In 1909, E. Alexander Powell, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, wrote a magazine article entitled “The Romance of the Missionary.” It began by telling readers that, according to his recent acquaintance with “the missionary of today, … there is scant reminder of the somber-garbed, psalm-singing, nasal-voiced, narrow-minded proselytizer, who has been made the butt of jokes in comic supplements from time immemorial.” By the time I read this, I agreed with him, at least with regard to the missionaries of Talas, Turkey, 1908-1922. Not only was there a distinct lack of piety in the millions of words contained in their journals, letters and reports, there was rarely reference to religion. Oh, it was clear they had a deep faith in God, and many of the subjects they taught in their boarding schools were laced with biblical references, but they practiced what Jane Hunter called “the gospel of gentility.” Hunter was writing about American missionaries in China decades earlier, but the term is applicable to the way early 20th century missionaries in Turkey spread the “good word.” Not with heavy-handedness, but by leading by example.
My Introduction to Missionary Orvis
When my friend, Kamo Mailyan, tried to persuade me to write about the ABCFM missionary Susan Wealthy Orvis, I declined. Who would want to read a book about one of those “narrow-minded proselytizers,” even if she did save 3,000 Armenian and Greek orphans almost single-handedly? Then I read her journal and my whole attitude changed. Susan wrote so matter-of-factly about not being able to cross the Atlantic due to “the current upset”—which turned out to be German submarine warfare. She downplayed the dangers of crossing Siberia during the Russian Revolution, barely mentioning the long delays due to blown-up train tracks. What hooked me was the ridiculous but brilliant bit of self-talk she used to stamp down her fear while dodging bullets in the streets of Baku. Who was this remarkable woman?!? Was she unique or were there more like her? I had to know.
In my research I certainly came across the writings of missionaries who described their every experience in terms of “the mercy of God and Jesus Christ our saviour.” There were some who could be described today as racist, and many who saw Islam as an inferior religion. Without doubt, there was also a large dose among most of them, the Talas group included, who were blissfully unaware of the role they played in American cultural imperialism. But it was their personal backgrounds, and the way they structured their mission and carried on their “good works” that intrigued me.
Christian Faith, Science and the New Missionary
There was a movement in the United States and Canada in the early 20th century known as the Social Gospel. It was a Protestant movement that used Christian ethics to deal with social justice issues. Highly educated young men and women “of faith” worked to eradicate poverty, slums, child labor, poor quality education, alcoholism, crime, and and other social ills. The settlement movement in North America, for example, Hull House in Chicago operated by Jane Addams, sprang from the Social Gospel.
There was also a growing belief in the Western world that science could provide the answers to problems on earth. “Cleanliness is next to godliness” supported the new science of hygiene as related to healthy living. This extended to domestic science, where women were transforming their homes according to the latest practices in science, economics, professional administration, education and agriculture.
The “new” missionary was a natural product of these changing times. As Powell described it, “the American missionary of the present [is] clean-cut and college-bred, [and] comes from another mold. He is as carefully trained as the consul or the commercial traveler, though on broader and more comprehensive lines. When he starts for his new field, he is something more than a theologian and a preacher. He has had an agricultural course, and can plow and sow and reap after the most approved fashion; or he knows something of manual industry, and can use a plane, a saw, or a lathe, the tools of a blacksmith, a carpenter, or a mason; possibly he understands the elements of electricity and of hydraulics, and can install a dynamo or set up a ram; or perhaps he is going out as a medical missionary.”
This applied equally to the women. Though their professions were mainly teaching and nursing, with the occasional doctor or administrator included, they were equally adept at a multitude of arts, crafts and industry. It was a new kind of roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-it attitude that made them so effective. Susan herself learned to drive a REO truck in 1919 in order to deliver the NER supplies to surrounding villages.
The Gospel of Gentility
I previously wrote about the changing role of women, and how the “single ladies” found a way to use their skills, abilities, education, interests, and religious convictions, for the greater good by becoming foreign missionaries. In the mission station, though led by a male ordained minister, decisions were often made by committees. Since the majority in most stations consisted of women, the women missionaries had great deal of personal freedom and potential for growth.
The missions usually had a hospital with a North American doctor and a couple of nurses, and a boys’ and a girls’ boarding school with North American principals and teachers. There were also “native” personnel in the schools and hospital. The curriculum was similar to a North American school, except in Turkish, and sometimes Armenian and Greek, but had additional “subjects”. Naturally there was Bible Study, but there was also a strong thread of what every “civilized person” needed, namely, home economics, genteel manners, and personal hygiene.
This, and the influence of women missionaries on their little charges, is what is known as the gospel of gentility. There was no hellfire-and-brimstone preaching. There was no need for it. The missionaries believed that kindness and leading by example was a much more powerful and persuasive method of conversion to Christianity.
Personal Strength and Conviction
Powell’s concluding paragraph reads like a missionary recruitment pamphlet: “History shows nothing finer than the way in which these pickets of civilization, scattered over the strange portions of the globe, have distilled a grim humor out of their desolate situations, turning not only a bold but a laughing face upon the perils which their lives may bring. There is, indeed, something approaching the divine in their power to rise above hard conditions. … In all the world there is no more thrilling romance than that of these pioneers of progress who have carried the gospel of the clean shirt side by side with that of salvation even to the very Back of Beyond.”
The missionaries of Talas would have shuddered to see their self-effacing actions described as divine, or as a thrilling romance. But they did believe that they were pioneers of progress, because, after all, what was good for America, was good for the world.