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G. Sherwood Eddy and the Attitudes of Protestants in the United States toward Global Mission

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2009

Rick Nutt
Mr. Nutt is associate professor of religion at Muskingum College, New Concord, Ohio.


G.Sherwood Eddy (1871–1963), a leading figure in American Protestantism through the first half of the twentieth century, is currently most often relegated to footnote references or mentioned only in relation to two of his most famous colleagues, Kirby Page and Reinhold Niebuhr. He was, however, one of the most renowned international evangelists of the time who worked closely with John R. Mott and Robert Speer in the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM). While a student at Yale, Eddy experienced a dramatic deepening of faith in 1889 at the famous Northfield Student Conference and then, while a student at New York's Union Theological Seminary and later at Princeton Theological Seminary, joined the SVM. Despite his seminary study, Eddy chose to remain a layman all his life. As a YMCA traveling evangelist in India from 1896 to 1911 and in Asia from 1911 to 1931, Eddy embodied many of the attitudes and methods of Protestant global mission for the approximately fifty years of its greatest activity. Primarily engaged in student evangelization, Eddy manifested a deep ambivalence toward the method of mission work. An examination of Eddy's life reveals that in Eddy one finds both the cultural imperialism with which nineteenth-century missionaries are often charged and a sensitivity to other peoples and a commitment to indigenous churches and leadership.While Eddy's ministry spanned over five decades, this essay concentrates on Eddy's labor prior to World War I, for in those years Eddy was most in conflict withhimself.

Research Article
Church History , Volume 66 , Issue 3 , September 1997 , pp. 502 - 521
Copyright © American Society of Church History 1997

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This essay is the result of research made possible by grants from the Louisville Institute and the Green Educational Foundation.

1. Eddy told his life story in three autobiographical works: A Pilgrimage of Ideas, or the Re-Education of Sherwood Eddy (New York, 1934),Google ScholarI Have Seen God Do It (New York, 1940), andGoogle ScholarEighty Adventurous Years: An Autobiography (New York, 1955).Google ScholarSee also Ferm, Deane William, “Sherwood Eddy: Evangelist and Y.M.C.A. Secretary” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1954); andGoogle ScholarPage, Kirby, “Biography of Sherwood Eddy,” unpublished MS, Folders A, B, and C, Kirby Page Papers, School of Theology at Claremont Archives, Claremont, California. Of obvious assistance are the George Sherwood Eddy Papers, Yale Divinity-School, New Haven, Connecticut, and material pertinent to Eddy's ministry in the YMCA Archives, St.Paul, Minnesota.Google Scholar

2. Bosch, David J., Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1991), p. 294. This is an excellent treatment of global Christianity. Behind the mission impulse—and this was true for Eddy also—lay the postmillennial idea of the spread of the reign of God, coupled with the late-nineteenth-century belief in progress.Google Scholar

3. Ibid., p. 290; see the discussion of this shift in mission approach beginning with p. 287. Handy, Robert T, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities, 2d ed. (New York, 1984) is still the best overview of the attitude of Protestantism at the turn of the century and its relationship to American society;Google Scholarsee especially chapter 4, “The Religion of Civilization (18601890)” andGoogle Scholarchapter 5, “The Christian Conquest of the World (18901920).”Google ScholarSee also chapter 8, “American Protestantism Since the Civil War. I. From Denominationalism to Americanism,” in Mead, Sidney E., The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York, 1976).Google ScholarGorrell, Donald K. (The Age of Social Responsibility: The Social Gospel in the Progressive Era, 1900–1920 [Macon, Ga., 1988], pp. 124126) is one recent writer on the social gospel who makes the connection between the Christianizing of urban America and reforming the world. The literature on the entire missionary movement at the turn of the century is extensive and has grown significantly in the last three decades. The “dean” of scholars of world Christianity was Kenneth Scott Latourette, and the portions of A History of the Expansion of Christianity which deal with the nineteenth and twentieth centuries remain an excellent starting point. For work specifically focused on the United States and global mission,Google Scholarsee Rabe, Valentin H., The Home Base of American China Missions, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 1978);CrossRefGoogle ScholarFairbank, John K., ed., The Missionary Enterprise in China and America (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), p. 102;CrossRefGoogle ScholarThomson, James C. Jr, Stanley, Peter W., and Perry, John Curtis, Sentimental Imperialists: The American Experience in East Asia (New York, 1981);Google ScholarBeaver, R. Pierce, ed., American Missions in Bicentennial Perspective (South Pasadena, Calif., 1977); andGoogle ScholarHutchison, William R., Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Eoreign Missions (Chicago, 1987). Because of the intimate relationship between world Christianity and ecumenism, the literature on the history of church unity is also helpful.Google ScholarA wonderful introduction to the entire field of global Christianity is Neill, Stephen, A History of Christian Missions, 2d ed. (London, 1986).Google Scholar

