Author Archives: Kristen Leigh Southworth

Why coming to seminary was not the stupidest decision I’ve ever made after all

I didn’t come to seminary looking for a career.  I spent most of my early twenties in a “career.”  Starting out as a graphic designer, events planner, and marketing coordinator for a large southeastern material handling corporation, I went on to work for the third largest life insurance company in the U.S. followed by a prestigious marketing firm in San Francisco, CA.  It didn’t take me very long to figure out that I was not where I belonged.  On paper I was successful, competitive, and upwardly mobile.  Meanwhile my soul was plunging into the depths of despair.  One day in 2007, at the age of 25, I snapped.  I turned my back on the whole rat race, vowing never again to return, no matter what the cost.  Now whenever people ask me about my “career” aspirations, I tend to have a “been there, done that” sort of attitude.

Still, one does need to eat.  And so I spent the latter half of my twenties trying to figure out how to do that while maintaining a reasonably self-satisfying existence as a folk musician, a writer, and an artist.  My search for the perfect “day job” vacillated between part-time retail work that left me with enough energy for my creative pursuits but didn’t quite pay the rent, and full-time non-profit ventures that were meaningful and reasonably lucrative but sucked every last drop of creative life-force out of me.  I was trying to juggle the management of an independent bookstore that I started while also independently managing myself as an alternative-folk singer-songwriter when I heard about an ecumenical seminary in New York City that had a master’s program with a concentration in Theology & the Arts.“Those are both things that I love,” I thought to myself.  “I should do that.” 

Given my struggle to make ends meet, I can understand how it may not have seemed like the wisest choice on my part to move to the most expensive city in America and take out thousands of dollars in student loans to obtain a “Masters of Divinity,” when I have absolutely no desire of ever becoming a church minister or an academic professor.  Yeah, yeah.  I know. 

But this is essentially the manner in which I’ve been making my vocational decisions post-rat-race: I had to “follow my bliss” as they say.  I knew that God had accompanied me on my journey this far, I believed that my soul’s passions must exist for some reason or another, and I never forgot that no matter what happened to me, it would ever be as bad as having to live the lie of sitting in a sales meeting at 9:30 in the morning dressed up in business casual clothing talking about how I thought we could sway our target demographic.  

Basically I had a hunch that if I started feeling my way into the future instead of trying to think myself there, then I might be more likely to actually get wherever it was that I ought to be going. 

Aaaand just for the record, I was right. 

About a year and a half into my seminary program, I received an email about a position that had just opened up in our world-famous library. As usual I was desperate for money, and when I read the word “archives” I pictured something like this:

Old, dusty, vintage stuff.  Mysterious unknown documents.  Secret storage rooms.  Piles of papers and books.  “Those are all things I like,” I thought.  “I should do that.”

It started out as just a quirky part-time work-study job, something more interesting than working in the mail room.  But over the next two years, as I began resurrecting the lives and stories of Bertha E. Davis, Robert C. Dodds, Emory W. Ross (how I came to know his red pencil markings so well!), and Reginald H. Helfferich, along with the heartbreaking tale of William Wilberforce Chapin and his wife Isabel, I slowly realized that this job meant much more to me than a paycheck.  Of course it was invaluable in terms of my academic work, for the deeply nuanced historical perspective I gained with regard to the world missionary project and the cross-cultural encounters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

But on another level, I was also starting to feel like this was the best day job I’d ever had.  It just fit me, in so many ways. Right before I left to spend a whole summer in Indonesia, it finally dawned on me.  I am born for this job.  I literally love every part of it, from the mindless, contemplative tasks of removing staples from piles of documents or labeling piles of folders with my neurotically neat handwriting, to the intellectually challenging and engaging detective work of piecing together the biographies of people that history had almost forgotten. 

Sometimes I was embarrassed to admit how much I secretly loved it.  I mean, no one is supposed to enjoy their job this much.  It’s not….normal.  How could I ever explain the deep, weird inner satisfaction that I get from labeling, organizing, and putting things into their proper places?  How could I convey the Christmas-morning-like excitement that I feel opening a whole new unprocessed box filled with unknown treasures – handwritten letters, diaries, photos, slides, newspaper clippings, manuscripts – and having to figure out what’s in here and why anyone would care? 

I loved that I was able to work flexibly at my own pace, and that the work progressed steadily on a project-by-project basis.  My amazing manager Brigette Kamsler, who is both a mentor and a friend, always trusted me to see each of my collections through to completion, and I loved the elated sense of satisfaction I got every time I took something that looked like this:

…and turned it into this:

I also loved that I could sit at my desk with my headphones on and block out the world with the music of my choice as I attempted to discern cursive handwriting from the 1800s or place old photos into Mylar envelopes or make copies of old documents that were turning to dust.  Every now and then, I even got in a miniature workout as we moved cartons of paper up and down the maze of stairwells in our Hogwarts-esque library tower.

