Whitworth English Prof. Expanding the Discourse on China Missions History

By: Kristin Bertsch

Coming in November of 2015, Whitworth will host the much anticipated “China’s Christianity: an Exhibit and Symposium on China’s Struggle for Christian Identity.” This exhibit and symposium responds to the historical growth of Christianity, the world’s largest religion, in China, the world’s most populated country. The exhibit will display rare documents and objects related to the missionary period of Christian evangelization in China, and the symposium will bring prominent scholars to Whitworth to confront the issue of China’s Christian reality, past and present.

The exhibit highlights the relationship between object artifacts and written letters in constructing a historical narrative. Among scholars contributing to the exhibit is the Whitworth English Department’s own Dr. Pam Corpron Parker, whose collection of artifacts from her own family’s missionary history inspire reexamination of the China missions “canon.”

Corpron Family [424229]

Corpron Family, ca 1930s, Hofei China

Institutional newsletters, correspondences, and reports of official missionary activity constitute what has been the established literary canon informing the historical narratives of 20th century China missions. To better understand the reality of the missions experience in China, the conversation is opening up to include an often overshadowed social history, which was recorded in the “unofficial” literature coming out of China in the 20th century. This unofficial literature consists of the letters, photos, and other intimate communications between the missionaries stationed in China and the people they left behind. For those who made the journey to the Middle Kingdom, “writing home” was more than a method of connecting with loved ones; writing home was also a way of creating a new sense of “home” in a foreign environment and an identity as a servant of God.

In her own scholarly work with the collection, Dr. Parker wants to reintroduce those voices largely lost from the missionary literature canon:

“This unofficial literature represents centuries of unrecognized stories of private loss and pragmatism. There is a history here of sacrifices compounded by silences in the traditional Evangelical narrative. These stories of grief for the “accidental missionaries”—those children and innocents overtaken by disease, violence, and general hardship—raise important questions about our narratives of acceptable and unacceptable loss and sacrifice in the missionary tradition…”

Dr. Parker’s grandparents, Douglas and Grace Corpron of Yakima, Washington, sailed for China in 1924, where Douglas began work as a medical missionary and established the first Christian hospital in Hofei. The Corprons’ presence in Hofei was well-received, as they provided much-needed medical care and public services to the soldiers and families of an increasingly war-torn territory. Serving in China during the escalating Sino-Japanese conflict was a test of both spirit and constitution for the Corprons, who chose to remain with the Christian mission until the late 1940s despite having to endure a series of private tragedies while in service. The unofficial literature of the Corpron family mission in China details the homesickness, the disease, the fixed threat of violence, and the unrelenting specter of death that took from them their two small children, Phyllis Anne and “Billie” Corpron, in 1927. With the generation of a “second family”—children Douglas, Ruth, and Mary—the Corprons experienced China as a place of both destruction and recreation.

To view Dr. Parker’s contributions and the full collection of artifacts from the China Mission, come visit the exhibition on 1st floor of the Harriet Cheney Cowles Library.

Kristin Bertsch (’17) is a junior English/Writing major at Whitworth, pursuing a future in graduate school and a career in travel writing. Kristin studied abroad last year in Britain and Ireland and will study English at Oxford University during spring of 2016. In addition to her studies and contributions to the English Department blog, Kristin works as research assistant to English Professor Dr. Pam Parker and as archiving assistant to Library Director and Art Professor Dr. Amanda Clark. Kristin is an active supporter of local art and theater and a frequenter of Spokane Poetry Slam.

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