There are all sorts of interesting nuggets to be found in government documents, something that Washington State University history professor Matthew Sutton knows well.
It was there that he found the material he needed for his third book, titled “Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War.”
Sutton will give a virtual lecture on the same topic at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 16, through the Spokane County Library District. It’s being offered in partnership with Humanities Washington, which organizes a speakers bureau to give lectures on a variety of topics across the state. Those interested in attending the lecture can sign up online at scld.evanced.info/signup/calendar.
Sending missionaries abroad to spy for the United States sounds like something from a novel, but it happened, Sutton said. It made a certain amount of sense for them to be recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, which was the precursor to the CIA.
“They know cultures, they know languages, they know geography,” Sutton said of the missionaries.
Sutton came across information about missionary spies when he was writing his second book on the role of Evangelical Christians in politics, titled “American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism.” He knew there had to be more, so he started digging through recently declassified documents. The documents were declassified in 2008 and Sutton started researching in 2012. He also made several Freedom of Information Act requests for documents.
It was a time in history that many didn’t want to become known, Sutton said.
“The OSS and CIA really tried to cover it up,” he said.
It wasn’t just that missionaries were supplying information to the U.S. government, though they were certainly doing that. Some missionaries were also helping to arrange assassinations and assisting in planning and carrying out military missions, Sutton said.
“They were literally organizing killings and lying and cheating and stealing,” he said.
Sutton was fascinated by the moral complexity of the situation. It appears many missionaries rationalized their behavior, which was at odds with their faith, by arguing they were literally helping to save the world from evil. But they struggled with the moral issues, something that can be seen in their letters home, Sutton said. They would make references to their moral struggle without going into detail about why they were struggling.
Sutton said he was surprised that his research turned up so much.
“I think the whole story is surprising, that these missionaries were so involved,” he said.
It wasn’t always necessarily that the missionaries were eager volunteers. Sutton said the government would often offer some sort of quid pro quo; if a religious group provided a volunteer to be a spy, the government would in turn make sure the group’s other missionaries were able to get into whatever foreign country they wanted to go to.
“It was kind of a complicated relationship,” Sutton said.
Sutton, who has taught at WSU since 2008, became interested in the intersection of politics and religion when he was a graduate student in the late 1990s.
“I realized religion and politics would continue to play an important role, so I wanted to trace that back to the beginning,” he said.
His book on missionary spies, available on Amazon and at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, was published in 2019. Sutton is working on a fourth book, a history of American Christianity in politics from Columbus to Trump.