The labor of archives is academic and administrative, mundane and unpredictable, methodical and intuitive, intellectual and hands-on, solitary and interpersonal.  It’s like everything I ever wanted in a day job, and I’m starting to think that perhaps by coming to seminary I managed to stumble across something like a career path after all.  At least, it is something that I feel like I could happily do as a “day job” for a long, long time.

Recently I saw It’s a Wonderful Life again, and I was struck by one scene in particular at the very end [SPOILER ALERT], when George Bailey’s guardian angel Clarence is showing him what the world would be like if he had never been born.  The town of Bedford Falls had become Pottersville. Mr. Gower had gone to prison for twenty years. Ernie’s wife had left him. Uncle Billy went to a mental institution.  And George’s little brother Harry died at the age of nine, so he was unable to save the lives of a number of soldiers during the war. 

This was all very bad.  But the worst moment of all, the final climactic most terrible thing, is when George asks Clarence what happened to his wife, Mary: 

“I’m not supposed to tell, George.”
“Please Clarence, tell me where she is.”
“You’re not gonna like it, George!”
“What?!  Where is she?!” he yells.
“She’s an old maid.  She never married!  She’s about to close up the library!”

I do have to say, the melancholy horror of this moment is somewhat lost on me.  She never married?  She works at the library?  I don’t know…. that sounds like a pretty wonderful life to me. 

(She even has a cute hat!)

This is why you can't ever let anyone define success for you.  Success happens along the way, in those moments when you remember who you truly are because you find yourself being it.  And honestly, I have had so many of those moments working on the fifth floor of the Burke library….tiny, fleeting moments of success in which I felt like I knew myself, and I felt happy.  For that, and for the laughter and the solitude and the insights (and even the dust), I am so grateful for my work there.  I am sad to be leaving, but as I finish up this last semester at Union Theological Seminary, I am excited to imagine the path forward, still steering towards my heart’s horizon, but now with the practical experience, skills, and self-knowledge that will hopefully open up new opportunities for success along the way. 

Thanks especially to Brigette, Liz, Matt, Anthony, Amy, Ruth, and Beth for teaching me so much and for making me always feel part of the Burke family.   

The Robert E. Speer Collection: A Treasure Chest of Pamphlets

On August 11, 1949, Emma Baily Speer sent an invitation to Dr. Pierce Beaver, curator of the Missionary Research Library, requesting that he and his wife pay her a cordial visit in Connecticut to look over the materials in her late husband’s library:

Robert Elliot Speer had passed away two years earlier at the age of 80 after a long and successful career as a lay leader in public ministry and foreign missions work, and the Missionary Research Library at Union Theological Seminary had expressed an interest in possibly obtaining some of his papers for their collection.  Speer had served on the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions for 46 years, and had been involved in a number of ecumenical efforts including the Foreign Missions Conference of North America and the Federal Council of Churches. 

Dr. Beaver and his wife happily accepted the invitation to visit in early September, and shortly thereafter, wrote to Mrs. Speer:

It was in this correspondence that Beaver requested the acquisition of a large number of materials on behalf of the Missionary Research Library.  He wrote,

Indeed, Robert Speer’s library contained an impressive number of bound and indexed volumes of pamphlets, reports, newsletters, and correspondence related to the wide variety of topics that had occupied his work throughout the course of his career: missions in China, Japan, Korea, India, Persia, the Middle East, and Latin America; the Student Volunteer Movement; the Jerusalem Conference, World War II; the Sino-Japanese Conflict; international peace efforts; race relations; missionary policy; and biographical materials of foreign missionaries.  The earliest items in the collection date back all the way to 1795, spanning over a century of print materials.  The theological diversity of these pamphlets serve as testament of Speer’s ecumenical commitment, and reflect the cacophany of voices present in the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the early 20th century. 

In the end, over 400 hand-bound volumes were acquisitioned by the Missionary Research Library.  Speers’ daughter Margaret expressed much gratitude on behalf of her family that the materials would go to good use:

Unfortunately, the Missionary Research Library has been closed to the public since 1967, and so these books have remained unavailable for decades, collecting dust on the shelves of a large storage room in Union Theological Seminary’s Brown Tower.

Today we are happy to announce that the Robert E. Speer collection has now been fully catalogued within Burke Library archives, and is once again available for perusal.  Those with an interest in researching subject matters related to religion and international politics from the turn of the twentieth century to the aftermath of World War II will find a wealth of information and insights within this vast collection.

The finding aid for the Robert E. Speer collection may be found online at:

Back to the Burke: My Return from Southeast Asia

Last spring I wrote an article about my upcoming summer in Indonesia, an opportunity I received through an academic fellowship funded by The Henry Luce Foundation, the same organization that supports my work at the Burke Library Archives.  Now, three months later, I am back.  Of course, everyone wants to know: "How was Indonesia?"

What can I say?  It was absolutely life-changing.

