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(cover picture) Hartch, Todd
2006 Missionaries of the State: The Summer Institute of Linguistics, State Formation, and Indigenous Mexico, 1935-1985. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Notes: xxi, 245 p. ; 24 cm. ISBN: 9780817315153
(Check out my bio!) Reviewed 13 Oct 2011 by:
Thomas N. Headland <>
SIL International and Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, USA
Medium: Written Literature
Summer Institute of Linguistics
Missions - Mexico
Christianity and international relations

ABSTRACT:    While American missionaries worked closely with the Mexican government for fifty years to translate the Bible into over eighty indigenous languages, that government’s own objective was to undermine the influence of the Catholic Church, its political rival, but this history suggests the ultimate impact was to strengthen local ethnic identities.

<blockquote>Clearly, the SIL is a strange organization. As a U.S.-based fundamentalist missions organization that works closely with radical and nationalist foreign governments, starts no churches, and focuses on the arcane science of linguistics, it simply has no peers. It also has characteristics destined to perplex or offend almost everyone. (Hartch, p.xvii).

The above quote is taken from Missionaries of the State, a book critiquing the Bible translation organizations SIL International (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics) and Wycliffe Bible Translators. But author Todd Hartch, a Ph.D. from Yale and professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University, writes in a different style than have many anti-SIL authors of earlier writings. Those authors generally focused on ethnocide—accusing SIL of destroying indigenous cultures by imposing Western fundamentalist ‘Protestantism’ on them.

Hartch is a professional historian. His book will give readers a grasp of why anthropologists and other liberal intellectuals turned so aggressively against SIL in the 1970s. Hartch has here provided SIL with a chance to learn from history, even if that history may be painful reading at times for its members. But while Hartch is critical of SIL, he also criticizes many of the accusations of its opponents.

Early History of SIL

The book is composed of ten chapters sandwiched between a twenty-one page introduction and a nineteen page conclusion. Hartch argues against certain popular myths about SIL, such as the view that SIL's founder Cameron Townsend and his group somehow tricked Mexico's President Lazaro Cardenas into granting visas, that SIL was a tool of international capitalism, and that naïve Indians were simply acted upon by SIL. He also quickly dismisses the extreme accusations against SIL that he says "strain credulity, such as those about missile silos in Chiapas or uranium smuggling in Oaxaca" (p. 158).

His account begins with the early days of Townsend and his SIL students in Mexico in the 1930s (chapters one and two). Outside critics, both liberal left and conservative religious right, who may still hold the view that SIL was being duplicitous about their missionary goals, will be disarmed by this part of the book. Cardenas and other Mexican officials had good political reasons for embracing "American fundamentalists" (Hartch's term). Indeed, the anti-catholic Cardenas government saw SIL as serving indirectly the goals of the Mexican Revolution for the simple political reason that, being Protestant, SIL's influence would hopefully dampen the political power of the Catholic Church at the time.

Chapter three describes Townsend's unique goals and style that made him and his students attractive—they did not preach or serve as pastors, and they did not start churches. Instead they did practical community development to help Indians, while at the same time "the SIL did not try to obscure its desire to translate the Bible" (p. 13). By the late 1930s the government came to view SIL as their solution to the "Indian problem" (chapter four). This was a political movement known as indigenismo that was spreading throughout Latin America. Something needed to be done to incorporate the nations' Indians into their larger mestizo populations. In Mexico, SIL's greatest strength, linguistics, looked like the answer. This put SIL into a prominent position because SIL was the only organization that had experience in teaching vernacular literacy, and they would do it without pay. This was the beginning of the best decades for SIL in Mexico.

Chapter five describes how SIL successfully expanded in Mexico in the 1940s, as it continued to win favor via its expertise in bilingual education and diplomacy. Chapter six explains how SIL managed to strengthen its position in the country during the 1950s. Its members continued to expand into other Indian language areas, allying itself even more closely with the Mexican state and the indigenista movement. The 1951 contract with the Ministry of Education actually gave SIL linguists "the right, in fact the obligation, to translate books of high moral value, under which category the Bible surely fell" (p. 85). Even Mexican anthropologists were allies of the SIL (pp. 86-88).

