The Best Thing I Have Read on John Allen Chau

Chau

Some of you may recall the story of John Allen Chau, the evangelical missionary killed      by members of the Sentinelese tribe who live on an island in the Indian Ocean. We wrote about Chau here.

Over at GQ, Doug Bock Clark has written the best thing I have read on Chau and his missionary efforts.  The piece is informative, deeply empathetic, and worth your time.  I wish more historians wrote like this.  Here is a taste:

Many evangelicals were outspoken in celebrating his sacrifice. “There was no colonial intention,” said Ramsey, Chau’s friend. “[John’s] motivation was love for these people.… I think he’s up there in heaven.” Oral Roberts University released a statement that concluded: “We are not surprised that John would try to reach out to these isolated people in order to share God’s love. We are deeply saddened to hear of his death.” Parks, Chau’s boss, wrote on social media that Chau was “one of the best and most selfless human beings there ever was.” Many Christians spoke of being inspired to do missions themselves—missions that might reach all the way to Sentinel Island. On the Facebook page “I Admire John Allen Chau,” a post described a young American declaring at a missionary conference, “I am called to go to the people JOHN Allen Chau tried to reach.” Ramsey said, “I could see John as a modern Jim Elliot, someone who made a greater impact in death than life.” At All Nations’ annual fund-raiser in April 2019, the organization celebrated Chau and featured as the keynote speaker the grandson of a missionary pilot who perished alongside Elliot.

And yet not all Christians supported Chau’s actions, including many prominent evangelicals, such as the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Christian missionary work has evolved over the ages, and it is now profoundly important for missionaries to be sensitive to the culture of the people they are sent to,” said Ben Witherington III, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. “Chau is a pretty classic example of how not to do missions in the 21st century.” Some field missionaries criticized Chau as insensitive, ineffective, and even ignorant of biblical directives. As Mark 6:11 commands: “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” The detractors and supporters of Chau often seemed to be screaming past one another about different realities. Where some people saw a sensitive missionary prepared by years of training, others saw an overconfident, underprepared young American cheered to his death by his mentors.

One recent afternoon, while pondering all this, I flipped open an edition of the waterproof Bible that had stopped the arrow the Sentinelese boy had fired at Chau. He recorded the verses that the shaft broke on, which conclude in Isaiah 65:1–65:2: “I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not: I said, Behold me, behold me, unto a nation that was not called by my name. I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people, which walketh in a way that was not good, after their own thoughts.”

While Chau didn’t record if he interpreted the “rebellious people” as the Sentinelese or if the verse impacted his decision to return to the island once again, it’s telling he swam ashore the next morning. And yet Witherington, the Asbury seminary theologian, who has written a book about deciphering Isaiah, said, “I don’t dismiss Chau’s sincerity or sacrifice, but the question is whether he interpreted Isaiah rightly—and the answer for that, I think, is clearly no.” Two more theologians confirmed that in the above passage, the “rebellious people” are actually those inside the church, as God is criticizing the Israelites for worshipping false idols.

In all my months of reporting, I never found any evidence that Chau even once questioned his calling. His certainty was so absolute that he was willing to bet not only his life on it but the lives of the Sentinelese. (Multiple doctors have stated that his self-quarantine wouldn’t have worked.) But one inscrutable thing about religion is that while it offers definitive answers, believers draw different answers from the same words, and often different answers throughout their lives.

Read Clark’s entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Katherine Gerbner

Christian SlaveryKatharine Gerbner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.  This interview is based on her book,  Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Christian Slavery?

KGI started Christian Slavery with a simple question: how could seemingly good people support something that was morally abhorrent? Specifically, I wanted to know why European Christians, and especially missionaries, accepted slavery. What I was uncovered was a deeply troubling story that is important to understand today. It shows how people with good intentions can play a terrible role in perpetuating injustice, and it demonstrates the long history of complicity between Christianity and slavery.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Slavery?

KGI have three main arguments: (1) far from being forced to convert, enslaved and free blacks had to fight their way into Protestant churches; (2) Protestant missionaries paved the way for pro-slavery theology by arguing that conversion would not lead to freedom for the enslaved; and (3) White Supremacy grew out of “Protestant Supremacy”—the idea that enslaved people could not become Christian.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian Slavery?