4. Forman, Charles W., “A History of Foreign Mission Theory in America,” in Beaver, pp. 69140.Google Scholar

5. Hutchison, , pp. 8–9. This book is an outstanding overview of mission thought and activity in the United States over the last two centuries. Hutchison notes that the definition of evangelism broadened by the turn of the century: “Since the latter [reform, or civilizing, efforts] were forms of endeavor for which ‘results abroad’ were neither fragile nor evanescent—were in fact quite spectacular—the broadened definition of evangelization was in large part the recognition of a fait accompli. What made ‘the evangelization of the world in this generation’ something more than a glorious daydream were not the statistics for conversions but the truly impressive statistics for mission schools and hospitals and social services” (pp. 91–92). On liberals in mission, who often were most aware of cultural matters, he observes: “To the degree that liberalism offered salvation through social, medical, and educational agencies, a great many institutions in the sending culture were bound to be presented as promoting this salvation, and thus as obligatory elements in what was being urged upon the rest of the world. Though more vocal than conservative evangelicals in faulting political and economic imperialism, liberals thus were likely to be operating on the same wavelength as the imperialists”Google Scholar(p. 110). Of the developments discussed here see also Forman, , pp. 77–85. Catherine Albanese, in her response toGoogle ScholarBowden, Henry Warner, “An Overview of Cultural Factors in the American Protestant Missionary Enterprise” (in Beaver), raises the postmodern denial that one can, as this entire discussion presupposes, separate the gospel from a cultural form, as if there is a pure and eternal gospel that can be distinguished from particular cultural contexts.Google ScholarSanneh, Lammin makes a similar point, albeit differently, in Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1989).Google Scholar

6. Eddy, , “Report Letter #5,” p. 1, Box 3, Folder 50, Eddy Papers. He also relates his early attitudes toward India in Eighty Adventurous Years, pp. 32–34.Google Scholar

7. Ibid.Eddy's regard of the Indians changed dramatically, and years later he crossed out from this report letter the final phrase on the judgment of God.Google Scholar

9. Eddy, , Pilgrimage of Ideas, p. 11.Google Scholar

10. See “Report Letter #3,” March 1897; andGoogle Scholar“India Report Letters, 18931912,” 21 March 1893–17 January 1901 Folder, YMCA Archives.Google Scholar

11. Eddy, , Pilgrimage of Ideas, pp. 8–10.Google Scholar

12. Eddy, , The Students of Asia (New York, 1916), p. 16.Google Scholar

13. Eddy, , India Awakening, Forward Mission Study Courses (New York, 1912), pp. 2526.Google ScholarEddy, here illustrates well the point of Thomson, , Stanley, , and Perry, , eds., Sentimental Imperialists, when they note that next to traders, missionaries were often the first Europeans in Asia: “In dealing with such missionaries in Asia, one deals with a larger subject: the export of a fairly comprehensive ideology, also the export of Western learning. For these sojourners abroad were not just passive intermediaries; they were, rather, conscious agents of change, of radical transformation. They came to Asia to do something to Asia and Asians, to reshape foreign societies. Inevitably, then, their presence created a far greater clash than did that of the traders” (p. 45).Google ScholarSee also Schlesinger, Arthur Jr's description of cultural imperialism in “The Missionary Enterprise and Theories of Imperialism,” in Fairbank, pp. 336373.Google Scholar

