A few years back, a French scholar named Didier Aubert travelled to Morristown, New Jersey, looking for old photos of immigrants. A librarian there suggested he also check the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History at Drew University in nearby Madison.
Aubert did, and while he didn’t find what he was after, he stumbled onto thousands of black-and-white photos depicting Methodist missionaries, their work and their surroundings, dating to the early 20th century and taken around the world.
One shows a nurse tending the eye wound of an indigenous woman in La Paz, Bolivia. Another depicts a gym class full of knickers-clad boys in Greenwich Village. A third presents a street barber in Peking (now Beijing) giving a shave.
For someone with a specialty in cultural history as revealed through photography, this was a mother lode.
"It was spectacular," said Aubert, associate professor in American studies at the New Sorbonne University in Paris. "And it took me very little time to realize (the collection) hadn't been touched."
Thanks to Aubert, and to the staff of Archives and History, the collection's profile is rising.
The photos are slowly, steadily going online at the agency’s website. And Aubert has introduced the collection to fellow scholars who are beginning to study the images from different academic perspectives, and to write about them.
“Basically, I thought there’s work for more than one person here,” Aubert said.
The collection came to Archives and History from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in 1989. It consists of more than 100,000 images, resting in 257 albums carrying such titles as “Puerto Rico,” “South America,” “Cities” and “Frontiers.”
The photos are about two-thirds international, one third from the United States, and most seem to have been taken between 1910 and 1920, said L. Dale Patterson, archivist-records administrator for Archives and History.
But many of the photos aren’t dated. And the handwritten captions, while often highly interesting, are sometimes frustratingly imprecise. Indeed, there’s a fair amount of mystery with the collection.
Patterson believes many were taken for a 1919 observance of the founding of the denomination’s Missionary Society about a century earlier. But there are photos taken well after that, including a small group from the 1940s and ’50s.
Roy Smyres, a celebrated missionary and photographer for Global Ministries, has photos in the albums. But with most images, the photographer’s name is long lost. Who put the photos in albums, and what the organizing principle was beyond “Cities” or “South America,” also is unclear.
Patterson is sure that some of the images had been in Methodist publications and some were turned into lantern slides for what he calls “early PowerPoint” demonstrations by missionaries as they traveled and explained their work.
He groups the photos into three categories: those showing churches or church-related institutions, including hospitals, schools and settlement houses; those depicting people in need, such as the poor or refugees; and “travelogue” photos that offer general scenes of life.
Many capture Progressive Era concerns with child labor, poverty and public health. Others are from Europe during World War I, including one showing a small girl who’s been given a loaf of bread.
“She’s got a smile on her face so big that you’d think she won the lottery,” Patterson said.
Since that unsuspecting first trip, Aubert has been back to Archives and History a handful of times. He’s under contract with a Chilean publisher for a book about how Methodist missionaries portrayed Chile in the photo albums.
It interests him that so many images involve education or agricultural projects, and how few show evangelizing.
“What is often is said about the Methodists is that it’s really more about a life of Christ in action than about theoretical or theological debates,” Aubert said. “The photographs are showing missionaries doing things which are not obviously religious in nature. But they’re active in the world.”
At Aubert’s urging, and with his help, Archives and History hosted a June 10-12 workshop titled “An Ever Widening Horizon: The United Methodist Missionary Photo Albums.”
Some scholars of Methodism had already explored the collection – Morris Davis of Drew Theological School wrote an article about it for the online journal Methodist Review in 2010 – but the workshop brought in eight other scholars from a range of academic disciplines.
They spent time studying and discussing the albums. Each agreed to write a paper based on some part of the collection.
Carol Williams, chair of women and gender studies at the University of Lethbridge in Lethbridge, Canada, chose to write about two photos depicting female Native Americans at a government school in Phoenix. She’s working on another essay that looks at the use of the magic lantern, an early ancestor of the slide projector, in spreading Methodist missions among the Nuu-chah-nulth indigenous peoples on the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada.
Williams agrees with Aubert that there’s a lot of scholarly work to be done on the collection.
“The task for historians, or scholars, of the present day, is to unravel the internal logic of each album through careful historical analysis and re-contextualization,” she said by email.
“Analyzing individual photographs, or photographic series, will help viewers to learn why certain photographs were selected over others and to reconstruct the narratives triggered by the organizational and image choices.”
Meanwhile, the general public is beginning to get a look.
More About Church History
To learn more about United Methodist history, visit www.umc.org/history
You can also read the Methodist Review article "Early Twentieth Century U.S. Methodist Missions Photography: The Problems of 'Home'," by Morris Davis of Drew Theological School. Access to Methodist Review is free, but registration is required.
Archives and History staff began scanning and putting whole pages of images online late last fall. The project is about half done, and Patterson projects it will be completed by May 2016. Even before Archives and History announced the effort, the photos were getting a couple of hundred “clicks” per month, Patterson said.
Not surprisingly, Patterson has his favorite images, including a humorous pair of a young missionary in Asia.
The first photo shows him standing proudly next to a new motorbike. In the second, he and some others are trying to pull it out of a rice paddy.
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org