Divinity Library exhibit explores missionary methods

Yale graduate and missionary Eli Smith 1821 B.A. moved to Beirut in 1834 and established an Arabic press there to help spread the Christian message in the Middle East. 

Eli Smith 1821 B.A.
Eli Smith was appointed by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1826 as associate editor of its publishing house in Malta. Smith went to Beirut in 1834 where he established an Arabic press.

Working on behalf of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and balancing printing with his preaching duties, Smith published a wide assortment of Arabic materials, including a hymnal, sections of Scripture, schoolbooks, and his own writings and those of other missionaries, as well as classics of Arabic literature. He did so despite being periodically interrupted by warfare, lack of resources, and personal tragedy — he was widowed twice during the period.

Over his last decade, Smith embarked on a project to translate the Bible into Arabic. He was close to completing the monumental task when he died of cancer in March 1857. His colleague, C.V.A. Van Dyke, took up the work and the Arabic Bible was published in March 1865.    

Smith’s story is told in “‘Go Ye Therefore …’: Diverse Methods for Spreading the Missionary Message,” an exhibit on view at the Yale Divinity School Library that explores the various approaches Christian missionaries adopted to spread their “good news” in communities across the globe. The exhibit runs through Aug. 30.

While people tend to think of missionaries as focused on evangelism, by the mid-19th century, the mainline Protestant missionary movement had begun investing resources into educational and humanitarian endeavors, such as establishing schools, orphanages, and hospitals, initiating public health campaigns, and organizing relief efforts for famine and other disasters, said Martha Smalley, the Divinity Library’s special collections consultant and the exhibit’s organizer.

Fairly early on, most mainline Protestant missionary organizations concluded that people were less likely to embrace their religious message if they were starving, sick, or illiterate,” said Smalley. “There was a strong emphasis on teaching people to read and translating Scripture into other languages. The missionaries also became publishers, distributing a wide variety of literature to spread their message.”

Largely drawn from the library’s Day Missions Collection — one of the world’s most extensive collections of material about the missionary enterprise — the exhibit presents the stories of prominent missionaries and their works through photographs, correspondence, and publications.

The exhibit, which is spread across five display cases, opens by describing various methods of evangelism. A photograph shows people lined up outside a circus-style tent waiting to enter a mass meeting led by John R. Mott and G. Sherwood Eddy, American YMCA leaders, who made highly publicized tours of Chinese cities during the 1910s. Mott and Eddy enlisted C.H. Robertson, a science lecturer at Purdue University, to excite the crowd with scientific demonstrations of electricity, gyroscopes, and radios before Eddy would present Christianity as a solution to China’s social and cultural problems. 

The audience at a 1912 mass meeting in China led by Sherwood Eddy.
The audience at a 1912 mass meeting in China led by Sherwood Eddy. C. H. Robertson, a lecturer at Purdue University, demonstrated scientific equipment to capture the crowd's attention and an evangelistic message followed.

In a different approach, missionary and medical doctor Lorenzo Morgan practiced “itinerant evangelism,” traveling the Chinese countryside and stopping in villages to engage with local people with his Christian message. The exhibit includes an excerpt of a letter from Morgan to his wife, Ruth Bennett Morgan, in which he describes his adventures, including having witnessed a dustup between a dog and monkey in a little village.

When the dust had cleared away the dog had fled and the monkey pulled a great bunch of white hair from his mouth and threw it contemptuously on the ground — then with a business like and perfectly serious air went on his way,” Morgan wrote.

A case devoted to educational initiatives offers stories of schools, orphanages, museums, and model villages that missionaries established while attempting to teach local residents about Western values and ideas.

The exhibit highlights the work of Edward Huntington Smith, a Congregational missionary who ran an orphanage and promoted Christian education in China’s Fujian Province from 1901 to 1950. His wife, Grace Thomas Smith, served as teacher and took particular interest in instructing girls, who were denied educational opportunities in pre-modern China, according to the exhibit’s text.