KGThere’s a lot of discussion about White Supremacy right now. In those conversations, it’s essential to explore what we mean by “whiteness” and where this term comes from. What history shows us is that the word “white” replaced the word “Christian” in colonial records as a way to justify enslavement. In other words, whiteness was created under slavery in order to exclude people of African descent from freedom. So if we really want to understand White Supremacy, and to combat it, we have to acknowledge the complex relationship between Christianity and slavery.

My book also shows the possibilities for combating racism & White Supremacy. Some evangelical Christians and Quakers played a central role in the abolitionist movement, showing that Christianity could be used to support emancipation. And most importantly, enslaved and free blacks who fought their way into Protestant churches defined their faith around the concept of liberation, in opposition to pro-slavery theology.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KGI studied Religion and Middle Eastern Studies in college. But when it came time to write a Senior Thesis, I chose a historical document: the first antislavery petition written in the Americas, which was authored by German and Dutch Quakers in 17th c. Pennsylvania. I started by researching the origin of that document and its reception. As I did so, I realized that the anti-slavery Protest was rejected by English Quakers in Philadelphia. I was surprised by this—I grew up in Philadelphia and attended a Quaker school, but I had only learned about Quaker abolitionism. I was shocked to discover that there were Quakers who owned slaves. I wanted to know what else had been left out of the conventional histories. I started there, and I haven’t stopped researching since.

JFWhat is your next project?

KGI’m writing a book about slave rebellion and religious freedom, tentatively called Constructing Religion, Defining Crime. I noticed in my research for Christian Slavery that black Christians and other religious leaders were often blamed for slave rebellions. In response, white authorities created laws designed to criminalize black religious practices. My new research suggests that we cannot understand religion – or religious freedom – without examining slave rebellion. The history of slavery can help us to understand how and why some religious practices have been, and continue to be, excluded from the lexicon of “religion” and even criminalized.

JF: Thanks, Katherine!

Some Historical Context on the Death of John Allen Chau

Chau

Over at The Conversion, historian Bill Svelmoe, a historian of evangelical missions, offers some historical context to help understand the faith of John Allen Chau, the missionary killed last month by the native people of North Sentinel Island.  Here is a taste of his piece:

The recent killing of a 26-year-old U.S. missionary, John Allen Chau, on a remote island in India has raised many questions about global evangelical Protestant missions.

Chau was on a personal mission to convert the Sentinelese, a protected tribe who have avoided contact with the rest of the world. Indian ships monitor the waters to stop outsiders from approaching them. Chau, however, is reported to have asked fishermen to take him illegally to the island where the Sentinelese live. The Sentinelese are reported to have shot and killed him with arrows.

As my research on missionaries shows, this often unwise haste to evangelize the world was the founding characteristic of evangelical missions in the late 19th century.

From the beginning of the 19th century, Protestants sent missionaries abroad under mission boards that required seminary education and full funding for prospective recruits. By the end of the 19th century, however, some mission leaders believed that the established missions were evangelizing the world at much too slow a pace.

Evangelicals believe in a hell where the souls of those who don’t convert to Christianity will burn forever.

Missionaries are motivated by Christ’s words in the “Great Commission” to “make disciples of all nations.” In these biblical verses, the risen Christ commands his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel. This command has motivated the missionary enterprisefor centuries.

These leaders founded what became known as “faith” missions to greatly expand the missionary force. As I write in my book, the new missions began sending out highly committed but lightly educated and ill-prepared missionaries. Many had not even finished high school. Just a bit of Bible training was considered enough.

There were dozens of such missions by the early 20th century, each founded to Christianize a specific section of the globe, such as the China Inland Mission, the Sudan Interior Mission and the Central American Mission.

Hundreds of young men and women, often with families, were sent overseas with little to no training in anything beyond the Bible and no promise of funding.

Read the rest here.

A Historian of Missions on the Death of John Allen Chau

TuckerWhen I was a student studying church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I read Ruth Tucker‘s book From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions.  Tucker was teaching in some capacity at Trinity at this time, but I never got a chance to take one of her courses.  As a relatively new evangelical, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya was my first exposure to the evangelical missionary enterprise.  I found it to be a both inspiring and honest treatment of the subject.

