On Really Getting Things Wrong

This summer I am once again in the archives researching world Christian leaders in the early part of the twentieth century: John R. Mott, T. Z. Koo, J. H. Oldham, to name a few.  A more limited project has me reading early Methodist missionary letters who are living among Native Americans in Oregon in the 1830s and 1840s.

In the course of this archival research I occasionally come across letters where the writers are so very blind to the big events that are beginning to happen around them or will shortly happen.  They are sometimes astonishing to read.  Sometimes they are astonishingly boring in light of what – in historical hindsight – we know was about to happen in their world (like World War 1)! But for the most part my reaction to these astonishing letters is not one of self-righteous incredulity where I wonder, “How could s/he think or say that?”  Quite the contrary.  When I come across these letters they frequently give me pause as I wonder to myself, “What am I missing in my own context?”  Am I equally blind to critical matters happening in my world where I am doing very little in response?

It seems important to be especially prayerful along these lines during the summer of 2018 which seems particularly disturbing in the world news events that are swirling about us.  The growth of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States, the rise of right-wing nationalist leaders, the separation of immigrant families, the effusive praise of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un by President Trump… The list goes on.  What will happen next?  What is happening now in other parts of the world that I am not noticing because these events I just mentioned are either closer to home or are more active in the press I am paying attention to?

It is with all of this in mind that I share an excerpt from a two-page, typewritten letter written by an early twentieth century evangelist named Sherwood Eddy.  He was very popular as an evangelist in student circles, and by the late 1920s was getting increasingly intrigued by what was happening in the still-new Soviet Union.  He sent an almost syrupy sweet letter to Josef Stalin in 1932.  What was happening in 1932 that he was clueless about?  Well, here’s a bit of a taste…

In 1932 the first “five-year plan” was wrapping up.  Collectivization of Soviet agriculture was moving forward at a break-neck pace and a devastating famine was setting in causing the deaths of millions of people in the Ukraine and elsewhere.  Some scholars see this as deliberate and thus worthy of the “genocide” label committed by Stalin.

Now read the letter that Sherwood Eddy wrote to Stalin that I came across in my research at the Yale Divinity School archives.  One of the most striking examples of really getting things wrong.

This is my ninth visit to this country in twenty years – twice in Czarist Russia, seven times to the Soviet Union, which has made such astonishing progress especially during the Five Year Plan.  I am counted a friend of this country and have been working for a decade with my friends… for the recognition of the Soviet Union by the reactionary Government of the United States, so much so that in America it is foolishly said I must be supported by “Moscow gold.”  I am not a Communist nor a capitalist, but a Socialist; but I want to see this daring undertaking of a classless society under a new social order succeed, and it is succeeding.

I know you are occupied with much more important questions in collectivization, heavy and light industry, etc.  I do not ask an interview nor an answer to this letter, which may not even reach you, but I have confidence in you as the one man that can bring victory and success in the face of all these difficulties.

Speaking as a friend of the Soviet Union, not by way of criticism but in kindly suggestion, I may say that your tourist business for foreigners is very badly run. I know the difficulties and I do not expect perfection, busy as you are with more important internal problems, but things are worse this year in many respects than in previous years.  Thousands of dollars have been wasted abroad in advertising which was unpsychological and not adapted to foreigners, promising things which could not be fulfilled, and have not been fulfilled.  A few thousand dollars spent in making these hotels suitable for foreigners would have brought better results than tens of thousands in unwise advertising which has not been fulfilled…[1]

Yes, that’s right.  In the midst of a genocidal famine, caused, in large part, by Josef Stalin we have this letter giving Comrade Stalin advice on his country’s hospitality industry!  Astonishing?  Yes.  There are lots of important historical questions that could be posed about this letter and Eddy’s context and worldview that helps us to understand this letter.  But in this blog my question is more personal.  What are we missing?

May we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear what is happening in our world that is at least somewhat better than Sherwood Eddy was able to see in his own day.  That is my humble prayer – for all of us.

 

 

[1] Letter from Sherwood Eddy to Josef Stalin, July 29, 1932.  Sherwood Eddy papers, Yale Divinity School archives, New Haven, CT

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About Ben Hartley

Associate Professor of Christian Mission College of Christian Studies George Fox University
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