From Archives to Indonesia: Living a Luce Legacy

Brown Tower at Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary

In January 2012, I began working with the archival collections of the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, helping to preserve, process, and make available the materials contained within the now-inoperative Missionary Research Library and William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library, both housed in Brown tower.  These collections included a large number of unprocessed rare materials gathered from all over the world by missionaries, missionary boards, and ecumenical councils that played a major role in shaping the international vision and spread of Christianity during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

What began for me as a curious but agreeable part-time work-study job to accompany my academic studies at Union and my career as a folk singer and songwriter, over the course of a year has come to play a significant role in my theological education and vocational development.  My encounters with hundreds of diary entries, letters, reports, news clippings, and pamphlets from the height of colonialism to the fall of communism and everything in between have forced me to reckon with the complexity surrounding the question of “Christian missions” within the real history of international ecumenical and interreligious relations, a history that is much richer and more nuanced than any secondary accounts on the subject would seem to suggest.

Every finding aid that I publish bears the name of Henry R. Luce, president, founder, and editor-in-chief of Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated magazines.  This man who built a multimedia empire seems to have become something of a benefactor to me through the philanthropic foundation he established in 1936, in honor of his parents who were both missionary educators in China.  The Henry Luce Foundation not only funds my archival work for the Missionary Research Library, but it is also now sending me, through a separate grant, to live in Indonesia for the summer, where I will have the opportunity to live out my own story of discovering what it feels like to travel into the midst of an utterly different cultural and religious context and try to make sense of my encounters with humanity and with God as a minority and a stranger.

Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

From June-July 2013, I will be living in the ancient city of Yogyakarta on Java, conducting a research project through the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies Graduate School at Gadjah Mada University.  In a Western context, my academic work has tried to highlight the theological depth in a diversity of artistic approaches to meaning-making across multiple genres and contexts, to complicate our notions of the categorical distinction between “the sacred” and “the secular,” a vocabulary that is often used by religious and non-religious people alike in Western culture to reinforce the perception that these two spheres of life are radically distinct and opposed.  Indonesia offers an opportunity to research how these categories do or do not apply in this particular non-Western and non-Christian context.

This will mean getting to know the diverse cultures and people of Yogyakarta in order to understand perceptions about music and the relationships between the arts, religion, culture, and the Divine.  It will mean allowing myself to grow as an artist by listening carefully to the sounds of the region and letting them influence my ears and and inspire new thinking about the arts, the creative process, and what music in particular can do.  It also means confronting questions of cultural assimilation, artistic appropriation, and exploitation as they arise, and learning to navigate issues of power with relation to my ethnicity, nationality, and gender.

One of the most profound insights resulting from my work with the Missionary Research Library archival collections has been the humanization of history.  It is important to look back at the choices and decisions of our ancestors to see in retrospect how those choices have contributed to cycles of oppression and violence that have played out in our world.  The missionaries who worked “on the field” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were, in many ways, terribly short-sighted and as a result made decisions that helped contribute to genocide, oppression, cultural imperialism and other forms of violence.

Yet, that is not the entire story of missionary work.  I have not found in the stories and writings of history the wholly arrogant, ignorant, racist, condescending people of my postcolonial imagination, but people who were also in many ways humble, compassionate, thoughtful, radically self-aware, and critical of cultural imperialism and those in power.  At the end of the day, I noticed, people then were not very much different from people now: conflicted, confused, and frustrated with the limitations of their situation…yet still hopeful, basically well-intentioned, and striving in the best way they knew how in order to achieve positive outcomes in their lives and in the lives of others.

Thanks to my work in the archives I will go to Indonesia aware that I am likely to be not very much different from them: a representative of my culture and a product of my moment in history, limited, and imperfect, but still intent and hopeful to encounter That Which I Know Not with all the humility and grace I can muster.

