James W. Clapham

It began as a visit, a brief stop on the journey, and became the labor of his life. James Clapham, a New Zealand school teacher, stopped in what was then called Palestine enroute to Britain. But, like the apostle Paul at Athens, the desperate spiritual need gripped his soul and would not let him go. There had virtually been no New Testament assembly work in the lands of the Bible since the days of Anthony Norris Groves. Clapham resolved to return.

Exceedingly facile with his pen, the former school teacher described his first entrance into Jerusalem in his book, Palestine–Land of My Adoption:

“. . . I join the crowd of pedestrians surging in the direction of the Jaffa Gate.

There is no mistaking the contour of this well-known pile of masonry. Above the venerable archway, green bunches of hyssop, rooted securely between the joints in the wall, look down with benign indifference upon a never-ending stream of human ants, passing and repassing through the right-angled entrance of the gateway.

“Immediately upon our right, as we enter the city, we are overshadowed by the massive Citadel of David. One of the towers, known in Roman times as Phasael, is said to be among the few landmarks spared by the victorious Titus after his capture of the city in A.D. 70.

“Our eye next alights upon the crowd; for probably never before have we looked upon such a medley of nationalities; inwardly we think of the strange magnetic power of this isolated and non-commercial city which is still able to draw within its walls such an amazing contrast of humanity.

“An Arab porter, dressed in sacking, passes us with straddling gait. His thin legs seem as if they might snap beneath his enormous load. With head and shoulders bent low, he cannot see in advance, so cries, mechanically, “Oo-aare,” to clear the way. If his load be too burdensome, his small assistant will walk beside him cursing the client who has cruelly allotted him such a burden.

“Here is a party of Orthodox Jews returning from the Wailing Wall. Despite the excessive heat, each is dressed in black, and wears one of those wide furry hats from under which hang the distinguishing side curls, as an indication that they have not marred the “corner of their beards.” Dignified and sallow of countenance, we read in their dark eyes hidden fires and thoughts of another world and age than ours.

“Passing on our right is a group of stately Bedouin, fresh from the desert of Transjordan. They are of the better class. The picturesque headdress, the flowing robes, the general poise and aquiline features all seem to remind us of the patriarchs. One of the party is outstanding. Evidently a person of rank, he carries a sword in his girdle instead of the usual concealed dagger. He is every inch a man, and knows it. He belongs to a race that has never once, in all its history, bowed before a conqueror.

“The farmers on our left are from Bethlehem or the surrounding villages. They are early birds, these fellaheen, and crowd into the city before most people are awake. Their women, conspicuous by their special headdress, are heavily laden with farm produce, while their menfolk drive before them small, nimble donkeys, which they direct to the right or left by smart raps on the neck with a stick. Poor little slim-legged, patient animals! They live out their existence merely for the use, or alas, the misuse, of their thoughtless owners.

“We enter the narrow-stepped Street of David, leading downward from the Citadel area to the Tyropean Valley and heart of the old city. The congestion of pedestrian traffic here is indescribable. A party of docile tourists, led by a voluble guide, partially blocks the stream of traffic. Here come smiling Abyssinians with their frizzy hair and snow-white teeth, their tall, spare figures draped in robes of black. To complete the medley, we pass Greek, Latin, and Armenian priests or monks, dressed in white, brown, or black, according to their respective orders; sisters from the convents, Russian pilgrims (women stranded in Jerusalem since the first World War, and living on a mere pittance from the Church), Egyptians, Syrians, Greeks, Germans, French, Italians, sleek Arab efendis with their bright red tarbooshes; beggars, mystics, fanatics, veiled Moslem women, hawkers with sweetmeats upon their heads, and yelling at the top of their voices; all these and others unnamed rubbing shoulders together as they jostle in this narrow street .  . .

“Wearied in body, but by no means bored in spirit, we retrace our steps along David Street to our hotel near the Citadel. I fling myself upon a divan, and begin to meditate upon the kaleidoscopic events of the day. We have been permitted to see with our own eyes Jerusalem, the so-called Holy City–this city of mixed religious systems, of unreasoning fanaticism and fictitious sites; a city where deceit, trickery, and casual indifference, politeness, hospitality and friendly helpfulness exist side by side; where autocracy, democracy, and priestcraft seem equally to prosper. We have had a peep at its narrow streets and its restless throng of humanity, a mere glance at the great exterior; the best and the worst we have not yet seen, and, whatever our impressions may have been, we certainly cannot say we have found this either dull or uninteresting, but the very reverse.”

It is evident that the effort involved in finding a copy of this out-of-print volume is richly rewarded. The author lived in the lands of the Bible during some of their most tumultuous years. Of those troubled times, he wrote: “How often, when the midnight air has suddenly echoed to the crack of rifle fire, or the rumble of armored cars, have we committed our respective families to the care of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to prove His present faithfulness in the land.”

