Preaching the American Gospel

Living as we do in a globalized and multicultural age, it is hard to imagine the worldview of Americans a century ago. They gave much less consideration to advancing equality at home or abroad. “Internationalism” was an affair for socialists and communists, and Americans were content to keep to their geographical backyard. After the First World War, Warren G. Harding campaigned for President by promising to restore “normalcy.”

David Hollinger argues that Americans became more cosmopolitan and multicultural, beginning in the early 20th century, thanks to the work of missionaries, their children, and others closely associated with them. In Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, the Preston Hotchkis Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Berkeley is primarily interested in what he calls “ecumenical” missionaries of the so-called mainline denominations (the United Methodist Church, for example, or the Presbyterian Church USA) who deployed Higher Critical approaches to scripture. He contrasts these groups advancing a more liberal theology with theologically conservative “evangelical” groups (for example, members of the Assemblies of God or Southern Baptists), whose members considered the ecumenicists to be compromisers.

Between 1920 and 1970, and particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, ecumenical missionaries became conspicuous players who changed the provincial views of leading professionals in universities, foundations, literature, journalism, the military, and the U.S. Foreign Service. Hollinger asserts (though without much argument), that evangelical missionaries had comparatively little impact on American public life.

Ecumenicals Versus Evangelicals

Protestants Abroad chronicles how mainline church leadership and affiliated organizations (like the World Council of Churches) drifted into a cultural relativism and “Post-Protestant secularism” causing inevitable friction with their own rank-and-file members and with evangelical counterparts. Newfound appreciation of indigenous peoples and their cultures seeded ecumenicals’ greatest influence at home, but immersion in foreign cultures also led missionaries and their associates to question not only the Christian character of America, but what was Christian in their own missionary work. Appreciation of foreign cultures soon led ecumenical missionaries to trade spiritual conversion almost entirely for social work. Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism were considered by many ecumenicists to be equally salutary expressions of spiritual enlightenment.

Whereas evangelicals used the budding field of cultural anthropology to devise new strategies to promote spiritual conversion, ecumenicals used it to justify deemphasizing conversion. “Being human” replaced repentance as the goal of missionary work. With the church no longer the primary locus of human reform, denominational elites looked to politics, education, diplomacy, and the military as new fulcrums to leverage progress. “Christian principles” came to mean world government, trans-ecumenical organizations, national self-determination, and general egalitarianism. Theological doctrine was no longer essential for such endeavors and could even hinder it. As a result, Hollinger writes, “secularists could be better allies than evangelicals.”

In an early chapter, Hollinger presents famous and influential authors Henry Luce, Pearl Buck, and John Hersey (all three born to missionaries working in China) as examples of how missionary experiences abroad changed opinions at home. Luce used his magazines, Time and Life, to advance his goal of “reorganiz[ing] the world” based on American ideals as seen through the lens of racial equality and the “social gospel.” Though Luce’s international vision was criticized by Reinhold Niebuhr, and by writers in such publications as the Christian Century and the Nation, Luce pragmatically sought allies in Billy Graham and Father John Courtney Murray. He maintained a lukewarm attachment to Presbyterianism, but, as Hollinger puts it, “Luce’s real church was the United States.”

As was the case with Luce, Buck’s influence came largely through print: 70 books, translated into at least 36 languages, and many of them Book-of-the-Month selections. Her most famous work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good Earth (1931), made Depression-era rural Americans sympathize with poor Chinese farmers. Buck also allied with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois to oppose racism. And though she was associated with missionary work throughout her life, Buck’s already lukewarm faith eventually went cold. She became deeply critical of the missionary effort and of Christianity itself.

John Hersey, who sometimes wrote for Luce, humanized the Japanese in Hiroshima (1946), a work of “New Journalism” that told the story of six survivors of the first atomic bomb. In The Call (1985), Hersey, like Buck, took aim at traditional missionary efforts—though he was gentler and more sympathetic than Buck was to its idealism and inevitable failure. In his novel A Bell for Adano (1944), Hersey demonstrated that he was more critical of America than was Luce.

Changing How Americans Understood East and West Asia

Missionary influence was greatest concerning the regions of the world where missionaries were most often sent: The East Asian countries of China, Japan, and India, and the Arab societies of West Asia. In 1925, for example, more than 7,000 American missionaries toiled in China, India, and Japan. Unlike business executives or military and diplomatic personnel who also traveled abroad, missionaries stayed much longer and were more likely to assimilate to native languages and cultures. Missionary children who endured being “born foreigners” or “strangers at home” grew up to secure impressive educational credentials and embrace careers of public service. Serving in military, diplomatic, or clandestine roles, missionaries and their children advanced American interests abroad and combated negative or patronizing stereotypes at home. Identifying closely with their former hosts, they consistently opposed European colonialism and supported local self-determination.

One example of such opposition to colonialism and support for self-determination is found in the work of Marine Colonel William A. Eddy, a son of missionary parents. A decorated World War I veteran and former Hobart College president with a PhD in English literature, Eddy was also fluent in Arabic and able to quote the Koran at length. Called “the American Lawrence of Arabia,” Eddy was trusted like a son by Saudi King Ibn Saud. Strong identification with Arabs and Palestinians led Eddy and other former missionary children to oppose Zionism, but also left some of them open to the charge of anti-Semitism. Assistance of Americans like Eddy was available to the U.S. government in World War II in part because President Wilson never declared war on the Ottomans in World War I for fear that American missionaries stationed in the moribund Turkish empire would be put at risk.

