of Lebanon Refugee Response,” YMCA of Lebanon, accessed Dec. 21, 2016, http://www.ymca.net/sites/default/files/world-service/Lebanon-YMCA-Appeal.pdf (site discontinued). For information on refugee services provided by the YMCA in Lebanon, see http://www.ymca-leb.org.lb.

2 Elsy Wakil, “Message of the Regional Secretary 2014,” World Student Christian Federation—Middle East (January 30, 2015), accessed March 27, 2018, http://wscf-me.com/blog/message-regional-secretary-2014.

3 The WSCF also has a presence in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and North Sudan.

4 Warburton, M. C., “Report of the Training College, 1910–1911,” Daughters of Syria 4 (1911): 9.

5 The following literature makes brief reference to the YMCA and WSCF in the Middle East: Lupkin, Paula, Manhood Factories: YMCA Architecture and the Making of Modern Urban Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 143; Selles, Joanna M., The World Student Christian Federation, 1895–1925: Motives, Methods, and Influential Women (Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 99, 262; Anderson, Betty, The American University of Beirut: Arab Nationalism and Liberal Education (Austin: University of Texas, 2011), 6167, 72, 85; and Sharkey, Heather J., American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 150, 170, 176–177, 229–231.

6 Lambert, Frank, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 178.

7 On revivalism and the genesis of American missions to the Middle East, see Tibawi, Abdul Latif, American Interests in Syria, 1800–1901: A Study of Educational, Literary and Religious Work (Oxford: Clarendon, 1966), 1011; Makdisi, Ussama, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 5960; Khalaf, Samir, Protestant Missionaries in the Levant: Ungodly Puritans, 1820–60 (New York: Routledge, 2012), 421, 59–63; Sharkey, Heather J., “American Missionaries and the Middle East: A History Enmeshed,” in American Missionaries and the Middle East: Foundational Encounters, ed. Doğan, Mehmet Ali and Sharkey, Heather J. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011), xixii; Mehmet Ali Doğan, “From New England into New Lands,” in ibid., 4–9; and Kieser, Hans-Lukas, Nearest East: American Millennialism and Mission to the Middle East (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2010), 1012, 26–28.

8 The ABCFM supported Presbyterian missionaries in Syria until it transferred the American Syria Mission to the control of the Board of Foreign Missions (BFM) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1870. After 1870, the ABCFM was an “exclusively Congregationalist organization.” Von Rohr, John, The Shaping of American Congregationalism, 1620–1957 (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1992), 259.

9 Sheehi, Stephen, “Towards a Critical Theory of al-Nahdah: Epistemology, Ideology and Capital,” Journal of Arabic Literature 43 (2012): 269298; Ayalon, Ami, The Arabic Print Revolution: Cultural Production and Mass Readership (New York: Cambridge University, 2016); Patel, Abdulrazzak, The Arab Nahdah: The Making of the Intellectual and Humanist Movement (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2013); Auji, Hala, Printing Arab Modernity: Book Culture and The American Press in Nineteenth-Century Beirut (Leiden: Brill, 2016); and Abou-Hodeib, Toufoul, A Taste For Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 1524.

10 On this history see Christine B. Lindner, “Negotiating the Field: American Protestant Missionaries in Ottoman Syria, 1823 to 1860” (PhD diss., University of Edinburgh, 2009); Grafton, David D., The Contested Origins of the 1865 Arabic Bible: Contributions to the Nineteenth Century Nahda (Leiden: Brill, 2016); Auji, Printing Arab Modernity; and Womack, Deanna Ferree, Protestants, Gender and the Arab Renaissance in Late Ottoman Syria (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019).

11 The founding president of Syrian Protestant College, Daniel Bliss, had been a member of the American Syria Mission. From its inception in 1866, the college was organically independent from the American mission, although the school and the mission maintained close ties.

12 Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (hereafter cited as BFM), Annual Report (1871); BFM, Annual Report (1914), 449.

