Mission and Momentum

“Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”


“All life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowl edge.”


THE NATION’S VIEW of its future and of its relations to the world never lost the mark of its earliest past. The Puritans were sent on their “Errand into the Wilderness” not by a British sovereign or by London businessmen, but by God Himself. Whatever names later Americans used to describe the direction of their history—whether they spoke of “Providence” or of “Destiny”—they still kept alive the sense of mission. “We shall nobly save or meanly lose,” Lincoln warned, “the last best hope of earth.”

A mission (from Latin, mittere, to send), whether assigned by Providence or Destiny or by the Promising Land itself, was an errand which the individual American remained free to refuse. But democracy in twentieth-century America had succeeded in making every man part of the social matrix. No longer a mere responder to calls from without, every man had been brought into the womb of society, where he was part of its mysterious creative power.

The sense of mission, then, the voluntary sense, was being overwhelmed by an involuntary sense: a sense of momentum. In physics, momentum meant the product of a body’s mass and its linear velocity. Translated into social terms, this was the sense not of moving but of being moved, not of pushing but of being pushed. Momentum kept things going the way they were already going.

In a society, too, the force of momentum depended on size and speed. And these, of course, were precisely the dimensions which had distinguished American history. The American boast, and the butt of Old World ridicule, was how big everything was here and how fast everything moved. The United States was a large and speedy nation; Americans knew it, and for the most part, they loved it. Land Promoters, Tall Talkers, Land Hoaxers, and Go-Getters all bragged about the bigger and the faster. You might be a laggard or you might refuse to be a booster, but you still couldn’t stop the nation from growing and moving.

Now the American assignment seemed to come no longer from the conscious choices of individual citizens, but from the scale and velocity of the national projects themselves. Growth, ever more and faster, seemed to have become the nation’s whole purpose.

Man’s problem of self-determination was more baffling than ever. For the very power of the most democratized nation on earth had led its citizens to feel inconsequential before the forces they had unleashed.


Prologue to Foreign Aid

THE ENLISTMENT OF the missionary spirit in the service of American patriotism was dramatized in 1899 at a memorial service in Boston when Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, who had been an abolitionist and was now a leader in the woman suffrage movement, rode in the same carriage with the former Confederate General Joseph Wheeler, who had volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War. They both sang Mrs. Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” for the “crusade” against Spanish tyranny. A half-century later, General Eisenhower entitled his account of World War II Crusade in Europe.

From the beginning, Americans had been unwilling to believe that their emigration, their expansion, their diplomacy, and their wars had no high purpose—and they commonly defined that purpose as a “mission.” In North America, several of the British colonies had been founded with the explicit missionary purpose of converting the pagan natives, but this was by no means universal elsewhere in the British Empire. The English East India Company, for example, was hostile to the missionaries, who they feared might antagonize the natives and get in the way of profits. What was probably the oldest Protestant foreign missionary society anywhere was founded in 1649 by John Eliot, the Apostle to the Indians, to propagate the Gospel in New England. Both in England and America the religious revivals of the eighteenth century, which were stirred by John Wesley, George Whitefield, and others, created a new missionary movement. Unlike earlier missions, Catholic or Protestant, this movement would be supported by millions of small voluntary contributions in the country from which the missionaries were drawn.

The latter-day Protestant missionary movement would be as different from earlier missions, both in source of support and in mode of operating, as the vast democratized modern joint-stock corporations differed from their closely held predecessors. The roots of foreign aid, of the Peace Corps, and of numerous other American institutions of diplomacy and foreign relations lay deep in the American missionary tradition which thrived in the nineteenth century.