Through the help of the faculty, staff, and fellow students at Gadja Mada University in Yogyakarta, I was able to research the complex relationships between religion, belief, culture, and the arts in Java by attending numerous artistic performances, taking regular gamelan music classes, and interviewing composers, puppet makers, religious leaders, dancers, instructors, musicians, gong makers, and everyday people about the role of music in their ritual and spiritual lives.  My master’s thesis hopes to put some new language around the role of music in ecumenical theological and cultural understanding, and this research will certainly make a significant contribution towards that end.  I also took a class on Interreligious Relations from the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies, and was incredibly inspired by the way that the religiously diverse faculty not only taught but demonstrated meaningful and effective communication across ethical and theological differences.  

The benefits gained from this program were not merely academic.  The most important learning happened in relationship with the wonderful community of people that I met.  Through developing deep – hopefully lifelong – bonds with friends from across the world, I learned not only about Indonesian culture but a great deal about my own.  Meanwhile, the experience of living in an Islamic country (hearing the call to prayer five times each day, searching for food during Ramadan, covering my hair up from time to time) challenged me to develop a much deeper appreciation for the value of discipline and humility in my own relationship to God.  In this context I grew in my faith and integrity as a Christian.  

For more information please visit the blog that I kept during my time in Yogyakarta, which contains articles, photos, video, sound clips, bits of interviews, and more: 

Through the Lens of the Archives

I was impressed by the deep relevance of my archival work in the Missionary Research Library Archives during my travels in Southeast Asia.  I was able to understand the different expressions of Christianity that I encountered in Java not simply through the lens of the missionary agenda or its postcolonial critique, but through the more nuanced appreciation that I have gained for the incredibly complex ways that people navigate issues of religious belief, ethical integrity, and cultural identity in their own time. 

It was also interesting to see evidence of how the disillusionment of most mainline Christians with missionary work led to the decline of their presence in countries like Indonesia, and to observe the growing influence of religious fundamentalism that has risen in its wake.  I began to wonder whether the attitude of non-involvement in missionary work held by most progressive Christians is really moving us toward a more religiously tolerant world.  Again, this led me to continue pondering the ultimate short-sightedness of even our most well-informed, ethically-minded choices.

Traveling to the other side of the world for three months is as terrifying as it is exciting, but knowing the struggles of travelers from the 19th century actually helped me to maintain perspective in some of my most personally difficult moments.  In particular, I carried within me the memory of Katie Isabel Chapin (Isabel Burrows) and Bertha E. Davis, two women that I came to know intimately through my archival work.  In a strange sort of way, I felt like they gave me strength. 

Bertha Davis has been on my mind especially since coming back to the United States.  Most of the diaries in her collection are from 1932-1940, decades after returning from several years of missionary work in Burma.  It is clear from her diary entries that she never fully re-adjusted back to life in the Midwest.  On April 6, 1938 she writes,

I have been having another spell of the dumps…I like Salem but it is not home to me: I have no roots here.  So many friendly people, but I am all alone too.  People do not go to one another’s homes.  If I go once or twice a year I am well-received (usually) but I remain solitary – different from the “city loneliness” where one usually finds a few others within reach who are ready for reciprocal calls…  Only in Burma would I ever feel really at home.

I can relate to that.  My own re-entry has been somewhat fraught as I become more and more steadily aware of the seismic shifts that have taken place within me academically, theologically, culturally, artistically, and personally.  In so many ways large and small, I feel that I discovered another home in Yogyakarta, and it is clear to me that I must return there. 

In the meantime, though, while I finish the final year of my M.Div. degree, I must say I am very, very happy to have my job back at the Burke Library Archives.  Especially after seeing what an impact these stories have made on my life and my perspective, I look forward to seeing what I unearth and learn in the year to come. 

From Archives to Indonesia: Living a Luce Legacy

In January 2012, I began working with the archival collections of the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, helping to preserve, process, and make available the materials contained within the now-inoperative Missionary Research Library and William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library, both housed in Brown tower.  These collections included a large number of unprocessed rare materials gathered from all over the world by missionaries, missionary boards, and ecumenical councils that played a major role in shaping the international vision and spread of Christianity during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

What began for me as a curious but agreeable part-time work-study job to accompany my academic studies at Union and my career as a folk singer and songwriter, over the course of a year has come to play a significant role in my theological education and vocational development.  My encounters with hundreds of diary entries, letters, reports, news clippings, and pamphlets from the height of colonialism to the fall of communism and everything in between have forced me to reckon with the complexity surrounding the question of “Christian missions” within the real history of international ecumenical and interreligious relations, a history that is much richer and more nuanced than any secondary accounts on the subject would seem to suggest.

Every finding aid that I publish bears the name of Henry R. Luce, president, founder, and editor-in-chief of Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated magazines.  This man who built a multimedia empire seems to have become something of a benefactor to me through the philanthropic foundation he established in 1936, in honor of his parents who were both missionary educators in China.  The Henry Luce Foundation not only funds my archival work for the Missionary Research Library, but it is also now sending me, through a separate grant, to live in Indonesia for the summer, where I will have the opportunity to live out my own story of discovering what it feels like to travel into the midst of an utterly different cultural and religious context and try to make sense of my encounters with humanity and with God as a minority and a stranger.

Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

From June-July 2013, I will be living in the ancient city of Yogyakarta on Java, conducting a research project through the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies Graduate School at Gadjah Mada University.  In a Western context, my academic work has tried to highlight the theological depth in a diversity of artistic approaches to meaning-making across multiple genres and contexts, to complicate our notions of the categorical distinction between “the sacred” and “the secular,” a vocabulary that is often used by religious and non-religious people alike in Western culture to reinforce the perception that these two spheres of life are radically distinct and opposed.  Indonesia offers an opportunity to research how these categories do or do not apply in this particular non-Western and non-Christian context. 

This will mean getting to know the diverse cultures and people of Yogyakarta in order to understand perceptions about music and the relationships between the arts, religion, culture, and the Divine.  It will mean allowing myself to grow as an artist by listening carefully to the sounds of the region and letting them influence my ears and and inspire new thinking about the arts, the creative process, and what music in particular can do.  It also means confronting questions of cultural assimilation, artistic appropriation, and exploitation as they arise, and learning to navigate issues of power with relation to my ethnicity, nationality, and gender.

One of the most profound insights resulting from my work with the Missionary Research Library archival collections has been the humanization of history.  It is important to look back at the choices and decisions of our ancestors to see in retrospect how those choices have contributed to cycles of oppression and violence that have played out in our world.  The missionaries who worked “on the field” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were, in many ways, terribly short-sighted and as a result made decisions that helped contribute to genocide, oppression, cultural imperialism and other forms of violence.

Yet, that is not the entire story of missionary work.  I have not found in the stories and writings of history the wholly arrogant, ignorant, racist, condescending people of my postcolonial imagination, but people who were also in many ways humble, compassionate, thoughtful, radically self-aware, and critical of cultural imperialism and those in power.  At the end of the day, I noticed, people then were not very much different from people now: conflicted, confused, and frustrated with the limitations of their situation…yet still hopeful, basically well-intentioned, and striving in the best way they knew how in order to achieve positive outcomes in their lives and in the lives of others.

Thanks to my work in the archives I will go to Indonesia aware that I am likely to be not very much different from them: a representative of my culture and a product of my moment in history, limited, and imperfect, but still intent and hopeful to encounter That Which I Know Not with all the humility and grace I can muster.

New Records from the Early Years of the National Council of Churches

Source: National Council of the Churches Website, © 2012. Accessed 28 January 2013 at


A large collection of records from the first two decades of the National Council of Churches (NCC) has recently been reprocessed and made available again thanks to a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.  This collection is held by Columbia University at the Burke Library as part of the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Archives Collection. 

In addition to the work of reprocessing, several boxes of documents were pulled from a large pile of unprocessed materials and were added to the existing collection.  These reports, consultation summaries, minutes, correspondence and planning documents – formerly unavailable to researchers – now have the potential to shed new light on issues facing the NCC during the height of its influence in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Particularly interesting are the ways that the ecumenical movement, the civil rights movement, and the developing theology of Christian missions among mainline Protestants all intersected during this time in order to shape the NCC's vision and trajectory.  For example, two boxes of papers from the desk of Robert C. Dodds reveal how extensively he used his position as General Director of the NCC Planning Committee to fight racism within the church, and how this ultimately came to effect the structure of the organization as a whole.  In a recorded conversation with Joseph Oldham, Dodds shared the following:

It became evident as a result of our analyses that the churches themselves were profoundly implicated in racial injustice in the U.S., that they have furthered it and supported it by their doctrines, by what they actually preach from certain pulpits, by their silences, and by their support of the system which made racial injustice possible.  Well, this wasn’t very happy news for the churches to receive.  They didn’t like it, and you can understand why.  We tried to make it sugar-coated, but you can’t sugar-coat that kind of message.  Well, it was as a result of that kind of thing that the communions finally – some of them – began to express concern about what we ought to be doing in long range planning. 

It was the discomfort of those church communions who had been called into account for their racist attitudes and practices that apparently motivated the subsequent 1965 restructuring of the Council in which power was centralized and Dodds was moved to the department of Ecumenical Affairs. 

The bulk of materials in the collection are from the NCC’s Division of Foreign Missions, which later became the Division of Overseas Ministries and constituted the largest unit of the organization both financially and administratively.  Now available for the first time are a number of reports conducted by the Division of Foreign Missions' Research Committee in conjunction with the Missionary Research Library on the subject of missiology, including an unpublished paper by H. Richard Neihbur outlining a theology for the missionary obligation of the church.  

