by John Stam
More than fifty years ago, when Harry and Susan Strachan founded the Latin America Mission, the continent was wracked by political turbulence.
More than fifty years ago, when Harry and Susan Strachan founded the Latin America Mission, the continent was wracked by political turbulence. Their Latin America Evangelization Campaign was conducted in the late 1920s, a time when churches at home were hotly divided by the fundamentalist -modernist conflict, and when U. S. political, military and business leaders found it to their advantage to push for direct intervention in Latin American affairs.
So, the Strachans, like many missionaries today, were caught between a desire to be faithful to the gospel-to keep it from being identified with American political and business interestsand a desire to build support from American Christians who often found it hard to understand the political and economic perplexities on the field. They also wanted to be faithful to nationals who were struggling to gain freedom from both local dictators and foreign intervention.
This article is a case study of one aspect of how the Strachans tried to reflect back to their home constituencies what U.S. policies looked like to Latin Americans and to missionaries working there. They used the mission’s magazine, Latin America Evangelist, to deal with political issues and the effects of American foreign policy on the Lord’s work in Latin America. They did not avoid political matters, but spoke out boldly, trying to report and analyze the situation from their perspective. By so doing, they communicated to Latin Americans and North Americans alike how missionaries can give a responsible relevance to their work.
Rather than cover the entire continent, I have chosen first the Strachans’ comment on the Mexican oil problem in the 1920s, and then their continued correspondence relative to U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. Both countries today are involved with U.S. foreign and business policies to a great degree. These examples will, I trust, serve as models to encourage field missionaries, missions executives and editors of missions periodicals in the States.
The year 1926 was a stormy one, especially in Mexico and Nicaragua. The Mexican congress had passed the "Alien Land and Petroleum Laws" (December, 1925) of President Plutarco Elias Calles, much to the disapproval of the U.S. State Department. Sharp controversies began immediately and lasted all year. Secretary of State Kellogg’s ultimatum on October 30 awakened fears that the U.S. invasions of 1914 and 1916 might be repeated. Meanwhile, anti-clerical President Calles was locked in conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, the Knights of Columbus, and the fanatical "cristeros."
In Nicaragua, Liberal and Conservative political party members were at each other’s throats, and the U.S. Marines, who had occupied the land from June, 1912, until April, 1925, abruptly ended the brief recess and reoccupied Nicaragua in December, 1926. They remained there until January 1, 1933, and left behind the Nicaraguan National Guard, with Dictator Anastasio Somoza virtually in control of the country.
Susan Strachan, in a December, 1926, editorial, commented on "The Mexican Situation as Seen from This End." She perceived that "there are tremendous financial interests at stake" in President Calles’s program. When "Mexicans hold less than onethird of the resources of their own country, there can be no doubts as to the legitimacy of the Mexican people’s aspiration to possess and administrate their own resources." The "heroic attempt" of President Calles to achieve "political and commercial in dependence" for his country is a "most laudable enterprise,” she wrote. The Mexican people ought to have the prayers and sympathy of all true Christians in their gigantic struggle. They are face to face with at least two insatiable enemies, one being the Church of Rome and the other the rival foreign commercial enterprises that have been behind Mexico’s political troubles for the last two decades.
There was no doubt about where she stood on political and economic issues. About the first of the "two insatiable enemies" she explained: "A church that enjoys an immense annual rental from its landed properties and yet does nothing to improve the (condition of the) people is a church that is drawing the life blood of Mexico." Her insight into the complicity of the church in Mexico’s economic problems was prophetic. Very few Catholics in Latin America were talking her language in the 1920s, but her critique is now commonplace.
Mrs. Strachan’s pin-pointing of "rival foreign commercial enterprises 11 as the second "insatiable enemy" of the Mexican people was equally prophetic. It took courage to say this, because (1) fundamentalism, with its rejection of the "social gospel" and its tendency toward a purely other-worldly gospel, was enjoying its heyday, and (2) the newly -born mission was busily raising support for its flurry of new and expensive projects. Some of those funds conceivably could come from wealthy Christians closely related to those "foreign enterprises. " They would not be too happy with her description of ". . . the selfish, bloodless, inhuman monster called ‘big business’ (embroiled in) the intrigues of Wall Street. "
Opposed to these two enemies of Mexico, Mrs. Strachan saw in President Calles and his nationalization program a clear sign of hope: "The hour of restitution has struck and Pres. Calles and his cabinet are the people’s spokesmen."
