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  • Conflicting Views on Foreign Missions: The Mission Board of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends in the 1920s
  • Tetsuko Toda (bio)


In the United States, the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions was organized at the end of the 19th century, and foreign missions saw a peak in the 1910s. After WWI, however, people did not show much concern for foreign missions. Diminishing interest in religion can be pointed to, in the first instance. The absolute truth of the Bible had been challenged by the Higher Criticism and the theory of evolution. Furthermore, the spread of entertainment, including movies and radio in the 1920s, led to a decline in the number of churchgoers. The moral certitude of Christianity, which had been the basis of foreign missions, was weakened because of the war between Christian countries. Cultural anthropology, a new academic field, had moreover suggested that Christianity could not be grafted easily onto a heathen culture since religion was based on the unique history of each country. Thus, it seemed that the compelling causes to promote foreign missions had not been appreciated. In practical terms, donations for foreign missions had decreased and every foreign missionary organization faced financial difficulties in the latter half of the 1920s, this difficulty worsening after the Great Depression.1

From the 1920s to the 1930s, the relationship between Christianity and other religions, the substance of foreign missionary projects, and the number and quality of missionaries were re-examined in the Protestant foreign missions.2 In the area of missions for women, for example, the paternalistic attempt to achieve improvement in the status of heathen women was abandoned after WWI, and a new missiology of “World Friendship” was adopted. This missiology considered it ideal to encourage friendships with heathen women and work together on an equal footing for peace and justice.3 Various Protestant denominations jointly conducted a large-scale survey in 1930 to redefine foreign missions, and the result was published as Re-thinking Missions (1932). After denying the absolutism and superiority of Christianity, this book drew a sharp line between the mission to convert people and the service-oriented activities such as education and medical care, and suggested that the latter should be regarded as more significant. The book called upon missionaries to act as ambassadors, i.e. while being invincible Christians themselves and hoping for others to become Christians, they should not dare to force others to convert. It also pointed out the ill effects and inefficiency of promoting foreign missions through respective denominations.4

Considering the criticism of foreign missions and the emergence of a new [End Page 17] missiology, it is surprising that Orthodox Philadelphia Yearly Meeting established its Mission Board in 1923 and took over the Japan mission project of the Foreign Missionary Association of Friends of Philadelphia. Why would Orthodox Philadelphia Yearly Meeting have increased its commitment to foreign missions at the very moment that the rest of Christendom was diminishing and reconsidering the commitment? This paper intends to find out why the Mission Board was established at this time and how the Mission Board reacted to the new trend of Christian activities in foreign lands.

1. Setting Up the Mission Board

The foreign missions of Orthodox Philadelphia Yearly Meeting were started by a small group of women. They formed the Women’s Foreign Missionary Association of Friends of Philadelphia (WFMA) in 1882, and launched a Japan mission in 1885. This Women’s Foreign Missionary Association removed “Women’s” from its name and became the Foreign Missionary Association of Friends of Philadelphia (FMA) in 1899. These two organizations were quite independent from Orthodox Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, for the Yearly Meeting was unwilling to undertake foreign missions. From their denominational viewpoint, many Philadelphia Friends were not sympathetic to missionary activities. This would make it even more puzzling that Orthodox Philadelphia Yearly Meeting set up a Mission Board when zeal for foreign missions had subsided in the United States.

Quakerism was originally distinguished from other Protestant denominations by several characteristics: the teaching of the Inward Light, the denial of professional ministry, the silent and unprogrammed worship, the emphasis on equality of all people, the peace testimony, and the simple way of life...


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