The NCC served as a prominent international voice for the Protestant churches of the U.S. during the mid-twentieth century.  Through the work of its Division of Foreign Missions in particular, the NCC collected materials and conducted extensive reports pertaining to significant world affairs and their relationship to the churches.  As such, this collection contains reports, news articles, pamphlets, and other primary documents concerning events of international and ecumenical significance such as Vatican II, the North American Assembly on African Affairs, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, as well as organizations like the Congo Protestant Relief Agency, the Ecumenical Program for Emergency Action in Africa, the International African Institute, and Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation, and general subjects of relevance such as education and world literacy, mass communication, bilateral conversations, Israel and the Middle East, Cuba, Marxism and Chinese communism, South African apartheid, the civil rights movement and black liberation theology, and Vietnam. 

Newly available in this collection are also documents outlining the various proposals that were considered in the restructuring of the NCC in 1973. 

The main repository of archival records for the National Council of Churches is in Philadelphia, PA, and so it is especially exciting to make this extensive collection of the organization’s earliest records available at the Burke Library, located right next door to NCC’s current administrative offices, placing these valuable historical documents – and the perspective that could be gained from reading them – right at the organization’s fingertips. 

The finding aid for this collection can be found on the Burke Library Archives website or by following this link directly to the Finding Aid.

The John Dunbar Papers: Writings from the Western Frontier (1834-1836)

On May 5, 1834, Rev. John Dunbar set out with two other men for a missionary exploration of the unknown region beyond the Rocky Mountains, on behalf of the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca, NY.  The mission was to be called "The Oregon Mission."  Eighteen days later, however, when the men arrived in St. Louis, they discovered that the party of traders with whom they had planned to travel had already left six weeks prior.  Without the traders, Dunbar and his party had no way of proceeding, since they did not know how to travel the terrain or how to sustain themselves on the way.  They were forced to abandon the undertaking. Dunbar traveled to Liberty, Missouri and then on to Bellevue, Nebraska, where he tried to connect with the natives, learn their language, and find passage to the far regions of the west. 

At various points in his journal, Dunbar writes rather contemptuously about the traders, not only for their unwillingness to aid the missionaries or share the information they have about the territories, but for their overall lack of propriety and for selling whiskey to the natives.  He writes,

At this time no missionaries…had penetrated the Indian country farther than [Bellevue, Nebraska].  The traders and others who have heretofore traversed this immense region have almost without an exception kept the knowledge they have acquired of the country and its inhabitants to themselves, or communicated it only to their fellow traders…Those engaged in trade in this country may deem it to be for their interest to keep the world in ignorance of the geography and inhabitants of this extensive portion of our continent.  Certainly the conduct of many white men who live in, and of others who occasionally visit this county needs only to be known to be condemned in any decent society.  Their deeds are deeds of darkness, and cannot bear the light of civilization. 

Once during the time of our delay I made arrangements to accompany a wretched half-starved party of Otoes, who had come down to the Cantonment to beg provisions…when I went to their camp in the early part of the day on which they had assured me they would set out on their return, they informed me they had determined to pay their friends the Konzas a visit and it would be several weeks before they would reach their place of residence on the Platte.  The true reason however of their not wishing my company was that they were desirous to take home with them a quantity of whiskey, and they were fearful they might get into trouble about it should I be in the company.  The next day I saw some of them coming up from the settlements in the border of the state having with them 6 or 8 horses laden with the water of death to the Indian.  Some white man with a devil’s heart had for a little paltry gain furnished these creatures, already sufficiently wretched, with that which is speedily working their destruction.

In spite of Dunbar’s concern for the well-being of the natives, he uses the word “wretched” six times to describe them within the nine handwritten pages of his journal.  Later that year in October of 1834, Rev. Dunbar eventually finds a way to travel beyond Bellevue to live with the Grand Pawnee tribe, hosted by the second chief of the Pawnee nation.  After two years and four hunting tours, traveling nearly 3000 miles with the Pawnee, one can sense in his writing a deep ambivalence about them:

All of us who have lived with them are constrained to say they are a kindhearted, liberal people. But they are heathen, dark-minded heathen.

Describing the scene during one of his hunting tours, he writes:

When they have traveled all day, and just at night come to the camping ground a scene usually ensues that beggars description.  The horses are fretful and uneasy, the children, cold and hungry, the women, vexed and weary, the men ill-natured and impervious.  The dogs yelp and howl, the horses whinny, the mules and asses bray, the children cry, the boys halloo, the women scold, the men chide and threaten, no one hears and everything goes wrong.  Tongue and ears at such a time are of but little use. 

One of Dunbar’s greatest concerns is the station and treatment of women among the Pawnees, who seem to him to be like slaves, doing all of the work for little or no reward.  In the polygamous marriage traditions of the Pawnee, “the eldest sister is the principle wife, and commands the younger, who seem to be little more than domestic slaves.…How little to be desired is the condition of the youngest sisters in a Pawnee family and particularly of the youngest.”  Dunbar cannot seem to reconcile this state of affairs with his own conception of women as members of a delicate and inferior class.

