East Asia in the Missionary Research Library

Gregory Adam Scott

Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Religion, Columbia University

The following is a brief introduction to some of the images and histories preserved in Series 6: China and Series 7: Japan of the Missionary Research Library Collection of the Burke Library Archives.


The Missionary Research Library Collection in the Burke Library archives is a unique part of a legacy of ecumenical mission studies. The library was originally founded as an independent institution in 1914, one of a host of new initiatives that came out of the World Missionary Conference, held in Edinburgh four years earlier. By 1927, however, funding from its host institution had dried up, and in 1929 it was relocated to the Brown tower of Union Theological Seminary. Throughout the pre-war era the library was an active center of research, but after the retirement of long-time librarian and director of the MRL Charles H. Fahs in 1948, the MRL went through several decades of difficult financial times, leading up to its full merger with the Burke Library in 1967.

My experience with the MRL collections came about thanks to a Mellon Foundation grant that provides funds to hire and train graduate students as intern archivists. Over the past few years several Columbia graduate students have been assigned to process MRL collections, and based on my background as a scholar of East Asian religion, I was fortunate enough to be selected to work with some of the collections relating to East Asia.

The study of the Protestant missionary enterprise in East Asia is a complex and growing field unto itself, but I can at least note a few highlights here to help emphasize the importance of these collections. Missionaries in the field were pioneers in wrestling with issues of translation and cross-cultural understanding, topics which are even more relevant to us today in our multicultural and increasingly globalized society. Many of the figures and organizations featured in these MRL series were on the cutting edge of the indigenization movement, which sought to increase the participation of local religious leaders and to eventually enable churches in the field to operate independently of subsidies from home. Missionaries also played an important role in introducing elements of modernity to East Asian societies, including medicine, education, technology and statecraft.

The following are some sample collections from the China and Japan series of the MRL archives. I’ve chosen a few that are particularly interesting because of the images they present, images of a unique historical era of cultural and religious contact.

MRL 6: Samuel Dodd Diary, 1861 – 1958

Samuel DoddSamuel Dodd was born in 1832 in Ireland, and he emigrated to America in 1850, joining the Second Reformed Presbyterian Church of New York City a year later. In 1854 he was inspired to dedicate himself to mission work, and attended New York University and Princeton Theological Seminary before heading to China in 1861. He first lived in Ningbo 寧波, Zhejiang 浙江 province, and worked at various churches and mission schools in the area. In 1865 he married Sarah Green, and in 1867 they moved to Hangzhou 杭州 where he supervised a mission school.

Samuel Thompson Carter DoddThe archival papers consist of Samuel Dodd’s diary, copied to typescript by his eldest son, Samuel Thompson Carter Dodd. In 1922 the son visited China and photographed many of the places mentioned in his father’s diary, adding another layer on to the earlier missionary narrative. Many families were active in mission circles for generations, with the children often born and raised in the mission field and, in time, marrying other children of missionaries active in the same area.

MRL 6: Christian Evangelistic and Religious Educational Posters; Christian Scrolls and Bible Verses, [1930? - 1949?]

MRL6 Posters and ScrollsPrinting and publishing were important aspects of the Christian mission to China from its earliest days. With the advent of modern printing technologies, however, missionary organizations gained the ability to produce tracts, books, large-format posters and scrolls in large numbers and at low cost. These printed images were an important tool in the missionaries’ programs of proselytization and education.

MRL6 Posters and ScrollsThis collection includes posters and scrolls spanning a period of several decades. The publishers and religious groups represented here were also active in producing pamphlets, tracts and books. They include the Christian Literature Society for China 廣學會; Nanking Theological Seminary 金陵神學院; The Religious Tract Society for China 基督聖教書會; and the National Christian Council of China 中華全國基督教協進會. Other contributors include the American artists James Montgomery Flagg and Martha Sawyers.

MRL6 Posters and ScrollsNearly all the items in this collection attempt to convey a specific message to the viewer, whether it be connected to the war effort, religious teachings, proper morality and behavior, or the lyrics and music of a song. Some images were copied directly from European models, but most feature Chinese figures, scenes and text, the messages having been tailored to a Chinese audience. Overall the items in this collection reflect the input of both Western missionary and Chinese converts regarding how this intercultural communication ought to take place. This entire collection has been digitally photographed, and the images recorded on to a CDR with metadata.