The January, 1927, issue of the Evangelist reproduced a cable sent to President Coolidge, signed by Harry Strachan, Samuel Harris, dean of the mission’s Bible institute, and two other Christian leaders in Costa Rica. The message, sent December 18, 1926, read as follows:
General opinion of Christian Americans resident here is that danger of communism through Mexican influence is absolutely nonexistent in Central America. Assistance of Mexico (to Nicaragua) is due to historic sympathy between Liberals. Remember that persecution of Protestant missionaries in Latin America occurs only under Conservative administrations, as in Nicaragua last week.
Introducing this cable, the Evangelist commented on "the ridiculous pretension that President Calles and his cabinet are sold to the Russian soviet," which has "conjured up the bogie of bolshevism with which to scare the people of the U. S. into a line of action that will be resented throughout the whole continent." The Evangelist editorial classified this as "mendacious propaganda . . . the machinations of the enemies of His truth." Hence, it considered the Strachan-Harris telegram as an "expression of Christian sentiment at this critical moment."
The April, 1927, issue returned to the problem of Mexico and related it to the December, 1926, U.S. invasion of Nicaragua. A three-page article by E. M. Haymaker, reproduced from "Guatemala News," bitterly lamented these U.S. policies as "disastrous," especially to missionary work, and urged that "we had better meddle with their internal affairs just as little as possible." Such interventions arouse the continent-wide fear of the "colossus of the North" and bring anti-Americanism to the boiling point in Latin America.
The Evangelist of June, 1927, was the strongest issue of all on the Nicaraguan problem, with two straight-forward articles. – "The Intervention Blunder in Nicaragua" by Susan Strachan, and "Kellogg Echoes" by E. M. Haymaker. Included were references to the infamous "Tipitapa Pact" of May, 1927, between General Moncada and Col. Henry L. Stimson of the U.S. Moncada had been fighting to restore legally-elected Juan Bautista Sacasa to office, against the U.S.-imposed ‘(without popular elections) "President" Adolfo Diaz (Conservative Party). But at Tipitapa, Moncada made his deal with Stimson, whom U.S. President Calvin Coolidge had sent as his personal emissary. Moncada agreed to lay down his arms, support Adolfo Diaz for the completion of his term, and accept U.S.-supervised elections for 1928, with the strongly implicit promise that Moncada himself would be the U.S.-backed candidate. Moncada, in fact, was elected, November 4, 1928. (Sacasa was elected president in 1932.)
Although many people rejoiced in the "peace" fabricated by this North American "mediation," Nicaraguan patriot Augusto Cesar Sandino vehemently rejected the Moncada-Stimson pact-as did Susan Strachan-and for virtually identical reasons. Exposing the illusion that the Moncada-Stimson truce was an honorable and amicable solution to Nicaragua’s problems, she wrote: "A peace that was forced upon the Liberals, at the mouth of American guns, cannot be an acceptable peace no matter how many signatures may be appended thereto. " The fact that the Liberal leaders were brought to the negotiations on an American warship, and then told by Stimson that if they did not submit, Admiral Latimer’s troops would disarm them by force, "made the peace ‘conference’ a farce . . . An intervention of this nature cannot produce lasting peace."
Mrs. Strachan then quoted a lengthy statement by Juan Bautista Sacasa, legitimate president of Nicaragua who had fled to Costa Rica after Stimson’s maneuver imposed on the country the illegitimate presidency of the U.S. pawn, Adolfo Diaz. "We were conquered by the strong, by the momentarily omnipotent. We fell before the unexpected, before invincible forces," lamented Dr. Sacasa in his statement quoted in the Evangelist.
Mrs. Strachan said the Diaz regime had been "violently imposed upon Nicaragua." This was the regime that led to the Somoza dynasty and the Nicaraguan National Guard. It prospered under the immediate tutelage of the U.S. Marines and U.S. Ambassadors M. E. Hanna, Arthur Bliss Lane, Boaz Long, and later, Thomas E. Whelan.
