Missionary Life in a Time of Transition: The Reifsnyder Family in Latin America
--By Richard W. Reifsnyder
From time to time after I was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1972, colleagues would inquire whether I was related to Grace Reifsnyder, a retired long-time missionary in Latin America, and widow of T. Bancroft Reifsnyder, who had served the Board of Foreign Missions (BFM) from 1919 until his death in 1957. I did not know them (though surely they must be some distant relation) but was intrigued and wanted to learn more of these namesakes who served the church so admirably for many years. I finally got a chance to explore the archives and learn about these missionaries who spread the gospel in a time of political and organizational transition.
The Presbyterian Historical Society is a wonderful repository of missionary information. Throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, Presbyterians were a strong missionary presence throughout the world. Consistent with the proclivity to do things “decently and in order,” the BFM and its mission personnel preserved records, from the initial applications and recommendations, to reports, class syllabi, presentations, personnel reviews, and correspondence. The information in many missionary files ranges from policy discussions with the overseeing board to the minutest details regarding housing and travel arrangements. More than fifty percent of the Reifsnyder collection is in Spanish, and although not all periods of the Reifsnyders’ life are covered equally well, the collection provides a wonderful overview of missionary life. The picture that emerges from the records does not idealize missionary life, but reveals it as a challenging life for those highly dedicated but very human Christians who were called to this form of service.
Thomas Bancroft Reifsnyder was born in Newark on February 7, 1896; joined the Presbyterian church at age ten; and graduated from Lafayette College in 1916 and Princeton Seminary in 1919. During his college years, he was involved in the Student Volunteer Movement, spearheaded by Presbyterian Robert Wilder and Methodist layman John R. Mott, which promoted foreign missions on college campuses. The movement’s motto was “the evangelization of the world in this generation.”1
The late 19th and early 20th century was the high point of enthusiasm for missions, and Reifsnyder was caught up in it. As early as 1913 he felt the call to be a missionary and made application to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in 1918. Benjamin B. Warfield, his theological mentor at Princeton, affirmed in his reference letter that Reifsnyder “would make a great missionary” as a “man of intellectual ability, distinctly gifted in spiritual qualities.”
The work of a missionary seemed clear, and he answered “most assuredly” when asked on the application if he believed “the paramount duty of every missionary” was “to make Christ known as Master, Lord, and Savior.” The Princeton Theology was solidly entrenched at the seminary, and Reifsnyder maintained a basically conservative, evangelical theology, rooted in the Westminster Confession of Faith, throughout his missionary life, even as mission practices and Presbyterian theological perspectives transformed. Reifsnyder was not married when he applied to the BFM, but revealed a sense of humor when he responded to the question, “Do you contemplate marriage?” with “I contemplate it, but nothing comes of the contemplation.”2 He expressed some natural doubts about his fitness, questioning how he could care for his parents during what would be prolonged absences, wondering whether he was too skinny to serve overseas, and questioning whether he was well-enough prepared.
The marriage question was resolved when he married Vera Brewer and the two were assigned to Mexico in 1919, arriving in 1921. A lag in departure was not uncommon, to allow time to gain proficiency in the language. Reifsnyder, who had studied German extensively, had applied either for China or Mexico. Mexico was not always viewed as a prime spot for commission. Long-time secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions Arthur Judson Brown offered several reasons. Latin America was already considered Christianized, at least nominally, and thus the urgency of the evangelical task seemed not as pressing to some as in Asia or Africa. Moreover, there were unique barriers and biases. Latin and Central Americans tended to be skeptical of US claims to be pure and disinterested in their involvement in the region, an attitude which spilled over to perceptions about missionaries. Another Board secretary, Robert E. Speer, denied that it was “silly” anti-Catholic prejudice which motivated the missionaries in this part of the world. However, he claimed that the form of Catholicism in Latin America was problematic and quite different than in the US, shaped, he suggested, by superstition and lack of knowledge of the Bible. “Moral conditions” warranted Protestant mission work.3
The family began their careers as teachers in a Presbyterian boys’ school in Coyoacán, a suburb of Mexico City; Bancroft also taught in the city’s Union Theological Seminary. Vera taught music and domestic science but found the life of a missionary difficult. Overwork and the altitude led to her being furloughed for a time for illness. She returned and seemingly was doing better, until she died suddenly in 1924 of septic poisoning, following childbirth. It was a massive blow to Bancroft, who was given a furlough himself to deal with his grief.
"The picture that emerges from the records does not idealize missionary life, but reveals it as a challenging life for those highly dedicated but very human Christians who were called to this form of service."
The Reifsnyder’s missionary service in Mexico was shaped by the troubled political situation following the nation’s prolonged civil war. The Mexican government was determined to curtail the power of the Roman Catholic church and implemented restrictive measures which impacted Protestant work as well. The new Constitution adopted in 1917 was significantly anti-clerical. Foreign clergy were prohibited in 1926 from leadership in native churches, including being able to celebrate the sacraments. All priests had to be registered, although many refused and suffered for it. The various states had the power to limit the number of priests in their region and Protestants were limited to an identical number. The government took ownership of all church property. Some states were more hostile than others, but overall the political situation meant many Mexicans had minimal exposure to the Christian story.
