How Christian Missionaries Worked as Spies During World War II

Capt. William Eddy (4th from left), 1918.

William Eddy was one of the most effective intelligence officers in American history. During World War II, he was among the first to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the nation’s first permanent espionage agency. After the war, he helped found the CIA. He was also a decorated veteran of World War I and, in civilian life, an educator, devoted husband, and father. But none of those roles really captures the true William Eddy: Above all, he was a man of God.

Eddy was born in Lebanon in 1896 to Presbyterian missionaries. Raised in the Middle East, he became fluent in Arabic and French and went to college in the United States. After earning a doctorate from Princeton, he went on to teach English at the missionary-founded American University in Cairo and later at Dartmouth. With his linguistic abilities and insider’s knowledge of the region, Eddy was recruited to the OSS by William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the founding father of modern American espionage. Eddy became America’s man in the Middle East, helping make possible the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942. He acted as an interpreter between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi King Ibn Saud at their meeting in 1945, which established the US-Saudi alliance. Yet no matter where he was, Eddy rarely missed a Sunday service.

Eddy’s remarkable career—part missionary, part spy—might seem unusual, but as Matthew Avery Sutton shows in his magnificent new book, Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War, it was anything but. The wartime role of American missionaries has largely faded from memory, but Sutton’s entertaining and insightful narrative recovers it in full.

Double Crossed is the latest book to ride a wave of scholarship covering the influence of religion upon American war and foreign policy. Indeed, Sutton himself is new to the genre; he is one of the foremost historians of American religion writing today, but this is his first work of diplomatic and military history. His previous books include a justly celebrated biography of Pentecostal leader Aimee Semple McPherson and a highly original examination of apocalypticism in American culture and society. He brings the same intimate knowledge and understanding of religion to Double Crossed, paired with a sophisticated grasp of geopolitics, statecraft, and wartime strategy. The result is not only a profound history of American Christian missions but also one of the most original and interesting histories of World War II in several decades.

The Cross or the Flag?

Many of America’s first spies were missionaries or came from missionary backgrounds. Often enough, they were the only Americans who had lived abroad—not just among locals but as locals. While other American spies learned about the world through books and couldn’t really grasp its full range of quirks and complexities—“like tourists who put ketchup on their tacos,” as Sutton puts it—missionaries spoke several languages and knew the subtle differences between local dialects. They understood local cultures and faiths from the ground up and knew intuitively how to navigate between them. They knew, in short, “how to totally immerse themselves in alien societies.” But they always identified first and foremost as Christians and as Americans, and when they were called to serve the nation, they did not hesitate to do so.

With deep scholarly insight and a novelist’s storytelling gifts, Sutton tells their story through the extraordinary lives of four missionary spies: Eddy, Stephen Penrose, Stewart Herman, and John Birch.

Eddy, the devout Presbyterian descended from two generations of missionaries, is perhaps the leading figure. His grandparents helped found the missionary school that eventually became American University in Beirut (AUB). His wife, Mary, was also a missionary kid. After the US entered World War I, Eddy joined the Marines and was injured at Belleau Wood, one of America’s bloodiest battles and a key turning point in the Allied road to victory. Before Pearl Harbor in 1941, when it looked like the US would enter World War II, the 45-year-old Eddy re-enlisted with the Marines. But his skills were too valuable for combat, and the OSS poached him, with a secondment to the State Department giving him diplomatic cover.

Stephen Penrose was a Congregationalist from Walla Walla, Washington. After graduating from Whitman College and teaching at AUB, he earned a PhD in philosophy at Columbia. Penrose returned to his alma mater as a professor, but he left academia to take up a position in two important missionary organizations. With the outbreak of war, he fit exactly what Donovan was looking for at his new spy agency. Along with Eddy, Penrose oversaw US interests in North Africa and the Middle East.

Stewart Herman was a Lutheran from Pennsylvania, born in 1909 and educated at Gettysburg College. During the Depression, he attended graduate school at the University of Strasbourg, located in France but only a few miles from the German border. There he learned both French and German, which enabled him to pursue his studies at two of Germany’s most prestigious universities, Göttingen and Tübingen. In 1936, he accepted an invitation to become pastor of the American Church in Berlin, where he witnessed the Nazi march to war and met regularly, in secret, with the anti-Nazi Confessing Church. The US embassy, recognizing the value of his linguistic talents and local network, hired him as a translator shortly after war broke out. When he returned to Washington for the first time in a decade, the OSS immediately snapped him up.

Birch, a self-described “hard-shell fundamentalist,” is probably the most famous of the missionaries in Double Crossed, thanks to the extremist John Birch Society that adopted his name, but Sutton reveals a new side to him. Birch was born in 1918 to Presbyterian missionaries in India, but his parents soon returned to the United States, and he was raised as a Baptist in Georgia. In 1940, after attending Mercer University, he went on mission to China, where he immersed himself in Chinese society. He quickly gained fluency in Mandarin and several other dialects, lived simply, and dressed and ate like the locals.

If Eddy had a contender for the most successful of Sutton’s missionary spies, it was Birch, who rescued dozens of downed Allied airmen in the remote Chinese interior and relayed vital information on Japanese targets from deep behind enemy lines. His two closest mentors—the firebrand preacher J. Frank Norris and the wartime aviator Claire Chennault, leader of the famed Flying Tigers squadron—epitomized Birch’s approach to his task as a combination of national service and Christian devotion. In August 1945, only 10 days after Japan’s surrender, Birch was captured, tortured, and killed by Chinese Communist forces.

Being a missionary spy was fraught with moral and spiritual tension. The missionary aspires to the highest morality, while the spy deliberately blurs the lines between right and wrong; the missionary preaches a gospel of love and kindness, but the spy must lie, cheat, and steal in order to complete the mission. “It is an open question,” Eddy later observed with some regret, “whether an operator in OSS or CIA can ever again become a wholly honorable man.” Sutton’s title, Double Crossed, is a clever play on words that reveals these tensions between the methods of God and those of Caesar.

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Source: Christianity Today