Protestants Abroad

How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America

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David A. Hollinger
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     408 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In 2003, in the midst of the US-Iraq War, critics of American interrogation techniques re-discovered a twenty-seven page manual written and submitted to the US Marines in 1942 by American missionary to Japan Sherwood F. Moran. The manual, “The Psychology of the Japanese,” issued to all Marine intelligence personnel serving in the Pacific during World War II, provided insight into Japanese history and culture and encouraged interrogators to develop a relationship with their interviewees similar to a romance. Moran, who volunteered as a US interrogator during the Second World War, became a counterculture voice once again sixty years later.

Such are the “boomerang” effects of missionaries and their children which David A. Hollinger highlights in his newest book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America. Hollinger provides a detailed accounting of a small but influential group of Americans whose firsthand knowledge of China, Japan, India, and Palestine influenced foreign policy leaders and academic institutions in the United States.

Primarily an intellectual history, Protestants Abroad focuses on key individuals, such as Henry Luce, editor of Life and Time magazines; Nobel Prize winner novelist Pearl S. Buck; and journalist John Hersey; as well as the “China Hands” missionary sons and members of the US Foreign Service like John Paton Davies, Jr. and John S. Service. Hollinger also fully treats lesser known figures like Moran, William Eddy (“the American Lawrence of Arabia”), Rosamond Frame (who spoke nine Mandarin dialects and worked for the OSS), and civil rights activist Margaret Flory.

Hollinger focuses not only on the successes the missionary children had as adults influencing US perceptions of cultures abroad, but also on their failures. Eddy, for example, advised President Franklin Roosevelt to resist Britain’s plans for an Israeli state in the heart of Palestine. Hollinger also notes the range of ideas held by his subjects—from Luce’s persistent loyalty to the Chinese nationalists to the admiration of Davies and Service for the Maoists. The critical factor leading to the public roles of these men and women was war: both the first and second world wars involved areas of the world little understood by American politicians but long occupied by American missionaries.

Although dense at times, Protestants Abroad succeeds at describing the unique role missionaries and missionary children played in mid-20th century US history. The breadth of individuals Hollinger has chosen is impressive as is the depth of their commitment to countercultural ideas about race, culture, and theology. All were deeply committed to expansive views of human equality. Almost all rejected in varying degrees the Christianity of their youth.

Perhaps this is my only critique of the book. In selecting his subjects, Hollinger chooses an expansive definition of “missionary.” Most of the individuals discussed in the book are missionary children, who Hollinger argues can still be considered missionaries, despite abandoning their Christian faith, because they “all inherited the missionary imperative to make things right” (24). While the missionary children in Hollinger’s book have much in common with other missionary children (sometimes referred to as “third culture children”) in both the nineteenth and late twentieth centuries, they don’t necessarily have much in common with Christian missionaries from those same periods. Hollinger is aided in his categorization of the missionary children as missionaries by his focus on the liberal strain of twentieth-century Protestantism, a movement characterized by progressivism, modernism, and ecumenism. In Protestants Abroad the voices of fundamentalist missionaries are completely absent, according to Hollinger, because of their increasing “self-isolation” (68). I wonder if the thriving evangelical churches in Latin America and Africa today might disagree.

The title of Hollinger’s book is also problematic. Did the China Hands change America? Have Americans today accepted a communist China as an equal foreign partner? Did Americans’ support for Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb change substantially after reading Hersey’s Hiroshima? Such questions are not addressed. In fact, Henry Luce’s highly-publicized American nationalism seems to have best mirrored the American mindset of the time, as well as today, if current political circumstances are any guide. 

So what was the long-term impact of Hollinger’s subjects? In perhaps his most interesting and convincing chapter, Hollinger details how missionaries and their children were often at the forefront of creating “area studies” programs in American colleges and universities, a contribution that continues to attract American scholars and students from around the world. To the extent that liberal post-Protestants who were born outside the United States during the largest American missionary endeavor in history affected the course of academic and foreign policy discussions during the mid-20th century, Hollinger’s book is a resounding success.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joy Schulz is Professor of History at Metropolitan Community College.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David A. Hollinger is the Preston Hotchkis professor of American history emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in modern American history and science, Jews, and secular culture: studies in mid-twentieth-century American intellectual history (both Princeton).


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