American Missionaries in Israel,
(university of north carolina, chapel hill)
The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 made a strong impression on American evangelicals, not only enhancing their messianic hopes but inspiring them to devote more energy and manpower to missionary efforts in the newly sovereign state. The American missionary experience in Israel between 1948 and 1967 was in many ways unique. Contrary to all expectations, Christians were allowed to evangelize in the independent Jewish state, but there soon developed a gap between the missions' initial ideals and expectations and their actual modes of activity. Missionaries encountered unparalleled situations and found unprecedented means to carry out their agendas, but in the process found that the ends as well as the means were often transformed.
American missionary endeavors in the Holy Land, motivated by a messianic premillennialist view of Jews and their role in history, had begun as early as the 1820s, when the first American missionaries arrived in what was then called Palestine. Characterized by a more literal reading of the Bible than was the case in mainstream and liberal congregations and adhering to a messianic belief in the second coming of Jesus to establish the kingdom of God on earth, premillennialist evangelicals adopted an appreciative attitude toward the Jewish people, recognizing them as the “historical Israel” and thus heir to the covenant between God and Israel. American missionary attempts of the1820s did not bring about many conversions, and they came to an end after a relatively short period of time. Missionary endeavors in the Holy Land were renewed in the 1850s, and continued throughout the century.
One of the factors encouraging this renewed interest was the spread of dispensationalism, a new school of messianic thinking, in America. Dispensationalists believe that human history is divided into eras, each of which is characterized by a different divine plan that can be derived from the biblical text. 1 The last era is the millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, and the present era is believed to be the one before the last. According to this eschatological scheme, the Jews will return to their land “in unbelief”—that is, without having accepted Jesus as their savior—and will establish a sovereign state there. When the events of the end of this era begin, the Jews will suffer a period of turmoil, known as “the time of Jacob's trouble. ” 2 The