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.

The Why

Now that you know a little more about the MRL and WAB collections, as well as the Luce Foundation, it would be useful to explain the reason behind needing this project in the first place.

Most, if not all, archives and libraries have what we call “backlog.” Our collections are continually growing: we gather historic documents; professors, alumni, etc… donate their records; people leave material to us in their will; things like that. Unfortunately we don’t always have the time (or the funding) to fully process and make available collections as soon as they come into our possession. We give them basic care, security, and the proper environmental conditions and control, but physically arranging and intellectually describing materials can be very time-consuming.

Enter the first reason for this project.

A second major reason for this project and the need to care for MRL and WAB specifically is due to the damage suffered during a major water incursion disaster in the Burke’s modern archives stacks in June 2003. Water from a plumbing accident in the Brown Tower (this Brown is not the same as William Adams Brown!), two floors above, saturated materials from the WAB and MRL collections.

The wet papers in disintegrating boxes were quickly removed, relocated, shipped out as an emergency, recovered by vacuum freeze drying, and returned. These collections, which had already experienced a variety of temperature and humidity changes from being used throughout the world by missionaries and ecumenists, became even more fragile and disordered. There was approximately 300 linear feet returned in a state of disarray, with WAB and MRL collections intermixed and much of the original order lost.

The MRL Archives present the special challenge of fragile acidic materials. Various climates combined with being stored for almost a century in acidic boxes in over-heated conditions throughout the history of the actual Missionary Research Library added to their fragile nature. Many unique items are tightly folded and require time, patience and preservation techniques to unfold and care for the items in the long-term.

Throughout the duration of the Luce Project at the Burke Library, which just passed the one-year mark, we will arrange, describe, and provide wide access to a total of 573 linear feet of hidden archives. This project will process the collections so that they are organized and described, with basic preservation treatment through stabilization in acid-free containers, ordered arrangement, and removal of corrosive metals and other materials. This arrangement will enable more advanced preservation treatment and the potential for surrogate copies and selective digitization on those materials which have been stabilized.

For the first time, researchers will have access to many first-hand descriptions of cultural conditions documented by missionaries, physicians, and social workers in Asia, Africa, Australia, North America, Oceania, and South America throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This project will also be the first to provide access to the records of some of the most important events and institutions in the history of the worldwide ecumenical movement, with especially rich documentation of the religious and cultural history of New York City.

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

An Introduction to the Luce Project

My name is Brigette Kamsler and I am the Luce Project Archivist at the Burke Library. I was hired in 2011 for a three-year project which is funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. Along with a blog specific to my project, which can be found HERE, various people have mentioned it would be useful to share information more directly with the Union community.

Two important archival collection groups at the Burke make up this project: the Missionary Research Library Archives (MRL) and the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library Archives (WAB).

The Missionary Research Library (MRL) was created by John R. Mott in 1914 after the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910. It was created in response to the need for a central resource to provide information for the development and preparation of missionaries, as well as a documentary source for the history of mission work.  Mott stated that his intention was to create “the most complete and serviceable missionary library and archives in the world,” one that would be interdenominational, ecumenical, international, and rich in source material. He was the chairman of the Library Committee of the Foreign Missions Conference of North America, which sponsored the project, and he secured the financial support of J. D. Rockefeller, Jr.  Two administrators were chosen to develop the library. Charles H. Fahs became curator and Miss Hollis W. Hering became librarian.

Active missionaries consulted the library’s materials while on furlough and missionary boards, organizations, and individuals regularly donated materials.  By 1929, the library contained more than 70,000 books and pamphlets, including many scarce materials. Originally located at the Madison Avenue headquarters of the Foreign Missionary Conference of North America, MRL moved to Union Theological Seminary’s Brown Tower in 1929.

Financial difficulties, which plagued MRL for years, continued until 1967 when it was fully integrated with the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary. The Burke Library became part of the Columbia University Library System in 2004.

The William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library (WAB) was established in 1944 by vote of the directors of Union Theological Seminary as a memorial to Dr. Brown, who had been Roosevelt Professor of Systematic Theology at UTS. The ecumenical movement was a new interest in his later years, and the nucleus of the memorial collection came from Brown’s working office library. The Ecumenical Library officially opened on March 13, 1945. As it did then, WAB serves as a source for the documentation and study of modern ecumenism.

MRL contains over 160 unique collections from missionaries and missionary organizations from six continents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with special strength in early 20th century China, Japan, and Korea. This collection contains a broad range of field reports, demographic surveys, and other analytical data. As a result, the MRL Archives document the cultural and social realities of indigenous populations in substantive detail, and will amply serve scholars of religion, historians, anthropologists, economists, and medical researchers, among others.

WAB contains over 30 collections, including records of local (NYC), national, and international ecumenical organizations and communities, as well as records from ecumenical conferences (Protestant and Catholic dialogue) that have shaped global Christianity.

MRL and WAB will be fully arranged, described and made available with the help of the Henry Luce Foundation. As quoted on the press release:

“We are delighted that the Luce Foundation can play a part in The Burke Library’s preservation of these important collections, so that they can be readily accessible to a wider readership,” said Michael Gilligan, president of the Henry Luce Foundation. “Although these collections are distinct from our own archives, they are clearly linked to two parts of our history—Henry R. Luce’s intention to honor his parents, Presbyterian missionary educators in China; and the foundation’s early support for Christian ecumenism.”

The Henry Luce Foundation is dedicated to encouraging the development of religious leaders through theological education, and fostering scholarship that links the academy to religious communities and other audiences.

I’m looking forward to sharing more information on the collections with all of you! Look for posts not only by me, but by Union students as well.

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