 

Isabel Chapin Barrows: Love and Tragedy in the 19th Century

It was late summer.  The year was 1862.  William Wilberforce Chapin, a young seminary student at Andover, writes to Miss Katie Belle Hayes in New Hampshire:

Dear Miss Hayes.  When I bode you goodbye at Andover I was expecting to spend the first week of vacation in making a tour through Vermont and Canada.  Therefore I told you not to expect a letter from me for some time.  But Secretary Stanton’s anti-emigration order with sundry other reasons has cut me off from my anticipated flee and has given me an opportunity of writing you some days earlier than I had expected.  Well.  Secretary Stanton might have done a worse thing for me, and perhaps you will not feel like calling him hard names for what he has done…

The letter is signed “Your sincere friend, William W. Chapin.“  Over the course of the next year the salutations would become increasingly more affectionate:
         With growing esteem,
         As ever yours,
         Your more than friend,

In November he writes:

My dear Bella.  Every time I commence a letter to you I feel dissatisfied with the customary form of address.  The words do not seem strong enough.  Long use has taken away their force.  As I can think of no better form of address, the old one must still be used, but you must always think of the second word as being greatly intensified, as though it were underscored four or five times.

This real-life love story from the mid 19th-century is told through over 150 pages of letters written by William Wilberforce Chapin and Katherine Isabel Hayes, addressed to one another during the time of their courtship and engagement.  The letters are part of the WW Chapin Papers, held in the Missionary Research Library at the Burke Library.

Could you so tantalize me as to tell about that moonlight boat ride? I might be pardoned for feeling a little envious and hoping that you did not have a very pleasant time, but I will be generous, and hope you enjoyed it first rate.

Tantalize you sir? It is fortunate for you that you shared some generous emotion, for in my heart I hate selfish people.

In the fall of 1863, the year of his graduation from Andover Theological Seminary, William was ordained as a Congregationalist minister.  Two days later, he and Katie Belle were married, though the happy event of their wedding was sadly followed by the death of Belle’s mother two weeks later.

On Voyage to India
In January 1864, after four months of preparations, the couple set sail out of Boston harbor for a four-month journey to India, where they would serve as missionaries under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  They kept a journal together of their long voyage at sea:

March 14th
Katie Belle: While William was skinning the albatrosses we caught Saturday, Farley fixed the line and told me to try my hand.  No sooner had I taken the line than one swallowed the bait, hook and all, and forthwith I drew him up all myself!  He is a splendid fellow, next to the handsomest taken.
[a side note indicates the magnificent bird had a wingspan of approximately 10 feet, about twice the size of Belle]
William:  After I had this specimen nicely stuffed I carried it to our room and placed it in one of the berths for safe-keeping, thinking she would be delighted to see it!  Instead of this she raised a great outcry over it, said it smelled musky, fishy, etc etc and insisted on its being put out of the room.  I reasoned the matter with her while I tried to prove to her that the odor was rather agreeable, but could not bring her to regard it in the same light.  So yielding the point I carried the bird away; then getting her cologne bottle I sprinkled myself with it freely and sat down by her side.  She was almost as much overcome in the latter as in the former.  Truly she is hard to please!

May 11th
William: A pretty little swallow came on board at noon.  We caught and looked at him a little while and let him go.  But towards night he came again, nestled down in a corner on deck, put his head under his wing and slept a long time.  He was evidently glad of a resting place after his long flight.
Katie Belle adds: In the morning the little swallow was dead.  Poor little thing!

The dark omen marked their arrival in Bombay, India.  Within three months, William became ill with fever, and though he recovered, he continued to have fevers off and on for almost two years while performing preaching tours across India.

Belle’s father was a physician to whom she wrote frequently for medical advice, but in November 1864 she received the sad news that her father had passed away, leaving her without both her parents.  In a letter to William she writes,

I long to see you – to hear you and to lay my aching head on that dear shoulder which has so often pillowed it.  You can’t think how I miss you, but for my sake do not hurry.  Above all do not be careless of your own health.  Oh! be careful, if not for your sake, then for mine.  What if the Lord should take you too!  I dare not think of it.  Surely he will have mercy and spare my husband.

Sadly, when William finally returned to her the following March, his health began to take a turn for the worse.  Belle’s journal tells the tragic tale:

The second week of March I was very sick with diphtheria.  God spared my life.  How tenderly [William] took me in from the sun’s glare and called me ‘little Wifie’.  Hardly was he seated before I saw he was burning up with fever.  Naturally I was alarmed, but he said ‘It is nothing; I have had the like a hundred times.’  [Friday] the fever returned with sore throat.  I begged him to come into Nuggur but he thought me over-anxious.  Monday as it was only too evident that disease was making progress he consented to set out on our weary journey.