Over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, Tucker reflects on the recent death of missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of the Sentinelese. (See my reflections here). She puts Chau’s story in the context of the so-called “Auca Five,” the missionaries killed in 1956 by the Auca Indians in the Ecuadorian rain forest.

Here is a taste of Tucker’s piece:

I am truly sorry about John Chau’s untimely death, and I certainly do not know his motives—whether any of my multiple-choice motives factored in. Was he really thinking he could bring the gospel without knowing the language? Even if he could have, he would have been seriously endangering the people. If the population of the island had died due to his bringing pathogens against which they have no immunity, wouldn’t that have been far worse?

Some will insist that Chau has potentially rallied a new generation of missionaries. Perhaps. It is indeed true that Operation Auca inspired many to become missionaries, but at what cost and at what neglect of sensible mission outreach?

In the end, missionaries evangelized both tribal groups that had defended themselves by killing the men they perceived to be enemies. In the first instance gifts were left at the perimeter of the tribal territory, allowing the people to make contact on their own terms. In the second instance, three women and a little girl visited the native people: Dayuma, leading the way, Bible translator Rachel Saint, and Elisabeth Elliot, Jim’s widow, and their young daughter.

“For those who saw it as a great Christian martyr story,” Elisabeth later wrote, “the outcome was beautifully predictable. All puzzles would be solved. God would vindicate Himself. Aucas would be converted and we could all ‘feel good’ about our faith.” But that is not what actually happened. “The truth is that not by any means did all subsequent events work out as hoped. There were negative effects of the missionaries’ entrance into Auca territory. There were arguments and misunderstandings and a few really terrible things, along with the answers to prayer.”

Read the entire piece here.

I am actually waiting for Wheaton College history professor Kathryn Long to weigh-in on this.  She is the author of the forthcoming book God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martydom and Redemption in the Amazonian Ecuador (Oxford University Press, 2019).

ADDENDUM: A quick Google search tells me that Long offered commentary for this NPR piece.

Father Junipero Serra is OUT at Stanford

Serra

Here is the Stanford press release:

Stanford will rename some campus features named for Father Junipero Serra, the 18th-century founder of the California mission system, but will retain the Serra name and the names of other Spanish missionaries and settlers on other campus features, based on the recommendations of a university committee of faculty, students, staff and alumni.

The Stanford Board of Trustees accepted the committee’s recommendations to rename certain campus features and also accepted a recommendation by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne to use the opportunity to honor university co-founder Jane Stanford. As a first implementation step, Tessier-Lavigne is initiating a process seeking approval from Santa Clara County and the U.S. Postal Service to rename Serra Mall, the pedestrian and bicycle mall at the front of the Stanford campus that serves as the university’s official address, as “Jane Stanford Way.”

The Serra dormitory and small academic building with the Serra name also will be renamed, with the new names to be determined. However, Serra Street on campus will retain its current name, and the university will pursue new educational displays and other efforts to more fully address the multidimensional legacy of Serra and the mission system in California.

After extensive research and outreach, the committee applied a rigorous set of principles that a previous Stanford committee had developed for considering the renaming of campus features named for historical figures with complex legacies.

Serra’s establishment of the mission system is a central part of California history, and his life’s work led to his canonization by the Roman Catholic Church in 2015. At the same time, the historical record confirms that the mission system inflicted great harm and violence on Native Americans, and Stanford has several features named for Serra even though he played no direct role in the university’s history.

Read the rest here.

Want to learn more about Serra?  I recommend Steven Hackel’s Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father.

Did Missionaries Contribute to the Growth of Secularism?

Protestants AbroadOver at The Christian Century, Robert Westbrook of the University of Rochester reviews David Hollinger‘s latest book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America.

Here is a taste:

Protestants Abroad fits snugly within Hollinger’s long-standing narrative of the price that ecumenical Protestants paid as a religious community for their thinning of the particularism of Christianity. Clearly missionaries were prominent among the church leaders who got out ahead of the rank and file on controversial social and political matters and lost the loyalty of many of them. And the weight of Hollinger’s extensive biographical evidence is that they also pioneered the art of raising post-Protestant children who may well have admired their moral strength and shared their humanitarian values but found little need for their religious beliefs.

