Faith to Feed the Hungry World: U.S. Religious NGOs and International Agricultural Development in the Twentieth Century

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Agricultural and Rural; Nationalism and Transnationalism; Religion


In his second inaugural address in 1949, President Harry Truman famously announced that the United States would launch a new program aimed at bringing the “benefits of democracy” to so-called “underdeveloped” countries through the sharing of scientific knowledge and technical expertise. The Point Four Program, as Truman’s plan became known, represented the official beginning of the United States’ involvement in international development. Yet by that time, non-state actors—especially religiously affiliated non-governmental organizations—had long been performing the work of development through projects directed at agricultural modernization, which they hoped would bring higher standards of living to rural communities around the globe. This panel examines the instrumental roles that religious groups played in the United States’ international development efforts from the 1920s through the late twentieth century. It brings together four papers that span diverse chronological, geographical, and ideological contexts, yet collectively work to help us understand how religion has influenced both the philosophies underlying U.S. development programs and their activities on the ground. Francis Bonenfant-Juwong’s paper traces the history of the Near East Foundation, focusing on how the Protestant-affiliated NGO’s theological commitments guided its work in Middle Eastern agricultural development beginning in the 1920s. Anna Holdorf examines Protestant and Catholic organizations’ joint efforts to shape U.S. Cold War-era development programs in Latin America, highlighting how missionaries used their political connections to lobby state actors on behalf of policies that promoted small-scale agricultural improvement, land reform, and sustainable development. Brendan Collins Jordan’s paper considers the role that U.S. missionaries played in supporting agricultural cooperatives and, later, agrarian reform movements in Nicaragua from the 1960s to the 1980s. Finally, LauriAnn Vaterlaus Deaver takes a comparative look at development programs implemented in Africa and South America by the Mormon Church through its Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute, which has operated since 1975. Together, these papers address questions regarding the theological motivations that led religious groups to engage in development work and to focus specifically on agricultural improvement; the influence that religion had on state agencies and development policy; the ways that religious actors shaped global agriculture and the natural environment through their work; and how the activities of development-oriented religious NGOs were, in turn, shaped by local contexts. Ultimately, the panel aims to encourage a dialogue about the central place that religion has held in U.S. international development efforts, thereby expanding on recent scholarly discussions surrounding the history of development, the relationship between religion and foreign policy, and the role of the U.S. in the world.

Papers Presented

“Beautiful Religion”: LDS Doctrines of Self-Reliance and the Benson Institute’s Small-Scale Agricultural Model of Development

Several historians, including David Ekbladh and Daniel Immerwahr, have evaluated efforts by the post-WWII U.S. government to provide aid in developing countries through both large and small scale development projects. Analysis of development has focused on why the U.S. has sought to aid other countries, what types of assistance they have provided, and why particular areas around the globe have been selected for these types of assistance. Research involving the work done by religious institutions is in its initial stages, looking at similar tactics employed by churches and innovations developed specifically by different religious institutions. Brigham Young University, funded and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, created the Ezra Taft Benson Agriculture and Food Institute in 1975 intending to use their educational and financial resources for development in various impoverished areas in South America and Africa. The work of the Benson Institute focused more on maintaining communities through educational efforts that encouraged self-reliance, similar to government efforts toward the end of the twentieth-century development period, rather than the earlier pushes for modernization in the middle of the century. Examination of the Benson Institute’s work during the twentieth century illuminates the influence the U.S. government had on religious groups centered in the U.S. that included development as part of their ministries. LDS endeavors to implement the Benson Institute’s small-scale agricultural model in a variety of locales also contributes to a greater understanding of the doctrines of the LDS church involving the environment, agricultural practices, and self-reliance.

Presented By
LauriAnn Vaterlaus Deaver, Southern New Hampshire University

“The Modern Missionary”: Theology, Rural Development, and the Transition from Near East Relief to Near East Foundation

This paper uses a theological lens to help explain two separate strains of U.S. historiography: the gradual “secularization” of Christian missionary work and tension between modernization and community development strands of socioeconomic development. Focusing on the transition from the religiously-affiliated Near East Relief to the non-sectarian Near East Foundation in the 1920s, which included a turn from relief aid to agricultural development in the Middle East, I argue that this transition occurred in a specific theological context. Contemporaries talked about U.S. Christianity being at a “crossroads” in the 1920s as theological divisions heightened over not only domestic debates concerning Progressivism and the Social Gospel but also considerations within missiology of the potential “truthfulness” of other religions. Abetted by domestic events and years of missionary experience on the ground, shifts in Christian missiology toward increased respect for the integrity of other faiths provided a crucial context in which two historical developments could occur. First, this context allowed Near East Relief staff members and consultants to adopt an agricultural development vision based on guided-change and an ambivalent attitude toward modernity: at once leaning into technology and pursuing socioeconomic “progress” in other societies while trying to remain catalytic, locally-adapted, culturally-sensitive, and embracing of self-help. Second, this context also allowed these otherwise devout Christians to move away from overt Christian messaging and symbolism.