Four Case Studies of SIL's Work

In chapters seven and eight, and in his conclusion, Hartch presents four case studies of SIL programs in Mexican indigenous communities. The first is of a successful SIL program among the Tzeltal Indians of Chiapas where, Hartch says, "The fact [is] that Slocum and Gerdel's work ... had clearly revitalized a moribund culture.... [into] a vibrant new culture, different from the old but still boldly Tzeltal" (p. 100). The second unsuccessful case study was that begun by Eugene Nida among the Tarahumara people in 1936 and carried on by Ken and Martha Hilton from 1940. This latter project provides Hartch with an example of the "rocky places" where resistance by local people hindered SIL programs.

The third case study is about a team of four SIL women who worked for forty years among the Eastern Otomi people in Hidalgo State. All kinds of cultural changes occurred during that half-century, good and bad, some caused by the SIL women and most independently of them, including a blood feud before the women arrived in 1943. There were then no roads, no schools, no Protestants, zero literacy, and extreme poverty. Some Otomis were friendly to the women, but most were not. There were some divisions in the community as, in the 1960s, some converted to Protestantism and gave up the Otomi-Catholic religious rites. This caused friction in the villages. As Hartch says,

This might seem to be all the evidence that is needed to indict Voigtlander and Echegoyen [two of the SIL women] for just the kind of division, destruction of indigenous culture, and creation of a capitalist mentality that social scientists have long blamed the SIL for. But as we have seen, these changes were embraced enthusiastically by a good portion of the community. (p. 120)

During Hartch's fieldwork in this area in 1999, he says people spoke well of the SIL women. In earlier decades they generally served as brokers between the Indians and the government, provided the Otomis with access to medicine, helped the town to secure bilingual teachers, to petition for a road in 1977 and to secure electricity in 1982 (p. 122). As he says,

The common charge of anthropologists that the SIL destroys culture and produces division in the indigenous societies in which it works would seem to apply, at least in part, to [Eastern Otomi].... So the anthropologists are right: Echegoyen and Voigtlander did divide [the village of] San Antonio, and they did make inroads for capitalism and the national state.(pp. 123-24)

"Yet the anthropologists are only partially right", Hartch says (p. 124). He then describes the positive changes over the decades when SIL was in Otomi country—the improved economics, health, education, and an end to the blood feuds. He summarizes by saying, "Unless anthropologists can make a convincing argument that Protestantism is exceptional, they will need to do better than presenting conversion to Protestantism as de facto evidence of deculturation" (pp. 124-26).

In the fourth case study, Hartch presents his analysis of the work of SIL linguists Ken and Elaine Jacobs who began studying the language of the 100,000 Chamula Tzotzil people in Chiapas in 1954. The Jacobs lived on the border of the area, since the Chamulans never let them live in their town. In 1964 there were only two Chamulan evangelicals, but in the next two decades Chamulan Protestantism exploded, and by 1983 there were 4,000 converts. This religious change caused major division in the language group with violent campaigns of persecution against the evangelical converts beginning in 1966 and continuing to the present. Today apparently all of the thousands of Chamulan Protestants live as refugees outside of their homeland. Anti-SIL critics of the 1970s-80s blamed SIL for this. Hartch does not deny all of this, but shows that the picture is much more complex. As it turns out, though SIL did have some important role in the crisis, it was not the determining role. Other political factors were at play that had nothing to do with Protestantism or with SIL.

Anthropologists Turn Against SIL

Chapters nine and ten are titled Anthropology Takes a Radical Turn, and Denounced! In these two chapters Hartch describes the dramatic change in anthropology/mission relationships, beginning in 1971 at Barbados and climaxing with the denouncement of SIL in 1980. The 1971 conference, sponsored by the Department of Anthropology at the University of Bern and the World Council of Churches, resulted in the famous Declaration of Barbados that in effect blamed all of the problems of Indians on missionaries and called for the suspension of all missionary activity. It was a powerfully influential document that helped to inflame the anti-missionary rhetoric in anthropology and the worldwide media throughout the 1970s.