SAMUEL JOHN MILLS, founding father of American foreign missions, was born in Connecticut in 1783, the very year of peace with England. Like some other great evangelists and expansionists, he was not a man of deep thought or sharp intellect. Even his friends described him as having “an awkward figure and ungainly manners and an unelastic and croaking sort of voice.” But he had an intensity of purpose, a grandeur of vision, and a restless energy that made him an American prodigy in his brief thirty-five years of life. As son of a country pastor, he was raised to believe in predestination, in the essential evil of man, and in the unpredictability and power of grace. When at the age of fifteen he still had not been overwhelmed by a converting experience, he lapsed into melancholy: “Sorry that God ever made me”; he saw “to the very bottom of hell.” Then one day at the age of eighteen, according to Mills’s own account, while walking through the woods, he suddenly felt conversion, saw God’s glory, submitted his will to God, lost concern for himself, and became “willing to be damned for the glory of God.” Determined to give his life to “communicate the Gospel of salvation to the poor heathen,” he entered Williams College, where he led his first religious revival. On an August day in 1806 during his freshman year, he gathered four collegemates for prayer in a nearby grove which, according to missionary legend, was the miraculous birthplace of the far-flung American mission movement. When a thunderstorm drove the five to take shelter under a haystack they heard Mills, inspired by a recent geography lesson about Asia, propose that they set up missions in India. “We can do it,” he said, “if we will.” From these, who came to be known as “the Haystack Group,” Mills went on in his senior year to organize the Society of Brethren. Like many another college fraternity, this was a secret society, its constitution was written in cipher, and even its existence was supposed to be kept concealed. The theory was that such secrecy would prevent the missionary movement from being brought into disrepute if the Haystack Group should fail.

The Brethren took their movement to other colleges. Mills studied theology for a few months at Yale, where he met a young Hawaiian, Henry Obookiah. Then only seventeen years old, Obookiah had been orphaned during one of the civil wars in Hawaii, and had actually begun training there for the priesthood in a pagan Hawaiian cult. But he became a cabin boy on a ship which had come out from New Haven, where he finally arrived and was befriended by his young Yale tutor. Mills took Obookiah under his wing, sent him to Litchfield Academy, then brought him to Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, which had become headquarters for Mills and his Brethren. In 1810 the young Mills, impatient for action, addressed the Assembly of the Congregational Churches of Massachusetts and beseeched them to organize missions to the whole world. The result that very year was the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. In 1812 the American Board sent ten missionaries to Calcutta and others to Ceylon, and so became the nucleus of an American missionary movement which would be without precedent in the extent and numbers of its voluntary supporters. By 1820 the American Board had sent out eighty-one missionaries. And out of Mills’s secret society of Brethren grew the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions later in the century, which recruited thousands of young missionaries and became a prototype for the Peace Corps and other youth movements.

Mills himself was not among the first missionaries to be sent abroad, since he was said to be needed as a recruiter back home. But when he graduated from Theological Seminary in 1812, he was dispatched by the home missionary societies on a survey of religion in the American West. After two extensive tours, which took him on foot and on horseback through trackless wilderness, he reported that he had seen a shocking “religious destitution.” A result of his report was the founding of the American Bible Society. And he helped organize missions to the Indians and to the peoples of Mexico and South America. Mills then surveyed religion in the new urban slums, especially in New York City. Long an antislavery man, in 1816 he helped found the American Colonization Society (supported by Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson, among others), which, besides promoting the emancipation of Negroes in the United States, aimed to settle colonies of American Negroes in Africa, and so “transfer to Africa the blessing of religion and civilization.” He went to Africa, helped select an area for the settlement, and actually negotiated with African chiefs for that territory which became Liberia. On his way home, in 1818, Mills died of a fever on shipboard and was buried at sea.

Mills’s legacy was the effective organization of American missions, and a vision of what was possible. He was to the foreign-mission movement what John Jacob Astor was to the fur trade: promoter and organizer par excellence.

The American foreign missions, which would reach all continents and win the support of millions at home, enlisted other impressive talents. Among these was the brilliant and attractive Adoniram Judson, who had joined Mills’s Brethren at Andover. One of the members of that first group sent to Calcutta by the American Board in 1812, Judson spent time on shipboard reading theology on the question of baptism in preparation for meeting the English Baptist missionary William Carey. Judson and his wife were converted to the Baptist doctrine; he resigned his assignment from the American Board (which was Congregational) and urged the founding of a Baptist Foreign Mission Society, of which he became the first missionary. The Judsons went to Burma, which all along had been their favorite missionary field; there Judson studied the Burmese language and began a career noted more for its physical hardships and scholarly achievement than for its works of conversion. When war broke out between Britain and Burma, Judson, already weakened by malaria, was imprisoned in Burmese jails, where he was tortured, beaten, and for over a year laden with five pairs of heavy fetters. Judson’s wife and two infant daughters died during these persecutions, but he carried on his Burmese missionary efforts until his death in 1850. During his twenty years of work there, Judson preached in Burmese, translated the whole Bible into Burmese, prepared a scholarly grammar, and nearly completed a monumental Burmese-English dictionary. Although it had taken Judson five years in Burma to make his first convert, before his death he was supervising 163 Burmese missionaries, and the Burmese church had attained a membership of seven thousand.

