Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America

Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America

by David A. Hollinger


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They sought to transform the world, and ended up transforming twentieth-century America

Between the 1890s and the Vietnam era, many thousands of American Protestant missionaries were sent to live throughout the non-European world. They expected to change the people they encountered, but those foreign people ended up transforming the missionaries. Their experience abroad made many of these missionaries and their children critical of racism, imperialism, and religious orthodoxy. When they returned home, they brought new liberal values back to their own society. Protestants Abroad reveals the untold story of how these missionary-connected individuals left an enduring mark on American public life as writers, diplomats, academics, church officials, publishers, foundation executives, and social activists.

David A. Hollinger provides riveting portraits of such figures as Pearl Buck, John Hersey, and Life and Time publisher Henry Luce, former "mish kids" who strove through literature and journalism to convince white Americans of the humanity of other peoples. Hollinger describes how the U.S. government's need for citizens with language skills and direct experience in Asian societies catapulted dozens of missionary-connected individuals into prominent roles in intelligence and diplomacy. Meanwhile, Edwin Reischauer and other scholars with missionary backgrounds led the growth of Foreign Area Studies in universities during the Cold War. The missionary contingent advocated multiculturalism and anticolonialism, pushed their churches in ecumenical and social-activist directions, and joined with Jewish intellectuals to challenge traditional Protestant cultural hegemony and promote a pluralist vision of American life. Missionary cosmopolitans were the Anglo-Protestant counterparts of the New York Jewish intelligentsia of the same era.

Protestants Abroad reveals the crucial role that missionary-connected American Protestants played in the development of modern American liberalism, and how they helped other Americans reimagine their nation's place in the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691158433
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/24/2017
Pages: 408
Sales rank: 1,275,318
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

David A. Hollinger is the Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History and Science, Jews, and Secular Culture: Studies in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Intellectual History (both Princeton).

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THE PROTESTANT FOREIGN missionary project expected to make the world look more like the United States. Instead, it made the United States look more like the world. The missionary encounter with peoples beyond the historically Christian West yielded relatively generous dispositions toward the varieties of humankind, and led the missionaries to question many cherished beliefs of the folks at home. Missionaries, their children, and their closest associates became conspicuous players during the middle decades of the twentieth century in the Foreign Service, universities, foundations, churches, literature, journalism, the military, and several reform movements. Missionary-connected Americans advanced domestic programs that would later be called "multicultural" and foreign policies that prioritized alliances with nonwhite, colonized peoples. More globally conscious than all but a few of their contemporaries, the missionary contingent was the Anglo-Protestant counterpart of the cosmopolitan Jewish intelligentsia whose influence in expanding American public life has been rightly recognized. But while Jewish cosmopolitanism was intensely European, missionary cosmopolitanism was predominantly Asian.

Confidence in the eternal and universal validity of certain values propelled the missionary endeavor. These certainties, including the rudiments of the Christian faith, were expected to achieve a dominant place throughout the globe. But the project had ironic consequences. The "gospel of inclusive brotherhood" preached by the missionaries, observed the Congregationalist leader Buell G. Gallagher in 1946, flew back like a boomerang to the hands of those who had flung it outward, carrying on its return trip an awareness of the provincialism of its original construction. "The missions boomerang has come back to smite the imperialism of white nations, as well as to confound the churches," wrote Gallagher. Sustained experience with the indigenous peoples abroad gradually led more and more missionaries to appreciate aspects of foreign cultures largely ignored by the classic ideology of missions. Even the pagan religions of Asia turned out to have some redeeming qualities. The "gospel of inclusive brotherhood" changed its meaning: there was a lot more to include than had been discerned at the start. What had been thrown "across Asia, Africa, and the Seven Seas" and supposed to stay there had come back. And when it came back, it was laden with an indictment of "cultural imperialism and arrogant paternalism" and a plea for a more genuinely universal human community.

Gallagher's "boomerang" figure of speech gets across an important reality. Normally we think of a boomerang as returning to its point of origin unchanged. Here, an ideal of universal fraternity became a boomerang when it was immersed in alterity. One could also speak of "blowback." Yet boomerang conveys more precisely the essential dynamic: an enterprise formidably driven by ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism — and often linked closely with military, diplomatic, and economic imperialism — generated dialectically a counterreaction that was enabled by the religious ideology of its origin. This counterreaction developed first among missionaries themselves, then spread through a number of religious and secular domains.

The missionary experience cut America and its religious and racial particularities down to size and led missionary-connected Americans to make adjustments. The missionary contingent led the ecumenical movement within Protestantism, joined with their Jewish counterparts in diminishing Christian cultural hegemony in the nation, and facilitated a drift toward post-Protestant secularism. Missionary-connected individuals and groups were prominent in efforts to end the mistreatment of people of non-European ancestry at home and abroad, and they opened the public ear to nonwhite voices within and beyond the United States. Even when missionary-connected individuals were not in the ideological forefront, they supplied the expertise and energy for one endeavor after another that expanded American horizons. They did not all think alike, and they operated in many different arenas, but their efforts often converged. Walter Russell Mead is correct: "A dispassionate study of the American missionary record would probably conclude that the multicultural and relativistic thinking so characteristic of the United States today owes much of its social power to the unexpected consequences of American missions abroad."