The couple had been living in a mud hut in a rural outpost called Pimplus.  The closest town with a medical doctor was Ahmednuggur, where William’s sister and brother-in-law lived, but the journey was 50 miles, and the only transportation was a bullock cart.  The couple rode through the night, trying to avoid the heat.  Of that ride Belle writes,

My heart was breaking.  Each moment I knew might be his last.  Yet for his sake I tried to be cheerful.  When he was awake I sang to him and read him much from the pen of the beloved disciple.  When he dozed I wept bitterly.

By the time they finally arrived at the house of William’s sister and called for the doctor, it was clear that William had an advanced case of diphtheria and would soon die.  In her final journal entry Bella wrote,

Kneeling by his side with an arm thrown round my waist and my head on his shoulder I heard all his dying messages – I received his last words to me.  Ah, I cannot write of it.  Too sad, too sweet, too sacred.

Those heartbreaking last words exchanged between Belle and her beloved husband William were recorded by his sister in a letter to her sons in America:

Belle asked, “Aren’t you going to get well?”
He said, “How can I live?  My heart has ceased to beat.”
She asked, “Are you willing to go if God calls you?  Can you trust in Christ?”
“Yes,” William answered, “I have always trusted in him and he will not forsake me.  It is hard to leave you.  How will you live?”
“Do not feel anxious, the Lord will provide for me.”
“I want you to stay here and work for the heathen.  I want you to work with all your strength because the Messenger is taking me away.”
“What, here in India?” asked Belle.
“Yes, if you can.”
“If not, shall I go home?”
“Yes, and wherever you are, live for Christ because the Messenger calls me away.  When you go home, tell them all to be good to you.”  Then he asked, “Will you dig me a little grave?”
“Where,” Belle asked, “in Pimplus?”
“No,” he answered.  “In the graveyard by the old meeting house,” meaning the one in Somers, Connecticut, where he grew up.
At one point William clasped Belle in his arms and said, “The Messenger has made a mistake in separating us.  I will take you with me!”  But Belle comforted and encouraged him, saying that she would let him go.  When she saw that he was fading she drew close to him and asked, “Who is this?”
“Wifey,” he replied.
“Are you glad to go to Christ?”
“Yes deary.”

These were his last words.  William was only 28 years old.

“I want you to work with all your strength…”
Belle was just 19 when she found herself in rural India both an orphan and a widow.  But this tragic tale of a life and a love cut short is not the end of the story.  Isabel did go on to work and live with a fervor and a strength uncommon for a woman of her station and situation living in the 19th century.  She continued her mission to teach women in rural India to read and write for ten months before traveling on a long, lonely voyage back to the United States.  Her intention was to become a physician like her father and then return to India to practice medicine there, but in 1867, two years after William’s death, she was married a second time, to a man named Samuel Barrows who worked as a congressional stenographer in Washington, D. C.

When Samuel became too ill to work, Isabel took his place, and thus became the first women ever to work for the U. S. State Department.  She graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1869, and then traveled to the University of Vienna Medical School to become one of the first female ophthalmologists, a vocation perhaps inspired by her late husband William, who often complained about his eyes, and affectionately expressed concern for hers in those early letters.  She also became the first woman to have her own private practice in Washington, D.C.

In 1880, Isabel gave up her medical practice to become the Associate Editor of The Christian Register.  She worked as both a journalist and editor covering controversial issues and supported international human rights as a social activist.  Isabel collaborated with Alice Stone Blackwell in editing The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution, and she was overseas attempting to win freedom for the Russian revolutionary Catherine Breshkovsky when her second husband died in 1909.  She subsequently took his place that year at the International Prison Congress in Paris, and continued to work for women’s prison reform and other social causes until her own death in 1913.

 

The Messy Truth about Foreign Missions

Foreign missionary work.  It’s a pretty unpopular concept these days.  Missionaries are associated with all the damage wrought by the project of subjugation, exploitation, displacement, and genocide of native peoples and cultures across the world.  The criticisms are well-founded.

Retrospect is a tricky thing though.  History is often tainted by a touch of arrogance and a total lack of appreciation for how complex, messy, and nuanced real people and situations actually are.  We have a tendency to think that people were ignorant “back then.”  We “know better now.”  This is an idea that we like because it feeds our whole complex about “progress”… it makes us feel like we are better and smarter than those naïve people who preceded us (…but oh, wait, that’s also an idea of Western imperialism…woops!).

