It didn't quite work out the way he had foreseen. The passionate missionary knew - just knew - that his work would help bring about Christ's millennial reign on Earth. The timing seemed exactly right and his devotion was unmatched.
James Turner Barclay went to the Holy Land to be one of God's agents in ushering in Christ's final reign. Although his mission work concluded in the mid-19th century, as Disciples' first overseas missionary, Barclay lives on as an example of passionate service to the church and the world.
Born in Virginia in 1807, Barclay attended the University of Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied medicine. Originally Presbyterian, like so many other Disciples, the physician would go on to put down solid roots in the Christian Church. After joining the Disciples movement, Barclay moved to Washington, D.C., where he helped start a Disciples congregation.
Barclay's wife, Julia Sowers, was a close friend of Alexander Campbell's wife Selina, and the Barclay's younger son married the Campbells' daughter, Decima. Eventually Barclay would become professor of natural sciences at Bethany College.
Even before joining the Disciples, Barclay had expressed a passion for missions. Longing to serve in China, he sought placement with the Presbyterian Board of Missions but decided against going overseas when his aging mother asked him not to leave. After his mother's death and his affiliation with the Disciples, Barclay signed on with the Disciples' newly formed American Christian Missionary Society in 1849 to work in Palestine.
Stirring Barclay's zeal for the Holy Land was a view he shared with many other 19th-century protestants: a hope that Palestine would embrace Christianity and be a linchpin in divine history to inaugurate Christ's millennial reign.
Barclay served two missionary tours in Palestine, the first between 1851 and 1854, and the second between 1858 and the early 1860s. However, the evangelism plans of the Virginia doctor largely failed; his audience was unresponsive to his Christian proclamation.
Despite the disappointment, the doctor dug in his theological heels after his second term of service, expounding in Campbell's journal, the Millennial Harbinger, his confidence in Christ's quick return and the dramatic turning of the multitudes to the Christian faith.
Though Barclay's evangelizing mission stalled, he retained an unshakable desire to serve the world in Christ's name. Despite the lack of converts, Barclay's medical outreach was a success. The Disciple doctor treated more than 2,000 malaria victims the first year of his initial missionary tour, and Barclay made a lasting impact through geographical research. His 1858 book The City of the Great King was a seminal study of 19th-century Jerusalem.
We remember Barclay because of his unique prescription for Disciples missions and for the zeal he displayed in evangelism. Oh, and that church he helped start in Washington? That went on to eventually become National City Christian Church.
By Ted Parks
Associate Professor of Spanish
Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN
This article was provided by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society and used here by permission.
To learn more about your faith story, please visit the Disciples of Christ Historical Society's website at: www.discipleshistory.org
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