Almost everywhere the work of conversion was slow. One missionary worked in Africa for eleven years to make a single convert. During twenty-one years at the Marathi mission in west India, the number of missionaries who died exceeded the number of Indian converts.

BUT RELIGIOUS CONVERSION pure and simple was no adequate measure of the meaning of American missionary effort abroad. Missions became a way of hallowing American democracy and the American Standard of Living; and in the course of the nineteenth century, the foreign-missionary effort actually helped give a religious authenticity to the ways of Americans at home. Education, which was becoming a secular religion within the United States, became an agency of missions abroad. American missionaries carried this gospel of education to the farthest corners of the world. They established schools of every kind with American money, which they collected in millions of dollars and in millions of pennies. For example, John Franklin Goucher, a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania who married into the wealth of an old Maryland family, helped build the Woman’s College of Baltimore (later called Goucher), and then carried his educational mission to the Far East. In the 1880’s he supported 120 vernacular primary schools in India; he founded the first Christian school in Korea; and he helped found missionary colleges in China and Japan. By 1904 he had spent a quarter of a million dollars on these projects.

One of the most remarkable and most sophisticated of the American educational missionaries was Cyrus Hamlin, son of a Maine farmer, who began life as an apprentice silversmith. After studying for the ministry by himself, he attended Bowdoin College and then spent three years at Bangor Theological Seminary preparing to be a missionary. The American Board sent him out to Turkey to open a school. In 1840, at Bebek, a suburb of Constantinople, he opened a school which he directed for twenty years. “Almost everything is out of joint,” Hamlin observed, in the far-off cultures where the missionary worked. Therefore, he argued, the missionary’s secular and religious purposes were inseparable. Where everything needed to be “straightened out,” only the American Christian missionary could do the job. He brought the gospel of a whole new way of life, aiming not merely to convert individuals but to introduce the “heathen” peoples to the spade and the plow, to the use of bills of exchange, and to “the whole organization of civilized life” in order to hasten the “transition from heathenism to civilization; from utter and hopeless indolence to industry; from a beastly life to a Christian manhood.”

Despite the ridicule of fellow missionaries, Hamlin trained his Armenian students on the Bosporus to make sheet-iron stoves and “right smart American rat-traps.” In 1847, when an Armenian professor who had come to Turkey to help the government set up a school of mines tried to construct a telegraph line, Hamlin made parts for the telegraph apparatus in his seminary workshop. And he helped arrange a demonstration before the sultan (one station was set up in the throne room, another in a far corner of the palace). The delighted sultan exclaimed, “Mashallah! Mashallah!” (Allah be praised!) and then, to show his gratitude, he sent to Samuel F. B. Morse an imperial diploma and a diamond-encrusted decoration, the first that Morse ever received. Six years later, to serve the needs of the Crimean War, the Turks installed their first telegraph, linking their country to the world. During the Crimean War, when Hamlin saw the piles of English soldiers’ vermin-infested uniforms, he used empty beer casks to make crude washing machines, thereby providing employment for Turkish women and cleaner clothing for the soldiers.

Hoping to make his students self-supporting, Hamlin started a bakery, which soon prospered by making “Protestant bread.” Over the opposition of his missionary colleagues, who feared that Hamlin’s bakery would “secularize the missionary work,” Hamlin introduced the Turks for the first time to bread made with good hop yeast, and incidentally set a new standard in the marketplace because each loaf actually weighed a little more than its legally required weight. One day in 1856, when Christopher Rhinelander Robert, a wealthy New York merchant and railroad magnate, visited in Constantinople, a boat along the shores of the Bosporus attracted his attention by the delicious aroma of its cargo. Learning that this was some of Hamlin’s “Protestant bread,” Robert looked up Hamlin, and so began the collaboration which eventually produced Robert College. That new missionary college opened in 1863 at Bebek; in 1871 its students moved into a grand new site overlooking the Bosporus, where the school flourished into the late twentieth century.

