Evangelizing Lebanon

Baptists, Missions, and the Question of Cultures

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Melanie E. Trexler
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , September
     2016.
     276 pages.
     $49.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481302593.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Melanie Trexler’s Evangelizing Lebanon offers a history of the Southern Baptist mission in Lebanon with two intertwined emphases—the relationship between Southern Baptist foreign missionaries and local Lebanese Baptists, and the evolution of Baptist missionary engagement with Muslims. Evangelizing Lebanon, however, is not strictly a historical work. Trexler uses her history of the mission to argue for specific missionary approaches. In terms of relations between foreign missionaries and local communities, she argues for partnership over paternalism. In terms of Baptist engagement with Muslims, she argues for presence, witness, and dialogue over proselytization.

The origins of the Baptist mission in Lebanon lay in the arrival of the Arabic-speaking Greek Orthodox Christian Said Jureidini to the United States in 1893. Educated in Protestant schools, Jureidini worked in Beirut before traveling to Chicago for the World Columbian Exposition. He soon converted to Baptist Christianity, subsequently securing ordination and support from schismatic Baptist churches in funding a mission to his native land, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Jureidini’s initial supporters were associated with the Landmark movement, which held that individual Baptist churches, with their congregational polity and full-immersion Baptism, constituted the true church existing in continuity from the time of Christ. Though Jureidini was drawn to Landmarkers for material support, Trexler argues that Jureidini nonetheless borrowed several Landmark principles in building his mission: believer’s baptism, closed communion, and Baptist successionism. As he borrowed from stateside Baptists, Jureidini also adjusted his ministry to local circumstances, particularly in affirming local moral codes and building his mission through kinship ties. Over the next several decades, Jureidini built a small Baptist community out of “converts” from Eastern churches. Even after the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board [FMB] took over the mission in the early 1920s—forming the Near East Baptist Mission [NEBM]—political conditions ensured that the work remained largely local until the 1948 arrival of FMB missionaries Julia and Finlay Graham. By then, Lebanon was an independent state.

The Grahams oversaw the expansion of missionary institutions as Lebanon became the focal point of Southern Baptist mission efforts in the Islamic world. This expansion included the establishment of the Baptist Bible School, Baptist Publications, the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Lebanese Baptist Convention [LBC]. With the FMB’s increased investment, though, came increased tensions over the control and direction of the mission. As Trexler demonstrates, FMB missionaries and local Lebanese Baptists simply had different priorities. Missionaries wanted to expand the scope of the mission. Locals wanted to strengthen the existing Baptist community. These divergent priorities led to tensions over a number of issues in the 1960s. Missionaries and locals clashed, for instance, over whether the LBC was a missionary or community organization. They likewise clashed over investment in institutions and control of property. Lebanese Baptists also pushed back against FMB efforts to convert Muslims, believing they only wasted resources and inflamed inter-communal tensions. In 1967, the increasingly tense bonds between missionaries and locals snapped, as the three largest Baptist churches in the country withdrew from the Lebanese Baptist Convention. Surveying the damage, FMB area secretary J. D. Hughey noted the foreign missionaries had become “too paternalistic and bossy” (108).

The tumult of the 1960s and the continued failure to convert Muslims led the FMB missionaries to shift their approach. At a 1969 conference in Tehran, Baptist missionaries from throughout the Islamic world called for a new emphasis on witness, dialogue, and reconciliation in approaching Muslims. Back in Lebanon, FMB missionaries worked to reconcile with local Baptists. This reconciliation actually accelerated after the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. Amidst the crisis, FMB missionaries deferred to the needs and interests of the local Baptist community, eschewing their past paternalism. However, the war also ended the mission as it existed. In 1987, the Reagan administration ordered all American citizens to evacuate Lebanon. Over the next several years, Lebanese Baptists took control of missionary institutions through the newly formed Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development [LSESD].

Since 1987, questions of missionary approaches and communal development have fallen to the Lebanese Baptists themselves. Trexler notes that local Baptist leaders have proven innovative in forming answers to these questions, emphasizing “peacebuilding” between Lebanese communities and dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Amidst continued pressure to leave the Middle East, local leaders like Martin Accad developed “theologies of staying,” providing spiritual arguments against emigration from Lebanon. Although rank-and-file Baptists have resisted many of these developments, Trexler argues that “the roots are being planted” (203).

While the focus of Evangelizing Lebanon is the Near East Baptist Mission, the work is as much about the many contexts that have converged in shaping the small mission. Trexler ably interweaves discussions of Arab and Lebanese identity, evangelical missiological developments, Southern Baptist denominational transformations, American foreign policy, and Lebanese history—all of which are necessary in telling the story of the NEBM. At the same time, the work sometimes relies too much on contextual sources in making specific claims about the Lebanon mission. For example, Trexler argues that Lebanese Baptists “perceived themselves as a double minority group” without providing any sources from Lebanese Baptists themselves (134). She instead relies on an address that Bishop Hassan Dehqani Tafti, an Iranian Anglican, gave to Southern Baptist missionaries. Two pages later, Trexler argues that Lebanese Baptists “echoed” the cry of African and Chinese Christians for a moratorium on missionaries, citing only a secondary source unrelated to Lebanon in making this significant claim (136). Such examples are striking, given the work’s emphasis on prioritizing local voices in missions. Evangelizing Lebanon is strongest where Trexler uses contextual sources to bolster the voices of her Baptist subjects, rather than stand in for them. The sections on Jureidini, the Grahams, and contemporary Lebanese Baptists stand out in this regard. The strengths of these sections are enough to make Evangelizing Lebanon a useful volume, both for students of Protestant missions to the Middle East in general and students of Southern Baptist missions in particular.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Walker Robins is Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Oklahoma.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Melanie E. Trexler is Assistant Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University.

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