American Protestantism in the Asian crucible, 1919–1939
In the decades between the world wars, the American Protestant missions movement changed dramatically and in so doing, changed American Christianity at home. New challenges in the Asian missions fields forced evangelists to reconsider their tactics and message. In the wake of global war they faced audiences who questioned a religion that had failed to prevent adherents from unprecedented slaughter. Nationalist movements in India and China meanwhile encouraged resistance to a faith that seemed enmeshed in Western culture. The altered landscape prompted Protestant missionaries to seek new ways to make their message palatable abroad. This dissertation explores the urgent spiritual questions circulating among foreign missionaries in the 1920s and ’30s and identifies some key shifts in their thinking about evangelism.
As their debates played out in both the secular and religious press, a critical contingent of missionaries found their own faith subject to change. Evangelists whose initial concern had been appealing to foreign audiences found that the ideas with which they wrestled in the crucible of Asian society impacted their personal practice. Even those missionaries who resisted innovation showed the influence of shifting political and cultural currents on their thought. This dissertation explores the changes in missionaries’ own beliefs as a critical part of the story.
The interwar period often has been considered a low point in American Protestantism. The rise of science, a burgeoning consumer culture, and emerging cultural movements collectively labeled modernism seemed to threaten the faith on all sides. Fissures between modernist and fundamentalist factions shook the churches from within. Most scholars have seen the 1920s and ’30s as a period of decline in belief and internecine squabbles between those who remained within the fold.
This dissertation’s attention to the missionary enterprise in Asia shows that what has been seen as a period of crisis for mainline belief in the United States also proved to be one of creative ferment. As many missionaries returned home in the 1930s, they modeled newly hybrid forms of Christian belief, contributing to efforts by which the Protestant mainstream made faith relevant in a world to which it seemed badly matched.
0323: American studies
0337: American history