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Protestant Missionaries and Immigrant Jews

Cosmopolitan Allies

Cosmopolitan Jews, we all know, broadened the public life of the United States in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Emigres like Hannah Arendt and Herbert Marcuse joined American-born Jews like Lionel Trilling and Jacob Javits to diminish Anglo-Protestant cultural and political hegemony. Less widely recognized is an Anglo-Protestant counterpart grounded in missionary experience. Both became formidable enemies of American provincialism. Just when the Jewish cosmopolitanism of immigrants and the children of immigrants was having its greatest impact, there flourished a different, but compatible cosmopolitanism generated by Protestant experience abroad. The two movements pushed in the same directions, but on parallel tracks. Jewish cosmopolitanism was overwhelmingly European in focus, while missionary cosmopolitanism focused on Asia.

Countless Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians and other American Protestants were transformed by their experience in Japan, China, India, and the Arab societies of Western Asia. There, the missionaries encountered civilizations of intimidating complexity and power that had survived since antiquity. The same applied to a lesser extent to Africa and Latin America, but it was in Asia that American Protestants invested the most energy, and it was in Asia that the missionaries were the most affected by what they found. Americans should not try to make Hindus and Muslims into copies of ourselves, these newly enlightened missionaries told the church people back home. The message that Americans should be partners rather than bosses did not play well with many parishioners, with the result that many of the Protestants who had been transformed by their encounter with the world’s cultural diversity left the churches and campaigned for liberal causes in secular contexts.

Missionary daughter Pearl Buck did more to change western ideas about China than anyone since Marco Polo. Missionary son John Hersey made the average Japanese person seem more fully human than any previous American writer had ever managed to do. The Department of State and the Foreign Service employed many missionary-connected Americans who wanted the United States to align itself not with the old colonial powers, but with the self-defined interests of non-white, decolonizing peoples. The missionary contingent led in the opening up of American colleges and universities to the study of modern Asia, and was heavily over-represented in the small population of Anglo-Protestants who were active prior to the 1960s in the African American struggle against Jim Crow.

Jewish cosmopolitanism and missionary cosmopolitanism changed the United States by putting Americans into contact with people who were “different.” Each of the two, simultaneous episodes in demographic diversification had its own dynamic. The immigrant Jews and their children were physically present in New York and other cities. Their challenge they and Catholic immigrants made to the standing cultural and political order was out in the open, and was vigorously contested: Congress in 1924 cut off immigration from countries that produced Jewish and Catholic immigrants. The Jews were a greater threat because they soon achieved stronger class position than did the Catholics, and they were not even Christians. The migration of the Hitler-era intelligentsia underscored the importance of the Jewish population, while the Catholic population remained heavily concentrated in private schools and subject to prejudice as ignorant pawns of Rome. But while the Jewish challenge was undisguised, the missionaries changed America virtually by stealth. I do not mean that anyone tried to conceal it. I mean that the confronting of people who were “different” happened by long distance, mediated by missionaries.

Long before Edward Said and his followers in the 1970s attacked “Orientalism,” the missionary sons and daughters who led in the development of Foreign Area Studies immediately following World War II systematically undercut negative and patronizing images of the peoples of “the East.” Missionary son Edwin Reischauer, who headed Harvard’s influential program in Japanese Studies, was one of many examples. Nearly half of the early presidents of the American Association for Asian Studies were former missionaries or children of missionaries. At Columbia University, Chinese studies were led by L. Carrington Goodrich, C. Martin Wilbur, A. Doak Barnett, and John H. M. Lindbeck, all missionary sons, who had support from across the street at Union Theological Seminary in the person of historian M. Searle Bates, a former missionary famous for his eye-witness accounts of the Rape of Nanking in 1937.

Of the missionary sons in the Foreign Service, none were more important than John Paton Davies, Jr., and John S. Service, two of the legendary “China Hands” purged during the McCarthy Era. Davies and Service warned Washington during World War II that the regime of Chiang Kai-shek was not viable, and that the US really had to deal with Mao Zedong’s communists. Their wisdom was vindicated in 1972, when President Richard Nixon finally recognized the People’s Republic of China. Missionary son Henry Luce famously used his magazines, especially TIME, to celebrate and defend the Christian convert Chiang and his wife, the charismatic Madame Chiang, but most missionary-connected Americans had views closer to Davies and Service than to Luce. Although the notorious “China Lobby” on behalf of Chiang is often assumed to be heavily missionary in orientation, in fact, it was not.

One former missionary who did affiliate himself with the China Lobby did something else of much greater historic significance, and with an entirely different political and moral valence. Walter Judd, the Republican Congressman from Minnesota was more responsible than any other individual for ending the “whites only” provision that had defined American naturalization law since 1790. Judd, a former missionary physician in China, displayed his anti-racism in many contexts, including his strong support for Hawaiian statehood during 1940s and 1950s years when racist objections repeatedly derailed efforts to bring multi-ethnic Hawaii into full participation in American politics.

Within the Department of State, the missionary contingent usually resisted policies supporting British and French clients in Arab lands, Iran, India, and Southeast Asia. A prominent example is former missionary to Thailand, Kenneth Landon, the State Department’s first desk officer for Southeast Asia. Landon spent the entire war fighting the desk officers for Britain and France, and extracted from President Roosevelt one of his most explicit statements that he wanted no French presence in Indochina after the war. Landon wrote what turned out to be the document of earliest date in the Pentagon Papers, a dispatch from Hanoi based on several days of private talks with Ho Chi Minh early in 1946. Ho’s idea that the Americans make Vietnam an American protectorate on the model of the Philippines came to nothing, but Landon was repeatedly appalled by the US approach to Vietnam. He had contempt for President John Kennedy, whose ignorance about Southeast Asia Landon considered virtually criminal.

