Visual Representation and Methodist Children’s Literature

When we were young many of us were fascinated with children’s books and the accompanying images that helped us visually connect with the story on the page. Those images brought life to the text and provided us with visual representations of the people, landscapes, and cultures represented – or so we thought. As we grew older, we realized that not every picture represents hard reality and that some portrayals are in fact not reality at all. (e.g. some images are staged representations of reality). These semi-fictitious (or fully fictitious) representations seared certain images into our minds that shaped the way we thought about certain peoples or certain places near and far.

One such publication in the Drew Methodist Library is the magazine Golden Hours: A Magazine for Boys and Girls. The periodical was edited by Daniel Currey and H.V. Osborne and produced by Methodist publishers between 1869 to 1880. I’m looking at the 1876 volume as I type these words and find stories for children such as “Legend of Frogtown” and “Working for Jesus.” I also see stories titled “Domestic Life in India” and “Japanese Worship” (the image above is part of the latter story). Packaged together in a nicely bound volume young readers can imagine life in Frogtown or visualize what happens in a Shinto Temple in Japan. These portrayals capture the imagination of the reader, and for some, led to a future life in humanitarian work or a career as a missionary.

I regularly help researchers work through these historical materials at Drew and am fascinated by how publishers, editors, and authors worked diligently to portray others through their images and stories. These forms of children’s literature (produced in the hundreds of thousands of copies) provided young children with images of what life was like near at home and far, far away. Sometimes these portrayals echoed a form of reality, other times they were scripted in ways editors thought would tug at the emotions of children (or their parents). Thinking about visual representation is important. Analyzing how people and places have been portrayed gives us a glimpse at how certain religions and religious peoples have been misrepresented. It is important for those of us interested in history to look twice at pictures and to think about how images both shape us and are shaped by us.

In A Looking-Glass for Ladies: American Protestant Women and the Orient in the Nineteenth Century (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005) author Lisa Joy Pruitt investigates how U.S. Protestant missionary organizations supplied readers with visual representations of the religions, cultures, and peoples outside of North America. Her study specifically analyzes women from Asia. I wrote a review of the book in 2005. The following is the text from that review:

Pruitt’s A Looking-Glass for Ladies offers readers a thorough investigation into the strategies of portrayal and perception used by early nineteenth century American Protestant mission organizations and missionaries. The book examines how missionaries mobilized American Protestant women by using media such as Christian magazines and children’s literature to construct certain notions of the “Orient” and of “Oriental” women for U.S. audiences. These descriptions helped shape perceptions of what “Orientals” looked like and acted like, yet perhaps more importantly, cast a net of concern over the minds of American Protestant women while gently tugging on their pocketbook strings for financial assistance overseas.

Pruitt’s study of Protestant missions and gender emphasizes the reflexive influence of women missionaries in the early nineteenth century. Rather than focus on how American missions agencies and missionaries influenced the peoples and cultures overseas the author demonstrates how agencies and workers influenced the perception of the foreigner for people in the United States. Pruitt contends the literature published and stories retold about the exploitation of women overseas triggered an early nineteenth century push toward global missions. Thus, by writing and publishing memoirs and Sunday school curriculum, missionaries sought to convince American women that their “degraded” counterparts in foreign lands suffered as victims of exploitation and “heathen” bondage. Stories of the practice of sati or of footbinding functioned as springboards to encourage American women to evangelize the regions of the world where these practices occurred. These images of the “Orient” and of “Oriental” women were brought into the churches and homes of the United States from overseas in order to convince American women to donate both money and their lives to international missions work.

Scholars and students of religious and cultural studies will find Pruitt’s book helpful. Those interested in the interplay between world missions, gender and reception studies will find Pruitt’s text both fascinating and insightful. The book will be useful for both undergraduate and graduate courses in missions studies and American religious history.

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