Critics of Christian missionaries often write them off as pawns of imperialism, destroying native cultures as they spread their religion and their racist beliefs. There’s a grain of truth to this: Protestant missionaries throughout American history did promote colonialism and prejudice. But then upon returning home many did the opposite. Men and women sent abroad to make the world look more like the U.S. wound up, paradoxically, trying to make the U.S. look more like the world.
During the first half of the 20th century, American missionaries began developing relatively generous attitudes toward the people they had been taught to regard as heathen and backward, if not inferior. Deep and sustained immersion in foreign communities challenged inherited stereotypes. Missionaries and their children eventually became some of the most conspicuous opponents of colonialism and racism.
As early as the 1920s missionaries were telling their sponsors back home that they wanted to cut back on preaching and focus instead on social service. This idea sharply divided the community of faith. Fundamentalists treated any weakening of the program of conversion as heresy. Yet the better-educated liberals who later came to be known as “mainline Protestants” voiced increasing respect for Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and other faiths. These Congregationalists, Methodists and ecumenical groups applied their cosmopolitanism to national and world affairs. The women’s missionary boards were persistent critics of Jim Crow at home and colonialism abroad.