14. Eddy, , India Awakening, pp. 75–77.Google Scholar

15. Ibid., p. 49.

16. Eddy, , The Students of Asia, pp. 49–51.Google Scholar

17. Ibid., pp. 113–117.

18. Forman, , p. 81. Latourette, Rabe, Fairbank, Beaver, and Thomson, Stanley, and Perry, in the works already cited, treat this historical situation in China and the mission response to it.Google Scholar

19. Sentimental Imperialists, p. 172.Google Scholar

20. Eddy to Mother, 13 March 1913, Box 1, Folder 1, Eddy Papers.Google Scholar

21. Ibid.

22. Eddy, , The New Era in Asia, p. 20.Google Scholar

23. Eddy to Mother, 13 March 1913, Box 1, Folder 1, Eddy Papers.Google Scholar

24. Eddy, , The New Era in Asia, pp. 56.Google Scholar

25. Eddy, , Eighty Adventurous Years, p. 35.Google Scholar

26. Kingjames Version, edited for inclusive language.Google Scholar

27. Eddy, , Pilgrimage of Ideas, p. 61.Google Scholar

28. Eddy, , “Report Letter #6,” June 1897, Box 3, Folder 50, Eddy Papers; andGoogle Scholar“Report Letter #12,” June 1898, Box 3, Folder 51, Eddy Papers.Google Scholar

29. Eddy, , Pathfinders in the World Missionary Crusade, (Nashville, Tenn., 1945), p. 246.Google Scholar

30. Eddy, , Pilgrimage of Ideas, p. 10.Google Scholar

31. Eddy, , “Report Letter #31,” 1 December 1902,Google ScholarIndia Report Letters, 18931912 Box, 6 February 1902–24 July 1902 Folder, YMCA Archives.Google ScholarThere is another account of this meeting by Eddy, in “Seeking to Reach the Educated Hindus,” The Missionary Review of the World (December 1903): 922–927, copy in Box 6, Folder 101, Eddy Papers.Google Scholar

32. Eddy, , The Students of Asia, pp. 182–187.Google Scholar

33. Eddy, , Pathfinders of the World Missionary Crusade, p. 246.Google Scholar

34. Eddy, , The Practical Programme of Christianity, Character Building Series 5 (Shanghai, China, 1914), p. 8.Google Scholar

35. Popley, H. A. to Page, Kirby, n.d., “Collections for Eddy Biography” Folder, Page Papers. I have discovered no evidence that Eddy derived this idea from the history of religions literature which emerged in the nineteenth century.Google Scholar

36. “Biography of Sherwood Eddy, #A,” Page Papers. Pages (often unnumbered) from a number of drafts are intermingled in these archives.Google Scholar

37. Eddy, , “Seeking to Reach the Educated Hindus,” pp. 922–923; andGoogle Scholar“Report Letter #26,” October 1901, Box 3, Folder 54, Eddy Papers. Of course, Eddy was not the first to learn the problems of putting Christian, primarily Western, concepts in language people could understand in new cultural settings. Matteo Ricci in China and Roberto Nobili in India are perhaps two of the most famous examples of missionaries trying to transcend the linguistic and other cultural barriers they faced. On this issueGoogle Scholarsee Neill, Stephen, A History of Christian Missions, pp. 139–141, 156–159, 383–400; andGoogle ScholarLamin Sanneh, Translating the Message, in which the author analyzes the role of biblical translation in its impact on cultures which have received missionaries.Google Scholar

38. Neill, , A History of Christian Missions, pp. 380–413, illustrates this point, as do many other books on global Christianity and missiology.Google Scholar

39. See Eddy, , India Awakening, pp. 184–186.Google Scholar

40. Eddy, , “Opportunities and Importance of Reaching Students, Influential Classes and Masses,” p. 271, in Students and the Present Missionary Crisis (New York, 1910).Google ScholarFor the attitudes of students see any number of report letters, but particularly “Lecturing to Educated Hindus,” India Report Letters, 1893–1912 Box, May 1903–30 September 1903 Folder, YMCA Archives, key portions of which became a part of his article “Seeking to Reach the Educated Hindus.”Google Scholar

41. Eddy, , The New Era in Asia, p. 131.Google Scholar

42. Accounts of this seminary on wheels can be found in report letters of the period in Eddy Papers; Eighty Adventurous Years, pp. 41–42; and Ferm, pp. 82–83.Google Scholar