Hollinger himself remains impatient with those who persisted in “God-talk” long after he thinks it lost its plausibility, favoring post-Protestant “mish kids” over their still devout parents in this regard. But arguably, on his own evidence, there is something to be said, even if one does not speak it oneself, for God-talk or even Christ-talk. It may very well be that the tension between the universal and the particular was crushing for missionary theory, but was it so for missionary practice? There is little evidence in Hollinger’s book that this was the case.

Many of the numerous life stories in Hollinger’s books are tales of courage, courage that was for many of those who mustered it sustained by Christian belief, however thin it may have been. Civil rights activist and former missionary Ruth Harris was described by one of the students she inspired as “acting up for Christ”—not for humanity but for Christ. And the same might be said of many of those who gave us a more cosmopolitan republic. Could they have found the strength to act up elsewhere, outside the confines of Christian belief? Maybe, but in their Christianity was where they found it.

Thin God-talk is not necessarily weak God-talk; it can be wiry God-talk. God-talk lean, supple, and articulated alongside humility and doubt. Might one not cop to the considerable uncertainty that remains in even such wiry God-talk and despite doing so be moved by religious faith to do far more good than one might otherwise have done? The more cosmopolitan American republic that liberal Protestant missionaries did so much to create is of late under siege. If we are to protect it, perhaps a few courageous, die-hard ecumenical Christian survivalists will come in handy.

Read the entire review here.

North Korean Ice Hockey Has Presbyterian Roots

North Korea

This is news to me.  Atlas Obscura has it covered.  Here is a taste:

FOR ALL THE INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION that the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang are bringing to the Korean Peninsula’s fractious history, tense present, and uncertain future, there will likely be little talk about the era when a team of American high school students represented the (now North Korean) city of Pyongyang—in hockey. Today, North Korea has thoroughly erased positive depictions of Americans from its capital, but before World War II it hosted a strong American missionary presence, and was the site of a remarkable chapter in sports history.

The first documented ice hockey games in Korea occurred in 1928, when the Japanese Empire ruled Korea, which they called Chosun (1910–45). An organized national hockey league and a national championship followed a couple of years later. In the Chosun Hockey League, which included teams of all age groups, Americans from the missionary communities were instrumental in developing the game. The first national champion, in 1930, was Chosun Christian College in Seoul, a school founded in 1915 by American Presbyterian missionaries. In Pyongyang, the leading team was from Pyongyang Foreign School, the school that served the American community. Hockey was the school’s leading winter sport.

Hockey games in 1930s Korea were elemental, played on outdoor rinks on land and on Pyongyang’s frozen Taedong River. Bitter cold, rough natural ice, ankle-high improvised boards, and wind and snow were normal for the players, and spectators had to stand all game on the edge of the ice, and sometimes on it. Like pickup games on frozen ponds in Canada or Minnesota, the conditions of these early games challenged the dedication of players and spectators alike.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with David Hollinger

51BOYw8IuNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgDavid Hollinger is Preston Hotchkis Professor Emeritus at the University of California-Berkley. This interview is based on his new book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Protestants Abroad?

DH: In the 1990s while writing books about multiculturalism (Postethnic America, 1995) and about Jewish intellectuals (Science, Jews, and Secular Culture, 1996), it struck me that many missionaries were precursors of the most defensible aspects of multiculturalism and were indeed the Anglo-Protestant equivalents of the cosmopolitan Jewish intellectuals who were famous for having expanded the horizons of American culture. I became annoyed at the patronizing and negative pictures of missionaries that were dominant among scholars and in popular culture. I also remembered, having long since forgotten it, what a powerful, charismatic figure was cut in my church-centered childhood by missionaries on furlough from China and India. As a little boy in Idaho and Washington, these people in their Sunday night lectures made me aware of a world much wider than my own surroundings.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Protestants Abroad?

DH: Deep immersion in foreign cultures led many missionaries to adopt relatively generous attitudes toward the varieties of humankind, causing these missionaries to question as provincial a great variety of Home Truths accepted by most of the folks at home. Between about 1920 and 1970, ecumenically inclined, anti-racist missionaries and their children advocated foreign policies friendly to the self-declared interests of non-white, decolonizing peoples, and promoted domestic initiatives that would later be called “multicultural.”

