“Lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest.”
Missionaries have been under scrutiny for their goals and practices for quite some time, and this stems from their association with colonialism. They were full-steam ahead in religious conversion in Africa and other regions of the world that were considered uncivilized by Europeans beginning in the 1870s. One of the denominations of Christianity that joined the effort to convert souls for the Kingdom of God was the Lutheran denomination. However, women’s missionary groups were the backbone of these missions. They gathered volunteers to send abroad, vigorously raised funds to finance the missionaries, and prayed for the success of the missions. In the mid-twentieth century, two Lutheran women’s missionary groups in the Pacific Northwest were significant in supporting missionary activities at the time.
The Mt. Baker District Women’s Missionary Society (MBD WMS) was a small yet well-organized group that was spread throughout eight churches in the district. The American Lutheran Church North Pacific District Women’s Missionary Federation (ALC NPD WMF) was a larger network spread throughout western Washington and Oregon. They both operated in the Pacific Northwest in an organized effort to spread God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. However, many of these women were isolated from the actual circumstances of the missionaries that they supported and the cultures they were converting, particularly in Africa. The push-and-pull of the historical context of the mid-twentieth century caused women’s missionary groups in the Pacific Northwest to unintentionally perceive Africa and its people as primitive and uncivilized. The aspects of this context that shaped their perception was the use of the King James Version of the Bible, remnants of colonial mindsets from missions in the Imperialist Era, and the gravitation towards progressive social mindsets approaching the Civil Rights Movement.
Bible verses were interpreted and used to justify missionary activities as commandments from God. The most popular version of the Bible used by missionaries at this time was the King James Version (KVJ). Lamin Sanneh, a well-known scholar of Christianity, describes the KJV as “the Bible of the layperson,” meaning that it’s both easy to understand and to teach. This made task of persuasion much easier for missionaries. 1 However, the translation from the original Greek language of the Bible was different in some places, and many people criticize the KJV as inaccurate. An example of an alternate translation is the Bible verse John 4:35 from the KJV: “lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest” was one of the most popular verses used to justify the harvest of souls for the Kingdom of God. The context of harvest in John 35 serves as a metaphor for missionaries to “harvest the souls” of people that have not yet converted to Christianity. “White” from the KJV replaces the word “ripe” from the original translation. One of the reasons to explain this change is that when crops are ready to be harvested, they transition from a green and unripe color to a lighter color, hence the word “white.” The implications of this change are evident in the way Bible verses became routine for the way imagery is used to describe Africa in terms of light and darkness in missionary literature.
The racial connotation of Africa becoming “white” and therefore being viable for conversion is demonstrated in a report from the Mt. Baker District Women’s Missionary Society in 1952. In her report, Mary Sauder, the secretary for the Junior Mission Society (JMS) of the MBD WMS prays for blessing for the members of the JMS and hoping that it pleased God “through our work and giving, so that we can send missionarys to the dark field s of Africa…” She calls the salvation they brought a gift of everlasting life to the people in Africa. 2 Words such as “fields” and “harvest” are very similar to imagery used in missionary literature from the Imperialist Era. A missionary figure from the time described Africa as “‘green and flourishing at the heart however uninviting in the rind…and its future will be as brilliant as its past has been dark.’” 3 “Heart” and “rind” along with the descriptions of “green and flourishing” show the correlation of missionaries as harvesters and unconverted African souls as the crops.
Although all missionary ideology during the Imperialist Era embodied ideas of Western superiority to some degree, some missions had an intent to assist the Africans in their best interests in negotiating with European colonizers. The impact was often positive in these cases. In South Africa in the 1890s, Dutch settlers established a hierarchy based on Christianity, in which only whites were allowed to be “official Christians,” which gave them prestige and the justification to assert power and oppression over blacks. When missionaries entered the area, Dutch settlers were angered because they could no longer use Christianity as a premise to oppress indigenous South Africans, because blacks were being baptized and converted to Christianity as well. A Dutch government official in the area said that “‘baptism and confession destroys the eternal and thus necessary difference between white and black.'” Some missionaries even assisted African Christians in establishing an independent church, called the Ethiopian Church,” although not all of them favored this because it undermined the credit that many missionaries thought they should receive for converting the Africans in the area. “The missionaries advocated for South Africans’ political and social rights because of the overwhelming ideology of Christianity that favors equalization of people despite their differences, which in this case were cultural and racial. 4
On the other hand, some missions during the Imperialist Era were very straightforward in their belief that Africa and its people are inferior to Western countries. For example, the German Basel Mission in Cameroon in the late 1800s had the main goal of “planting the evangelical christianity among the heathens and of assembling converts into christian congregations.” To accomplish this goal, they established schools that prioritized teaching English to Cameroonian children rather than their native tongue, as well as implemented European economic models that changed their political structure as well. 5 A quote from Sir Bartle Frere, a British man tasked with building infrastructure for trade and commerce in East Africa, asserted that “‘only by contact with a higher civilization that there is any…hope for Africa.’” 6. This summarizes the goals and practices of missionaries such as the Basel mission and demonstrate an agenda nearly the same as forcible colonial powers in Africa. While the agenda of Lutheran missionaries in the twentieth century may have been drastically different, similar themes of Western superiority are demonstrated in the way women’s missionary groups referenced Africa and its human inhabitants in notes from meetings and conventions.