The exhibit explains that missionaries established museums as way to engage with local audiences and open their minds to Western influences. Missionary J.S. Whitewright opened a museum in China’s Shandong Province in 1887 showcasing Western science and technology. The museum later moved to Jinan Province and became part of the Whitewright Institute, which also featured a large lecture hall, reception rooms, and a library and reading room. 

A display on plague prevention in the Whitewright Institute at Shandong Christian University in Jinan, China, ca. 1920.
A display on plague prevention in the Whitewright Institute at Shandong Christian University in Jinan, China, ca. 1920.

In a lecture delivered at the 1908 conference of the Museums Association in Ipswich, England, Whitewright explained that his museum helped overcome hostility Chinese officials and literati demonstrated toward “everything ‘foreign’” and was intended “to make friends of enemies; to enlighten, teach, help; to endeavor to open men’s minds, especially the minds of the scholar and official classes …”

A display case on medical work provides a sense of the scale of the resources missionary organizations dedicated to meeting the health needs of the people they sought to convert. It notes that 254 Protestant mission hospitals were operating in China by 1937.

In a 1944 article, Presbyterian missionary Randolph C. Sailer asserted that providing medical care created a trusting and friendly atmosphere for proselytizing. 

This aspect of the work was greatly emphasized, it was of great value, but it was necessarily temporary. Then comes the evangelistic aspect, without which no medical work can be termed missionary,” he wrote. “Medical missions should be regarded as an integral part of the Gospel message, a practical demonstration of God’s love …”

Missionary organizations also launched public health campaigns emphasizing hygiene and disease prevention, the exhibit explains. There are photos of a float and masked figures from a parade missionaries put on in Fuzhou, a city in southeastern China, to educate the public on preventing cholera.

Missionaries sought to help those suffering from famine. The exhibit mentions the work of Baptist missionary Timothy Richards who administered relief efforts in response to a famine in northern China that claimed the lives of more than 13 million people between 1876 and 1879.

Grace W. Thomas Smith with her class of girls at the orphanage her husband, Edward Huntington Smith, ran in China.
Grace W. Thomas Smith with her class of girls at the orphanage her husband, Edward Huntington Smith, ran in China's Fujian Province during the first half of the 20th century.

Two cases in the library’s Day Missions Reading Room present material related to publishing and translation, which were crucial tools for reaching wider audiences. Tracts, Scripture portions, and other printed materials were sold or distributed for free. Methodist missionary Franklin Ohlinger, who worked in China and Korea during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, advised against the latter practice in an essay, writing that missionaries had discovered “to their great chagrin and sorrow” that people were wallpapering their houses and padding the soles of their shoes with Bible pages.

The venerable missionaries of all dominations finally discovered this practice to their great chagrin and sorrow and decided that henceforth no more books should be given away, but that all must be sold, if for but one-tenth of their cost-price,” Ohlinger wrote.

Viewers encounter Eli Smith in this section. Aside from running the printing press in Beirut, Smith designed an Arabic typeface known as American Arabic. A copy of an 1864 Arabic translation of the New Testament is displayed.

Like Smith, Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson made extraordinary efforts to translate and publish Scripture. Judson arrived in Burma in 1813, becoming the first significant Baptist missionary to work in the country, according to the exhibit text. 

Judson struggled for six years to learn Burmese and spread the Gospel. Having converted only a handful of people, he dedicated himself to publishing and translation. (His handwritten Burmese-English dictionary is on display.)

Imprisoned with other foreigners after war broke out between England and Burma, Judson managed to conceal his translation of the New Testament for 11 months in a pillow, but the manuscript was confiscated and presumably destroyed when he was transferred to a different prison.  Months after his release, a Burmese friend presented him the manuscript, which remained intact. Judson’s full translation of the Bible went to press in 1835 — about 20 years after he had commenced the project. 

The exhibit concludes with selections from the Divinity Library’s Missionary Bible Collection, which was greatly expanded by volumes received from the Andover Newton Theological School after it became affiliated with the Yale Divinity School in 2017.

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548