New Works in the Field

Mission to the Missiologists: The Protestant Foreign Missionary Project and the History of Philanthropy

Editors’ Note: David A. Hollinger calls for scholars, and especially scholars of philanthropy, to engage with the history of missionaries and mission work in the United States. He makes his case in part based on his experience working on one of his  recent books, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton 2018), which, along with Tore Olsson‘s Agrarian Crossings (Princeton 2017), was awarded the 2019 Peter Dobkin Hall History of Philanthropy Book Prize by the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA).

When missionaries downplay conversion and devote themselves to public health, education, and agricultural reform, their endeavors can seem to fall more fully into the domain of philanthropy than that of religion. Hence the American foreign missionary project, which moved sharply in this “service” direction just prior to World War II and eventually spawned the Peace Corps and a panorama of “development” programs, invites the attention of historians of philanthropy and indeed of a much larger and broader community of scholars than the “church historians” who have given us nearly all of the scholarship we have on missionaries, including their philanthropic activities.

In these comments for HistPhil, I want to describe the strengths and limitations of traditional, faith-affirming missionary scholarship, and to indicate how scholars outside that tradition—such as scholars of philanthropy—can make collegial contributions to our understanding of the role of missions in American and world history. I base these comments in part on my experience in writing Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed the United States (Princeton, 2018).

It is essential to begin by recognizing that religiously-committed authors have written countless books and articles of honest and sound scholarship, indispensable to scholars of any orientation studying any aspect of the missionary project and its consequences. As I began my study of missionaries, I quickly profited from, and learned to deeply respect, the work of Dana L. Robert of the Boston University School of Theology and a number of other historians based in religious institutions and active in church affairs. I will not list here the dozens of others who answered my questions, guided me to important archival sources, and read discerningly the chapter drafts on which I solicited advice. I was warmly welcomed into the ongoing conversations of this community of “missiologists,” as missionary specialists are called in the seminaries and in church-related colleges and universities.

Scholarly meetings were sometimes opened with prayer. Blogs were saturated with “blessings” and other signals of Christian tribal solidarity. It was colossally apparent to me early on that most participants in these conferences and most contributors to these blogs took it for granted that everyone in their hearing and scope of vision was a practicing Protestant. I did not fight any of this. But I did reflect privately and to a few friends that I had not been in such church-intensive company since my high school days, when as president of a church youth group I could still talk the talk. It seemed not to occur to the bulk of my new colleagues that anyone interested in the history of missions might not be, like them, a committed Christian.

What might someone like me add to the discussion? The most important addition to missionary scholarship I felt I was able to make in Protestants Abroad was to call attention to the impact of the missionary experience on the public life of the United States, by which I mean the marks—often substantial and long-lasting—that missionary-connected individuals and groups made in the Foreign Service, academia, reform movements, literature and the arts, and other arenas beyond the churches. Traditional “missiology” had not been opposed to such inquiries, but they were few in number and narrow in scope. It was no secret that Henry Luce, John Hersey, Pearl Buck, Edwin Reischauer, and the most famous of the “China Hands” purged in the McCarthy Era were missionary children, but since all of them were famous for work done well beyond churches and missions, their careers were not, to missiologists, of the special interest they were to me as a secular student of modern United States history. This was never a point of tension. On the contrary, my faith-affirming colleagues seemed delighted that I was showing the missionary project to have been even more important, historically, than most contemporaries, including church goers, had recognized.

A second area in which I believed I was able to say something not already prominent in traditional missiological scholarship was quite different. Sustained, in-depth experience of foreign cultures had a de-provincializing effect on many missionaries, their children, and the folks at home who followed their testimonies about the Chinese, the Arabs, and other peoples abroad. Traditional missiology did not deny this, but I pushed the point much farther, and argued that missionary experience decisively weakened many features of the inherited faith, and even advanced the process of secularization. “Missionary cosmopolitanism,” as I like to call the expanded horizons achieved by the Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and other American missionaries, made ecumenical rather than fundamentalist-evangelical perspectives on the gospel much more attractive. This cosmopolitanism also led a great many missionary children—like Hersey, Buck, Reischauer, and most of the other chief characters in my book—to drift away from the faith and to practice as “post-Protestants” what are sometimes, if parochially, called “Christian values.” The post-Protestants still believed they had a duty to make the world a better place. They often espoused the ideal of “the brotherhood of man.” And they continued to appreciate scriptures like Matthew 25:35-40 (where Jesus of Nazareth calls on his disciplines to feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned).

