Thomas H. Olbricht
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Stephen Crowder, in The Field is the World: A History of the Canton Mission (1929–1949) of the Churches of Christ, provides a new and welcomed insight into Churches of Christ missions. I will focus on the contribution Crowder makes to the history of Chinese missions, the role of Harding University administrators and professors in encouraging missions in China and elsewhere, and Stephen Crowder’s great legacy in respect to the key China missionaries.
Christian missionaries have been in China since the Roman Catholics in the fourteenth century and Protestants beginning in the nineteenth century. Crowder provides a brief history of these efforts. He reports on the numbers of professed Christians in China with about 800,000 Roman Catholics and 100,000 Protestants by 1900. Today some estimate the number of Christians in China as more than 20,000,000 but various demographers dispute this number. Crowder’s significant contribution lies in narrating a specific time frame—1929–1949—in regard to the efforts of Churches of Christ missionaries in China. His concrete details and photographs provide real life depictions of those who went, their approaches, and their successes and failures. These are insights heretofore unavailable in a singular publication.
My wife and I have been interested in China from our youth because beginning in the 1930s we heard news reports regarding its occupation by Japan, China in World II, and the Communist takeover led by Mao Zedong. We have also been interested in Churches of Christ missions in China because we knew some of the missionaries involved. In 1984 we signed up for a People-to-People World Tour promoted by Dwight D. Eisenhower. We flew from San Francisco on Air China to Shanghai and spent nine days, then flew north to Beijing for seven days. Our group leaders were J. Jeffrey and Eleanor Auer of Indiana University and among those on the trip were two former speech professors of mine at Northern Illinois and the University of Iowa. The tour agenda was to visit historical sites, attend cultural events, and meet with communication peers in China. I would have relished contact with Christians, but such arrangements were not built into our schedule. On this trip I wondered about the work of George and Sallie Benson—the focal point for Crowder’s book.
I normally wake up early. In Shanghai we stayed at a hotel located in the old German compound. A large park lay south of our hotel and all sorts of Chinese were doing slow, elegant Chinese exercises. I walked around the park and was surprised when I was stopped by three or four people who asked me in English if I was an American. When I responded yes, they proceeded to tell me that they had studied in the United States before World War II; one or two had taken courses at Yale Divinity School. I knew of the interest and involvement of Yale trained clerics in Chinese missions from the turn of the century. The importance of these early missions became increasingly vivid when set forth by Crowder in this work. One day I visited a commune of seventy-five thousand Chinese along with some of our group several miles out of Shanghai. As we traveled westward through the city, I had the eerie feeling that something was different. As I looked around it seemed as if I might be in an older European or American city, though the buildings didn’t look exactly the same because of bamboo structures and clothes lines. It finally dawned on me that what was different was that no church steeples were visible in any direction on the horizon. Crowder, in this book, sets out some of the historical reasons why Christian structures were absent.
Mission Instruction and Encouragement at Harding University
The early missionaries in Churches of Christ had special ties with Harding College (later University) of Searcy, Arkansas, founded there in 1924. The Harding University influence was especially true of the China Mission. For that reason Crowder’s book presents an important glimpse into the pre-World War II history of Churches of Christ missions. J. N. Armstrong (1870–1944) president of Harding 1924–1936 was influential in promoting missions. Armstrong taught several of the missionaries Crowder discusses in this book. The influence of Armstrong began at least as early as his presidency at Western Bible and Literary College in Odessa, Missouri, 1905–1907. I will focus on missionaries trained at Harding until about 1950. I knew several in my years at Harding (1947–49; 1954–55).
