Missionary Life in a Time of Transition: The Reifsnyders, Denominational Oversight, and National Churches
--By Richard W. Reifsnyder
Grace and Bancroft Reifsnyder were not only accountable to the “Mission,” the semiautonomous organization of missionaries within a particular country or region in which they served. They also were under the appointment and authority of the larger church through the church’s Board of Foreign Mission (BFM), as we discussed in our previous post. Sometimes, that led to decisions being made in New York not necessarily welcomed by the missionary.
For example, laws in Mexico regarding the church became even more restrictive in 1931-32. A certain tension developed between Reifsnyder and the Mexican National church. As was the practice, the BFM did a pre-furlough evaluation of a missionary by seeking input from his or her colleagues. Some of these records are brutally candid, but they help to give a picture of the person. Many of the comments in Reifsnyder’s 1937 evaluation were high in their praise, with one asserting, “few missionaries…are better fitted by nature and training for real efficient missionary work.” But others pointed to a certain “lack of sympathetic understanding toward others,” and a mind which was “difficult to shake” once settled into an opinion. Some of his colleagues felt his style had brought him into conflict with some of the leading national ministers, while others thought he was not attentive enough to local Presbyterian matters. A few admitted his difficulties were due largely to simple jealousy on the part of Mexican nationals. Nevertheless, given the tension, some of Reifsnyder's colleagues thought it wise to transfer him, at least out of the Federal District of Mexico City, where the opposition of the locals was strong. The BFM made a major move, transferring him and Grace to Venezuela in 1938.
Characteristically, they plunged in with great gusto. They held a strongly negative view of the Catholic Church’s domination of the culture—economically, socially, and spiritually. They did not think it a matter of religious bias, but empirical truth that it would “take generations for Venezuela to recover from the spiritual incompetence and material neglect of the centuries of Catholic domination.” They rejoiced that “much is being done at the present time,” presumably by the work of Protestant missionaries.
Central to Bancroft’s next assignment in Columbia, beginning in 1942, was the development of a seminary, which graduated its first students in 1947. The proposal he wrote in favor of the seminary argued, “the whole philosophy of missions is to establish a national church, with adequate national leadership…we cannot start too soon.” Although the school seemed to thrive for a time, financial difficulties led the BFM to close it in 1953. He was not happy about that decision and engaged in a spirited correspondence about it, to no avail.
Reifsnyder was also not happy about the decision to transfer him to Cuba following the Columbian seminary’s closing. He had suffered a heart attack and was in the States for medical furlough when the decision was made. The PHS archives preserve detailed, often rather nit-picky correspondence about the negotiations for moving expenses and whether he could incur the expense of returning to Columbia to close out affairs and pack up. The Board said no, although it eventually compromised and permitted Grace to do that. Bancroft was distressed he did not have a chance to put some closure on his Columbian tenure, and was especially concerned about the welfare of the Columbian students now that the seminary ways closed. While he had great appreciation for the dedication of the decision makers at the Board, Reifsnyder could sometimes be prickly. Writing in June 1953 to the Secretary for Latin America, W. Stanley Rhycroft, he grumbled, “I don’t want one of those form letters (when you write back.)” There was bickering over what constituted furlough time, the amount for clothing allowance, and whether a refrigerator was considered a covered field expense. The folks in New York kept a sharp eye on expenses and what they believed was wise stewardship of the Church’s mission funds. Although missionaries were church professionals subject in significant ways to directives from "on high," they did not always understand or appreciate board decisions.
The changes taking place in the mission environment, and in their personal lives, were not always easy for the Reifsnyders. Bancroft sometimes protested the BFM’s decisions, but, like a good solider, would inevitably defer to their wisdom. Asked to leave the Seminary in Cuba after three satisfying years, to return to Mexico, the Reifsnyders wrote in their missionary newsletter, “this is not our choice….we tried to fend it off” ("Cubits," May 13, 1956). But they prayed for the Lord’s will to be done, and by the time they began writing in "Mexican Moments,” their missionary newsletter, they could affirm it was “Providential ordering” which “has brought us back to the Mexico Mission” (October 6, 1956).
As the national Presbyterian church changed its structures for mission, terminology also changed. For more than ten years, the Reifsnyders had been part of the “Columbia Mission” and formed deep connections with their co-workers. The Reifsnyders were not happy to have those bonds changed when they were transferred from the Columbia Mission to the “Latin America General Workers Group” in 1954. Bancroft wrote to Regional Secretary Rycroft expressing his concern. When that change took place more quickly than he anticipated, he wrote to his former colleagues and friends at the Columbia Mission to say that he felt “like a man without a country” and hoped they would stay close in touch.
During the years the Reifsnyders served in Latin America, the continent was in considerable political upheaval. The Mexican situation was particularly fraught, though Bancroft seems to stay focused on his ministry and rarely alludes to that context in his writings. It was BFM policy for missionaries to refrain from engaging in politics in the country of service, though the policy was subject to interpretation. The documentation at PHS shows him commenting more frequently on political contexts during his years in Venezuela and Columbia.
