"Don't Let America Go to War!": The Pacifist Views of Edith Parsons

By Faith J. Childress
Submitted to Session P4951 (Missionary Renegades: Resisting the Metanarrative in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM) educator Edith Parsons’ anti-war views in the context of World War II provides an interesting case study of “renegade” missionaries. Parsons’ career in Turkey (1912-1945) spanned multiple wars including the Balkan Wars, World War I, and the Turkish War of Liberation; she was principal of the American Collegiate Institute when World War II began in 1939.
Given Parsons’ experiences and her role as a missionary, her opposition to America’s entry into the war may not be surprising. That her opposition continued into 1942 and beyond, however, was relatively uncommon among U.S.-based Protestant groups. This paper explores the development of Parsons’ pacifism against the backdrop of neutral Turkey, which nonetheless experienced the privations of war and the mobilization of Turkish men and resources to prepare for invasion that never came. It situates Parsons’ experiences and anti-war views into the broader scope of perspectives among her missionary colleagues, the ABCFM’s Boston-based leadership, and American Protestant denominational responses within the U.S. This study expands the scholarship on missionaries in Turkey by focusing on the Second World War period rather than the much-studied First World War era and by connecting missionaries in Turkey with the national debates within American Protestant community.
Parsons did not self-identify as a pacifist but her views paralleled the “peace-minded” Quakers and Mennonites until after the attack on Pearl Harbor when some of their adherents joined the fighting. Her ideas aligned Charles Clayton Morrison’s pacifist-leaning weekly publication, The Christian Century, and she found comity with Harold E. Fey and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Parsons had little in common with Protestant leader Reinhold Niebuhr’s interventionist-advocating publication, Christianity and Crisis. After the U.S. entered the war, views similar to Parsons’ were, in small measure, influential in shaping the resolutions of the Delaware Conference, the gathering of ecumenical Protestant leadership in 1942.
Drawing on Parsons’ letters describing Turkey in wartime, records of the Boston-based ABCFM Board, and The Christian Century and Christianity in Crisis, as well as secondary sources describing the Protestant debates before and during World War II such as Martin Marty, Modern American Religion, Carpenter and Shenk, Earthen Vessels, and Putney and Burlin, eds., The Role of the American Board in the World, this paper will demonstrate how Parsons’ anti-war views made her a renegade missionary within the context of the ABCFM and debates within American Protestantism.