43. Eddy, , “Report Letter #28,” July 1902, India Report Letters, 1893–1912 Box, 6 February 1902–24 July 1902 Folder, YMCA Archives. As a sign of Eddy's growing sensitivity in this area, his report letter of 30 October 1902 refers to “My native helper,” which he later changed to “My Indian fellow worker.”Google Scholar

44. Cited in Ferm, p. 119.Google Scholar

45. Eddy, , “A Month in Jaffna,” Box 3, Folder 55, Eddy Papers; andGoogle ScholarEddy, , India Awakening. William Carey was the Protestant missionary who “opened” India to Protestant Christianity at the beginning of the nineteenth century.Google Scholar

46. Eddy, , “Signs of Promise in India: The Missionary Spirit in the Native Church,” The Missionary Review of the World (06 1904): 430–433, copy in Box 6, Folder 101, Eddy Papers.Google ScholarSee also “Report Letter #36,” 22 January 1906, Box 3, Folder 57, Eddy Papers; andGoogle Scholar“Report of George Sherwood Eddy to the International Committee for the Year Ending September 30th, 1905,” India Report Letters, 1893–1912 Box, 1 October 1905–30 October 1905 Folder, YMCA Archives.Google Scholar

47. The Founders of the National Missionary Society of India,” (Royapettah, India, 1947),Google Scholarcited in Imler, William, “The Evangelistic Campaigns of Sherwood Eddy in India and China, 1896–1931,” (S.T.M. thesis, Yale Divinity School, 1953), p. 89.Google Scholar

48. Ferm, , p. 99.Google Scholar

49. Banninger, John J. to Kirby Page, 8 August 1953, Box 5, Folder 87, Eddy Papers.Google Scholar

50. Eddy, , The Students of Asia, p. 91.Google Scholar

51. Eddy, , The New Era in Asia, p. 110.Google Scholar

52. Ibid., pp. 46–47.

53. On this role of the YMCA in China, see Latourette, , A History of Christian Missions in China (New York, 1967), pp. 584593; andGoogle ScholarEddy, , Pathfinders in the World Missionary Crusade, pp. 202–210.Google Scholar

54. I use here the place names for China used during Eddy's lifetime.Google Scholar

55. Lockwood, E. H. to Page, 15 June 1953, Box 5, Folder 89, Eddy Papers.Google ScholarSee also Eddy to Mother, 2 November 1914, Box 1, Folder 1, Eddy Papers; Eddy to Mother, 5 October 1914, Box 1, Folder 1, Eddy Papers; Eddy to Mother, 29 September 1914, Box 1, Folder 1, Eddy Papers;Google ScholarEddy, , The New Era in Asia, pp. 118–120; andGoogle ScholarEddy, , How China's Leaders Received the Gospel (New York, n.d.).Google Scholar

56. Latourette, , The Twentieth Century Outside Europe, vol. 5 in Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: A History of Christianity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1969), pp. 263266.Google Scholar

57. Eddy, , I Have Seen God Do It (New York, 1940), p. 95Google Scholar

58 Eddy, , I Have Seen God Work in China (New York, 1944), p. 99.Google Scholar

59. Cited in Caine, Clifford James, “Three Views of Politics, Social Order, and Religion: The Interactions and Dilemmas of Reinhold Niebuhr, Kirby Page, and Sherwood Eddy, 1914–1941” (Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1975), p. 194.Google Scholar

60. Eddy, , I Have Seen God Do It, p. 156.Google Scholar

61. Eddy, , Pathfinders of the World Missionary Crusade (Nashville, Tenn., 1945), pp. 124125. See alsoGoogle ScholarEddy, , Pilgrimage of Ideas, pp. 53–56; andGoogle ScholarEddy's, I Have Seen God Do It, pp. 25–26.Google Scholar

62. Fleming, Daniel Johnson, Whither Bound in Missions (New York, 1925).Google Scholar

63. The Commission of Appraisal, Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen's Inquiry after One Hundred Years (New York, 1932). The chair of the committee was William Hocking, professor of philosophy at Harvard.Google Scholar

64. Eddy, , A Portrait of Jesus: A Twentieth Century Interpretation of Christ (New York, 1943), p. 174.Google Scholar

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