Elizabethtown College students senior Bella D’Ascanio, junior Caitlyn Whirt and senior Cesar Vera presented their research on the Brethren missionaries in China at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies on Tuesday, Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m.
The event, entitled “Peace, Love and China,” began during a week-long research trip to Chicago, Ill. The trip was part of the Peace and Conflict in China course co-taught by Dr. David Kenley, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Global Understanding and Peacemaking, and Dr. Jeffrey Bach, director of the Young Center, during the spring 2013 semester. During that week, the students looked at letters written by the Brethren missionaries in China.
D’Ascanio presented first on two Brethren missionaries, Anna Blough and Nettie Senger. The presentation emphasized the role these two women played in China and the importance of women in Chinese missionary trips. Blough fell in love with the country during her visit when she was 18 years old; like many Brethren missionary women, she first became involved in missionary trips for the adventure she might experience as well as an opportunity to escape the normal home duties of a wife during that time. However, Blough also sought to help the women in China attain a higher social standing and be better cared for by the families.
Senger initially served in China for similar reasons as Blough, but Senger also educated the women. Literacy rates, especially of women, rose thanks to Senger’s work. Senger left China in 1939 after some of the other missionaries voiced concern that she was working too hard. She returned to America but still actively championed her cause of helping women in China.
Whirt conducted the second student presentation on “Bible women” in China. Bible women were native Chinese women who had been converted to Christianity and helped spread Christianity throughout China. Whirt explained that Bible women are a largely untouched subject in history, and the origins of how the women were allowed to do this work in a largely patriarchal society is unclear. However, they were an essential part of the Brethren missionary trips in China. “It was helpful to have the Bible women who would be able to bridge the cultural gap,” Whirt said.
A primary goal was to begin evangelizing in the home with the idea that if the mother converted, the rest of the family was more likely to convert. Native Chinese women rarely trusted missionary women, but they often trusted the Bible women. Thus, the Bible women would be able to bring missionary women into the home to convert women. “The goal was to evangelize the whole nation, but the women were the key,” Whirt said. The Bible women aided in spreading literacy throughout the country, particularly to other Chinese women. Literacy rates were essentially nonexistent for women during that time, and for men the literacy rate was about 30 to 40 percent. However, Bible women helped teach 1,000 Chinese characters to the people, which greatly increased the literacy rates of both women and men.
Vera was the final presenter, and he focused on the Brethren missionaries during the Communist revolution. The Brethren believed they would be able to continue their missionary work despite the shift in government. Shortly after the takeover, though, the government required the missionaries to pay for living there and gave them certain restrictions, such as not being allowed to use automobiles. After this, some missionaries fled to West China, where the government had less control.
The remaining missionaries did not endure much longer. One of them, Alice Margaret Huggins believed that America needed to recognize the control of Communist China in order to continue their mission. The American government refused to do so, and the situation fully deteriorated during the Korean War. As a result, all of the Brethren missionaries were forced to leave China. The trip to China may have seemed like an overall failure; however, Bach stated at the end of the presentations that the Brethren evangelists were a small, but highly productive group. Also, a member of the audience and Chinese native added, “I think that the missionary planted the seed to the gospel in China,” and that she has seen a recent revival of Christianity in China.