Americans who had served with missionary efforts in Japan were more critical of their former hosts, especially after the invasions of Manchuria and Shanghai in 1931 and 1937, but still advanced a sympathetic view of Japanese prisoners of war and helped Americans see opportunities for liberalization in Japan once Axis powers were defeated. They also defended the rights of Japanese-Americans interned in camps in the United States. The Institute for Pacific Relations, a think-tank that grew out of the YMCA, promoted intellectual and policy-focused resources while the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression lobbied against isolationist sentiment in America.

Perhaps the most interesting figure among the “Japan gang” is another combat Marine: former Congregationalist missionary Sherwood F. Moran. Moran might have been lost to history if not for revived interest in the wake of recent controversies over the effectiveness of torture. Moran composed a wartime manual instructing his fellow Marines, on both principled and pragmatic grounds, to approach prisoners with the sincere sentiment that all men are brothers. Missionary sons Colonel John Alfred Burden and Lieutenant Otis Carey advanced similar methods in the Army and Navy.

Missionary-influenced diplomats and spies in China, however, faced a more nuanced task: weighing the merits of Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalists against revolutionary communists led by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Only decades later did missionary sons and diplomats John S. Service and John Paton Davies, Jr. realize that they had been manipulated by the communists and, as a result, erroneously exaggerated the potential of a U.S. alliance with Mao and Zhou.

Though Hollinger’s subjects often failed to bend Washington to their opinions, they significantly influenced subsequent generations through the creation of foreign area studies in the universities. W. Norman Brown, a wartime associate of former missionary Kenneth Landon, advanced the academic study of India; missionary son and scholar/diplomat Edwin Reischauer advanced Japanese studies; and John King Fairbank, a close associate of missionaries during his study abroad, became the founder of Chinese area studies. Each capitalized on the momentum created in 1928 when the American Council of Learned Societies established a Committee on Far Eastern Studies. Not surprisingly, those first qualified as scholars under the committee’s criteria were missionaries or missionary children. Budding area studies programs at Ivy League schools and at elite public institutions like the University of Michigan (where missionary son and former intelligence analyst Roger Hackett became a popular historian) retained the study of arts and letters advanced by traditional “orientalism,” but also emphasized study of the contemporary situation in Asia and more extensive use of social science methodology. The creation of these programs, especially at the graduate level, built a cadre of future scholars and diplomats.

Progressivism Against Itself

Such evident accomplishments in the academy, the military, and diplomacy notwithstanding, Hollinger’s subtitle, How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, is a bit of a tease or, in our new vernacular, clickbait. Many of his subjects were not missionaries at all, but the offspring or the friends or associates of missionaries. Almost none was a missionary as one typically understands the word; they advanced a secular (even liberal) brotherhood of man rather than a confessional Gospel emphasizing spiritual redemption. Furthermore, whether they were successful in changing America is, even in the author’s assessment, questionable.

Though they advanced beneficial institutions and practices that are now taken for granted, such as transnational adoption, area studies, or the Peace Corps, they often failed in their efforts to decolonize or advance self-determination in the lands to which they were attached. Hollinger inserts himself to say that their failure “may be instructive for anyone who imagines that the United States can ever be an instrument serving anything other than itself.”

In a similarly revealing way, the author closes with a bit of obligatory hand-wringing that his subjects had only limited success in promoting later 20th century movements such as feminism or LGBT rights. As to the former, however, mainline denominations and missionaries were quite progressive by Hollinger’s own account. Simply through the force of circumstance, two thirds of American missionary personnel were women, wed or unwed, and performed roles denied to them at home.

Holliger also points out that Buck, Hersey, and others articulated feminist ideas 20 years before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). Buck’s personal conduct eschewed traditional sexual restraints on women, and she also embraced Margaret Sanger’s prescriptions for population control. Molly Yard, a child of Methodist missionaries in China, bridged first- and second-wave feminism as president of the National Organization for Women. While Hollinger acknowledges that many factors contributed to liberalizing church stances on social issues such as birth control (which mainline denominations approved as early as 1941) or gender roles, he argues that “missionary cosmopolitanism advanced the larger process of religious liberalization and the attendant growth of post-Protestant secularism.”

Without any evident sense of irony, however, the author demonstrates the consequences of progressive social thought for mainline Protestantism: ecumenical denominations faded while evangelicals flourished. Not only did evangelicals avoid the ideological discord between leadership and rank-and-file that cleaved the mainline churches, they simply out-reproduced and out-evangelized ecumenicals. Also, as women took more prominent roles in ecumenical churches, their fears became reality: men stepped away from leadership roles and never returned. As parents drifted into pragmatism and Post-Protestantism, their children—presuming they had children—sought (as Hollinger describes it) “secular outlets for the liberalism they had learned from their elders.” Hollinger cites a survey of interns at missionary organization from the 1950s, for example, that showed that almost all of these young American Christians had left the church altogether by the 1970s. Given such high generational attrition, it isn’t surprising that, by 1980, 90 percent of career foreign missionaries were employed by evangelical churches and not ecumenical churches.

Ecumenical missionaries certainly left an important legacy in America, and even on their evangelical counterparts: The Lausanne Covenant of 1974 advanced service as well as conversion in missional work. However much Hollinger’s ecumenicals may have been successful in “saving” America, however, they could not save themselves.