13 See Deanna Ferree Womack, “Conversion, Controversy, and Cultural Production: Syrian Protestants, American Missionaries, and the Arabic Press, ca. 1870–1915” (PhD Diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 2015), 184–201.

14 Sanneh, Lamin, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), 3.

15 Syrian Protestant College Hand-Book, Presented by the Young Men's Christian Association of the Syrian Protestant College, vol. 1 (1904–1905), 10. The handbook specifies that the intercollegiate branch formed in 1895 as a member Association of the WSCF but that the group had already been meeting informally for a number of years. The Beirut city YMCA was established earlier by Selim Kessab, a Syrian Protestant from Damascus who worked for the British Syrian Mission. Jessup, Henry Harris, Fifty-Three Years in Syria, vol. 2 (New York: Fleming H. Revel, 1910), 777. According to Betty Anderson, SPC president Daniel Bliss reported the presence of the YMCA on the college campus as early as 1886. Anderson, The American University of Beirut 208, no. 51.

16 John Mott, “Report Letter no. 8,” Nov. 27, 1895: Yale Divinity School, Day Missions Library, John R. Mott Papers, Record Group 46–117–1130 (hereafter cited as YDS).

17 John Mott, “Copy of a Personal Letter of John R. Mott Regarding his visit to Beirut.” April 6, 1911: YDS 46–117–1130.

18 Syrian Protestant College Hand-Book (1904–1905), 9.

19 SPC followed the trend of other American universities in shifting the responsibility for most religious exercises from university control to voluntary associations like the YMCA. Anderson, The American University of Beirut, 61.

20 Womack, “Conversion, Controversy, and Cultural Production,” 57–61.

21 John Mott, “Copy of a Personal Letter of John R. Mott Regarding his visit to Beirut.” April 6, 1911: YDS 46–117–1130.

22 Syrian Protestant College Hand-Book (1904–1905), 11.

23 Franzén., RuthRouse, C(lara) Ruth,” Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Anderson, Gerald H. (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 580; and Franzén, Ruth, “The Legacy of Ruth Rouse,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 17, no. 4 (October 1, 1993): 154158.

24 Emma Hay Nelson to Ruth Rouse, July 19, 1914: YDS 46–243–1993; and Charlotte Brown to Ruth Rouse, August 17, 1911: YDS 46–243–1993.

25 Brown to Rouse, August 17, 1911: YDS 46–243–1993.

26 World Student Christian Federation, “List of Delegates to the Conference at Constantinople.” April 24–28, 1911: YDS 54–431. The male delegates were  Howard S. Bliss, Marshall N. Fox, Gilbert Gilkes, E. F. Nickoley, Philip K. Hitti, Habib K. Hitti, Bulus Khauli, Tanius Said, and Dikran Utijian.

27 Warburton, “Report of the Training College,” 9.

28 The Ottomans entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary in late 1914, forcing British and French residents of the Empire to leave for the duration of the war.

29 “Editorial Notes,” Daughters of Syria, Diamond Jubilee Number (1920): 4.

30 For statistics on the Edinburgh conference, see Stanley, Brian, The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009), 7394. Two hundred seven of the delegates were women.

31 John Mott, Private letter from Constantinople, April 29, 1911: YDS 46–54–431. Silas McBee, an American delegate at the conference and editor of The Churchman, emphasized that the conference's “wider ecclesiastical representation and its catholic inclusion” was due to the direct influence of Orthodox and Catholic churches in the region. Silas McBee, “Impressions of our Tour,” The Churchman (June 3, 1911): 804.

32 Mott, Private letter from Constantinople.

33 McBee, “Impressions of our Tour,” 804.

34 Ibid.

35 Rouse wrote to her supporters describing the aims of the Constantinople conference, urging them, “Add to your prayers one for the awakening of zeal for the extension of Christ's Kingdom amongst Moslems, in the hearts of the Christians of the Near East. But spiritual revolution is needed before that zeal awake.” Ruth Rouse, “Constantinople,” March 12–25, 1910: YDS 46–44–362.

