September 21, 2010
Who Wrote This Intemperate Letter?
History is a slippery thing. So I have told myself many times. Usually the context for this thought is early Christian history, often the New Testament era. Our sources are few—or at least far fewer than we might wish—and many a fact or context eludes us. We try to fill in the gaps by historical triangulation or by trying to discern the most probable scenario given the facts we have to go on. What was going on “when Cephas came to Antioch”? Exactly who were the judaizers? What was the setting of the Letter of James? Who was the author of Hebrews and what is the setting it addresses? If we only had [blank], we could shine more light on this or that situation.
Anyone who has spent serious time in early Christian scholarship has their own list of questions. And as we burrow into the texts, their gaps and the questions they raise, we encounter another stubborn fact. We bring our own perspectives to this work, which in turn colors our conclusions. Our decision on point A might very well affect our conclusion on point F. A mistaken judgment on point B might lead us far afield by the time we reach point G. And our judgment on point A or B might easily have been corrected if we had just had some additional information. Perhaps another ancient text. Or perhaps access to oral tradition. The fields of New Testament and early Christian studies are littered with this sort of thing. (And I guess I shouldn’t complain, since this offers job security for me—it renders untold possibilities for publishing new books!)
With this theme never far from my mind, I encountered something a few weeks ago that brought it back to the surface in an interesting way. I was reading Hilary Spurling’s recently published biography, Pearl Buck in China.
Pearl Buck (née Sydenstricker) is an interesting figure, whose missionary upbringing in China and early adulthood as a missionary in that country provided the inspiration and fodder for her many books, the best known of which is The Good Earth (which resurfaced in influence when Oprah Winfrey made it a book club selection in 2004). Buck was a Nobel and Pulitzer winner and quite a celebrity in her day. My interest in Pearl Buck has much to do with the ways in which she and her missionary family intertwine with my own missionary-family lineage on my mother’s side.
Pearl Sydenstricker grew up in China as a missionary kid, went to college in the States, then returned to China as an educational missionary and married Lossing Buck, an agricultural missionary. The Bucks lived and worked in China for several years, during which time Pearl started to write and publish. To make a long story short, her novel The Good Earth (1931) was an enormous success and gave Westerners a glimpse of the “real” life of ordinary Chinese people. But her novels did not present Western missionaries in a good light, and her colleagues found them scandalous not only for that, but for her frank depiction of sexuality. In 1932 in New York City, and in the context of the recently released (and controversial) Rethinking Missions: A Layman’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years (1932), Buck delivered an address (“Is There a Case for Foreign Missions?”) that was highly critical of Christian missionaries. This fueled a controversy that featured the Presbyterian NT scholar J. Gresham Machen and resulted in Buck’s resignation from the Presbyterian mission board in April of 1933.
It was in this context that on February 4, 1933, a Southern Presbyterian missionary to China, James R. Graham, wrote a circular letter (what missionaries would call a prayer letter) in which, toward its conclusion, he commented on the Pearl Buck affair. This letter is attributed by Peter Conn, the author of an earlier critical biography of Buck, and by Spurling (relying on Conn?) to “Rev James Graham who had succeeded Absalom [Pearl’s father] in the Chinkiang mission” (Conn, 153; see Spurling, 210-11). But the brief excerpts from this letter, quoted by Conn and Spurling, match precisely what I find in a letter of that same date written by Rev Jas R. Graham Jr, who was actually the son of the James Graham that Conn attributes it to. The confusion is entirely understandable (and further complicated by the fact that the elder Graham was actually “Jr.” and the younger was “III”!). But Graham’s comments are characterized by Conn as exemplifying the reaction by missionaries in “attacks … typically intemperate and personal.”
How am I able to identify the real author of the letter? Because Graham the elder and Graham the junior are my great-grandfather and grandfather. Our family has a collection of their correspondence from those days in China, and I have an oral informant in my aged mother, who in her eighty-eighth year has wonderful recall of her youth in China (if not of yesterday), and of her father and grandfather Graham. And I like to think I could also make this identification on stylistic grounds.
And I’m going to argue that it matters. (To be continued.)