A number of missionaries who studied under Armstrong in Odessa went to Africa. The W. N. Shorts went in 1921 and J. Dow Merritt and wife in 1926. A. D. Brown an MD also went. Merritt was in Searcy on furlough when I was a student there in 1947–49, and Brown lived in Searcy and was a practicing physician. I also met the Shorts while at Harding.Word and Work, edited by Boll. Janes supervised these reports. He took trips around the world to visit the missionaries, beginning in 1904. George S. Benson (1898–1991) who studied under Armstrong at Harper College in Kansas helped plant congregations in China from 1925 to 1936. Sallie Benson, the wife of George knew the Armstrongs when she studied at Cordell Christian College in Cordell, Oklahoma. Armstrong served as president of Cordell from 1908–1918. L. C. Sears, the son-in-law of the Armstrongs, became a teacher at Cordell and later a dean at Harper College. The legacy of James A. Harding (after whom Harding University was named), his daughter Woodson Harding Armstrong, and their daughter Pattie Hathaway Armstrong Sears and son-in-law L. C. Sears is told in their granddaughter’s book: The Greatest Work in the World: Education as a Mission of Early Twentieth-Century Churches of Christ: Letters of Lloyd Cline Sears and Pattie Hathaway Armstrong, edited by Elizabeth Cline Parsons (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2015).William Brown, J. A. Britell, John and George Reese, and Myrtle Rowe also went to Africa. Those who went to Japan were O. D. Bixler and Omar Bixler a nephew, son of Roy Bixler (Roy also attended Western) and E. A. Rhodes. There may also have been other missionaries who attended Western. Don Carlos Janes (1877–1944), born in Morgan County, Ohio, studied at Western. Janes lived in Louisville, Kentucky, at a later time. He was a one-man mission encourager and fund-raiser especially for missions in Japan and Cuba. He was associated with R. H. Boll (1875–1956) in Louisville. Most of these missionaries sent reports to
Other persons who attended Harding and became missionaries before 1945 were: Stanton Garrett who went to Rhodesia in 1930; Alvin Hobby, Zambia and Rhodesia, 1938; and J. C. Shewmaker, Zambia 1939. A new surge of Churches of Christ missions occurred after World War II. The leadership of the churches increasingly took up the challenge of taking the Gospel into all the world. Many members of the churches traveled abroad during the war either in the military or in organizations connected with war operations. Their travels opened their eyes. Various leaders encouraged mission undertakings, chief among whom was Otis Gatewood (1911–1999) who spoke on campus at least twice when I was a student at Harding and also in the fifties when I taught there.
When I arrived at Harding in the fall of 1947 I ran into many persons excited about missions. I’m not sure it was all prompted by Harding teachers. Andy T. Ritchie Jr. encouraged evangelism of all sorts, but especially in areas in the United States where Churches of Christ were few. George Benson (president of Harding 1936–1965) certainly encouraged foreign missions, but that was one among many agendas he pursued. He spent far more of his time raising funds for Harding and getting his National Education Program off the ground. Harding College had no one on the faculty assigned to teach mission courses in the late forties. It seems to me that J. Dow Merritt, who was on furlough, may have taught a course in missions and had a group meeting in his residence to encourage missions. Other families lived in Searcy who had been involved in missions, among them the Lawyer family, who had worked in Africa. Various mission study groups sprang up on campus focusing on specific countries, for example, Japan and Germany. I attended the German group even though I did not plan to be a German missionary. My sister, Nedra Jo Olbricht McGill, however, hoped to spend time in Germany. She graduated from Harding in 1949 and after marrying James R. McGill in 1955, they spent 1960–62 in Nürnberg and München, Germany. Missionaries—for example, Keith Coleman who was in Germany, and Dieter Alten who was studying at Lipscomb but who went back to Germany to preach, and Joe Cannon who went to Japan—spoke at the Harding chapel and elsewhere.
In the late 1940s several former Harding students departed from the United States. J. C. Reid went to Zambia in 1947; Robert Helsten 1948 to Germany, later to Switzerland; Jack Nadeau to Germany, Samuel Timmerman in 1948 to Belgium, and Joe Cannon, 1947; Robert Harry Fox, Jr., 1949, and George Gurganus to Japan. Most of these people knew each other while on the Harding campus.
