Visitors to the Frost Library in the spring of 2013 were met in the lobby with an exhibition put together by students from Wendy Ewald’s class Collaborative Art: The Practice and Theory of Working with Communities. Items in the exhibition were selections from archival collections the students had used in classroom meetings during the 2012 fall semester. The resultant class projects used the Amherst College missionary collections for the historical part of their work and interviewed local people for the contemporary part. The class then produced an exhibition and a book that connected the two projects. Enlarged pages from the book were also on display in the mezzanine gallery above the lobby exhibition.
Exhibition viewers might have wondered how Amherst College came to possess so much material about Christian missionaries. As many people will know, Amherst College was founded with the object of “educating for the gospel ministry young men in indigent circumstances, but of hopeful piety and promising talents.” When Noah Webster described this mission at the laying of the cornerstone of South College in August of 1820, he could not have imagined exactly how and to what extent it would play out. However, in the decades that followed his assertion, Amherst turned out approximately 140 missionaries for 20 countries. Many of those missionaries founded something resembling dynasties, in which succeeding generations followed their parents and grandparents into missionary service. Because of the strong connection between the College and its alumni, many of the missionary families eventually deposited their papers here, over time forming an impressive group of missionary collections.
One need not be religious, or interested in the study of religion or the missionary movement, to find these collections fascinating and extraordinarily important. In general, the collections provide a rich context for study of our history in the Middle East and India in particular, with a few collections covering other countries. However, the collections may also be approached from many other angles, including international history, American history, history of religion, politics, women’s studies, as well as a basic biographical approach to any one of the individuals represented in the collections.
Consider, as an example of the latter approach, the four wives of missionary William Frederic Williams (1818-1871), Sarah, Hattie, Carrie, and Kate. Taken together, their lives span nearly a century, with much of that time spent living in the Middle East. What would the archival records – diaries, letters, photographs, documents – tell us about their personal lives, or about the role of women in missionary families in the 19th century? How did they view themselves, their lives, their work? These women had careers at a time when most American women didn’t. Did they recognize this fact in the manner that we do, and did they acknowledge it in some fashion, or was it unquestioned? To what extent did women deliberately seek out this work as one of the few socially acceptable ways in which to carve out a career, or to put it differently, what kind of woman decided to leave her home in America for a distant, unknown land in order to do missionary work? What was the stronger impulse, religion or adventure? Certainly some women came to the work because they married men who were already or about to be missionaries, but others went out to work as missionaries on their own and married missionary men they met abroad.
For that matter, one could flip the standard route and look at the life of Laura Bliss, daughter of Edwin E. Bliss, Class of 1837, and his wife Isabella, missionaries in Turkey from 1844-1896. Laura was born in Turkey in 1846 and referred to Turkey as “home” for most of her life. She did missionary work there (with mixed success) as a young girl, but then married a missionary posted in America (Langdon Ward) and thus gave up her work in Turkey in order to raise a large family in Massachusetts. Laura Ward experienced an early career as a single female missionary and then a later one as wife and mother in America. All her children grew up to be missionaries, as did some of their children. I could go on (just ask my colleagues) – the possibilities for research topics from our missionary collections seem infinite to me, and getting to know the people in the collections is the next best thing to time travel.
Another well-documented, very obvious topic in several of our collections is the conflict between the Turks and the Armenians. As Christian missionaries posted to the Ottoman Empire, the families represented in the papers would have identified with and focused their labors on the Armenians, who had a history of Christianity. Many collections illuminate this topic, including, for example, the letters of Isabella Bliss to her children in the twenty years between 1876 to 1896, most of them written from her home in Scutari (now Üsküdar),Turkey. These letters, in Isabella’s very legible handwriting, provide numerous details about events in Turkey, revealing both what Isabella understood to be the situation as well as how the conflict affected her own situation in Scutari. Later generations of Blisses and Wards (Isabella’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren) experienced events that grew out of what Isabella had witnessed, giving the family a perspective on the history of the region that spanned four generations.
Another example of a resource about the conflict in Turkey may be found in the photograph albums in Charles Weeden’s papers. The Weeden papers document a later period, the 1920s.
All of the collections are readily available to researchers. We would welcome students who might be interested to visit the Archives and speak with one of the staff members about paper or project topics. We will continue to improve and add to the collections and their documentation over time, and we also have a long-term goal of describing the links among the collections, thereby providing a sense of the community of missionaries with connections to Amherst College.
In case you didn’t get to see the exhibition in Frost, here are a few items from several of the collections.