Robert College, as organized by Hamlin and initially financed by Robert, trained leaders for the whole Middle East, pursuant to Hamlin’s prophetic prescription for reform of the Ottoman Empire: “Peace, Time, and Education!” When Hamlin returned to the United States to ask rich Americans to contribute to the college, he secured numerous small subscriptions of $100 and less, but somehow he failed to get the large donations he needed. “They [the rich],” he wrote, “do not like to unload. They are prosperous, and they feel savage when asked to give. How can a man who has an income of $40,000 give anything when he has been accustomed to spend $45,000 to live? He is already economizing $5,000.”

Americans founded other missions—schools, colleges, hospitals, and churches—on all continents. Many of the benefactors were, in a euphemism of the time, “noted more for distribution of their wealth than for their activities in attaining it.” Before the Civil War one New York merchant provided free passage to China for fifty missionaries, and then contributed a ship so they could distribute eighteen thousand volumes of Christian literature. A Quaker businessman left $10,000 for an Episcopal mission in Liberia. A former Confederate chaplain who had made a fortune in Sunday School literature gave more than $100,000 for religious works, including a girls’ school in Coahuila, Mexico. The Dodges, a wealthy New York family, endowed the American University in Beirut. A New London banker gave a substantial sum in 1889 for a graduate scientific department at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan. And there were many others.

AT THE CENTENARY of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1910, the president of the Board, Samuel Billings Capen, himself symbolized the new American missionary spirit. Born in Boston of a poor family, he had begun as an office boy in a carpet firm at $75 a year, then finally became a partner and made his fortune. Although he himself never went beyond high school, he was an enthusiast for education and he worked hard to introduce “business” methods into education and philanthropy. He made the Sunday School publishing firm of the Congregational Church into a profitable enterprise; on the Boston School Committee (1888–93) he introduced manual training, he helped streamline the administration, and he developed a building program; he became president of the board of trustees of Wellesley College. Good business and sound religion, Capen preached, were complementary and inseparable. The first condition of success in both was “fidelity”—“that kind of conscientiousness which performs the smallest details well; that faithfulness which sweeps under the mat and into the corners; that which lays a poor carpet ten miles out of Boston as thoroughly as a better carpet on Beacon Street; that which tries as earnestly to sell an oil covering in the basement, as a Wilton on the main floor.”

The menace to American civilization, according to Capen, was materialism. “Commerce is going everywhere, and commerce without Christ is a curse. It means firearms and the slave trade and rum.” He noted that the United States exported more than a million gallons of rum, valued at $1.5 million, and nearly all of it went to Africa.

But, far from being an enemy of commerce, the successful Christian missionary, said Capen, inevitably made customers. “When our missionaries arrived in Hawaii, in 1820, the people were only one stage above the brute. Under the teachings of the missionary, and the influence of Christianity, they were so far developed that at the end of twenty years their business with the United States, as shown by the tables which I studied recently in the Boston Chamber of Commerce, was as follows: Imports, $227,000; exports, $67,000; total trade with the Islands, $294,000.” In Turkey he noted the sale of ten cotton gins in one locality, one hundred grain-winnowing machines in another. He told of a pastor who had trouble persuading his parishioner, who was a rich manufacturer of plows, to support foreign missions—until the parishioner visited a distant country where missionaries were opening the market for Christianity and for plows. The manufacturer opened up so much business there that he ended by supporting four missionaries; and yet the market for plows proved so great that the salaries of these missionaries were only a fraction of his added profits.

To the Board for Foreign Missions, Capen observed in 1910:

The business interests of the world are with us; they are recognizing more and more the benefit to themselves which is coming everywhere with the opening of the world to Christianity. When a heathen man becomes a child of God and is changed within he wants his external life and surroundings to correspond; he wants the Christian dress and the Christian home and the Christian plow and all the other things which distinguish Christian civilization from the narrow and degraded life of the heathen. The merchant knows how the business of the world has been increased by the progress already made by Christianity, and he knows that with the further spread of the Gospel, business will be largely increased.