In the afternoon of the third day, we rode into the village and came to the old chiefs lodge.  He dismounted and walked directly into his dwelling.  Forthwith his daughter, a young woman of 22 made her appearance to unsaddle our horses and bring in our luggage.  The young woman unsaddled and unbridled her father’s horse, then attempted to do the same to mine.  But my horse seemed to have a more just sense of propriety in this respect than prevails among the Pawnees.  She did not succeed and I willingly removed the saddle and bridle myself.

It frequently occurs, when they are travelling, that a horse gets frightened, jumps about, breaks away from its leader, kicks till it has divested itself of everything that was put on it, and then runs off at full speed.  The unfortunate wife must now follow her horse till she can catch it, bring it back, gather up her scattered utensils, replace them on her horse, then follow the train.  All the recompense she receives for her trouble is a severe chiding from her lazy husband, who may have been a witness to the whole transaction without having offered at all to assist his inferior half. 

The men say their appropriate employments are hunting (taking the buffalo), and war.  Consequently, everything else that is to be done is the appropriate business of the women.  The women are very laborious, but most abject slaves.  One educated in our privileged land can scarcely form a conception of the ignorance, wretchedness and degraded servitude of the Pawnee females.  We cannot contemplate the condition of these wretched creatures without being led to feel deeply that for all that is better in the condition of females in Christian lands, they are indebted to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The female, no matter who she is, that makes light of the Christian religion, trifles with that which makes her to differ from the most abject slave and degraded heathen.

Isabel Chapin Barrows: Love and Tragedy in the 19th Century

It was late summer.  The year was 1862.  William Wilberforce Chapin, a young seminary student at Andover, writes to Miss Katie Belle Hayes in New Hampshire:

Dear Miss Hayes.  When I bode you goodbye at Andover I was expecting to spend the first week of vacation in making a tour through Vermont and Canada.  Therefore I told you not to expect a letter from me for some time.  But Secretary Stanton’s anti-emigration order with sundry other reasons has cut me off from my anticipated flee and has given me an opportunity of writing you some days earlier than I had expected.  Well.  Secretary Stanton might have done a worse thing for me, and perhaps you will not feel like calling him hard names for what he has done…

The letter is signed "Your sincere friend, William W. Chapin."  Over the course of the next year the salutations would become increasingly more affectionate:

With growing esteem,
As ever yours,
Your more than friend,

In November he writes:

My dear Bella.  Every time I commence a letter to you I feel dissatisfied with the customary form of address.  The words do not seem strong enough.  Long use has taken away their force.  As I can think of no better form of address, the old one must still be used, but you must always think of the second word as being greatly intensified, as though it were underscored four or five times.

This real-life love story from the mid 19th-century is told through over 150 pages of letters written by William Wilberforce Chapin and Katherine Isabel Hayes, addressed to one another during the time of their courtship and engagement.  The letters are part of the WW Chapin Papers, held in the Missionary Research Library at the Burke Library.

Could you so tantalize me as to tell about that moonlight boat ride? I might be pardoned for feeling a little envious and hoping that you did not have a very pleasant time, but I will be generous, and hope you enjoyed it first rate.

Tantalize you sir? It is fortunate for you that you shared some generous emotion, for in my heart I hate selfish people.

In the fall of 1863, the year of his graduation from Andover Theological Seminary, William was ordained as a Congregationalist minister.  Two days later, he and Katie Belle were married, though the happy event of their wedding was sadly followed by the death of Belle’s mother two weeks later.

On Voyage to India
In January 1864, after four months of preparations, the couple set sail out of Boston harbor for a four-month journey to India, where they would serve as missionaries under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  They kept a journal together of their long voyage at sea:

March 14th
Katie Belle: While William was skinning the albatrosses we caught Saturday, Farley fixed the line and told me to try my hand.  No sooner had I taken the line than one swallowed the bait, hook and all, and forthwith I drew him up all myself!  He is a splendid fellow, next to the handsomest taken.  [a side note indicates the magnificent bird had a wingspan of approximately 10 feet, nearly twice the size of Belle]
William:  After I had this specimen nicely stuffed I carried it to our room and placed it in one of the berths for safe-keeping, thinking she would be delighted to see it!  Instead of this she raised a great outcry over it, said it smelled musky, fishy, etc etc and insisted on its being put out of the room.  I reasoned the matter with her while I tried to prove to her that the odor was rather agreeable, but could not bring her to regard it in the same light.  So yielding the point I carried the bird away; then getting her cologne bottle I sprinkled myself with it freely and sat down by her side.  She was almost as much overcome in the latter as in the former.  Truly she is hard to please!

May 11th
William: A pretty little swallow came on board at noon.  We caught and looked at him a little while and let him go.  But towards night he came again, nestled down in a corner on deck, put his head under his wing and slept a long time.  He was evidently glad of a resting place after his long flight.
Katie Belle: In the morning the little swallow was dead.  Poor little thing!

