In Review

Performing World Missions in 1911

Erin L. Hasinoff’s Faith in Objects: American Missionary Expositions in the Early Twentieth Century.

Stewards as Buddhists, Buddhist Temple. Buddhism Court, Hall of Religions, the World in Boston, 1911. Missionary Research Collection, The Burke Theological Library, Columbia University

By Dana L. Robert

On April 22, 1911, President Taft sent a telegram to Boston. Four hundred miles from the White House, the presidential flag unfurled, a giant electric star was lit, and a choir of five thousand—accompanied by full orchestra—broke into the national anthem. Taft’s personal greeting launched the World in Boston, a month-long exposition that showcased dozens of exhibits composed of cultural artifacts from around the world. Over the next month, four hundred thousand people converged on the Great Hall of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, then the largest exhibition space in town. Thousands of volunteers sang in choirs, marched in parades, and populated living tableaux. Twenty thousand volunteer stewards were involved in running the event.

In contemporary perspective, such an outpouring of public participation seems understandable for Independence Day festivities along the Charles River, or the Boston Marathon, or the World Series. Yet the event that drew such crowds in 1911 was the first missionary exposition held in the United States. The thousands of stewards and choir members came from local churches. The visitors were attracted by a combination of pageantry, music, and exotic artifacts that promised to bring them a taste of the faraway worlds to which they sent their mission dollars. Real live missionaries and native converts staged “object lessons” that illustrated the contrast between Christianity and “heathenism,” and that demonstrated traditional customs and religious practices from China, India, Turkey, Puerto Rico, Japan, and other locales. Exhibits on American Indians, educational outreach among African Americans, and the life of the child—a favorite theme of women’s missionary societies—provided insight into other mission concerns. A masque oratorio, Pageant of Darkness and Light, was performed for ten thousand onlookers a day, underscoring “the historical and geographical advance of Christianity” (22).

The multivalence of this event—a simultaneously entertaining, instructional, and triumphalist rendering of American global ambitions—has received able treatment from Erin L. Hasinoff, in Faith in Objects: American Missionary Expositions in the Early Twentieth Century. Hasinoff is an anthropologist with the American Museum of Natural History and was a postdoctoral fellow in museum anthropology at the Bard Graduate Center. But her interest in missionary collections began when, as a student at Harvard Divinity School, she explored the Pacific holdings of the Peabody Museum—right around the corner from HDS. There, she was startled to discover both the major role played by missionaries in sourcing collections and the lack of scholarly literature on the subject. Her opening research questions were: “What are missionary collections, and how do they differ from ethnographic collections? Why were they collected? Where and for whom were they exhibited?” (xi). She pursued the subject for her dissertation in anthropology at Columbia University. The resulting book opens up the world of missionary exhibitions through a thick description and anthropological analysis of the World in Boston, the first but neither the largest nor the last missionary exhibition held in the United States.

Hasinoff treats the subject through three lenses: religion as “sensational form, charity, and lived religion” (6). Sensational form refers to the way in which physical religious objects embody religious practice and meaning. A large part of the book focuses on how the costumes, physical layout of the exhibits, material objects, photographs, and moving pictures shaped the meaning of the event for its participants. The “technology,” or media, of the exhibition was intrinsic to its meaning. The second religious aspect, that of charity, provided a focal point to encourage volunteerism, the work of missionary relief agencies, and other forms of donation that defined the meaning of Christian community. Hasinoff explores how the event was constructed to move participants toward charitable outreach, and even to choose careers as missionaries. Third, as an example of “lived religion,” the World in Boston “performed” missions. Participants experienced deepened fellowship, religious habits such as prayer, and the stimulation of religious imagination. The thousands of volunteers, mostly women, presumably impacted the spiritual lives of their home churches. In short, the missionary exposition was an act of evangelization that converted its participants, even as it showcased the conversionary work of American missionaries among religious and cultural “others.” In reference to the material turn in the field of anthropology, Hasinoff writes, “I give primacy to the object world of the Boston exposition by considering how a curious assemblage of things, in a temporary homespun environment that collapsed space and time, offered prospects of comprehending evangelism” (12).