A third emphasis of mine created greater distance between me and the existing community of missionary scholars. This was the importance I ascribed to the divide between the two major families of American Protestants, 1) the ecumenical, or “mainline” family associated with the National Council of Churches and the Christian Century, and 2) the evangelical family, descendant from the fundamentalists and long in control of the National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today. In my research, I was struck repeatedly with the ferocity of the attacks evangelical Protestants, within and beyond the mission field, made on their liberal rivals from the 1920s right down through the end of the twentieth century. I found, moreover, that evangelical missionary theory and practice eventually followed that of the hated ecumenists but only after many decades and without acknowledgement that the liberals had been right all along, which was the obvious implication of evangelical behavior by the 1970s. Yet faith-affirming missiologists affiliated with both of these families are inclined toward cooperation and even unity across the ecumenical-evangelical divide. While rarely hostile to what I have written about this divide, scholars concerned about the prospects of Christianity are usually reluctant to dwell on it. The chief theme of discomfort among reviewers of my book is that I represent evangelicals as more different from ecumenicals than they actually were. I am unrepentant, but I understand the discomfort.

Although I have been suggesting here that scholars of a secular orientation have something to contribute to the study of missions, the blind spots characteristic of the missiologists do not match in magnitude and historiographical significance the blind spots of a history profession that has been so slow to understand the importance of Protestantism to modern American history. The recent influence of evangelical Protestantism in American politics has finally triggered a wonderful outpouring of scholarship on religious history, focused largely on the history of evangelicals. But as recently as 2011 when, as President of the Organization of American Historians, I spoke on “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity,” it was the first presidential address in the then-104-year history of that organization ever to be devoted to a topic in the religious history of one of the most deeply and enduringly Protestant societies in the industrialized world.

We ought to remember that most of the people running the United States until quite recently have been tribal Protestants. As late as about 1960, if you were in a position to affect the direction of almost any major aspect of American public life—the congress, the courts, the universities, the foundations, the press, the corporations, the publishing houses, etc.—you were most likely to be a white person affiliated at least nominally with one or another of the classic “mainline” confessions, especially the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Northern Baptists, the Congregationalists, the Episcopalians, the Dutch Reformed, the Disciples of Christ, several of the largest of the Lutheran synods, or one or another of the many smaller Anabaptist, Calvinist, and Wesleyan bodies. Of course there were exceptions to this. But we are kidding ourselves if we forget who was exercising most of the power, for good and for ill. We do not have to like those people, or to agree with what they did, in order to increase our understanding of them and their doings. We advance this goal by attending to the Protestant frame of their lives, which in most of the twentieth century owed much to the missionary experience. I hope more historians of philanthropy and voluntary organizations will join in this study.

If they do, historians of philanthropy would do well to keep in mind a distinction that renders churches and church-related operations somewhat different from other non-profit and voluntary enterprises. This is the claim to a divine connection, to being “religious” in basic nature. In the United States, to get something classified as religious provides special benefits. You are potentially enabled to limit the civil rights of other Americans, and you will find it easier to place your critics under suspicion of being biased against something guaranteed “free exercise” by the Constitution. Methodologically, I believe scholars should treat religions like other collective endeavors. Hence I usually refer to Christianity not as a “religion” but as a “project.” But not everyone welcomes this desacralizing move. Some find it patronizing, if not a sign of too aggressive a secular orientation. I will not try in this post to address this set of issues (as I have done here). Historians of philanthropy are ideally suited to study the varieties of Christianity and of Protestant missions as types of voluntary action. Whatever their personal religious beliefs and backgrounds, by regarding mission work in this respect, as opposed to primarily as a form of spiritual labor, these scholars can offer a fresh perspective on a still understudied topic of real and enduring import.

David A. Hollinger is Preston Hotchkis Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include After Cloven Tongues of Fire (Princeton 2013), Postethnic America (Basic Books, 3rd Edition, 2006), and When This Mask of Flesh is Broken (Outskirts, 2019).

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