Adapted for serial use in the Missions Banner from a sermon of the same title delivered at Tacoma Bible Presbyterian Church, September 9, 2018. Rev. Fisher is a member of the Presbyterian Missionary Union Council. The text was 1 Peter 1:23-25. Used with permission.
Fears, Cries and Pearl S.
Fears concerning the unpopularity of Christianity, the abuse of it and the perceived loss concerning the potency of the Gospel, have often tempted men and women to consider changing it so that it is more in step with what Dr. Hall called, “The Spirit of the Times.”
The pressure in this regard is felt in the work of missions as much as anywhere else. In the journal, Church History, Grant Wacker wrote an article entitled, “Pearl S. Buck and the Waning Missionary Impulse.”
Most people know Pearl S. Buck as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, but she was much more than that. Both she and her parents were long-time Presbyterian missionaries to China, and she rocked the Christian world in 1932 with her now infamous address, “Is There a Case for Foreign Missions?”
Two thousand Presbyterian women went to hear her speak, primarily because of her novel and prize, at the Hotel Astor in New Yok City. When she was done with her speech, there was stunned silence. After she was escorted off the stage, applause started, and it eventually rose to a crescendo, but not until she was in the wings.
The question she courageously raised, asserted the Century, was whether the missionary enterprise should remain forever bound by an “authoritative, unchangeable, and exactly phrased body of doctrine,” or whether it should be free to adjust to the needs of the time. The mission board’s secretary for China praised Buck’s ideas as “fine and sound.” The Hartford Courant and the Seattle Times toasted her.” (Wacker, Grant. “Pearl S. Buck and the Waning of the Missionary Impulse” (Church History 72, no. 4 : 852-74. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4146375).
But there was something more to her speech than just a “courageous” question. Buck publicly expressed her doubts concerning the divinity, the death and resurrection, and even the existence of Jesus Christ, historically.
This position should have been acknowledged for what it was, but despite the clear instruction of God’s Word, she, and others with her, persisted in their “Christianity.” [Consider] 1 John 4:3 – “And every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.” [Pearl] would eventually admit that she was not a disciple of the Jesus she denied, but not at first—not until she had led many along into a denial of the truth in the name of true faith.
Wacker traces Buck’s life and views, putting them into three phases, and marks with these phases the changes in the attitudes of Americans toward missions. It is especially the second phase of her life that he fixes on, because her thinking, first expressed in this 1932 speech, helps, he says, to “illustrate the process by which millions of Americans came to doubt the morality of exporting Christianity to a non-Christian culture.” (to be continued in the April edition)