Unearthing Eloquence

Many New Collections Available for Use

During the tenure of my Luce-funded project archivist position at the Burke Library, I will be processing, arranging and describing all of the collections in the Missionary Research Library Archives and the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library Archives. MANY new collections are available for use and research. These original, unique, primary source materials can greatly add to a Union student’s research. And, as the saying goes, ‘those who fail to study the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.’

Have you looked into any of these archives lately? You may be surprised how much they can add to what Union in Dialogue stands for: a discussion of social analysis, interreligious dialogue, embodiment, poverty, and a number of other pressing topics.

You can always look at the Burke Archives page, specifically at the Missionary Research Library Collection and William Adams Brown Archives links. We also make sure to post direct links through our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

One other option is through the Burke Archives Blog, which is specific to the Hidden Archival Collections of the Burke Library project. If you look at the tab called Completed Collections, you will see all of that which has been done since the project began in August 2011.

Any questions? Please don’t hesitate to contact me!

 

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.