Although these measures were primarily directed against the Catholic church they also affected Protestant missionaries. Many religiously based schools were closed and missionaries found their educational work restricted. To compensate for these restrictions, Bancroft supplemented his work at the Union Seminary by teaching courses for laypersons, and engaging in YMCA work. As the government developed its own schools, missionaries learned to work in more informal ways with student populations. He taught a course in English for the Railroadmen’s Alliance and was involved in religious publication.4 Most of the anti-clerical provisions of the 1917 Constitution were not removed until 1992.
Bancroft’s work at the seminary was an important response to this situation. A cooperative of seven denominations, Union Seminary served as the training ground for most Mexicans who became Protestant pastors of native churches. Because Mexican law forbad non-Mexicans from acting as pastors of congregations, it was essential to train local pastors and encourage the independence of the local churches instead of relying on foreign missionaries. This was a harbinger of the transformation beginning to take place throughout the world-wide church, which accelerated with the anti-colonial movements following World War II. The exigencies of the Mexican context accelerated that trend of independent young churches.
"Because Mexican law forbad non-Mexicans from acting as pastors of congregations, it was essential to train local pastors and encourage the independence of the local churches instead of relying on foreign missionaries. This was a harbinger of the transformation beginning to take place throughout the world-wide church..."
The seminary also gave Reifsnyder his primary missional focus throughout his career. Although he had multifaceted responsibilities, like many missionaries, most of his energies were spent in seminary training and developing appropriate models for Latin American contexts. Bancroft attended the Harvard School of Education to gain additional expertise in teaching and administration, in anticipation of becoming President of the Union Seminary in Mexico. After he moved to Venezuela in 1938 and Columbia in 1942, he became a staunch advocate for a new Presbyterian Seminary, which opened in Columbia in 1942 and where he became President. He was very intentional in creating a curriculum which made sense in that context, with limited numbers of students. He carefully developed his courses, and often the methodology was not lecture but supervised learning and guided tutorials.
The seminary in Columbia struggled, changing locations, among other things, to bolster its work, and closing in 1953 due to financial shortfalls and modest enrollments. But Bancroft Reifsnyder’s vocation of training ministers for developing countries in South and Central America continued. Both Reifsnyders were transferred to the seminary in Matanzas, Cuba, where Bancroft taught theology and Grace taught Christian Education. Additionally, they served as chaplains to married couples and advisors to students from Venezuela and Columbia. When this short term service ended, the Reifsnyders were sent again to Mexico, again to teach in the Union Seminary and for Grace to work in the library.
Of course, their work was not limited to teaching. Students were expected to engage in evangelistic work, and the Reifsnyders were not only involved in that, but in other educational and church work.
During a stint in Venezuala, beginning in 1938, Bancroft taught in a boys school, oversaw a program of evangelists in Caracas, did extensive preaching in rural areas, distributed tracts, and developed a lay institute to work with Americans working in the oil industry. In Mexico he also wrote tracts, worked in youth camps, provided Sunday School aids, and penned doctrinal articles for church publications. In Columbia he preached twice a month, oversaw a men’s organization, and taught a Bible study at the local church in addition to his work at the Seminary. He authored a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith in Spanish and explored with a former Princeton Professor then teaching at Westminster Seminary the publication in Spanish of conservative biblical materials.
Missionaries had to have multiple skills and be flexible in their approach—something Bancroft and Grace showed in their work in Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia, and Cuba. As we will explore in our second and concluding post about the Reifsnyder missionary family, missionaries in the mid-20th century also had to adhere to a certain discipline and the structured protocol of the Board of Foreign Missions and its subsequent agencies. As church and missionary work began to nationalize throughout the developing world in a period of intense political turmoil, the work of Presbyterian missionaries from the United States became even more challenging.
--Richard W. Reifsnyder retired after 44 years in pastoral ministry in the PC(USA), including 21 years as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Winchester, Virginia; he currently serves as part-time pastor of the Falls Village Congregational Church in Connecticut. Rich is a graduate of Duke University, Yale Divinity School, and Princeton Theological Seminary, where he received a Ph.D. in Church History. Among his publications are articles on the history of church organization and leadership in The Presbyterian Presence series. Rich lives in Salisbury, Connecticut.
1. Robert T. Handy. A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 277-81; C. Howard Hopkins. John R. Mott: 1865-1955 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1979). Robert E. Speer, BFM Secretary from 1891 on, was also heavily involved in the Srudent Volunteer Movement (SVM), which had its roots in the YMCA. Reifsnyder admitted in his application for mission service he could have been more active in the “Band” at Lafayette. Bands were organizations created by the SVM to encourage knowledge of and interest in missions on college campuses. The SVM played a significant part in the explosion in mission interest in the early 20th century.
3. Arthur Judson Brown. One Hundred Years. A History of the Foreign Missionary Work of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. , With Some Account of the Countries, Peoples, and Policies, and Problems of Modern Missions. (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1936), p. 755-89; John F. Piper, Jr. Robert E. Speer: Prophet of the American Church. (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2000), p. 207-12.
4. John Mackay. That Other America, (New York: Friendship Press, 1935), p.92-102; W. Stanley Rycroft. Religion and Faith in Latin America (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958) passim.