Jim R. Sibley, PhD, is the Research Professor at Israel College of the Bible. In this article Dr. Sibley provides a compelling history of FBCD’s 100+ year ministry in Israel promoting faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as Messiah and Redeemer.
The (Almost) Forgotten Connection Between First Baptist Church of Dallas and Ministry in Israel
The current war in Israel has held our attention and through our church’s support of ministries in Israel led by believers in Messiah, aid is being provided for those affected by the war. For American Christians and for Baptists in particular, there is a larger story to be told, for a number of relief efforts are being coordinated by believers in Israel who have joined together for greater effectiveness.
This collaboration is being made possible by Baptists who have provided a space in central Israel which can serve as a staging area for these relief efforts as well as providing some temporary housing for those who have been displaced by the war. Not only that, but the connection between this ministry in Israel goes back directly to our church. Allow me to tell the story.
By 1920, a few evangelical Arab Christians had begun small works in the Middle East. About this time, a young Arab businessman, Shukri Musa, left his home in Safed, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, to make his way to America on a business trip. He was from the “Christian” community, which means he was probably a nominal adherent of Greek Orthodoxy. In 1909, while in Dallas, Texas, a friend took him to First Baptist Church to hear the famous pastor, George W. Truett. Under the preaching of Dr. Truett, Shukri Musa was saved and baptized.
His life was transformed, and his plans were totally changed. He decided to attend Moody Bible Institute for training, and in the spring of 1911, the Baptist Churches of Southern Illinois sent Mr. Musa, now an ordained pastor, back to his people in Safed.
Many hearts were stirred by the soundness and power of his witnessing. His first convert, who was convinced of Baptist doctrine, was baptized on May 10, 1911, in the stream that flows down the Valley of the Lemmon, near Safed. This was thus the first Baptist to be baptized in the country.
Now, back in the Middle East, Musa and other local evangelicals petitioned the Foreign Mission Board (now, the International Mission Board) to send missionaries. Finally, in 1921, the FMB of the Southern Baptist Convention sent a missionary to Palestine, but after a brief stay, he returned to America. The FMB then appointed two other couples in May 1922 and commissioned them to establish the Southern Baptist Near East Mission. It was anticipated that their work would be among the Arab population and that their primary language would be Arabic, but, due to bureaucratic delays, they went directly to Jerusalem to study the conditions for mission work there, rather than studying the Arabic language in Beirut, as originally planned.
Here they were introduced to a newly-baptized, and zealously-evangelistic Jewish believer and, at the same time, received an anonymous gift from the United States of $125. After much prayer and discussion, it was decided to use this money in the establishment of an unanticipated work—in Jerusalem, primarily with the Jewish people—in addition to the planned ministry in Galilee with the ―nominally Christian and Muslim Arab peoples.
In 1927, Baptist work among the Jewish people expanded to include the new city of Tel Aviv, though it later had to be abandoned for a period of several years. Meanwhile, Jewish work in Jerusalem was strengthened through the efforts of a Baptist missionary, who was herself a Jewish believer in Jesus, Miss Elsie Clor. She was later joined by Miss Eunice Fenderson, who helped her maintain a vigorous ministry with Jewish children in Jerusalem, until the H. Leo Eddlemans were appointed in 1936 to join them in the work.
Dr. Eddleman would later be the first president of Criswell College and taught a Sunday School class at First Baptist Church of Dallas. From these humble beginnings, Southern Baptist work in Palestine/Israel grew throughout the remainder of the century.
Following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, children who had been left as orphans were taken in by Southern Baptist personnel and the George W. Truett Home was established to care for them. This was eventually moved to newly acquired property more centrally located in the country.
The first century of the Southern Baptist Convention was characterized by a rich heritage of love for the Jewish people and a concern for their salvation. First Baptist Church of Dallas made a significant contribution to this history, and Dr. W.A. Criswell’s love for Israel and support of Jewish evangelism is well known.
Today, as war is raging, First Baptist Church of Dallas—under the leadership of Dr. Robert Jeffress—and Southern Baptists more generally, continue to make a significant contribution to meeting the spiritual and physical needs in Israel. Today, various ministries are able to work together because we have provided the place, the leadership, and support. As we pray for the successful outcome of this war and for the preservation of Israeli lives, may we not also pray for Israel’s spiritual needs? We pray that during this time of life and death, of stress and fear, that there may be a harvest of both Arab and Jewish people who will turn to the Messiah of Israel and the only hope of salvation!
Here is a link to a video interview with the leaders of some of the organizations who are working together. In the video, Keith and Sally are Baptists who are directing this work. Take a minute to watch this:
Dwight Baker, “Southern Baptist Golden Anniversary, Palestine-Israel, 1911–1961,” as cited by Bader Mansour, “Baptists in Israel to Mark 100 Years of Baptist Witness in 2011”; available from http://www.baptist.org.il/baptistdata/en-events/ev26/files/bader2011.pdf; Internet.
Mrs. J. Wash Watts, Palestinian Tapestries (Richmond, VA: Foreign Mission Board, 1936), 17.
Ibid., 52. Cf. also, J. McKee Adams, The Heart of the Levant—Palestine-Syria (Richmond, VA: Foreign Mission Board, 1937), 69–71. The visit of FMB Executive Secretary, Charles Maddry, to Palestine in 1934 is discussed in Estep, 230. Later, the Eddlemans would leave Jerusalem in order to devote themselves to Jewish ministry in Tel Aviv (Adams, The Heart of the Levant, 139, n.1).