Mrs. Strachan concluded her article:
From Mexico to Patagonia, Latin America is seething with anger and resentment against everything that savours of the United States. The spirit of friendship that had so happily developed within recent years has been swept away overnight and angry suspicion has taken its place. That big business should be hurt by this is of no consequence whatever, but that the noble spirit of true neighborliness and genuine idealism that characterizes the people of the United States toward all the world, and particularly toward small nations that sorely need the help she so generously offers, should be scoffed at and derided as mere bait with which more easily to trap the victims of its overweening imperialism, this indeed is to be mourned … A blunder of far-reaching consequences has been committed. The cause of the Gospel is suffering because of it.
Haymaker in his article, "Kellogg Echoes," candidly said the U.S. had blundered in Latin America:
Our Secretary of State, to protect the interests of a few doubtful Americans and get some advantages without paying much for them, landed a few Marines in Nicaragua and roused the ire of Latin Americans from Tia Juana to Ushuia, and roused the ire of all Americans who are not friends of imperialism and bullyism. All other interests of every kind have to suffer the effects of this blunder … The anti-American feeling has been intense. Publications and demonstrations have been varied and virulent.
Such outspoken, clear-out analysis and indictment of American policies overseas is hard to find in present-day missionary magazines, and among today’s "missionary statesmen."
Even after these angry blasts against imperialism and interventionism, the subject was not dropped from the pages of the Evangelist. Harry Strachan, in a November, 1927, report on his trip through Central America, wrote:
One thing that grieved me very much, however, was to find not only here (in Guatemala), but all over Central America a strong feeling, created largely by the suicidal policy of Secretary Kellogg in Nicaragua, which has reacted not only upon North American trade in general, but also upon the missionaries and their labors. The missionaries everywhere were practically unanimous in their condemnation of this most unfortunate intervention.
Three months later, the February, 1928, issue carried another sharp anti-imperialist article by Haymaker and a lead article entitled, "A New Intervention in Nicaragua." The gist of these was that "military intervention, as was plainly foreseen, has hopelessly failed to bring peace," but has rather sown seeds of suspicion and hatred. The magazine then reported the beginnings of an evangelistic campaign in Nicaragua by Harry Strachan and Sergio M. Alfaro. For these meetings, 9,000 handbills were circulated with the controversial title, "The Real Traitor of Nicaragua." Others were called, "Nicaragua, Will You Break Your Chains?" and "Nicaragua to the Fight." Not too surprisingly, on the fourth night preacher Alfaro was arrested "on a charge of bolshevism."
Politics reappeared in the May, 1928, issue with a brief article by Charles S. Detweller and a longer one by Sergio Alfaro, called, "A Latin American Gives Some Frank Advice" (Alfaro was a Puerto Rican). Detweiler was somewhat more favorable to the Liberal Party and the Marines, and skeptical about Sandino. He made the painfully ironic prediction that "there will be a Liberal regime in Nicaragua after the first of January next, and a native constabuilary officered by Americans is likely to assure the peace of the country and the stability of the new government for a long time to come." It was fair of the Strachans also to publish this "minority opinion," I so different from their own before and after.
Alfaro’s article took up the anti-imperialism theme of the previous issues. Among numerous national prejudices against evangelicals, he included "the belief that the missionaries are the advance guard of American occupation." He commented, "Unfortunately, the disastrous Latin American policy of the Department of State in recent years has given grounds for suspicion and has created much difficulty for the cause of evangelical missions." He recommended, among other things, that missionaries disassociate themselves "entirely from the political measures of our own government."
The Evangelist summed up the Nicaraguan problem in a December, 1928, editorial, "Goodwill Between the Americans: A Plea for Prayer." "The political outlook in these Latin American countries has given us ground for grave misgivings about the future of the missionary enterprise," wrote Mrs. Strachan. "The wave of anti -Americanism fed by the unfortunate role of intervention which the Department of State has felt thrust upon it in several republics, has grown of late to immense proportions." Apostles of hate, including the clergy, were not hesitating to feed the fires of resentment.
Then she gave this remarkable political and economic analysis of the whole problem:
We may be touching matters too deep, for us when we state that the menace of bolshevism is not the bogie that some of us have thought it was. It is well known that the Russian Soviet has its agents all over the world and that its avowed object is to subvert the existing world order. What it tried to do in China it is trying to do in Latin America and we have come to the conclusion that the repressive measures which in some Latin American countries are threatening freedom of speech and of the press, are dictated by a nervous fear of the subtle growth of communism. And undoubtedly this common danger has warranted to some extent the measures of intervention which the United States government has felt compelled to adopt.