The book unfolds in five sections. Common to anthropological approaches, the parts are not so much chronological as overlapping, with the author swirling back around her core themes to produce a layered description of the event. Part One deals with the historical background to the exhibition, including a brief history of missionary expositions, and of the important missionary collection that in 1900 became part of the American Museum of Natural History with the help of Franz Boas. Part Two details the physical layout of the exhibits, and walks an imaginary visitor through the space. Visitors could visit Japanese homes, a walled Chinese town, Indian women’s quarters, a Turkish bazaar, and a Bedouin tent. Lincoln’s cabin stood near the hull of a slave ship. Volunteers introduced various religions both by showing physical objects and by demonstrating their practices. Handicrafts, missionary relics, and mission literature drew visitors into the spirit of the exhibition—and, of course, a gift shop enabled everyone to take home souvenirs. The second floor of the hall showcased mission education, including slide shows, models of mission buildings, and films. The highlight of the exhibition was the Pageant of Darkness and Light, accompanied by a ladies’ orchestra and a volunteer choir of six to eight hundred singers. Hasinoff also discusses the publicity, guide books, and “first impressions” of the exhibition, including the voices of its critics.

Part Three analyzes the educational philosophy of the exhibition, and its use of objects for didactic purposes. The goal of creating an educated populace was common to the museum culture of the time. Hasinoff places in tension the educational goals of the organizers and the public’s desire to be entertained at places like Coney Island and other purveyors of popular amusements. That a theatrical pageant, replete with costumes and music, was the chief attraction of the exhibition generated anxiety about the fine line between entertainment and enlightenment. Organizers kept a deliberate focus on prayer to mitigate the danger that the exhibition might stoop to the level of mere amusement.

Part Four focuses on the ethnographic context of the World in Boston, by reconstructing how the earlier missionary exhibition of 1900 came to form part of the collection of the Museum of Natural History in New York. Hasinoff discusses the structure and rationale of the missionary exhibit—from requests that missionaries send in artifacts to the depositing of them in the museum. One particularly interesting part of the narrative is how anthropologist Franz Boas hoped to use missionaries for systematic collection of ethnological objects. Although he remained frustrated by the fragmentary nature of missionary collections, Boas nevertheless supported their use for instructional purposes, and to document comparative religions. On the other hand, mission leaders hoped to use missionary exhibits as evidence of how Christianity led to social improvements, as illustrations of “before” and “after.” “Missionary object lessons were underpinned by the homogenizing philosophy of making ‘them’ like ‘us,’ or, in other terms, displacing the alterity of ‘heathenism’ with the sameness of Christianity over time” (111). Under the sponsorship of the interdenominational Missionary Education Movement, some of the collection ultimately became a traveling show to raise resources for the mission education programs of local churches. Amazingly, the traveling portion of the exhibit filled eight freight train cars (144)! Hasinoff argues that Boas’s collaboration in creating missionary collections, and supporting their use for educational outreach, muddies the received wisdom that anthropologists and missionaries were pitted absolutely against each other. She concludes that “while the object systems and practices of missions and anthropology were institutionalized and divorced by the early twentieth century, they were permeable” (132).

The final section of the book analyzes the various parts played by human participants in the exhibition, ranging from missionaries to docents, volunteer stewards, and “native helpers.” As cultural translators, missionaries with deep familiarity of other cultures acted out the roles of indigenous religious practitioners. The role of the “native helper” was probably the most striking to visitors, as notable Christian converts symbolized the success of missions and thereby advocated for their further support. Both missionaries and converts were living witnesses to the transformative power of missions. Hasinoff notes the overwhelming popularity of Nellie Ma Dwe Yaba from Burma, who embodied a convincing apologetic for conversion to Christianity (166–168). In the epilogue, Hasinoff returns to her own research methodology and relationship with the materials she studied, arguing that the chief result of the exhibition was the “sense of fellowship” it set up between engaged participants and the practices of Christian missions (194).

In the spirit of reflexivity that marks both the author’s methodology and her subject, as a historian of Christian mission I see many strengths in this fine book. Hasinoff tackles her subject matter with a deft mixture of description and theory that allows the reader to experience it on multiple levels ranging from straight description to a theoretical tour de force. Despite her annoying habit of summarizing where she has just been and announcing where she is going next, Hasinoff’s text is a well-written contribution to the burgeoning field of the anthropology of Christianity. It also brings the literature on ethnographic collections together with that of the lived-religion approach in religious studies. Another commendable aspect of the book is its careful interweaving of postmodern perspectives on American religious expansionism, with respect for the participants of the missionary exposition. The book retains a scholarly yet sympathetic tone that makes it a fine example of postcolonial writing on the American missionary movement and its importance for its supporters.