Barbados was only the first of several major events that followed one after the other through the '70s, events that negatively affected SIL. While SIL was not singled out at Barbados, the first direct blow to SIL soon followed with the publication of the seminal NACLA article against SIL in San Francisco in December 1973 by Laurie Hart. This was followed in March 1974 by the first of anthropologist David Stoll's many articles against SIL, culminating in his 1982 book Fishers of Men or Founders of Empire.

SIL Denounced at Merida

By the end of the 1970s the attacks had reached a crescendo, often with the publication of numerous newspaper articles per month in Latin America alone. It peaked at the eighth Inter-American Indigenista Conference (the acronym is III) in Merida, Yucatan, in 1980, where SIL was angrily denounced (158). At an earlier III conference in Brasilia in 1972, III had honored Townsend with an award as a "Benefactor" of monolingual Indians. At the 1980 III, Hartch says, "The congress passed a resolution to rescind the honor they had given to Townsend in Brasilia and the gathered delegates rose to their feet to applaud for seven minutes. Townsend retreated from the room in disgrace" (p. 158). Hartch is wrong about this. Although Townsend's award was indeed rescinded at this event, and Townsend and his wife and four other SIL people were at the 1980 III conference, neither Townsend nor the other five SIL delegates were present in the auditorium on the last day when the resolution was presented and voted on.

Probably drawing from Stoll's 1982 book (p. 230), Hartch got this story mixed up with a similar event that did happen four years earlier at the 42nd International Congress of Americanists, in Paris. Townsend and his wife were at that 1976 conference along with several other SIL linguists presenting papers. Townsend later gave an oral report of the conference which was recorded and is today filed in the Townsend Archives (TA typed document #50583; also oral recording cassette tape #112). The audience did boo and stamp their feet when Townsend's time came to speak. True to Townsend's calm style, however, he waited, then explained to the audience the religion of the SIL by reading to them First John 4:7-11 from the Bible, and then handed out Spanish New Testaments to those who wanted them. SIL people present there told me it was, indeed, "a bad scene" at first, but calmed down when Townsend read the Bible passage and, they told me, "There was no retreating from the room in disgrace."

What Caused the Turn Against SIL?

What was behind this drastic turn against SIL in the 1970s? A main influence, says Hartch, was the growing popularity of neo-Marxist ideology. With that came the growth of new political socialist movements in the 1970s with radical calls for the liberation of the Indian. These movements despised the old goals of indigenismo ideology, now arguing that Indians should remain Indians, not become Mexicans. In short, "indigenismo was quickly losing its luster while social anthropology's aims were turning almost 180 degrees" (p. 137). In the 1970s anthropologists and Marxist-oriented students were attracted to the popular new ideology of neofunctionalism and the Pristine Myth of cultural innocence, a period "when the unity of indigenous communities and the preservation of indigenous culture were taken as unqualified ‘goods’; [for these ideologists] there could be no doubt that the SIL was an utterly reprehensible organization" (pp. 176-77). This myth was so idealized in the 1970s that some critics were even opposed to SIL's literacy efforts because it would undermine "oral cultures". Some even opposed the introduction of Western medicines because it would destabilize traditional views of healing and disease (p. 177). By the 1970s Western foreigners throughout Latin America, including SIL linguists, were looked on with suspicion as CIA agents. Even North American anthropologists, as they became more and more committed to ending colonialism, "saw getting rid of the SIL as a necessary first step in a much larger process" (p. 154).

Hartch Finds Five Main Criticisms of SIL

After Hartch sets aside the far-fetched accusations against SIL, he retains five allegations worthy of consideration. He then assesses the validity of those five charges. These are linguistic ineptness, espionage, cultural imperialism, promotion of capitalism, and the division of communities (p. 158).