We think it is true to say that missionaries in general have greatly deprecated the necessity for such measures. We have thought a better way might have been found to the same end. We love the people of these countries and we have deeply grieved that they should be otherwise than fairly and justly dealt with by our nation. We have been indignant that the intrigues of Wall Street should embroil the friendly relations between the Americas.
At times we confess that we have grown pessimistic as to the outcome of it all, for the world over, the selfish, bloodless, inhuman monster called ‘big business’ is driving peace from the earth and making goodwill towards men of other races a hopeless dream.
The editorial concluded with a hopeful report on the visit to Costa Rica by President-elect Herbert Hoover and a five-paragraph analysis of the "spiritual side" of the situation. Hoover’s visit of November, 1928, was seen as a sign that "he has not been oblivious to the outcry against what these countries feel to be the injustice of the stronger nation; he has known that the smoldering fires of discontent might at any moment burst into a conflagration that would imperil the peace of two hundred millions of people on the American continent, and has come down to see at first hand what can be done about it.
The concluding spiritual analysis saw the sinister hand of the "great enemy" behind the troubled U.S.-Latin American relations, and the presence and grace of God in the signs of hope just beginning to appear. With boldness and optimism Mrs. Strachan asserted:
We look upon the triumphant election of Mr. Hoover to the presidency of the United States and his visit of goodwill to Latin America as directly planned by God to undo at least some of Satan’s propaganda. We believe that a new policy of sympathy and genuine cooperation will mark the relations between Latin American peoples and the United States, and that this will destroy the unfounded suspicion as to the imperialist tendency of the stronger nation…
…the real contest is yet to come and seeing that the great issues at stake are such as will not be affected by mere votes, and seeing that the warfare to be waged is riot against flesh and blood but against ‘the despotisms, the empires, the forces that control and govern this dark world,’ we would put in a plea for prayer. In Herbert Hoover God has once more given America and the world a great leader. You voted for him. Are you praying for him?
Mrs. Strachan added that "prayer for Latin America ought to take into account those underlying forces of evil which manifest themselves from time to time in political changes inimical to the spread of the Gospel." Hence, the way forward for Christian mission must be made open and kept open through the prayers of God’s people.
In all, between December, 1926, and December, 1928, the Evangelist published some thirteen direct and explicit references to the political problems of Latin America, especially in Nicaragua. The articles and editorials were well-informed, perceptive, and balanced. They were never ambiguous or uncommitted, but rather bold and prophetic. Some conclusions arise from this study, that could serve as useful examples and guidelines for missionary writers, editors and speakers today.
1. In the early days of the Evangelist, politics was very much on the agenda. The subject was seen as vitally related to "the mission of the Mission." It was by no means taboo, to be avoided as either improper or unspiritual. Contemporary issues on the field were confronted head-on because they were of vital concern to missions and of importance in teaching and living Christian ethics.
2. The Evangelist was clearly against imperialism and thus opposed to North American intervention in Latin America. In a turning point of Nicaraguan history, for example, the Strachans made their voices heard. Perhaps Nicaraguan history would have been different if their appeals had been heeded.
3. Mrs. Strachan showed how to apply biblical teaching to current affairs. She affirmed Christian commitment to justice for the weak, and the Christian’s obligation to protest injustice and exploitation. She declared the demonic element in imperialism and confessed a profound faith in what is, now called "political prayer." She called American Christians to such prayer, for the sake of "Christ and Latin America." Her comments, while not technical or sophisticated, reflected a well-balanced understanding of the biblical view of justice and politics.
4. The editorials rejected the "communist menace" as the real cause of the political problems of Latin America, and as the key to their interpretation. While recognizing the tension between postrevolutionary Russia and the capitalist West, the Strachans repudiated the "communist threat" as a reason for imperialistic intervention.
5. The Strachans also attributed the problems of the mid- and late twenties to "financial interests," Wall Street "intrigues," and "big business."
Many situations in the world today resemble those in Latin America in the 1920s. There is a need for American Christians, and national believers as well, to hear from missions leaders political statements as cogent as those I have reviewed from the Evangelist. In the political turbulences of our times, can we afford to be any less bold and thoughtful? Must we not risk-with prayer and faith-pointing out the great biblical principles at stake in world affairs, even though justice and truth may put us as missionaries on the side of unpopular (even, if necessary, anti-U.S. foreign policy and big business) opinions?
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