Reifsnyder considered the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church’s hold on the people and even the government pernicious, not only shackling religious life in “superstition, ignorance…and intolerance,” but also contributing deeply to poverty and poor health. Although Reifsnyder considered himself evangelical and the public confession of Jesus Christ as central to the gospel, the contexts in which he worked attuned him to the political and economic dimensions of the gospel and the role of the church as social critic. He abided by the missionary dictum not to meddle in the politics of the country, but did become more vocal during his years in Columbia, especially as politics impacted religious matters. He protested what he saw as governmental discrimination, in alliance with the Catholic church, against Protestants, and helped secure a General Assembly resolution on that matter in 1953. In the post-war era, where the fear of communism was widespread, he acknowledged the ideology’s appeal in Latin countries. Reifsnyder didn't believe the communists had much support in Columbia, but given the subsistence wages for many workers, the high cost of living, and the autocratic ecclesiastical regime, he rather surprisingly acknowledged he might "have to cast his lot with the communists" even though he strongly opposed the ideology. But he also declared his belief that “Protestantism is a MUCH better barrier against communism than Catholicism is.”
"Reifsnyder didn't believe the communists had much support in Columbia, but given the subsistence wages for many workers, the high cost of living, and the autocratic ecclesiastical regime, he rather surprisingly acknowledged he might "have to cast his lot with the communists" even though he strongly opposed the ideology."
Reifsnyder was delighted when President Eisenhower appointed Presbyterian John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State in 1953 and wrote Dulles a congratulatory letter. He was especially concerned that the U.S. government not be caught in making a false choice between “reactionary dictators on the one hand and Communist led masses on the other.” Reifsnyder’s hope was that the US government could make common cause with the people, who were neither reactionary nor communist. It was a difficult sell in a polarized period when creating strict lines of division was the norm.
Reifsnyder wrote Dulles again in 1955, this time expressing his concern that the U.S. was playing into the hands of the communists by “our tie up with oppressive governments and by our alliance with the Roman Catholic hierarchy.” He asked a friend’s help in getting the letter to Dulles, fearful it would simply get stuck on someone’s desk.
Bancroft did not live to see how the struggle played out in Latin America. His last assignment was at the Seminary in Mexico City. He was glad to be back among some friends and colleagues he had known nearly twenty years before. And he was relieved the worse of the anti-clerical measures had been softened. However, the heart trouble which had plagued him for the better part of a decade finally prevailed, and he died of a heart attack in June 1957 and was buried in Mexico.
Major changes were taking place in the theology and practice of missions during Reifsnyder’s last years. The International Missionary Council set the tone for the changes at its meeting at Whitby, Ontario in 1947. The catchword was “partnership in obedience” between older and younger churches rather than the language of sending and receiving churches. The BFM adopted that approach at its groundbreaking conference at Lake Mohonk in 1956. Reifsnyder had already been part of some of that change in thinking, especially acknowledging the secondary role of “fraternal” or “mission” workers who were there at the invitation of the local church. Sadly he did not live to see its full implementation.
Grace continued to teach Christian education and Bible in the theological seminary of the Mexican Presbyterian Church. She took special delight in her work as librarian. Earlier in her career she had been disappointed by the refusal of some Catholic families to allow a Protestant like her to teach their children how to read. The climate had changed by the end of her career. Although she generally taught subjects such as Christian education, viewed as the special purview of women, she taught Bible classes to men. The significant ministries of women like Grace in the mission field, a missionary educator in her own right and not only an adjunct to her husband, undoubtedly helped encourage the eventual ordination of women.
On her retirement the Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations (COEMAR, the successor to the BFM) honored Grace for 40 years of service, praising her for identifying “with the Latin landscape, language, and culture so completely that her spirit became entwined forever with the hopes and dreams of the Latin American people.” In retirement Grace continued to serve as a volunteer mission teacher in Japan and Lebanon. She moved to Westminster Gardens, a Presbyterian retirement community in California, and died in 1996. Those who mentioned her to me in her later years honored her in almost reverential terms.
The careers of the Reifsnyders spanned a time frame during which missionary life was transformed significantly. They began their work during the missionary heyday, when the enthusiasm was great for evangelizing the world. It was a period when the spread of the gospel and the spread of western culture was often disconcertingly intertwined. By the time Grace left the field, the mission churches had become independent and largely self-sustaining and the mainline missionary presence was significantly reduced. Some critics questioned the legitimacy of the missionary movement because of what they considered its cultural imperialism and exclusive claims for Christ. This was despite the mighty effort of the church to ensure that mission co-workers, as they were now named, were invited and directed by the local church. Indeed, in 1972, the year of the 100th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Reifsnyder’s beloved National Presbyterian Church of Mexico, relationships were severed and US mission workers sent home, to ensure the church would truly develop its own identity.
The record of the missionaries and the work of the BFM and its successors reveal normal human foibles. At times the anti-Catholic perspective, even in its context, is jarring to our modern sensibilities. But one cannot help but be challenged by the deep faith and incredible diligence of missionaries like Grace and Bancroft Reifsnyder. Against very difficult odds, sometimes with only modest success making converts and educating native ministers, they were determined that the gospel of Jesus Christ get a hearing. They had to be incredibly versatile in their skills and imaginative in exploring a variety of approaches to mission. It was not an easy life and I, for one, am grateful for these namesakes who offered good and faithful service for a lifetime to the church and the Lord they loved.
--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.