The missionary cosmopolitans were not alone in challenging the provinciality of American public life. Other agents and circumstances during the same period posed comparable challenges, from different starting points. These other deprovincializing forces have been extensively studied, and rightly so. They include the popularization of cultural anthropology, the efforts of African Americans to achieve an equitable position in American politics and society, the expansion of secondary and post-secondary education, the federal government's strategic needs during World War II and the Cold War, and the cultural influence of Jewish immigrants from Europe and their offspring. Jews added a distinctly non-Christian element to American public life, especially in politics, the arts, academia, and many professions. Although heavily based on a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century migration, Jewish cosmopolitanism achieved special prominence with the arrival of intellectuals fleeing Hitler's Europe.

Missionaries brought some public attention to Africa, Latin America, and the South Pacific, but they had the most to say about the regions of the world in which they had been involved in the largest numbers: China, Japan, India, and the Arab societies of western Asia. Missionary cosmopolitanism was more diffuse than Jewish cosmopolitanism. It traded in many fragments of world civilization.

In its heyday the Protestant foreign missionary project was anything but obscure. It was a major feature of the United States from the late nineteenth through the middle of the twentieth century. Thousands of Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Dutch Reformed, Quakers, and other kinds of Protestants served abroad. Between 1886 and 1920, more than 10,000 young people were sent out by the Student Volunteer Movement, an aggressive recruiting organization centered on college campuses. In 1925, there were more than 4,000 American missionaries in China, more than 2,400 in India, and more than 1,000 in Japan. Several thousand other American missionaries were widely distributed in smaller fields throughout Asia, Africa, the South Pacific, and Latin America.

But the cultural significance of missionaries was much greater than their numbers. Missionaries were in the vanguard. In 1900 or 1920, a young man or woman thinking of becoming a missionary was contemplating one of the most honorable and widely admired of callings. "Am I a soldier of the cross?" a hymn popular during that era asked. "Must I be carried to the sky on flower beds of ease, while others fight for that prize and sail through bloody seas?" Missionaries were celebrated and revered for the risks they took in advancing abroad truths that their contemporaries at home believed to be universal. For millions who never ventured outside the North Atlantic West, missionaries were not only cultural heroes, but the most intimate and trusted sources of information about the non-European world. Missionaries were the "point persons" of the national community's engagement with peoples beyond the United States and Europe.

The community on whose behalf the missionaries engaged the world was understood as truly national. Missionaries from the major denominations were part of mainstream America. The public life of the United States was then much more heavily Protestant than it is today. Even as late as 1960, anyone in charge of a major enterprise with a substantial opportunity to affect the direction of the society was likely to be at least nominally affiliated with one of the leading Protestant denominations. Despite some exceptions to the rule, all branches of the federal government were chiefly in the hands of people born into Protestant families, whatever their degree of commitment to the doctrines and practices of the faith. The same social demography applied to most other major institutions, including corporations, universities, schools, the service professions, publishing houses, and philanthropic organizations. Protestantism mattered.

Indeed, Protestantism mattered in the United States much more than in any of the other industrialized societies of the North Atlantic West. Some of the Protestant missionaries going abroad from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries also came to believe their own religious and cultural inheritances were too narrow. But except for influencing their own churches, they had little impact. What Anglican missionaries had to say amounted to less because Anglicanism, despite its constitutionally established status, was no longer in 1940 nearly as influential a frame for national life as ecumenical Protestantism remained in the United States. Nor were missionaries the primary source of information about foreign peoples. Colonial empires brought substantial quantities of foreign experience into popular view, and on steeply hierarchical terms. The United States was anomalous. It still possessed an intensely Protestant national culture, and it had fewer civil servants and military personnel going back and forth from colonies to homeland. Americans were accustomed to dealing with the native population of North America, sometimes through missions and often through genocide, but foreign missions brought an otherwise relatively sheltered population into abrupt contact with a great range of peoples who were very different from themselves.

What the missionaries did in the company of those foreign peoples has since been a matter of widespread embarrassment. Missionaries from the United States and Europe often did exactly what their harshest critics claimed. They supported imperialist projects, accepted the white supremacist ideology of the West, imposed narrow moral codes, and infantilized the peoples they imagined they were serving. It is no wonder that many nationalist movements scorned and killed missionaries. The Boxer Rebellion in China had many sources and made few distinctions among those who became its victims, but the rebels had plenty of cause to identify missionaries with the imperialism of the Western powers. All this is true. But it is the only truth about missionary history that is widely understood.