But James Clapham was no armchair Christian, no theoretical theologian. If there was one thing he loved, it was the Lord’s work. And work he did! But he was also, like the apostle Paul, a strategist. While seeking daily to follow the leading of the Spirit, he carefully planned his work and then worked his plan.

We thank the Lord for every true work of God in the Middle East today. Conditions range by country from difficult to almost impossible. We are grateful (and should be prayerful) for every faithful servant of God in these parched and needy lands. However, much of the time and effort is spent in literature distribution, language study, translation work, and personal witness. Clapham thought this all to be good if it led to the establishment of local, indigenous assemblies, where believers could be fed and from which the work of evangelization could reach out.

To this end, brother Clapham sought to see strategic centers reached first. If a stable work could be established there, it could become a beachhead for further expansion. It could also provide more mature teachers as new satellite works were begun.

He was a man who loved others for the Saviour’s sake. He loved to visit and his interest in others’ welfare provided an open door to many homes. Within a year of arriving in Israel, he had the joy of seeing a small assembly begun at Haifa where the believers met in a small room.

Frederick Tatford (whose book–The Restless Middle East, Volume 1 of the series, “That The World May Know”–provided much of the information for this article) notes: “Three Armenians and two Orthodox Jews had been converted and the assembly was composed of various nationalities. Meetings were also held for Muslims. In 1928, there were 39 baptisms at Haifa, and Mr. Clapham, an inveterate traveller, had visited many of the Jewish colonies, the villages around Galilee and Jerusalem, where some believers began meeting in a house. Riots did some harm in 1929, but the assembly held fast.”

No doubt, many of the readers of this column have visited Israel and other Middle Eastern lands. However, Mr. Clapham did not spend his evenings at five-star hotels. His baggage included a tent and some basic camping equipment.

In 1929, he moved his base of operations to Jerusalem and began making frequent trips to Jaffa on the coast. By 1930, when he returned to New Zealand for a furlough (and to marry Miss Florence Tweedie who became his faithful co-worker), there were assemblies in Haifa, Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Tel Aviv. The assembly in Haifa had grown by then to sixty in fellowship.

Also in the late 1920s, working with G. H. Lang, brother Clapham saw the establishment of an Armenian assembly in Beirut. The work flourished, not only among the Armenians, but also with the English and Arabic populations. In spite of the horrors of the ongoing war there, and a major exodus from Lebanon in recent years, the work still goes on.

This period of his life also saw the earliest visits to Syria. With the aid of two Armenian brethren, an assembly was started at Aleppo, the great trading center of northern Syria. He also rented a room in Antioch where a Turkish-speaking assembly was born. He also visited Damascus and helped in the meeting there. Of course, this is not to say that he was working alone in all this. There were many who labored with him in the various cities, which he highly commends.

J. W. Clapham also made frequent journeys to Egypt. Dr. Tatford makes this comment about some of his work in that land:

“In 1936, J. W. Clapham paid a visit to Egypt for nearly four months, primarily to discuss the coordination of the Egyptian work with that in Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. He held gospel meetings, reaching 500 people nightly and saw many brought to the Lord, including a number of hardened criminals. On a later visit with A. Gook in 1951, he had meetings at Nekhela, Kom Sieda, Kom Gareb, Shama, Halagi, Komishgow, Sohag, Mallawi, Abu Rish, Alexandria, and Heliopolis. On an earlier visit, he and H. Mitchell had met with opposition at Sohag and had been physically manhandled and beaten. Life was not always easy, but there was much blessing.”

From 1931 to 1947, the Claphams labored tirelessly, primarily along the Levant and in Egypt. But in 1947, they moved their base to Nicosia, Cyprus.  Later, in 1953, he spent six months in Istanbul, Turkey and saw a number saved. The converts were baptized in the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara. And in spite of some official opposition, he saw a small assembly of Greeks and Armenians begun there. Later, he visited Smyrna, Ephesus, Sardis, and Laodicea, but found no response to the gospel.

Much has changed in the Middle East since James Clapham pitched his tent on its soil. But the great change, the change the Church anticipates and the world unknowingly awaits, is still to come. Of this, the New Zealand school teacher turned gospel pioneer wrote:

“Nineteen centuries of dreary winter have slowly spent themselves; but the gnarled old fig tree, storm-threshed, leafless, and bare has life in him yet.

“Again he will strike his root deeper, and spread his branches upward, and flourish in the summer sun. Again he will be clothed with luxuriant growth, and will yield the rich harvest of his choicest fruits. . .

“We are living in momentous days. Palestine is surely putting on her leaves. But leaves are not fruit, and the approach of summer is not summer; for there can be no fruit in Israel in the truest sense of the word, either nationally or individually, without Christ; neither can there be summer till the terrible misrule of the nations has been replaced by the Lord’s reign of righteousness and love.

“In spite of all the happenings of the past and present, the Jewish mind is still unrepentant, still blinded towards the Saviour of the world. This national blindness and prejudice nothing but the terrible woes of the Tribulation will ever effectually overcome. Nonetheless we see many interesting signs which bespeak at least the changing of the seasons.”