A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ
In the history of Protestantism there is an interesting debate about education and indoctrination. When people are learning about things that we like and value, we call it education; when people embrace ideas that we don't like or reject, we call it indoctrination. If the ideas are really rigid, we call it "brainwashing."
Christianity is a missionary religion. We have "good news" that we want to share. We believe that God was/ is in Christ reconciling and redeeming the world. We want to spread our faith by inviting, not coercing, people to accept the gospel. How do we educate, rather than indoctrinate?
In the mid-19th century a young samurai named Shimeta Niishima fled Japan illegally. He was befriended by a staunch New England Congregationalist, Joseph Hardy, and eventually attended Amherst (Mass.) College and Andover (Mass.) Seminary. In 1874, he became a Congregational minister and later that year, while attending a meeting of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, he made an impassioned speech asking the board for funds to underwrite his return to Japan to found a Christian university.
"My country is in a disorganized condition," he lamented. People are "wandering in search of a light which might guide them into the right way." He shared his conviction that true education is "the only means by which the people could make progress both in knowledge and morality." A year later he returned to Japan and founded Doshisha University.
Joseph Hardy Neesima (as he was known for the rest of his life) was a progressive Christian educator. He wrote, "Our work is not for the propagation of a religion, but for the imparting of a living power; not simply for giving culture to young [people], but for fitting them to lead and influence others by their work and conduct." He reassured the Japanese government that his university was "not intended as a means of propagation of any sect or party, either religious or political." He believed that the welfare of his country depended on "its government being in the hands of intelligent and public spirited people." Education, not indoctrination, he argued, was "the great and pressing need of Japan."
Today, Doshisha University, and hundreds of universities founded and sponsored through the mission outreach of our churches, remain in partnership with the UCC. We may think that early missionaries were only concerned about indoctrination, but the records show otherwise. Neesima believed that God would be pleased when the living power of education was allowed to thrive in his homeland.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a missionary associate for the Global Ministries Board, teaches American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.