One of the best cures for the claims of revisionist history is a consultation with the archives.  While working with the Missionary Research Library Archives at Burke Library I processed MRL12: Personnel Policies of Foreign Mission Boards Records, a collection of 500 completed questionnaires that had been distributed in 1950 to former missionaries.

The information they collected from these missionaries includes:
-their personal data (age, gender, field location, years of service, missionary task)
-how they came to the decision to enter missionary service
-what (if any) training they received before entering the field
-whether their provisions, salaries, and living arrangements were sufficient
-whether the support they got from their board was adequate
-what effect the experience had on their Christian faith and their belief in missionary work
-their reasons for leaving

Missionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries: Who were they?
So who were the foreign missionaries from the 19th and 20th century, and how did they understand the work they were doing?  Were they really the offensively ignorant, racist, arrogant, condescending bunch that we often imagine them to be?  Or were they actually in many cases humble, compassionate, self-aware, and even critical of foreign missions boards and those in power?

As usual, the answer is, both.  I certainly came across a number questionnaires that included absurdly myopic statements about “heathens.” Some of them actually made me cringe.  But many of the missionaries sounded basically the same as people today: conflicted, confused, and frustrated with the shortcomings of their relationships and the limitations of the situations they find themselves in, but still hopeful, generally well-intentioned, and striving in the best way they know how to achieve positive outcomes. Shocking, I know.

Looking through these survey questionnaires, I was really interested to discover that the most common concerns expressed by missionaries were imperialism, top-down policies, outmoded paradigms, bigotry, and paternalism. These concerns obviously serve as evidence to substantiate the criticisms of foreign missionary work, but they also reveal how many individuals were fully aware of, and attempting to do positive work in spite of, the problems posed by imperialism.  The voices of these missionaries serve as some of the most arresting indictments of missionary work.  Ironically, it seems that the original postcolonial critics were colonizers themselves.

In Their Own Words
“Christianity must be de-Westernized,” insisted one respondent. “We must serve people of other lands as Christ served those around him.  We must divest ourselves of Western materialism.”  Another wrote emphatically, “Many missionaries are the worst type of colonial.  We should learn to live Christianity before we shove it down somebody else’s throat.”

One missionary in South Africa from 1919-1947 was convinced that “without Christian schools and churches the African would have been dominated by whites much more than they are.”

“With better understanding and appreciation of other religions,” wrote one man, “I am still convinced that Christianity is the ultimate answer to all the hopes and aspirations of the best in every faith.  My concept of ‘heathen’ and ‘non-Christian’ has changed to that of ‘friend’ and ‘seeker after truth’.”

 


Foreign Missionary Record #1600. Credit to MRL12: Personnel Policies of Foreign Mission Boards Records, box 5, folder 6, The Burke Library Archives (Columbia University Libraries) at Union Theological Seminary, New York.

“Imperialism has gone out of style and was always contrary to the Gospel.  Our task is to transmit the Gospel unfettered and cluttered with our culture.  The task of the church is not to crossfertilize cultures.  We carry too much baggage with us.  Jesus had nowhere to lay his head.  Professionalism has killed all creativity in missions.” –former missionary in Mexico 1951-1953.  Record #0757

“Foreign missionaries usually have negative attitude toward other religions, typically bigoted and intolerant.  As I learned to appreciate Indian cultures and Indian religions I saw that the whole philosophy of the missionary movement is alien to my understanding of Christ’s teachings.”  –former missionary in India 1923-1941.  Record #1225

“Too many missionaries are paternalistic.  Too many equate Christianity with Americanism.  Too few are really identified as Jesus was with the common people as one of them.  There is too little appreciation for the fact that missionaries can receive as well as give.  I went with the idea I was to help poor heathens.  China had a culture that was old before America was born.  I learned that after I lived there.  From the beginning, I resented along with my students foreign gunboats and other imperialistic demonstrations of foreign powers, including my own country.” –former missionary in China 1921-1938.  Record #1383

For further information related to this project, please see The Hidden Archival Collections of the Burke Library blog.

