Broad Scope of Missionary Work

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 224-61:

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.

Although there were persons of both sexes in all three of these categories, the gender ratio was different in each case. In the field, about two-thirds of missionary personnel were women, either unwed or married to male missionaries. Missions afforded women opportunities to perform social roles often denied to them in the United States. Glass ceilings in the mission field were higher and more subject to exceptions than in most American communities. By the 1950s, nearly half of the missionary physicians in India were female. Women led many colleges in China. These included one of the most famous missionaries of all time, Minnie Vautrin, who turned the campus of Ginling College into a fortress during the Nanking Massacre of 1937 and 1938. She is credited with saving several thousand Chinese women from rape and murder at the hands of marauding Japanese soldiers. Women were sometimes allowed to preach in the mission field, even though Paul the Apostle had told the Christians of Corinth, “Let your women keep silent in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience.” While home on furlough, female preachers were often prohibited from speaking from the pulpits of their own denominations, sometimes even in their home congregations.

Among missionary children, there were of course equal numbers of males and females. In missionary support organizations, women were very prominent. Most denominations had women’s missionary boards that exercised strong influence in church affairs and stood among the largest women’s organizations in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These women’s missionary boards were often active on social issues, urging their denominations to take more vigorous stands, especially against racism. A group of 150 women from the various denominational missionary boards picketed a Washington, D.C., hotel in 1945 to protest its refusal to serve black members of the United Council of Church Women.

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Filed under Africa, China, disease, education, Japan, Korea, language, Latin America, Middle East, nationalism, religion, South Asia, Southeast Asia, U.S.

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