The Union Church of Istanbul is perhaps
the oldest congregation of its type anywhere in the world.
It was established by members of the Congregational church, the first of whom – William and Abigail Goodell – arrived in Turkey June 9, 1831. Over the next three years they were joined by several other families, and these formed the nucleus of the Church. The congregational contingent was strengthened by the arrival in 1842 of Scottish families working in Istanbul and, joining the Church, they provided a strong base of support for its continuing work for many years. In 1857 the incumbent Dutch ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Count Julius van Zuyland van Nyevelt, invited the small congregation to use the chapel on the embassy grounds (1). The invitation has been renewed by successive Dutch diplomats to this day. This relationship between the Dutch government and the Church may well account for the community’s stability throughout the years.
The English-speaking expatriate contingent in Istanbul swelled when Scottish and other British engineers and technicians came to do work for the Ottoman government. Many of these became regular members swelling the congregation. Cholera epidemic of 1865 hit the Church as hard as it hit all the people, and it spurred the community to organize itself more deliberately. A Covenant and Creed were written and signed by seventeen members in the spring of 1866, and the long debate over a name was settled the following fall; it would be known as ‘The Evangelical Union Church of Pera’ (Pera then being the name of the district of the city we now know as Beyoglu).
Through this period the Church was unable to support a full-time pastor; it depended for leadership on American and Scottish members. The first formal call of a pastor was issued to a licentiate of the Free Church of Scotland, Rev. Alexander van Millingen, in 1868. He served the church for nine years, and under his leadership it prospered. But the financial collapse of the Ottoman government in 1875-1876, the simultaneous departure of Rev. van Milligen, and the evaporation of its endowment (invested in Turkish stock) plunged the Church into crisis. Generously, the Free Church of Scotland stepped in to underwrite the salary of a resident part-time pastor from 1879 to 1885. The Scots pastor of the period tried to unite the congregation with the Free Church, but the members felt that was inappropriate. It was to remain an autonomous community of Christian believers.
In 1888 the Church’s finances had recovered and investment was made in two buildings next to the Swedish embassy that eventually came to be known as the ‘Union Han’. The shops and apartments were rented out and occasionally the pastor was housed there. In 1892 a full-time pastor was called, Rev. F.W. Anderson, a Scots Presbyterian, and since that time the Church has endeavored to maintain a full-time pastoral ministry.
The years of the First World War were difficult, but the long-term ministry of Rev. Robert Frew (a Canadian) saw the congregation through, and toward the end of the war the pastor became the honorary chaplain to the Netherlands legation, an act which gave him legal standing and tax exemption. The reordering of Turkey as a Republic in 1923 under the legendary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did not seriously affect the workings of the congregation. In fact members seem to have shared the optimism of the new nation. As the third decade of the twentieth century dawned the congregation, which had evolved a distinctively British flavor during the tenure of Scots pastors, now had an influx of more Americans and other nationalities. But it was not until after the Second World War that the practice of calling American clergy was begun. 1933 was celebrated as the centenary of the congregation.
The years of the Second World War, during which Turkey was a neutral power, saw the Church struggling to maintain its ministry. It was not until the arrival of Rev. Walter Wiley in January of 1947 that the pastoral situation stabilized. By 1956 the Church declared itself to be fully self-supporting, not needing any subsidy from either the American Board nor even from its own endowment. In 1966 the name was changed: the Evangelical Union Church of Pera became simply ‘The Union Church of Istanbul’.
In 1962, with a change in the law governing property ownership by foreigners, the church set up a foundation, the Walter Wiley Foundation to administer its endowment – the Union Han. This relationship continues to evolve as plans are being developed for extensive remodeling and a more rational and deliberate use of the Union Han buildings for church use. Over the years the Union Church has seen and been variously affected by the shifting fortunes of this history-drenched city. Today on any given Sunday morning (when there are two services, because the ‘Dutch Chapel’ is small) worshipers will be found to represent traditions from the most ancient to the very youngest. For all its diversity, the congregation continues to evidence a remarkable unity and warmth of fellowship.
The ‘Dutch Chapel’ as the building is commonly known, was built in 1711 with funds raised in Geneva and the Netherlands to serve the local community. At need it has also served as a warehouse and as a prison. Since 1857 the Dutch Chapel has been used exclusively by the Union Church, which takes care of building maintenance. Following the establishment of the Turkish Republic and the shift of the capital to Ankara, the Dutch Embassy was moved to that city, and , like the grand properties of other nations, the embassy of the Netherlands in Istanbul became a consulate.
The short sketch, written by Lew Scudder, draws heavily upon Anna Edmonds’ narrative, The Union Church of Istanbul, a History, published by the Church in 1986.
Our Logo… Also a Confession
The logo of the Union Church was designed in 1986 by Nancy Wittler and appears on the cover of Anna Edmonds’ history. The overall shape (in color, a dark blue) is reminiscent of the seal that was placed on Ottoman books. It evokes the significance of the word, and the context within which this congregation lives out its witness to the gospel. Within that shape is represented a tulip (in color, it is a deep pink shading toward red), a flower which is native to Turkey and cherished by the Dutch people. The tiles within the logo recall a stained glass window through which light shines. Their various sizes and forms indicate the diversity of the congregation and the richness of its makeup. And, finally, the cross intersects the whole and unifies the meaning of the design for a congregation of Christian worshipers.