restricted access The Mythic Mission Lands Medical Missionary Literature, American Children,and Cultural Identity
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In the middle of the nineteenth century the pathbreaking missionary work of Peter Parker, M.D. (1804–88), in China and Clara A. Swain, M.D. (1834–1910), in India ushered in an age of medical missions that made the missionary physician “the representative of all that was most admired in the later stages of the modern missionary movement.”1 By 1899 American missionary physicians holding regular medical diplomas numbered 338, over a third (127) of whom were women, and the world field comprised 348 hospitals, 774 dispensaries, and 45 medical schools.2 Late nineteenth- and twentieth-century American missionaries took much with them to the “heathen of foreign lands”—Bibles and Christian literature, the physical trappings of their former lives, their families, and Western cultural values and social institutions—but scientific medicine often stood out for both missionaries and indigenous peoples.3 Native peoples often responded with curiosity, distrust, and fear when confronted by the strange ways of the mission doctors—they may even have thought that missionaries captured spirits in their black box cameras. However, they also soon recognized that although missionary medicine may have healed some diseases and could sometimes be used 72 > The Mythic Mission Lands Medical Missionary Literature, American Children, and Cultural Identity  .  to their advantage in political and cultural power struggles, it also often proved to be incompatible with native healing, undermined cultural, social , and political authority, and arrived entangled with a Christian worldview not always friendly to indigenous religious sensibilities.4 Americans held generally positive views of medical missions, but early twentieth-century debates arose within and between liberal and evangelical Protestant missionaries over the extent to which such socalled humanitarian extensions of Western culture should play a role in fulfilling the Gospel commission. Was the healing attributed to medicine a sufficient justification in and of itself for Christian mission? Should it serve only as an entering wedge that would allow an explicit witness to the sacrifice of Jesus and a call to accept him as Lord and Savior? Or, should healed bodies and saved souls be understood as simply two sides of salvation’s coin? For the authors of the sources I have examined for this study, the latter two answers predominated.5 As one author put it, “I almost think that the medicine bottle in the hand of one [of ] our Missionary doctors can open the doors of more heathen homes than any other key in the whole world!”6 My primary purpose here, however, is not to discuss what American medical missionaries took with them to foreign lands or how the receiving peoples understood them. Instead, I explicate the content of the stories the returning missionaries told to American children, examine the social contexts for their transmission, and reconstruct the stories’ impact on their lives. I am less interested in recovering the facts of medical missions than I am in exploring the literary structures and the cultural content of medical missionary stories and the often highly gendered , racialized, and Westernized attitudes that they transmitted to American children.7 My conclusions arise from a content analysis of scores of medical missionary stories read by and told to children and youth in the United States from about 1880 to 1980 and an examination of the historical sources that allow one to construct a social and cultural context for them. These stories appeared in a wide variety of Protestant denominational and interdenominational juvenile and children ’s literature—books, plays, Sunday school papers, story sermons, and teachers’ missionary guides and study helps. And echoing religious historian Candy Gunther Brown’s observation that the “unifying tendencies of evangelical print culture outran the most divisive intentions,” the stories exhibited a surprisingly high level of continuity over time and across denomination.8 The Mythic Mission Lands 73 The nature of missionary literature followed the pattern established in the nineteenth century for the publication of materials devoted to the religious education of American young people. Spearheaded by the Sunday-school movement and the American Sunday-School Union, antebellum American religious educators called for a juvenile literature characterized by a clear moral and religious character, graded and adapted to children’s development, of high literary quality, and written in American English about American people and places.9 During the second half of the nineteenth century scores of books and weekly and monthly periodicals appeared, published by the Union, other interdenominational unions, and individual denominations for the purpose of covering the “whole field of education as related to religion,” including...


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