MRL 6: Phonetic Promotion Committee Records, 1919 – 1930

MRL6 PPCIn 1912 a conference to establish a national language for China was organized in Beijing. There a system of phonetic symbols, called zhuyin zimu 注音字母 was selected to represent the modern, standard pronunciations of Chinese characters. One year later, the China Continuation Committee was established to continue the work of the 1910 World Missionary Conference in the China field. In 1918 they appointed a sub-committee to address the problem of finding a simplified system of writing Chinese, and later that year it was decided to support the use of the zhuyin zimu system. A new group, the Phonetic Promotion Committee, was established to promote the use of this system. One of its central purposes was to help enable Chinese Christians to learn to read the bible in their own language.

MRL6 PPCProjects undertaken by the committee include the preparation of teaching materials, researching teaching methods, working toward a standard system of spelling, preparing type and typographical arrangements for printing phonetic symbols, publicizing the system and publishing Christian scriptures in phonetic script. The committee published a full translation of the New Testament in phonetic characters and at least six books of the Old Testament. The zhuyin zimu system continues to be used today in Taiwan and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in overseas Chinese communities.

The present collection includes many publications produced by the PPC, as well as several large-format posters on Christian subjects, written in Chinese with phonetic notation. All of the publications have been reproduced on to acid-free paper for future digitization, and the posters have been digitally photographed.

MRL 7: Christianity in Japan Collections, 1927 – 1931

MRL7 Christianity in JapanBy 1930 Protestant missions had expanded to a global scale, and yet many still had doubts about the efficacy of mission strategies. The Laymen’s Foreign Missions Inquiry was a major research project undertaken from 1930 – 1931 to study Protestant mission efforts and to suggest innovative ways of improving them. Apart from China and India, Japan was one of the major areas of foreign mission work examined by the LFMI. Two volumes of reports were produced for each region: a volume of “Regional Reports” pulled together from many sources and edited by committee, and a volume of “Fact-Finders’ Reports” with chapters on specific topics written by a single author or a pair. The findings of the LFMI were controversial, but to some they represented a new era for Protestant mission work abroad.

This collection contains unpublished data produced by several researchers involved in the Japan section of the LFMI, as well as other documents relating to Christian education and rural life in Japan. There is also a collection of English-language Japanese newspaper articles about Japan, as well as a number of reference materials including maps and charts. The researchers represented in this collection include McGruder Ellis Sadler, former President of Texas Christian University; Margaret Elizabeth Forsyth, Columbia University Teachers’ College alumna and former professor; Harvey Hugo Guy, founder of Seigakuin Boys’ Junior and Senior High School in Tokyo; George L. Maxwell, Union Theological Seminar alumnus; Nunokawa Magoichi 布川孫市, founding member of the Sociological Society社会学会, and former professor at Meiji Gakuin University 明治学院大学; and Charles Hatch Sears, superintendent and general secretary of the New York City Baptist Mission Society.

Dai Kokumin [The Great Nation], 1916

MRL7 DaikokuminFor four months in 1916 this journal proclaimed a virulently anti-Christian platform through anonymous and pseudonymous articles. The journal covers are especially striking, with images of sinister Westerners and toppled crosses. Only four issues of this unique periodical were ever produced, though it is interesting that the first issue bears the number 782, implying a non-existent publishing history of six decades. It was published by the press of the Kokumin shimbun 國民新聞, an influential newspaper published by Tokutomi Sohō 徳富蘇峰. Publication of the journal was finally suspended under pressure from Japanese state officials.

MRL7 DaikokuminThis publication is one example of the type of nationalist resistance encountered by many mission groups. Negotiating foreign cultures, histories, and legal systems proved to be an ongoing challenge for East Asian states and missionaries alike. In histories of East Asia, the mission presence has subsequently been linked to ideologies such as imperialism and colonialism. While a re-evaluation of these nationalist viewpoints is underway, the meaning of its legacy continues to be negotiated.

Work on processing and preserving these and other MRL collections is ongoing. Future projects include linking together different collections by shared subject headings, such as medicine, language, education, and so on. It is hoped that these collections will be relevant not only to scholars of mission history, but also to a much wider field of inquiry. The role of the mission enterprise, long a politically-charged topic, is one that cannot be overlooked in any serious examination of modern East Asian history.