History Talk – January 30

Minutes for History—Nancy Walker (January 30, 2011)

Our FIVE minutes for history this week takes us to First Pres, in the 1930’s. After enjoying our own “roaring 20’s” when our membership soared to over 500, in the 1930’s, we experienced first hand the divisions Rona told us about last week: debates over Biblical authorship, authority and interpretation.

Those debates led to the abrupt departure of our pastor, Luther Long, who, with a few from our congregation, established a more fundamentalist Presbyterian Church in New Haven.  One of the issues Presbyterians debated vigorously in the 1930s involved the continuing viability of foreign missions. Perhaps some from First Pres were among the 2,000 Presbyterian women who, in September 1932, flocked to NYC to hear author Pearl Buck, address the question: “Is there a case for Foreign Missions?” The daughter and wife of missionaries, Buck’s answer was “yes,” but a weak “yes,” burdened with qualifiers. Most current missionaries, Buck felt, were incompetent, intolerant and ineffective (otherwise they were ok). Professor Wacker, at Duke University, writes that Buck called for “new-breed missionaries [who] would not try to change anybody’s religion” and “in place of [preaching] … hellfire . .. would bring practical talents in medicine, agriculture, education, [and] engineering, … seeking only to feed the hungry and to bind up the wounded.” 1

Buck’s sentiments were echoed in a report called Re-Thinking Missions, a Laymen’s Inquiry after One Hundred Years. Seven denominations, including Presbyterians, had charged the Commission to offer “recommendations as to the extent to which missionary activities should be changed.” Perhaps our congregation studied the report in 1932 and debated its conclusions. The Inquiry commissioners visited missions in India Burma, Japan and China, where my great uncle happened to be a missionary at the time.

Although the commissioners observed that some missionaries were “of conspicuous power, true saintliness and a sublime spirit of devotion” [I am sure they were referring to my great uncle] they also reported that “the greater number seems to us of limited outlook and capacity” overwhelmed by “a task too great for their powers and their hearts …”2 Like Buck, the Laymen’s Inquiry concluded, that foreign missions and missionaries had to change to keep pace with developments in American theological outlook. Ironically, the Commission reported as settled by 1932, debates that continue to divide our churches and nation. According to the report:

Western Christianity has … passed through and beyond the stage of bitter conflict with
the scientific consciousness … over details of the mode of creation, the age of the earth,
the descent of man … to the stage of maturity in which a free religion and a free science
become inseparable and complementary elements in a complete world-view. [Christianity
now] has little disposition to believe that …seekers after God in other religions are to be

The Commission called for mission work that moved toward “greater faith in invisible successes … by cooperat[ing] whole-heartedly with non-Christian agencies for social improvement…”4;   I wonder how Buck’s speech and the report on Rethinking Missions shaped the thinking of our congregation in the 1930s. Did we take time each week, as we do now, to celebrate the wide and varied missions the Presbyterian Church pursues both here and abroad? Did we wonder whether our mission money was wisely spent? Did we believe, as the Laymen’s Commission concluded, that we urgently needed to cut waste and concentrate personnel and resources in our foreign educational missions?  I also wonder how these debates affected the missionaries themselves. Did they feel the criticisms unfair and their work undervalued?

In my research, I ran across an outline of a discussion led by Karla Koll at the 2009 World Mission Advocates Gathering. That gathering discussed the same questions Pearl Buck and the Laymen’s Com- mission addressed in the 1930s: what is the function of mission abroad? How do we work in partnership with other religions? How can we be respectful guests and witnesses of God’s love? At base, these conversations are timeless, and appropriately so.

1G. Wacker, Pearl S. Buck and the Waning of the Missionary Impulse, printed in Church History 72:4 (December 2003), pp.861, 863-64.
2 Commission of Appraisal (W. Hocking, Chair), Re-thinking Missions, A Laymen’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years (Harper&Bros. 1932) (“Re-thinking Missions”) at 15.
3 Re-thinking Missions at 19.
4Id. at 326.