The Unspoken in the Missionary Literature of Pearl Buck

At the plenary session of the Beauty and Belief Symposium and Women’s Studies Conference, associate English professor Jeanne Moskal of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discussed the unspoken and the unspeakable in the 20th-century missionary literature of Pearl Buck.

IMG_6031PROVO, Utah (Nov. 5, 2015)—When English professor Jeanne Moskal presents her research on women missionaries, most audiences find the concept exotic. Among a Latter-day Saint audience, however, this is familiar terrain.

At the plenary session of the Beauty and Belief Symposium and Women’s Studies Conference, Moskal identified examples of unspoken concerns of protestant missionaries in 19th and 20th-century missionary literature, particularly emphasizing the work of 1938 Nobel Laureate Pearl Buck, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Good Earth, launched her into the public eye in 1932.

Though it was The Good Earth that received the Pulitzer Prize, Buck has also been both praised and criticized for her nonfiction, in particular two biographical accounts of her parents’ missionary work in China entitled The Exile and Fighting Angel.

As Buck was touring America in 1933 to promote The Good Earth, Moskal said that she startled other protestant missionaries when she began to endorse new ways of doing missionary work.

Buck, a missionary herself, advocated for missionary work that urged missionaries to forego proselytizing entirely and promote humanitarian service in its stead–a bold move that soon attracted a considerable amount of attention from journalists, Moskal explained.

As a result of Buck’s time in the media spotlight, Moskal added that Buck also began to publish essays that “questioned orthodox doctrines, such as Christ’s divinity and the doctrine of salvation through Christ alone.”

Moskal said that outraged fundamentalists of the Presbyterian Church, her supposed enemies, “unwittingly abetted her celebrity,” their accusations drawing sympathy from the unchurched and those who were against censorship.

At the height of the controversy, Presbyterian theologian John Gresham Machen even demanded a heresy trial for Buck, something that was almost unheard of for a woman at the time.

“Buck’s gender mattered,” Moskal said. “Heresy charges, seemingly archaic and outdated, a vestige of the past, were revived at this time as a tactic of ecclesiastical discipline during the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the 1920s and 1930s.”

She continued, “During this time, all the accused heretics were clergy, and all men. Machen broke precedent and demanded heresy trial for a laywoman.” She added that this charge against Buck also rankled Presbyterian women seeking ordination rights who had recently been refused them.

Though many believed Buck harbored heretical views from the start, Moskal said that oversimplifying her beliefs ignored her complexity as a writer. In reality, Buck anguished over various doctrines and her relationships with people who associated themselves with those doctrines.

“Ignoring these complexities, many of the observers of the time simply assumed that Buck had been a closet heretic all along,” Moskal said.

She continued, however, that this simplification of Buck as a “solo” heretic “primed her readers’ appetites for the heretofore unspoken, real story of life in a mission station.”

The real story that Buck told, Moskal said, was the truth about her parents’ troubled missionary marriage.

Buck, who resigned from her post as a missionary to avoid the proposed heresy trial, had an advantage with her readers in that she could write the “unspoken” details of missionary life.

To highlight this, Moskal shared how Buck was able to demonstrate to her readers a unique perspective on the relationship between her parents as missionaries.

Moskal explained that Buck’s father was so oblivious to his wife’s grief over her dead children (a common occurrence in the mission field at that time) that she threatened to end the marriage, declaring, “I have no more children to give God.”

Buck’s biographies also reveal that her father syphoned her mother’s housekeeping money into his Bible translation project, which Buck later referred to as “a dark hole into which all our money disappeared.”

Moskal said that previously, missionary spouses were treated in a single volume, the wife’s role usually downplayed. Buck believed that each story required a separate retelling, however, as each parent harbored a different point of view on missionary life.

“The long history in Protestant missions of missionaries themselves and missionary societies publicly suppressing its writers’ unspoken thoughts and feelings has profoundly weakened their credibility with nonbelievers,” said Moskal.

“In the long run, perhaps evangelism might be better served by speaking the unspoken from the get-go rather than leaving it for the novelists,” she concluded.

–Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia covers the Women’s Studies program for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.