What is Hartch's opinion as to the legitimacy of these five allegations? His "short answer [is] a qualified no to the first two charges and a qualified yes to the latter three" (p. 158).

Hartch gives no credence to the first allegation, saying that "it strains credulity to believe that the SIL is full of linguistic charlatans" (p. 158). He does not mention it, but there are close to four hundred SIL members today with PhD's, mostly in linguistics (twenty-four in anthropology) from secular universities all over the Western world. He also dismisses the espionage allegations, saying that no one has ever produced "good evidence linking the SIL to the CIA or any other intelligence agency" (p. 159).

He does give credence to the other three allegations, saying that they "seem to be valid, if partial, descriptions of the SIL's impact in many of the communities where it worked in Mexico" (p. 160). Hartch only refers once to the concept "cultural imperialism" after his brief mention of it on page 158. He unquestionably views SIL linguists as agents of change; but the changes they introduced were voluntary, he says, not forced, and the changes Indians accepted were positive for their culture. "In contrast to what many anthropologists claimed, the SIL did display a fair amount of respect for indigenous cultures" (p. 177). Still, given the neofunctionalist ideology at the time, any change was enough to condemn SIL.

The fourth criticism of SIL on page 158, is promotion of capitalism. But in spite of his giving a qualified yes to this allegation, Hartch never again addresses it. In fact, he indirectly disassociates SIL from supporting capitalism when (1) he asserts that no connection exists at all between Townsend and Nelson Rockefeller's capitalist projects (pp. xviii, 90), a conspiracy theory popularized by Gerald Colby in his 1995 book Thy Will Be Done (HarperCollins 1995). (2) He also makes clear that SIL is not a tool of corporations or capitalists; and (3) he reviews Townsend’s defense of Mexico's oil expropriation and other non-capitalist policies. Hartch takes the position that the advancement of capitalism is not a part of SIL's formal or even unconscious goals, even if evangelical Christianity may stimulate more market-oriented behavior among converts.

Hartch discusses community division in two language areas where SIL worked and where he did field research himself (Otomi and Chamula). But he assigns only minor blame to SIL for these divisions, saying "it would be absurd to argue that the conversion of any significant Protestantism would not...divide a village" (p. 176). There were all kinds of divisions in these language areas when SIL was there, he says, but they were going on before SIL arrived and in the case of the Chamula area, long after SIL had left. SIL may have caused some of these problems, but not all of them. And as the book makes clear the Eastern Otomi area was actually more united after four decades of SIL's presence than it had been before SIL arrived. Hartch concludes that "the myth [that SIL divides communities]...simply does not do justice to the complexity of any society" (p. 177).

History of the SIL Mexico Branch after Merida

Whether these allegations are true or not, what was the fallout for the SIL Mexico Branch? The Mexican government decided in late 1979 to stop renewing SIL visas, and gradually, by the early 1980s, as visas expired, about 140 SIL linguists had to leave Mexico (pp. 158, 163). Hartch makes clear, though, that "there had never been any blanket prohibition on the SIL's presence or work in Mexico" (p. 163), and "some linguists never had to leave Mexico at all" (p. 164).

Hartch concludes his book by quoting from two of SIL's main Mexican anthropology opponents of the 1970s. Now in the 1990s, after the demise of Marxism and neofunctionalism, Hartch finds SIL's old nemesis Salomón Nahmad arguing that today's indigenes have the right and ability to make their own choices for the new century. And Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, the guiding force behind the 1971 Declaration of Barbados and a leader among those who denounced SIL in Merida, had changed his mind about evangelicalism by 1996. Bonfil Batalla now suggests that "indigenous people can accept Protestantism without giving up their indigenous identities" (p. 180). As Hartch says, "If a truck-driving PRIista [member of the Revolutionary Party] shaman can be Otomi, why can't a Pentecostal?" (p. 180).

Yes, why not?

Disclosure: The reviewer is affiliated with SIL International, and serves SIL as an international anthropology consultant. The opinions expressed here are the reviewer's alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of the SIL.