Several who went to Germany were classmates of mine (except Glenn Olbricht, 1959 to Nürnberg, my brother). He would have been a classmate had I stayed at Harding long enough to graduate. Bob Hare first worked in Germany in 1950 then Austria, Ted Nadeau (brother of Jack Nadeau) went to Germany 1950, and Glenn Boyd, 1958, ended up in Heidelberg. Bob and Barbara Morris went to Karlsruhe in 1958. Bob was a talented opera singer and sang in German opera companies. L. T. Gurganus went to Japan. He was the nephew of George P. Gurganus. His support was typical in that several Alabama churches contributed to his funds. L. T. was born in Cordova, Alabama, and his father L. T. Sr. still lived there. Others were Carmelo Casella, 1958, and Rodney Wald, 1955–59 (my Harding roommate), to Australia. Jerry Porter went to Scotland in 1959, Jack Meredith, 1958, to Puerto Rico, Bert Perry, 1950, (A Canadian and older student when I was at Harding) to the Philippines, and Charles W. Davis, 1955, to the Philippines; Kenneth Rideout 1950 went to Thailand. Ken was related to Dortha Rideout Taylor, my Uncle Tom Taylor’s wife. J. L. and Margaret Crumpet Roberts commenced mission work in Belgium in 1954. Margaret was my chemistry lab instructor in several courses. Truman Scott went to Italy sometime in the 1950s.
Indeed, Harding College, later University, was a training ground for missionaries and their families. Stephen Crowder has therefore given us a window from which we can look into the background of those who undertook missions to foreign lands in Churches of Christ. The Bensons, the Whitfields, the Davises, the Broadduses, and others mentioned by Crowder in this book are very important links in the history of missions in Churches of Christ.
The Stephen Crowder Legacy
Crowder became interested in the Canton Mission because the key leaders, George and Sallie Benson, were his grandparents. His mother, Ruth Benson Crowder, in her early years grew up at the Mission. I first met Stephen’s parents in Iowa, after they were married. His father, Numa Crowder, was the minister for a congregation in Muscatine. The Crowders later moved to Macomb, Illinois. We lived in Iowa City where I preached and took graduate courses at the University of Iowa. The Crowders and the Olbrichts shared an occasional meal. I first met Stephen at Abilene Christian University. He attended the Minter Lane Church of Christ where I was an elder. I was chair of the Religion Division at Pepperdine University, Malibu, California, 1986–1996. After retiring I continued to offer graduate courses in Biblical Theology in the Pepperdine off-campus programs. Stephen enrolled in the course I offered in our Albuquerque programs in the early 2000s.
The Bensons were also important in Churches of Christ and national history. Books by Edward Hicks and John C. Stevens have been published about the Bensons, but neither Hicks nor Stevens spent much time on the Chinese mission’s aspect of the Benson story.They focus more on the return of the Bensons to the United States and George S. Benson’s presidency of Harding University. Stephen undertook major research in original, published and unpublished sources, in order to write this book. He possesses or has available several family documents and diaries. He has also visited other pertinent archives and utilized periodicals not all of which are readily available. He has incorporated several important pictures and maps into the text. Crowder has opened up an exceptional window into Churches of Christ missions in China.
Thomas H. Olbricht
Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religion
1 The sources for the information in this Introduction are: Gary Owen Turner, “Pioneer to Japan: A Biography of J. M. McCaleb” MA Thesis, Abilene Christian, 1972. Charles R. Brewer, ed., A Missionary Pictorial (Nashville: World Vision, 1966); Lynn D. Yocum, ed., 1979 Missionary Pictorial Supplement (Nashville: World Vision, 1979); Don Carlos Janes, Missionary Biographies (Louisville: Janes Printing, 1940–1943); Shawn Daggett, The Lord Will Provide: James A. Harding and the Emergence of Faith Missions, 1892-1913, ThD diss., Boston University, 2007.
2 L. Edward Hicks, Sometimes in the Wrong, but Never in Doubt: George Benson and the Education of the New Religious Right (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994); John C. Stevens, Before Any Were Writing: The Story of George S. Benson (Searcy: Harding University Press, 1991).