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“Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America” by David A. Hollinger

Published Wednesday, May 1, 2019 By D. G. Hart

David A. Hollinger begins Protestants Abroad with a startling assertion: “The Protestant foreign missionary project expected to make the world look more like the United States. Instead, it made the United States look more like the world” (1). A reader could well imagine that missionaries went to other parts of the world in hopes of making people into disciples of Christ, no matter whether such an evangelist went out from the United States, Italy, or Scotland. The reason to give up personal ties and domestic comforts in distant lands was, someone might suppose, not nationalistic but doctrinal. That was certainly what J. Gresham Machen believed when he extended the Presbyterian controversy of the 1920s (which culminated in the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary) into the 1930s with opposition to liberalism in Presbyterian foreign missions. Machen objected to the idea—widely circulated in the infamous mainline Protestant 1932 study of missions in China, Re-Thinking Missions—that evangelists and pastors should cooperate with non-Christian religions in humanitarian efforts to make the world a better place. When Presbyterian officials responded that Machen had nothing to worry about, he formed a renegade foreign missions agency—an act that led to his trial, conviction, excommunication from the Presbyterian Church, and the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Despite the weighty matters in evangelization, both for Christian witness and institutional integrity, Hollinger frames his study of the experiences of American missionaries as part of a national narrative that accounts for both the book’s strengths and weaknesses.

A longtime student of US intellectual life and the ways in which American thought incorporated perspectives that made elites less Christian and less nationalist, Hollinger’s examination of missionaries, especially missionaries’ children (“mish kids”), is another chapter in his lifelong endeavor to show how American thinkers became less provincial and more cosmopolitan. Previous studies by Hollinger include valuable work on Jewish-Americans and their ascendance into the American academy; and early on in Protestants Abroad, Hollinger connects the dots between Jews and Protestants. The ecumenical impulses within Protestantism “joined with their Jewish counterparts in diminishing Christian cultural hegemony in the nation, and facilitated a drift toward post-Protestant secularism” (2). Even if missionaries or their children were not in the ideological forefront of integration (race), secular humanitarian organizations (the Peace Corps), or criticizing US foreign policy in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, they “supplied the expertise and energy for one endeavor after another that expanded American horizons”(2). Hollinger quotes Walter Russell Mead, a highly regarded student of US foreign policy, to good effect: “The multicultural and relativistic thinking so characteristic of the United States today owes much of its social power to the unexpected consequences of American missions abroad” (2).

On his own merits, Hollinger is convincing about the influence of missionaries on the United States, even if readers may question his positive estimate of the outcomes. Perhaps the most vivid chapter (because the most biographical) is one that covers the novelist and activist Pearl Buck, writer John Hersey, and publisher and editor Henry Luce. All three grew up in China and “inherited the missionary imperative to make things right,” or what Buck herself called a “magnificent imperialism of the spirit” (24). She tried to make straight the ways of an America she believed suffered from inequality at various layers. Luce, who coined the phrase “the American century,” was more of a cultural imperialist who used his experience overseas to consider ways to make the world look more like the United States. Hersey chose a path between Buck and Luce by wanting to rectify wrongs in the world and the United States, but he worried that such activism could readily go wrong thanks to human pride and fallibility. “All three,” Hollinger writes, “sought to advance a species-wide solidarity instructed in some way by an idealistic vision of American democratic culture” (24).

Other examples of “mish kid” influence are seen in separate chapters on the rise of university departments of Asian history and culture, the Peace Corps, and the Civil Rights Movement. John King Fairbank headed up Harvard’s so-called China shop, thanks not to his own missionary experience but to the many contacts he had with friends, allies, and students who had firsthand knowledge of Protestant missions in Asia. In contrast, Kenneth Scott Latourette, who became one of the prominent historians of missions and world Christianity, shepherded Yale’s foray into Asian and missions studies. The Peace Corps, founded in 1961 by the Kennedy administration as an agency to provide economic and social services around the world through American volunteers, used as its model the International Voluntary Services. This was a 1953 secular nongovernmental organization formed by Protestant churches to expand the sorts of work that missionaries were already doing in various parts of the world. The Civil Rights Movement, furthermore, attracted all sorts of Americans, but missionaries were particularly prone to support it, thanks to its embodiment of Christian universalism. The tentacles of missionary influence were lengthy and numerous.