The narrowness of prevailing attitudes toward missionaries is revealed by the speed with which the term "missionary position" caught on and how popular it remained long after it was shown to be based on a factual error. Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s said that South Pacific islanders had used the term to describe face-to-face sexual intercourse with the woman lying on her back. This position had long been known as "matrimonial." Kinsey had simply misread — probably in an honest mistake — Bronislaw Malinowski's The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia. That book reports the islanders' comments about "white traders, planters, [and] officials," not missionaries. Following Kinsey, it became standard to display moral superiority to missionaries by invoking "the missionary position" as an emblem for their limited sexual imagination and for the "on top" location they were understood to maintain in their relations with indigenous peoples. In 2001, Robert Priest's discovery of Kinsey's error was not altogether welcome. None of the seventeen anthropologists invited by the editors of Current Anthropology to comment found fault with Priest's research, but most were reluctant to grant its significance. Some justified ignoring Priest's discovery altogether. We may have "an ethical and political obligation" to continue to speak of the missionary position exactly as we have been doing, concluded one scholar. The usage expressed a large truth, and we should not be sidetracked by the particulars of this case. Another quoted several missionary manifestos about the need to convert the peoples of the world to Christianity and argued, therefore, that "missionaries have made their own bed" and are to blame if anthropologists and others continue to use the phrase. A third counseled recognition of the "rational kernel" contained by traditional usage of "the missionary position."

A colonial, exploitative image of the missionary project was kept alive by Barbara Kingsolver's bestselling novel of 1998, The Poisonwood Bible. In her telling of the missionary story in the Belgian Congo, missionaries arrogantly refused to engage with indigenous cultures and were oblivious to the humanity of the people to whom they ostensibly ministered. Nadine Gordimer had little patience for this narrative. "The facts disprove" the old tale of missionaries as the inevitable agents of empire, the great South African writer railed in 2003, reminding readers that the church's gospel produced many anticolonial activists who were "inspired by the rebel Jesus' example" and remained "unreconciled" to colonialism. Missionaries were prominent in that important "minority of colonizers, mainly of the Left," Gordimer continued, "who identified themselves with the position that colonialism was unjust, racist, and anti-human."

Recent scholarship has emphasized the aspects of missionary history to which Gordimer referred, and even when missionaries behaved in ways now considered reprehensible, they often lost control of Christianity to indigenous peoples who made their own uses of tools left to them by missionaries. Missionaries established schools, colleges, medical schools, and other technical infrastructures that survived into the postcolonial era. Missionaries were especially active in advancing literacy. They translated countless books into indigenous languages, produced dictionaries, and created written versions of languages that had been exclusively oral. Some missionary institutions became vital incubators of anti-imperialist nationalisms, as in the case of the American University in Beirut, founded in 1866, and the alma mater of several generations of Arab nationalist leaders. Christianity itself has assumed shapes in the Global South quite different from the contours designed by European and American evangelists. Religious voices purporting to speak on behalf of indigenous peoples have occasionally claimed that the missionary impact was beneficial for endowing local populations with Christian resources that proved to be invaluable. Feminist scholars have called attention to the ways in which African women were able to use Christianity — for all the patriarchal elements in its scriptures — as a tool for increasing their autonomy, especially in choosing their own spouses.

Scholars continue to inquire just where and how the actions of missionaries affected the subsequent histories of the societies they influenced. That inquiry is an important and contested aspect of today's discussions of colonialism and the postcolonial order that is largely beyond the scope of Protestants Abroad. But not altogether. As scholars come to recognize the interactive dimensions of the missionary project, we can comprehend that project itself as a genuinely global, dialectical event. Missions were part of the world-historical process by which the world we call modern was created.

This book's cast of characters was involved with missions in three different capacities. The first of these was service abroad as a missionary. People routinely classified as missionaries included not only evangelists, but teachers, doctors, nurses, YMCA leaders, university professors, and social service workers affiliated in any way with institutions and programs sponsored by missionary societies, churches, and missionary-friendly foundations. All were understood to be part of the greater missionary enterprise, even though some would say, "I wasn't really a missionary," by way of explaining they were not directly involved in evangelism. A second order of involvement was to grow up as the child of missionaries, often spending many years in the field. The third capacity was the least direct: to be closely associated with missionaries, typically through missionary support organizations.


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Table of Contents

Preface xi

1 Introduction: The Protestant Boomerang 1

2 To Make the Crooked Straight: Henry Luce, Pearl Buck, and John Hersey 24

3 To Save the Plan: Can Missions Be Revised? 59

4 The Protestant International and the Political Mobilization of Churches 94

5 Anticolonialism vs. Zionism 117

6 Who Is My Brother? The White Peril and the Japanese 139

7 Telling the Truth about the Two Chinas 163

8 Creating America’s Thailand in Diplomacy and Fiction 187

9 Against Orientalism: Universities and Modern Asia 214

10 Toward the Peace Corps: Post-Missionary Service Abroad 252

11 Of One Blood: Joining the Civil Rights Struggle at Home 266

12 Conclusion: Cain’s Answer 288

Notes 301

Index 383

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