This sad omen marked their arrival in Bombay, India.  Within three months, William became ill with fever, and though he recovered, he continued to have fevers off and on for almost two years while performing preaching tours across India.

Belle’s father was a physician to whom she wrote frequently for medical advice, but in November 1864 she received the sad news that her father had passed away, leaving her without both her parents.  In a letter to William she writes,

I long to see you – to hear you and to lay my aching head on that dear shoulder which has so often pillowed it.  You can’t think how I miss you, but for my sake do not hurry.  Above all do not be careless of your own health.  Oh! be careful, if not for your sake, then for mine.  What if the Lord should take you too!  I dare not think of it.  Surely he will have mercy and spare my husband.

Sadly, when William finally returned to her the following March, his health began to take a turn for the worse.  Belle's journal tells the tragic tale:

The second week of March I was very sick with diphtheria.  God spared my life.  How tenderly [William] took me in from the sun’s glare and called me ‘little Wifie’.  Hardly was he seated before I saw he was burning up with fever.  Naturally I was alarmed, but he said ‘It is nothing; I have had the like a hundred times.’  [Friday] the fever returned with sore throat.  I begged him to come into Nuggur but he thought me over-anxious.  Monday as it was only too evident that disease was making progress he consented to set out on our weary journey.

The couple had been living in a mud hut in a rural outpost called Pimplus.  The closest town with a medical doctor was Ahmednuggur, where William's sister and brother-in-law lived, but the journey was 50 miles, and the only transportation was a bullock cart.  The couple rode through the night, trying to avoid the heat.  Of that ride Belle writes,

My heart was breaking.  Each moment I knew might be his last.  Yet for his sake I tried to be cheerful.  When he was awake I sang to him and read him much from the pen of the beloved disciple.  When he dozed I wept bitterly.

By the time they finally arrived at the house of William’s sister and called for the doctor, it was clear that William had an advanced case of diphtheria and would soon die.  In her final journal entry Bella wrote,

Kneeling by his side with an arm thrown round my waist and my head on his shoulder I heard all his dying messages – I received his last words to me.  Ah, I cannot write of it.  Too sad, too sweet, too sacred.

Those heartbreaking last words exchanged between Belle and her beloved husband William were recorded by his sister in a letter to her sons in America:

Belle asked, “Aren’t you going to get well?”
He said, “How can I live?  My heart has ceased to beat.”
She asked, “Are you willing to go if God calls you?  Can you trust in Christ?”
“Yes,” William answered, “I have always trusted in him and he will not forsake me.  It is hard to leave you.  How will you live?”
“Do not feel anxious, the Lord will provide for me.”
“I want you to stay here and work for the heathen.  I want you to work with all your strength because the Messenger is taking me away.”
“What, here in India?” asked Belle.
“Yes, if you can.”
“If not, shall I go home?”
“Yes, and wherever you are, live for Christ because the Messenger calls me away.  When you go home, tell them all to be good to you.”  Then he asked, “Will you dig me a little grave?”
“Where,” Belle asked, “in Pimplus?”
“No,” he answered.  “In the graveyard by the old meeting house," meaning the one in Somers, Connecticut, where he grew up.
At one point William clasped Belle in his arms and said, “The Messenger has made a mistake in separating us.  I will take you with me!”  But Belle comforted and encouraged him, saying that she would let him go.  When she saw that he was fading she drew close to him and asked, “Who is this?”
“Wifey,” he replied.
“Are you glad to go to Christ?”
“Yes deary.”

These were his last words.  William was only 28 years old.

"I want you to work with all your strength…"
Belle was just 19 when she found herself in rural India both an orphan and a widow.  But this tragic tale of a life and a love cut short is not the end of the story.  Isabel did go on to work and live with a fervor and a strength uncommon for a woman of her station and situation living in the 19th century.  She continued her mission to teach women in rural India to read and write for ten months before traveling on a long, lonely voyage back to the United States.  Her intention was to become a physician like her father and then return to India to practice medicine there, but in 1867, two years after William's death, she was married a second time, to a man named Samuel Barrows who worked as a congressional stenographer in Washington, D. C.

When Samuel became too ill to work, Isabel took his place, and thus became the first women ever to work for the U. S. State Department.  She graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1869, and then traveled to the University of Vienna Medical School to become one of the first female ophthalmologists, a vocation perhaps inspired by her late husband William, who often complained about his eyes, and affectionately expressed concern for hers in those early letters.  She also became the first woman to have her own private practice in Washington, D.C.

In 1880, Isabel gave up her medical practice to become the Associate Editor of The Christian Register.  She worked as both a journalist and editor covering controversial issues and supported international human rights as a social activist.  Isabel collaborated with Alice Stone Blackwell in editing The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution, and she was overseas attempting to win freedom for the Russian revolutionary Catherine Breshkovsky when her second husband died in 1909.  She subsequently took his place that year at the International Prison Congress in Paris, and continued to work for women’s prison reform and other social causes until her own death in 1913.