36 On the failures of the Young Turks’ efforts toward constitutionalism, see Matossian, Bedross Der, Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014).

37 John Mott, Private Letter, April 29, 1911: YDS 46–54-431. Mott also affirmed, “Far more than the Edinburgh Conference it has accentuated the essential oneness of all true Christians, and it has done this before the gates of the Mohammedan world, and in a region where Christianity has been so hopelessly divided. Meeting in the great danger zone of the world, the Conference has summoned the Christian students of all lands to face an absolutely unique world situation—a situation of unprecedented opportunity, peril, and urgency.”

38 Syrian Protestant College Hand-Book, Presented by the Young Men's Christian Association, vol. iv (1907–1908), 16.

39 Ibid.

40 Anderson, The American University of Beirut, 119–150.

41 Charles H. Hurrey to Ruth Rouse, January 4, 1923: YDS 46–243–1993; and Anderson, The American University of Beirut, 72–73. This arrangement reflected the new environment of AUB, which intended to promote American Protestant values without teaching religion “as a matter of ritual or sect.” Ibid., 72. Hitti later became a professor at Princeton University and director of the school's Near Eastern Studies program.

42 McBee, “Impressions of our Tour,” 804.

43 Womack, “Conversion, Controversy, and Cultural Production,” 204–205.

44 Heather Sharkey, American Evangelicals, 113–115; Samuel Zwemer, The Disintegration of Islam (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1916).

45 One issue of Daughters of Syria, the magazine of the British Syrian Mission which employed Marie Kessab and Mariam Baroody, addressed the relevance of Gairdner's The Reproach of Islam (1909) to mission work in Syria. M. C. Warburton, “The Importance of Syria in relation to The Moslem Problem: A Message to the Missionary Study Bands considering the ‘Reproach of Islam’ by a Student Volunteer,” Daughters of Syria (Dec. 1917): 3–11.

46 George, Geomon K., “Early 20th century British missionaries and fulfillment theology: Comparison of the approaches of William Temple Gairdner to Islam in Egypt, and John Nicol Farquhar to Hinduism in India,” in Christian Witness Between Continuity and New Beginnings: Modern historical missions in the Middle East, ed. Tamcke, Martin and Marten, Michael (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2006) 122.

47 Ruth Rouse, “Minutes of Constantinople Conference,” April 1911: YDS 46–54–341a; World Student Christian Federation, “List of Delegates to the Conference at Constantinople.” April 24–28, 1911: YDS 46–54–431.

48 Lawson P. Chambers to Ruth Rouse, April 28, 1910: YDS 46–243–1990.

49 Ibid.

50 Griffith, Sidney H., The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque (Princeton: Princeton University, 2008), 179.

51 The YMCA in Lebanon today has continued to serve young people of all religious backgrounds, focusing on education, health, and humanitarian needs rather than evangelistic pursuits. See http://www.ymca-leb.org.lb/content/about-ymca-lebanon. At present the WSCF-Middle East focuses on Christian students specifically, while also supporting opportunities for Christian-Muslim dialogue. According to WSCF-ME Regional Secretary, Elsy Wakil, “The WSCF has felt itself called to come around this region in a focused way in these days to amplify the voices of the students; deepen our solidarity with our students, the Christians, and all the citizens of these countries, Christian and Muslim; and to mobilize our network to play a stronger role in the work for justice and peace in the region.” Wakil, “Message of the Regional Secretary 2014.”

Deanna Ferree Womack is Assistant Professor of History of Religions and Multifaith Relations at Emory University's Candler School of Theology and director of the Leadership and Multifaith Program (LAMP) in Atlanta. Her research focuses on Arab Protestantism, Arab-American encounters, and Christian-Muslim relations in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Middle East. Womack is the author of Protestants, Gender and the Arab Renaissance in Late Ottoman Syria (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). A version of this article was presented at the 2016 Winter Meeting of the American Society of Church History in Atlanta.

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