JF: Why do we need to read Protestants Abroad?

DH: To call attention to an egalitarian theme in the Christian tradition that is much less visible in the current era than it was fifty, seventy-five, and one hundred years ago. To make clear that Americans who have benefited from “white privilege” have done very different things with their color-produced opportunities, and have sometimes fought against the very racism of which they were the beneficiaries. To remind ourselves that contact with people very different from ourselves can liberate us from narrow understandings of what the possibilities for human life actually are.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

DH: I wrote an entire essay (“Church People and Others”) answering exactly this question, posed by the editors of Becoming Historians (edited by James Banner and John Gillis, 2009), which I reprinted as Chapter 8 of my own book, After Cloven Tongues of Fire (2013). The short answer is that I did this because I did not know what I was doing! I thought it would be easier than philosophy and theology, the other fields that most interested me. I was mistaken. It proved to be very demanding, or so it has seemed to me. But what made me stay with it is probably more important than the naïve conceptions of the calling that led me to it. What made me stay with it was the ever-growing awareness that the study of history was a virtually boundless opportunity to explore an infinity of questions about what it meant to be human. The title of the “Church People and Others” piece refers to how I found my way from the society of my youth into the overwhelmingly secular circles of academia.

JF: What is your next project?

DH: Two things are in the works. First, I have been writing a family memoir that I may or may not publish, organized around my father’s difficult path to the ministry and his even more difficult departure from it. It is an account of a “Pennsylvania Dutch” family’s migration from Gettysburg to Saskatchewan, and how my father and his siblings were almost destroyed by the blizzards and by the unwise decisions of my grandfather, who was a leader of the Church of the Brethren and a Brethren in Christ bishop when the two denominations worked together in Canada in the 1920s and 1930s. Second, I am making notes for what might be a short, essayistic book (modelled on Postethnic America) about religion and politics in modern America. This book would address some of the problems that follow from the sort of thinking authorized by 2nd Corinthians 10:5 (every thought captive to Christ, etc.), and would attempt to bring some clarity to the widespread discourse about the function of religious ideas and affiliations in contemporary American public life.

JF: Thanks, David!  I can’t wait to read both of those books!

The Author’s Corner with Joy Schulz

9780803285897-JacketBlue.inddJoy Schulz is a Professor of History at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska. This interview is based on her new book, Hawaiian By Birth: Missionary Children, Bicultural Identity and U.S. Colonialism in the Pacific (University of Nebraska Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Hawaiian By Birth?

JS: When I first visited Honolulu as a teenager, I was struck by the fact that I was a racial minority. I remember wondering if I was feeling to a very small degree what my nonwhite friends in Nebraska felt on a daily basis. Later, after being introduced to the history of U.S. annexation of the Hawaiian Islands, I wondered why “the missionary boys,” as native Hawaiians called the annexationists, would overthrow their Christian queen. When I dug a little deeper and realized that hundreds of white children had grown up in the Hawaiian Islands as subjects of the Hawaiian monarchy, I became fascinated by their story. Having missionary friends who were raising their own children outside of the United States, I thought the topics of citizenship, national identity, and Christian mission—as they related to missionary children—were worthy of further exploration. The fact that the missionary children in Hawaii left extensive written records only made the project more exciting to me.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Hawaiian By Birth?

JS: Hawaiian By Birth is the history of U.S. colonization of the Hawaiian Islands as told by the children of nineteenth-century American missionaries living in the Islands. Hawaiian By Birth explains how American colonization was a domestic and generational endeavor, undertaken by missionary parents out of tremendous fear for their children’s economic futures, but completed by the children, whose views on race, religion, politics, and the environment were directly influenced by their bicultural upbringing.

JF: Why do we need to read Hawaiian By Birth?

JS: Other historical narratives of the Hawaiian Islands have been told from American missionary or native Hawaiian accounts. A few have looked at Hawaiian history from the perspective of missionary wives or Hawaiian queens. None have explained the U.S. annexation of the Hawaiian Islands from the perspective of the missionary sons and daughters.

JF: When and why did you become an American historian?

