Missionaries as Foreign Correspondents

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 263-84:

American churches sent missionaries abroad from early in the nineteenth century, but the numbers increased rapidly in the mid-1880s. From then until World War II, missionaries were the primary source of information for most Americans about the non-European world, especially Asia. Newspaper correspondents, travel writers, National Geographic Magazine, world’s fairs, and the public representations of diplomats and businessmen all contributed impressions of non-European peoples. Missions were different; they provided a more intimate and enduring connection. Local churches often financed particular missionary families, with whom they regularly corresponded for many years. Religious periodicals kept foreign scenes constantly in front of readers in millions of American homes. The lectures delivered by missionaries on furlough were widely attended events in local communities as well as at regional and national meetings of denominations and cross-denominational organizations. The bravery and heroism of missionaries was the stuff of countless pamphlets and periodicals and memorials. The “Memorial Arch” on the Oberlin College campus, honoring the thirteen Oberlin graduates and their five children killed in the Boxer Rebellion, is a well-known example.

World War II and the decolonization of Asia and Africa catapulted missionary-connected Americans into positions of unprecedented importance because they were so far ahead of the global curve. That is why so much of this book is about the 1940s and 1950s. Knowledge of distant lands suddenly became much more functional. Individuals with experience abroad in business or diplomacy were also in demand, but their numbers were smaller and their language skills rarely as well-developed. After World War II, the public had many more sources of information about foreign countries. Never again would missionaries serve as the leading edge of American society’s engagement with the remote regions of the globe. But in the short run, missionary expertise was much in demand.

When former missionary Kenneth Landon was called to Washington in 1941 to advise President Roosevelt on the situation in Southeast Asia, he discovered that the US government’s entire intelligence file on Thailand consisted of a handful of published articles that he himself had written. When Edwin Reischauer was installed as the head of a military language training program in 1942, he noticed, upon arriving in Washington to take charge of his unit, that every person in the room was, like him, a child of missionaries or had spent time as a missionary. The China and Arab sections of the Foreign Service included a number of missionary sons. The Office of Strategic Services—predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency—employed many missionaries and missionary children. The ability of OSS agent Rosamond Frame to speak the nine dialects of Mandarin she learned as a missionary daughter in China opened discursive doors that would otherwise have remained closed.

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Filed under Africa, China, education, Japan, Korea, language, publishing, religion, U.S.

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