In almost all of the notes from conventions and meetings that the WMS and WMF held, guest speaker missionaries are mentioned, and many specified that they had served in Africa. The women working behind the scenes in their own congregations to raise funds to support these missionaries were able to get a glimpse of what their efforts were accomplishing in foreign lands from their speeches. However, their perception of Africa relied on the information the missionaries gave them in speeches, which of course could be skewed based on their own perspective. These women had utter faith that what their missionary groups were doing was God’s calling. They didn’t want to doubt the credibility of the missionaries that they were supporting financially and praying every day for, and they couldn’t go to Africa to see for themselves because they had other responsibilities such as taking care of their families and working. That’s not to say that the missionaries that came back to give speeches had an acutely racist or colonial mindset. It’s just that certain details they shared, whether misconstrued or not, might have a significant impact on the women’s perception of Africa.
An example of a missionary’s speech that fell short when it came to authenticity and cultural respect was delivered at the Portland Group’s annual spring convention in 1952 at Faith Lutheran Church. Secretary Ida Griffin summarized the content that Mrs. Moris, a missionary in Tanganyika, Africa, spoke about. The central theme of her topic was “Watchman, What of the Night?,” which was in reference to a verse from Isaiah 21 in the Bible. The context of the verse is in the desperation Israel experienced because the violent and bloodthirsty Assyrian Empire was rising in power and was “at Israel’s doorstep.” Violence and immorality was rampant, and a desperate cry was made to the watchman of the city pleading for help or an answer. Imagery used in this story from the Bible characterizes night and darkness as symbols of evil while morning and daylight are symbols of hope and salvation. 7
Moris continues by lamenting the financial compromise of missions in Tanganyika due to German missionaries and funding being withdrawn after WWII. Her theme of “Watchman, What of the Night?” suggests that she is cleverly drawing a comparison between the story in the book of Isaiah and the lack of financial support for missions. Israel is represented by the Kingdom of God and daylight is represented by missionaries that were bringing converted souls to this kingdom. The Assyrian Empire is represented by the financial struggles caused by WWII that threaten to destroy what the missionaries have built. Moris fears that this would let Africa slip back into its previous state of darkness and ungodliness. She ended her lecture by showing the audience “native costumes, a painting made from native berries and wood carvings, all made by the natives.” Putting African culture on display as exotic and primitive as well as Griffin’s description of traditional or everyday clothing as a “costume” was problematic. 8
While the impact of speeches such as Moris’ may not have been positive, the intention of the women in the WMS and WMS were indicative of the upcoming social progress that would occur in the United States during the Civil Rights movement. A dramatic change in the way missionary groups and churches in general perceive foreign cultures is demonstrated by a booklet distributed by the ALC in 1984, 30 years after the Civil Rights Movement. The booklet reflects how the values of the church and its missions had changed in response to a national and international social and political shift. One of the sections is titled: “Words are important.” The ALC explains that the changes in missions worldwide require people to rethink the way they describe people in countries other than their own, particularly Africa. Some of the words and expressions identified as disrespectful or culturally insensitive include “mission fields,” “natives,” and “tribal.” They emphasize respect for cultural diversity as an essential value to the goals of their missions, and one of the ways that members of congregations and missionary societies in America can demonstrate this value is to use language “that affirm the people, churches, and values of other nations and avoiding words that put people down or sound paternalistic.” 9
The push-and-pull of the time that these women were living affected their perceptions of Africa in an ambiguous manner. While they were faithful in intent, the impact was not entirely up to their decision. The Imperialist Era left remnants of racism and colonialism embedded in missionary ideology, while the impending events of the Civil Rights Movement in the next decade would radically change their perception of non-white people, whether it was in America or Africa. Despite negative stereotypes that were used to describe Africa, missionaries were developing a new understanding of African culture and were able to share these insight with their women’s missionary groups back in the Pacific Northwest. This is significant to how the values that Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) holds – Diversity, Justice, and Sustainability – were developed. PLU, then known as Pacific Lutheran College, was shaped by people that were part of the WMF, such as Eastvold, Pflueger, and Blomquist.
- Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, 2nd ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2009), 111-118.
- Mary Sauder, “Junior Mission Society Report.” Mt. Baker District Women’s Missionary Society, 1952.
- Roy Bridges, “The Christian Vision and Secular Imperialism: Missionaries, Geography, and the Approach to East Africa, c. 1844-1890,” in Converting Colonialism, ed. Dana L. Robert (Grand Rapids: Wm. E. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 48.
- Richard Elphick, “Evangelical Missions and Racial ‘Equalization’ in South Africa, 1890-1914,” in Converting Colonialism, ed. Dana L. Robert (Grand Rapids: Wm. E. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 112-133.
- Jonas Dah, “The Basel Missions in Cameroon,” in Missionary Ideologies in the Imperialist Era: 1880-1920, ed. Torben Christensen and William Hutchison (Aarhus: Christensens Bogtrykkeri, 1982), 208-216.
- Bridges, 51.
- Dr. Jürgen Bühler, “Watchman, What of the Night?: Examining this desperate cry for help,” International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, 9 Feb 2016, https://int.icej.org/news/devotions/watchman-what-night.
- Ida Griffin, “North Pacific District Convention,” Women’s Missionary Federation Portland Group, 30 April 1952.
- Bonnie Jensen, Woman to Woman Project Booklet (n.p., 1984), 9-10 (acknowledgement to classmate Courtney Crocker who directed me to this source from her own research).