JS: I decided to become a historian after hearing my college history professor describe the discipline. He told our class: if you like to read, think independently, and manage your own time, but also enjoy people, the discipline of history might be for you. I think I declared my major that same day!

JF: What is your next project?

JS: My next project explores the American public school teachers who traveled to the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. U.S. colonization of the Philippines was both a military and educative endeavor. Unlike the American public school system today, U.S. government-sponsored teachers traveling to the Philippines had openly Christian perspectives and evangelical goals. Who these teachers were, why they traveled across the Pacific, and what influence they had upon the islands interests me.

JF: Thanks, Joy!

The American Bible Society and Mainline Protestantism

Bible Cause CoverWhile working on The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I had several evangelical friends and readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home inform me that they were often told that the American Bible Society was a theologically liberal organization and thus not worthy of the support of evangelicals.

Indeed, as I recently wrote in Christianity Today, during the 20th-century the American Bible Society worked most closely with mainline Protestant denominations and their ecumenical efforts.  The ABS had a strong relationship with the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches. The ABS board of managers was filled with leaders from mainline Protestant churches.  The Society sought to bridge the gap between Protestants and post-Vatican II progressive Catholics through joint Bible translations efforts.  It also agreed to sell the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, an ecumenical project that drew heated criticism from evangelicals for some of its translation decisions.

Prior to the 1960s the American Bible Society was a distinctly Protestant organization. One could find evangelicals on the board of managers and on the ABS staff.  The ABS often used Billy Graham for promotion purposes.  But everyone in the Protestant world knew that this was a mainline Protestant organization.

Many evangelical groups would not work with the American Bible Society.  For example, in 1968, two evangelical missionary societies–the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (EFMA) and the Interdenominational Foreign Missions Associations (IFMA)– held a joint meeting in Winona Lake, Indiana.  These organizations represented nearly every evangelical missionary agency ministering around the globe.  Clyde Taylor, a former missionary in South America, the secretary of the EFMA, and the director of the National Association of Evangelicals, invited the ABS to address the meeting on the subject of the Society’s position on Catholicism.  The evangelical missionaries were aware of the new spirit of cooperation between the United Bible Society (an international fellowship of Bible societies in which the ABS held significant power) and the Catholic Church on the translation and distribution of the Bible and had some serious concerns.  ABS General Secretary Robert Taylor spoke to 200 evangelical missionaries who were skeptical–if not outright opposed–to cooperation with Catholics on Bible translation projects on the mission field.  His address was titled “The Bible Societies and the Catholic Church.”

After the talk, Taylor answered questions so that the missionaries present would be able to make an informed decision about how the EFMA and IFMA should respond to the ABS-Catholic relationship.  While we don’t know exactly what happened in the meeting, we do know that it was a rough crowd.  In a follow-up letter, Clyde Taylor apologized to Robert Taylor for having to endure “all of the cross examination that you had.”  He continued: “I had no idea…how bad a time they gave you in committee meetings.  However, I imagined there were no holds barred.”  It sounds like Taylor got grilled.

Clyde Taylor also wrote to inform Robert Taylor and the ABS about the decisions these missionary organizations had reached during the Winona Lake meeting.  The missionaries of the EFMA and IFMA wished to inform the ABS that it did not want to “enter into any relationship which would entail either structural or formal relationship with the Roman Catholic Church as a church.”  It also added that any EFMA or IFMA missionary who was involved in translation work with a member of the Catholic Church under the auspices of the UBS would need to inform the Society that he was participating as an individual and not as a representatives of one of these evangelical agencies.

Robert Taylor told Clyde Taylor in a follow-up letter that it didn’t matter whether they “act as individuals or as a church, the main idea is to get the Scriptures translated and distributed.”  He admitted that he received some “pointed questions” in Winona Lake, and there was one attendee who insisted on reading the conference “a great deal of Roman Catholic law,” but Robert Taylor felt he developed a “happy relationship” with the missionaries.  This was wishful thinking.