The Messy Truth about Foreign Missions

Foreign missions.  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 wait, that’s 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. 

Information they collected includes:
-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, and 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? 

The answer is, of course, both.  I certainly came across some questionnaires that included absurdly myopic statements about "heathens." Some of them actually made me cringe.  But most of the missionaries sounded basically the same as people today: conflicted, confused, frustrated with the shortcomings of their relationships and the limitations of the situations they found themselves in, but still hopeful, generally well-intentioned, and striving in the best way they knew 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. While these concerns obviously serve as evidence to substantiate the criticisms of foreign missions, they also reveal how many individuals were fully aware of, and attempting to work around, 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.

More favorite quotes:

 “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

Why the Library is Actually the Most Exciting Place in the World

I’ll admit that prior to getting my job in archives at the Burke Library, the extent of my familiarity with archives was based on some combination of the following: Obi Wan Kenobi’s search for the mysterious planet Kamino in the Jedi Archives in Star Wars Episode II, Tom Hank’s struggle to get into the Vatican Archives in Angels and Demons, and my brother’s strange obsession with using archival materials to dig up our family genealogy records.   Yet despite my overall ignorance, somehow nothing in the world sounded more exciting than spending hours at a time holed up in a dusty library tower, sifting through boxes of materials that time (almost) forgot. 

I’ve also always secretly wanted to be a librarian.  What can I say?  I’m book-ish.  I’m also admittedly a vintage kind of girl; I like reclaiming the old for the new.  On top of that one of the major things that attracted me to coming to Union Theological Seminary for my master’s degree was that it boasted of having the “largest theological library in the Western hemisphere,” with holdings of over 700,000 items, including extensive collections of rare archives and special materials.  I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant.  But it sure sounded cool.

On my first day at work I was shown to my desk, introduced to the others in the tower, and given a tour of the archive storage facilities.  All of that was pretty much what I expected.  But then I was handed several academic articles on archival theory and told to spend the next couple of days reading and familiarizing myself with the material.  A crash course in library and information sciences: not what I was expecting.  I had always wondered what a degree in library studies could possibly entail.  Having always been a pretty organized person, all my life it had seemed to me that the proper place for anything was basically self-evident.  But of course, real truth is always a moving target, and what is self-evident to me at one moment may be in no way evident to someone else in some other moment.   “Facts” are never as secure as we want them to be.  Information is always being framed and re-framed by the motivations and assumptions that give it context, and context is made up of a thousand silent and invisible factors that create the paradigms that give facts meaning and make information matter.  

Organizing information is complicated.

During that same semester I was also taking a class that covered roughly a thousand years of church history.  Union’s world-renowned history department prides itself on teaching seminarians to read history not as students but as scholars, meaning that we are never given a history textbook to tell us “what happened.”  Instead, we kept reading from, and hearing about the importance of, primary documents and sources. 

Primary documents are original historical documents, and they are incredibly empowering.  By consulting primary documents you are consulting history itself on your own terms and with your own questions.  You don’t have to settle for some other scholar’s version of the story (and for women, you don’t have to settle for what is so often his-story).   You can draw your own conclusions, make your own connections and interpretations, solve your own mysteries, draw up your own report.  This is what makes the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary so important.  This is why people travel from all over the world every day to come here and look through our records, to lay their eyes on those primary sources and sleuth out their own facts, asking their own questions, writing their own stories. 

Through this work, I have had the opportunity to collect my own information and begin writing my own stories about a variety of subjects, most of which are vital to the writing and the work that I hope to do as an ecumenical Christian.  Maybe it is just the artist in me that possesses such a deep appreciation for tactility, but being able to see and handle primary documents for myself has led to some truly profound insights.  It is one thing to read a .pdf article or a published book containing transcriptions of text that someone wrote 200 years ago; it is quite another thing to hold in your own hands the fragile, slightly crumbling sheets of paper that the 200-year-old author actually scrawled his or her ink upon.  

One major shift in my perspective happened early on while working on my second collection.  I found two letters from 1901 written by Badi’u’llah and Muhammed Ali to the newly-established  Baha’i faith communities in the United States.  The language and style was so reminiscent of the letters that Paul wrote to the Christian churches of the first century.  This somehow gave clarity, potency, and incarnate form to the way I thought about those ancient texts.  The words are now translated into hundreds of languages, printed and bound in hundreds of editions of what we’ve now come to call the sacred “New Testament,” the Word of God.  But at one point, they were just letters.  Real letters.  Could it be possible that such a worthy fate would befall any of these documents I am currently now holding in my hands? 

It was then that the somewhat obscure, behind-the-scenes work of library archivists throughout time began to take on huge significance for me.  I realized that this is not just a quirky part-time work-study job of organizing boxes, books, and folders.  This job is about shaping history.  It is about empowering the people of the present and the future to write their own stories about what they believe happened in history, and why.  And as it turns out, nothing in the world is more exciting after all.