Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton University Press, 2017)
My city, like many others, once had a stream running through it. On a historical walking tour, you can see where water still flows, where it was channeled, where it was forced underground, where it has dried up completely. Walking that route gives a new perspective on the more familiar elements of the city—bridges, neighborhoods, businesses past and present. The natatorium once fed by a spring is long gone. The gap in the grid plan of the roads remains. The whole map of the town makes more sense when you pencil the stream back in.
David Hollinger’s most recent book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, pencils the stream of liberal Protestant foreign missions back into the map of American history from about 1900 through the 1970s. The stream included missionaries and the children of missionaries who lived overseas, learned foreign languages, discovered that the world was a more complicated place than they expected, and brought that knowledge back to the United States, where it informed American foreign policy, higher education, and literature. Hollinger makes a strong case that missionary influence in those spheres has been underestimated, because scholars interested in U.S.-China relations or the O.S.S. or the development of Area Studies programs have noted missionary connections in passing rather than attempting to tie them together. The interpersonal and institutional ties existed, and they mattered. The reach of the book’s subtitle, however, exceeds the book’s grasp, in part because of Hollinger’s decision not to include missionaries whose careers did not fit the liberal or post-Protestant pattern he traces.
As befits a wide-ranging book, readers will encounter tales they have heard before and some that are strikingly new. No one but Hollinger is an expert in all of the topics he covers, so which sections feel new will depend largely on the background a reader brings to the book. Early chapters on liberal Protestant loss of faith, the dramatic pivot of the 1932 Re-Thinking Missions report, and abortive attempts at church mergers will feel familiar to those grounded in the history of ecumenical Protestantism, found in books such as Hollinger’s After Cloven Tongues of Fire. The focus in this book is mostly on how missionaries and churches found themselves changed by the erosion of their theological convictions. This experience filtered into American culture through literature, such as Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931) and John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946).
Chapters in the middle section address American foreign policy toward different countries, with varying levels of missionary influence. Here, we see how former missionaries or missionary sons sought to represent the interests of indigenous people in Washington, only to find their nuanced, anticolonial views overwhelmed by Cold War militarism or capitalist concerns. Missionary-connected individuals did not present a unified bloc in foreign policy discussions, Hollinger stresses, but they generally could be counted on to uphold the agency of foreign nationals and to warn the United States against merely replacing European countries as colonial overlords. The Vietnam War was only the starkest example of the myriad instance in which the United States ignored this advice. Yet missionaries had moments of significant influence, including the development of humane interrogation practices used with Japanese POW’s and again in Iraq. Even more eye-opening, former missionary Kenneth Landon, known to Wikipedia only as the husband of the author of Anna and the King of Siam, almost singlehandedly wrote and managed American foreign policy toward Thailand, an unsung feat that allowed Thailand to escape the Cold War fates of its neighbors. Hollinger dug deep into untapped archives and oral histories to unearth this remarkable story.
The last chapters turn from foreign policy to higher education, humanitarian NGOs, and Civil Rights activism, showing how people steeped in what Hollinger calls “missionary cosmopolitanism” built institutions to spread their ideals beyond the churches they had largely left behind. In most cases, the missionary links were severed in one generation, and some of the NGOs and activist organizations did not last any longer. The Area Studies departments at universities such as Harvard persisted, but only by sublimating their missionary origins—and sometimes forging alliances with the foreign policy establishment instead. Re-channeled missionary energies could not always survive the loss of their religious wellsprings.
The missionary influence that interests Hollinger had basically dried up by the 1970s, and its claim to have “changed America” was attenuated. Hollinger admits in his conclusion,
Missionary cosmopolitanism lost its most important battle: the struggle to gain acceptance for the idea that the interests of the United States were tied to the self-declared interests of decolonizing peoples. Missionary-connected individuals and groups changed the United States by putting more energy behind this idea than it otherwise would have had. But it was not enough to carry the day (288).
To bolster the argument of his subtitle, Hollinger would have done well to consider the sorts of missionaries he dismissed as “aggressive,” “hostile,” and “polemical” in his introduction (10-11). After World War II, fundamentalist, evangelical, and Pentecostal missionaries replaced ecumenical missionaries in the field, though not in the halls of power back in the United States. Their influence was different, felt in devotional books rather than Pulitzer Prize-winning literature, in small Christian colleges rather than at Harvard, in World Vision rather than the Peace Corps. Those missionaries might be changing America, quite possibly in ways Hollinger would not find congenial, but theirs is a story for a different book. This book maps its own territory, with carefully drawn detail and a steady hand.
About the Reviewer
Elesha Coffman is assistant professor of history at Baylor University and author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (Oxford).