After learning about what happened in Winona Lake, Laton Holmgren, the ABS general secretary in charge of programming, wrote to Eugene Nida, the director of the ABS translation department, to fill him in on the decisions made by the joint meeting of the EFMA and IFMA.  Holmgren wrote that the evangelical missionaries perceived the ABS to be an organization that promoted “ecumenical interests” and thus did not want to be forced to participate with Catholics on ABS and UBS translation projects.  The missionaries asked the ABS to “curb the promotion of Ecumenism by its representatives.”  They referenced witnessing ABS officers make speeches that promoted “ecumenical philosophy,” and trying to convince native church leaders who were evangelicals to support ecumenical initiatives.  The missionaries were also upset that the ABS had decided to enter into conversation with the Catholic Church “without consultation with conservative evangelicals.”

The American Bible Society had an evangelical problem. And this was only the beginning. It is a story I uncover extensively in The Bible Cause.

Michael Limberg on Day 2 and Day 3 of the Spring Meeting of the American Society of Church History

Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Paul, Minnesota
Michael Limberg, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut and a seasoned correspondent for The Way of Improvement Leads Home (check out his posts from the 2015 meeting of the American Historical Association), is in Minneapolis this week for the Spring Meeting of the American Society for Church History.  Here is second and final post from the conference.   You can read his first post here.  –JF

It’s been a busy couple of days at the American Society for Church History Spring Meeting.  Between the graduate student reception and practicing for my presentation last night, I didn’t have a chance to write a post for Friday.  I won’t try to recap all the panels from the last two days, but here are a few notes on interesting developments from the panels and conference events.

Missions, race, and immigration have been recurring themes in the sessions I’ve attended.  Many of the papers on missions have been concerned with figuring out a new historiographic paradigm for missionary work, somewhere between celebrating missionaries as heroic figures and castigating them as exploitative agents of imperialism.  In every panel on overseas missions, the comments pushed for more inclusion of sources that would convey the voices of the missionized as well as the missionaries.  Papers in my panel by Andy Dibb and Andrew Russell took good steps in that direction by including voices from a series of revival movements in Africa and a Swedenborgian church movement started by black South Africans.  Many of the papers, ranging from early American topics to contemporary church movements, focused on how and why churches reached out to racial outsiders.  Phillip Gollner’s paper on Swedes participating in the anti-Mormon movement during the late 1800s and Mark Grandquist’s work on Lutheran churches in Minnesota working with African immigrants were two of a number of examples.  Immigration history was tied into that question.

A brown-bag lunch on Friday with Robert Ellison and Keith Francis introduced an expanding set of resources for pursuing sermon studies as a growing sub-field with the help of online databases.  (Marshall explains what the term and field include and accomplish here).  They argued for the importance of sermons as a way to understand events or trends in the larger society, but acknowledged the difficulty of sorting through the haystack of published sermons.  Ellison demonstrated the capacity of the searchable database with links to digitized sermons he will soon launch through the Marshall University’s Center for Sermon Studies.  Clearly this is a project that will require some crowdsourcing to begin to encompass all the possible sources, so look for the website to go live soon and look for a call to help expand the catalog.

James Laine’s plenary session on meta-religion and Christianity looked very interesting, but I skipped it in favor of a different kind of exercise in church history.  After my panel on Saturday morning, I heard about an ecumenical service for victims of the Armenian Genocide taking place at the St. Paul Cathedral.  I’ve been writing about the Armenian Genocide and the U.S. humanitarian response this spring as part of my dissertation, so I took the chance to go.  Archbishop Nienstedt  spoke, as did the leaders of a number of other Twin Cities denominations.  It was a moving service.   I got the chance to step back from my academic historian perspective and get a different look at this tragedy. The Cathedral is another of my favorite places to visit in the Twin Cities, so I took a few minutes to wander around and admire it again as well.


I won’t be attending the conference events today, so this marks the end of my first ASCH meeting.  I appreciated the welcome I received.  Getting to talk early twentieth century missions and religiously-influenced social movements with Christopher Schlect, Paul Putz and others gave me some new ideas for my research.  I also heard a little of some ongoing informal discussions about the future of ASCH.  The rapid rise of religious scholarship connected to other historical fields (such as the “religious turn” among foreign relations historians that helped bring me to this conference) means that ASCH is no longer as unique and might need to rethink its specific identity or mission.  However those discussions play out over the next months, I hope to attend another ASCH meeting soon.