Presented By
Francis Bonenfant-Juwong, Pace University

Turning Swords into Plowshares: The Challenge of International Development for U.S. Missionaries in Cold War Latin America

This paper examines the influence that Protestant and Catholic missionary organizations exerted on the United States’ Cold War-era international development programs in Latin America. It follows three groups of missionaries who worked throughout the region to carry out agricultural improvement projects, and who initially cooperated with U.S. government agencies in their implementation of early development initiatives from President Truman’s Point Four Program to the Kennedy Administration’s Peace Corps. Yet despite their early support for government-sponsored development initiatives, missionaries did not serve as mere agents of the state. They also played crucial roles in contesting programs that they viewed as advancing U.S. military and economic interests over the interests of the people that they purported to help. Missionaries had long believed in the benefits of small-scale agricultural development for promoting economic improvement, and they worked throughout the Cold War to bring this vision to bear on U.S. development policy in Latin America, which became increasingly geared toward providing military aid to friendly regimes and fostering large-scale industrial modernization. This paper illuminates how missionaries’ experiences on the ground and their interactions with Latin Americans on the receiving end of U.S. policies led them to question the state’s approach to development and to become advocates for alternative strategies. It traces missionaries’ political engagement from the 1950s through the 1970s as it shifted toward lobbying lawmakers and religious laypeople in the U.S. to support international development policies that centered agrarian reform and environmental sustainability.

Presented By
Anna Holdorf, University of Notre Dame

Ransoming the Countryside: U.S. Missionaries, Solidarity, and Agrarian Terror in Nicaragua’s Contra War

In January of 1985, Sister Nancy Donovan, a Catholic Maryknoll nun working in the northern mountains of Nicaragua, reported that U.S.-armed Contra soldiers had briefly captured her and massacred thirteen farmers in a local coffee cooperative. Despite the surprise of U.S. media coverage, such experiences were disturbingly common. The Contra strategy by 1982 shifted to a campaign of ecological sabotage and terror meant to destroy the small nation’s agricultural base and punish farmers who joined state-organized cooperatives. As violence in the countryside escalated, missionaries became the primary conduits of news about Contra violence against farm communities. While the 1960s and 1970s had seen religious organizations working to build Nicaraguan agricultural cooperatives, backed by U.S. State Department funding, the 1980s saw missionaries fighting to defend those very cooperatives from a U.S. government now committed to destroying them. This conference paper interrogates missionaries’ 1980s transition away from agrarian development and toward a relief-oriented mission that cast them as international defenders of Nicaragua’s agrarian revolution. Based on sources from missionary archives, journalistic reports, and state documents, I ask how missionaries forged connections with Nicaraguan agricultural activists that increasingly moved away from a development relationship and towards a model of mission premised on solidarity and accompaniment. I argue that through this process, religious organizations forged explicit church-state partnerships. Increasingly defensive of Sandinista governance, missionary disaster aid both sustained a beleaguered Nicaraguan rural economy and promoted theologies that identified U.S. power with evil and agrarian reform with God’s promise of a heaven on Earth.

Presented By
Brendan Collins Jordan, New York University

Session Participants

Chair: Stephen Macekura, Indiana University, Bloomington
Stephen Macekura is Associate Professor of International Studies at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies. He is a historian of the twentieth century world, with a particular focus on U.S. foreign relations, political economy, and environmental thought and politics. He is the author of Of Limits and Growth: The Rise of Global Sustainable Development in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2015) and co-editor, with Erez Manela, of The Development Century: A Global History (Cambridge, 2018). He is currently finishing a book on the history of debates over the meaning and measurement of economic growth during the twentieth century, tentatively titled The Growth Critics. The book will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2020.

Presenter: Francis Bonenfant-Juwong, Pace University
Dr. Francis Bonenfant-Juwong is currently Clinical Assistant Professor of Peace and Justice Studies at Pace University. He received his PhD in History and Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame. His research interests include rural development, education, and colonialism; religiously-affiliated non-state actors; and U.S. relations with the Middle East.

Presenter: Brendan Collins Jordan, New York University
Brendan Collins Jordan is a PhD candidate in Latin American History at New York University. His dissertation work considers the intersection of religious mission, disaster relief, environment, and the politics of poverty in Nicaragua during the second half of the twentieth century. This research has been generously funded by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the Moravian Archives, the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, and NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Presenter: LauriAnn Vaterlaus Deaver, Southern New Hampshire University
LauriAnn Vaterlaus Deaver is a History Instructor at Southern New Hampshire University. She received her M.A. in History from Boise State University and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Creative Writing: Nonfiction at Southern New Hampshire University. Her research interests include the intersection between religious and environmental history.

Presenter: Anna Holdorf, University of Notre Dame
Anna Holdorf is a doctoral candidate at the University of Notre Dame, where her research focuses on intersections between 20th-century U.S. religion, politics, and the environment. Her dissertation, “A Harvest for Heaven and Earth: Religion, Agriculture, and Development in the Americas from 1900-1990,” examines the role of Christian missionaries and religious organizations in the United States’ rural and agricultural development efforts in Latin America.

Commentator: Tore C. Olsson, University of Tennessee
Tore Olsson is an associate professor of history at the University of Tennessee, where he studies the twentieth-century US and its place in the world. His first book, Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside, was published by Princeton University Press in 2017 and was the recipient of five book awards, including in the fields of agricultural history and US foreign relations. He is currently working on a global history of American country music in the twentieth century.