Why the Library is Actually the Most Exciting Place in the World

I’ll admit that prior to getting my job at the Burke Library, the extent of my familiarity with archives was based on some combination of the following: Obi Wan Kenobi’s search for the mysterious planet Kamino in the Jedi Archives in Star Wars Episode II, Tom Hank’s struggle to get into the Vatican Archives in Angels and Demons, and my brother’s strange obsession with using archival materials to dig up our family genealogy records.   Yet despite my overall ignorance, somehow nothing in the world sounded more exciting to me than spending hours at a time holed up in a dusty library tower, sifting through boxes of materials that time (almost) forgot.

I’ve also always secretly wanted to be a librarian.  What can I say?  I’m book-ish.  I’m also admittedly a vintage kind of girl; I like reclaiming the old for the new.  On top of that, one of the major things that attracted me to coming to Union Theological Seminary for my master’s degree was that it boasted of having the “largest theological library in the Western hemisphere,” with holdings of over 700,000 items, including extensive collections of rare archives and special materials.  I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.  But it sure sounded cool.

On my first day at work I was shown to my desk, introduced to the others, given a tour of the archives….all pretty much what I had expected.  But then I was handed several academic articles on archival theory and told to spend the next couple of days reading and familiarizing myself with the material.  A crash course in library and information sciences: not what I was expecting, at all. Fascinating.  I had always wondered what a degree in library studies could possibly entail.  Having been a pretty organized person my whole life, it had always seemed to me that the proper place for anything was perfectly self-evident.

But of course, real truth is always a moving target.  What is self-evident to me at one moment in time may be in no way discernible to someone else in some other moment.   “Facts” are never as secure as we want them to be.  Information is always being framed and re-framed by the motivations and assumptions that give it context, and context is made up of a thousand silent and invisible factors that create paradigms, which give facts meaning and make information matter.

Organizing information is complicated.

During the same semester that I started working at the Burke, I also took a class that covered roughly a thousand years of church history.  Union’s world-renowned history department prides itself on teaching seminarians to read history not as students but as scholars.  We are not given a history textbook that tells us “what happened.”  Instead, keep hearing over and over again about the importance of using primary documents and sources.

Primary documents are original historical documents.  That might sound boring to some but they are actually incredibly empowering.  By consulting primary documents you are consulting history itself, and you get to do so on your own terms and with your own questions.  You don’t have to settle for some other scholar’s version of the story (and women: you don’t have to settle for what is very often his-story).   You can draw your own conclusions, make your own connections and interpretations, solve your own mysteries, draw up your own report.

This is what makes the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary so important.  This is why people travel from all over the world every day to come here and look through our records, to lay their eyes on those primary sources and sleuth out their own facts, asking their own questions, writing their own stories.  Through this work, I have had the opportunity to collect my own information and begin writing my own stories on a variety of subjects that are vital to the work that I hope to do as an ecumenical Christian.

Also, maybe it is just the artist in me that possesses such a deep appreciation for tactility, but being able to see and handle primary documents for myself has led to some truly profound insights.  It is one thing to read a .pdf article or a published book containing transcriptions of text that someone wrote 200 years ago; it is quite another thing to hold in your own hands the fragile, slightly crumbling sheets of paper that the 200-year-old author actually scrawled his or her ink upon.

One major shift in my perspective happened early on while working on my second collection.  I found two letters from 1901 written by Badi’u’llah and Muhammed Ali to the newly-established  Baha’i faith communities in the United States.  The language and style was so reminiscent of the letters that Paul wrote to the Christian churches of the first century.  This somehow gave clarity, potency, and incarnate form to the way I thought about those ancient texts.  The words are now translated into hundreds of languages, printed and bound in hundreds of editions of what we’ve now come to call the sacred “New Testament,” the Bible, the Word of God.  But at one point, they were just letters.  Real letters.  Could it be possible that such a lofty fate would befall any of these documents I am currently now holding in my hands?  Many people would scoff at such an idea.  But I’m sure just as many in the first century would have scoffed at the idea that Paul’s letters to these little communities cropping up everywhere would become sacred scripture.

It was then that the somewhat obscure, behind-the-scenes work of library archivists throughout time began to take on huge significance for me.  I realized that this is not just a quirky part-time work-study job of organizing boxes, books, and folders.  This job is about shaping history.  It is about empowering the people of the present and the future to write their own stories about what they believe happened in history, and why.  And as it turns out, nothing in the world is more exciting to me after all.

For further information related to this project, please see The Hidden Archival Collections of the Burke Library blog.