Of course Capen was attacked as a vulgar materialist; but most of his missionary colleagues joined in Capen’s paean to so profitable a Providence. In the long run, he urged, the Christian mission was the only real antidote for materialism, because only Christianity could make material prosperity virtuous. “It is no part of the business of the missionary to develop foreign commerce. He is not interested in selling modern machinery; his one thought is to help and save men. But from his work of Christianizing and educating men and planting Christian homes these other results follow as inevitably as the mist disappears before the rising sun.” Capen recalled that in a century of missions, Americans had given more than $40 million for the work, and that in the preceding year alone, the native missionized Christians in foreign lands had given the equivalent of $3 million.

As American technology, and especially American medicine, advanced, the missionary effort increasingly took the form of hospitals and medical missionaries. This new effort produced a pantheon of heroic figures, from Mary Reed, the Methodist missionary who contracted leprosy in India in 1884 and then survived to a ripe age superintending a leper asylum in the foothills of the Himalayas, to “the Burma Surgeon” of the mid-twentieth century, Dr. Gordon S. Seagrave, who came from a family of American Baptist missionaries and gave forty years to his “hospital in the hills.” By the early twentieth century, a Go-Getting energy suffused the whole American missionary enterprise.

THE LARGEST SINGLE benefactor of American foreign missions at the opening of the century was John D. Rockefeller. A devout Baptist, he had given large sums to Baptist missions, but by 1905 he had not yet aided other denominations. Early that year, when the secretary of the Congregational Board wrote Rockefeller asking for $160,000 to support their missions, Rockefeller responded by giving $100,000. He followed his usual practice, of never himself announcing his gifts publicly. When the gift was reported in The Congregationalist in March 1905, thirty Church members, mostly ministers, met in Boston and signed a formal protest demanding that the money be returned. They argued that since Rockefeller was “under repeated and recent formidable indictment in specific terms for methods that are morally iniquitous and socially destructive,” to accept his gift would subject the Board “to the charge of ignoring the moral issues involved.” Congregational ministers vied with one another in fulminating against Rockefeller. Most violent was Dr. Washington Gladden, moderator of the Church’s National Council, who preached a jeremiad against Rockefeller in Columbus, Ohio, on March 26. “The money proffered to our board of missions comes out of a colossal estate whose foundations were laid in the most relentless rapacity known to modern commercial history. The success of the business from the beginning to now has been largely due to the unlawful manipulation of railway rates.” In a phrase that would stick, he called the gift “tainted money.”

The nation suddenly overflowed with moralists. Cynics suggested that what was wrong with Rockefeller’s gift was not its source but its size. Champions of Rockefeller remarked that it was un-Christian to disparage a man’s good deeds because of the evil he might have done, and that anyway, according to the American creed loudly professed by Dr. Gladden and his associates, a man should be assumed innocent until proven guilty; Rockefeller had not yet been found guilty in any court. But Gladden was joined in his attack by such powerful voices as William Jennings Bryan and Robert M. La Follette. “He gives with two hands, but he robs with many,” La Follette inveighed to a Chautauqua audience. “If he should live a thousand years he could not expiate the crimes he has committed…. He is the greatest criminal of the age.” One of the more instructive spectacles of pastoral morality was the Congregational Board itself. Discovering the unpopularity of its action, the Board at first remained silent; then the secretary, the Reverend James L. Barton, who actually had solicited Rockefeller for the money, took cover by telling the New York Times that Rockefeller’s gift had not been requested but was “unsolicited and spontaneous.” When Rockefeller’s representative, the Reverend Frederick T. Gates, threatened to give the full correspondence to the Associated Press, the Reverend Barton retreated to the truth and secured a statement from the Congregational Board admitting that the gift had in fact been solicited. In this fog of competing hypocrisies, Dr. Gladden himself shifted his position, and the Board gratefully accepted the Rockefeller gift.

When it was announced, on June 28, that Rockefeller had given $1 million to Yale, and two days later that he had given $10 million to the General Education Board, the voices of protest which only three months before had called Rockefeller’s $100,000 gift “tainted money” were dramatically still. “Gifts of ten millions,” the New York Sun observed, “deodorize themselves.”

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