Outside the corridors of power, missionary cosmopolitans were conspicuous anti-racists in American domestic affairs. Philippine-born missionary son George Houser was, as a white man, the first Executive Director of the Congress for Racial Equality, and joined with the black activist Bayard Rustin in planning and executing the first “freedom ride” in Virginia and North Carolina in 1947. That same year another missionary son, Japan-born Edmund D. Soper, published Racism: A World Issue, one of the most sweeping and detailed attacks on white supremacy written by any white American before the 1960s. Within several of the ecumenical, “mainline” denominations, former missionaries organized a series of inter-racial youth conferences in the 1950s that proved vital incubators of Civil Rights activism in the following decade. Former Latin American missionary Richard Shaull’s 1955 volume, Encounter with Revolution, later recognized as one of the pioneering works of Liberation Theology, excoriated Christians for not using political instruments to overturn white supremacist and undemocratic regimes throughout the world.

The two most widely influential books of any genre by missionary children, Pearl Buck’s China-focused novel of 1932, The Good Earth, and John Hersey’s Hiroshima of 1946, a genre-defying account of ordinary Japanese people experiencing the atomic bomb, stand as enduring landmarks of missionary cosmopolitanism. Although Buck is often criticized today for perpetuating some Orientalist stereotypes, The Good Earth‘s portrayal of the mundane lives of poor Chinese peasants (which, significantly, she called “farmers,” enabling Americans to more easily identify with them) emphasized their individuality. At the time it was published, it was a striking breakthrough. Here were no faceless supplicants for assistance, waiting for the American Christians to endow their lives with meaning. Nor are there any enlightened progressives inspired by Sun Yat-sen, bravely propelling a new national community to its rightful, respected place in the community of modern nations. Instead, Buck narrated a tale of a stoic couple, the husband for a while reduced to supporting his family by carrying people on a rickshaw, the wife smothering one baby at birth and selling another into sexual slavery. Hersey’s Japanese were also distinctive personalities, presented in sharp particularity, enabling American readers to see the Japanese entirely apart from the traditional, highly prejudiced frames. Hiroshima is now widely regarded as one of the most important pieces of journalism ever written, but almost never is its author identified as a missionary son.

Did all missionary-connected Americans think alike? Absolutely not. Luce is a reminder that some Asian-focused members of that company were much more comfortable with nationalist and imperialist ideas. As the author of “the American Century,” Luce transplanted the traditional missionary goal of conversion from Christianity to the United States itself. But most of the missionary-connected Americans who made a mark on public life were enough alike that their efforts in various domains ultimately converged.

To compare the Asian-centered cosmopolitanism generated by the missionary experience to the Europe-centered cosmopolitanism created by immigration is not to imply that the two are of equal magnitude. But the expansion of American cultural and political horizons by the Protestant foreign missionary project is easier to understand if we view it in relation to the widely recognized story of immigration and assimilation. Both cases can remind us that contact with different people can change our attitudes. “Unless we make ourselves hermits,” the philosopher Charles Peirce observed, “we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions.” Social contact enables us to “see that men in other countries” hold “very different doctrines,” perhaps just as sound as those we “have been brought up to believe.”

This insight is now common in American discussions of “diversity.” Some of the best of contemporary social science, such as that displayed in American Grace, the 2010 study of religion by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, show that close contact with individuals from stigmatized identity groups can diminish prejudice. Many studies of attitudes toward sexual orientation show that once people understand that a member of their own family is gay, homophobic prejudice diminishes. The missionary engagement with foreign peoples fits this pattern, but not always. Less educated missionaries, especially those of fundamentalist orientation, were less sensitive to what they found abroad, and much less likely to change their minds about their own society. How individuals processed their experience abroad depended to some extent on the dispositions they brought to it. The missionary experience provided grist to many liberal mills already in operation, but the cosmopolitanism of the Anglo-Protestant elite owed much to the experience of foreign missions.

Missionary cosmopolitanism and Jewish cosmopolitanism flourished in different arenas and in relation to somewhat different issues. But both were concerned with the politics of the Middle East, and there the two came into conflict. American Jews have always been divided about the Zionist project, but the presence of so many Jews in the United States gave Zionism much more credibility than it otherwise would have enjoyed. Missionary-connected Americans supported the efforts of the Arab peoples to get out from under British and French imperialism, and understood the Balfour Declaration as an extension of British imperial influence in Arab lands. The missionary contingent within and beyond government was slow to appreciate how fundamentally the Holocaust changed the issue. Eventually most missionary-connected Americans were reconciled to the existence of Israel, but continued — along with many American Jews — to be critical of many specific policies and practices of the Israeli state.

This point of limited conflict between Jewish cosmopolitanism and missionary cosmopolitanism was highly anomalous. Generally, the expanded attention to the peoples and cultures of Asia and to the peoples and cultures of continental Europe did not get in each other’s way. But what that attention achieved, even when the two movements are considered together, was limited. Today, much of American life remains in thrall to ideas against which both of these movements struggled.

David A. Hollinger of UC Berkeley is the author of Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton University Press, 2017).

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