Why American Presbyterian Missionaries Resigned 1900-1949

Written by Karl Dahlfred.

Recently, I spent time looking at the Personnel Files of the Board of Foreign Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the USA at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, looking to learn why missionaries left Siam/Thailand in the early 20th century. That may not sound very exciting to some people (full disclosure: it wasn’t always exciting for me either), but there are some fascinating nuggets in midst of the piles of old paper.  I skipped the list of missionaries who left the mission due to death or retirement and went straight to the list of resignations and withdrawals because those are generally more revealing of the state of the mission and the lives of the people leaving. What I found was unsurprising in many instances but some unfortunate and odd reasons for leaving did appear the records.
The vast majority of reasons for resignation across all fields had to do with health, or more specifically the lack thereof.  People went home due to their own poor health or that of their spouse, their children, or their parents or another relative in the U.S. who needed care.  Another common reason for leaving the mission was getting married to someone outside the mission or “disturbed conditions on field” (such as war, for example).
What I found fascinating were the less common reasons given for resignation or withdrawal from the mission.  Some of them sound extremely unfortunate and are pregnant with a bigger story waiting to be told.  Some are rather blunt, and others seem understated.  Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  But without further ado, here are actual reasons why missionaries resigned or withdrew from the American Presbyterian Mission between 1900 and 1949:
“very temperamental, something of a genius”
“felt he could do better work in U.S.A.
“confused theologically”
“lack of work for which they volunteered”
“lack of adjustment”
“general dissatisfaction”
“did not quite agree with Presbyterian form of discipline”
“joined Independent Board
“unsuited for missionary service (neurotic)”
“Mrs. O’Brien refused to return to Siam”
“serious differences with co-workers and nationals - mission voted against return”
Though I am sure they had some responsibility in this, I still feel bad for the people who left the mission field because they were deemed “inefficient” or a “misfit.”  And I don’t know what their story was, but I imagine that Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien had many long, exhausting conversations (arguments?) about returning to Siam.  The award for understatement, however, goes to the mission leader wrote the explanation for the person who had to resign because he “did not quite agree with Presbyterian form of discipline.”
I could be mistaken, but the reasons missionaries leave the field today are probably very similar, with one exception.  I don’t have any research on hand but I would guess that the major difference is that a lot more missionaries today go to the field expecting to only be there for a short amount of time whereas 100 years ago the majority went to the field expecting that they were embarking on their life’s work.