But, of course, the anthropological approach has its limitations. A historian of Christianity would have emphasized aspects that Hasinoff did not. Where her anthropological method universalizes by embedding conclusions in theory, a historian sees a specific manifestation of time and place, grounded in the Congregational and Baptist history of Christianity in eastern Massachusetts. The exposition reeked of Congregationalist culture, from its chief organizer, Samuel Capen, to the name of its bulletin, Exposition Herald (clearly modeled on the American Board’s Missionary Herald), to its choice of mission fields for its exhibits. Even the seal of the conference, a Middle Eastern–looking “Oriental pilgrim” (55) standing against a cross over the seal of Boston, signified both the Pilgrim roots of its organizers and their contemporary worry about the deteriorating conditions for religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire.

One way to illustrate its local distinctives is to compare the material and intellectual culture of the World in Boston with that of the Centenary Celebration of Methodist Missions held in Columbus, Ohio, in 1919. For example, the Boston exhibit on Negroes of the South focused on the abolitionist heritage, with depictions of slave trading juxtaposed with schools for “freedmen” sponsored by the American Missionary Association (AMA), the antislavery Congregationalist missionary society. “Blacksmith and carpentry shops and a printing press demonstrated the successful forms of industrial and vocational training introduced to freed slaves” by Northern missionaries (42). With Booker T. Washington and the famous singers from Fisk University (founded by the AMA) invited for the occasion, the exhibition emphasized the uplifting of the African American through the work of northern educators, including explicit support for the “Tuskegee model” of practical training.

The Centenary Celebration of the Methodists, however, showcased the African American not only as an “object lesson” of missionary benevolence, but as a participant in it. American Methodism was an interracial movement from its beginnings and included a large southern constituency, both black and white. The conservative white, southern influence was reflected not in an abolitionist display, but in “a cotton patch antebellum slavery scene.”1 Yet the centenary celebration as a whole commemorated the mission legacy of John Stewart, an African American missionary to the Wyandot Indians, whose divine call a century before had launched the Methodist Missionary Society. More than one thousand black Methodists marched in a parade and made a pilgrimage to Stewart’s gravesite.2 Among the conference’s female speakers was Martha Drummer, the well-known black nurse-deaconess who ran her own Methodist mission in Angola, supported by the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Drummer appealed for increased support for African missions.3 Although both the Boston and the Columbus fairs demonstrated the racial paternalism of the period, the Congregationalist approach focused on white missions for African Americans, while the Methodists celebrated mission leadership with African Americans. The Congregationalist exhibition concretized the triumphs of educational uplift, while the Methodists affirmed the racial equalizing of evangelical conversion.

Contrasts between the two missionary exhibitions demonstrate that local, historical, and intellectual contexts are just as important as thick description in interpreting the public religious festivals of the early twentieth century. The beliefs and mission practices of participants at missionary exhibitions were defined by time, place, social class, race, gender, and denominational tradition. In the final analysis, Erin Hasinoff’s treatment of the World in Boston is an excellent and enjoyable piece of scholarship. But a mission historian like me also longs for a deeper investigation into the particular “faiths” behind the Faith in Objects.


Faith in Objects: American Missionary Expositions in the Early Twentieth Century, by Erin L. Hasinoff. Palgrave Macmillan, 286 pages, $95.


  1. Christopher J. Anderson, The Centenary Celebration of American Methodist Missions: The 1919 World’s Fair of Evangelical Americanism (Edwin Mellen Press, 2012), 7.
  2. The guide for the pilgrimage was the Rev. Edward L. Gilliam, president of the Columbus NAACP. Anderson, Centenary Celebration (73). The parade and pilgrimage conveyed black solidarity and pan-Methodist identity, and staked a claim for “participatory democracy” during the Jim Crow era (75). On “Negro Day,” a bishop from the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church gave a speech on the importance of Stewart as a model for black leadership (76).
  3. Ibid., 169–170.

Dana L. Robert is the Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission and director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University School of Theology. Her most recent book is Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), now in its sixth printing.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.