From one angle, this influence seems like a positive development if it means that Protestants, who for many years were the unofficial establishment in the United States, lost their stature and the nation owned up to its ideals of freedom and equality for people of all faiths. At the same time, Hollinger’s Protestants, post-Protestants, and secularists never actually lost their access to the levers of cultural and political power. The result is that many of the people running America, especially after World War II when it became the leader of the free world, may have lost their faith but were still responsible for instilling into the nation’s self-regard a self-righteousness that sustained an old postmillennial optimism about the nation’s place on the cutting edge of human history. This new American exceptionalism, while sounding the dulcet tones of tolerance and inclusion, was deaf to the particular attachments (national, religious, and cultural) of people outside elite American circles. Once those people felt that cosmopolitanism was not so inclusive of their own beliefs and ideals, they were willing to support political candidates and policies that cosmopolitans dismissed as backward and bigoted. This was part of the dynamic behind the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the electoral victory of President Donald Trump. To be sure, leaving the European Union and voting for Trump may be signs of backwardness, but such political expressions may also be evidence of cosmopolitan elites’ paternalism and failure to include the world’s people.

Hollinger also fails to consider whether Protestant missionary cosmopolitanism was a good development for the churches. One telling indication is the decline of missionaries sent out by the mainline churches, who left behind theological provincialism even as they embraced the ideal of a global world order in which Christians provided support. Between 1960 and 1980, mainline Protestant missionaries declined from 10,300 to 3,100 (86). Conversely, a 1980 study of US Protestant missionaries indicates that 90 percent of personnel in foreign settings were evangelical in background. Apparently, attachment to the singularity of the Christian message is important for motivating people to conduct religious work overseas. But even as the mainline churches were losing their rationale for seeking the salvation of unbelievers around the world, in 1958 the National Council of Churches (the interdenominational agency of liberal Protestants) became the “largest national organization of any kind” to recognize the People’s Republic of China (105).

That sort of institutional confusion—substituting political programs for religious endeavor—was precisely what Machen had feared about the direction of Protestant missions in the 1920s and 1930s. While it is not Hollinger’s intent, his book is a vindication of Machen’s argument that liberalism had turned cultural progress into a substitute for Christianity. Modernism, he lamented in 1923, was an entirely different religion from Christianity.

In Hollinger’s conception of the old, conservative rationale for foreign missions, conservatives such as Machen simply wanted to export American social and political norms along with Christianity. To be sure, many missionaries have long struggled with introducing a doctrine that developed over many centuries—justification by faith alone, for instance—to a people with no background in the historical evolution that had a hand in shaping the church in the West. Sometimes, missionaries did expect natives who converted to adopt American assumptions about a holy life or to worship in the same way as Westerners. At the same time, conservatives—such as Machen with a two-kingdom outlook, who recognized that cultural developments in science, education, finance, and medicine were not the same as biblical teaching and practices—were often careful about expecting churches in non-Western settings to replicate American patterns.

Indeed, the most useful component of Hollinger’s book teaches an important lesson often associated with two-kingdom theology. Because the gospel does not require specific political or cultural norms, two-kingdom proponents of foreign missions would have trouble with Hollinger’s opening line that Protestant missionaries expected other parts of the world to look like the United States. Since someone like Machen was highly critical of the politics and culture in his day, it is hard to imagine that he wanted missionaries from the Independent Board to set into motion the social developments that produced New York City or Washington, DC. Machen did want churches in foreign lands to adopt Presbyterian patterns of teaching and church life, but national ideals were matters indifferent. In which case, conservative Protestants who read Hollinger’s book will find valuable material for considering the question Tertullian asked when the ancient church struggled with the merits of Greek learning: “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?”


D. G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and is the Novakovic Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

  • D. G. Hart

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