Kenneth Scott Latourette

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Kenneth Scott Latourette (1884 –1968) was an American historian based at Yale University who specialized in the history of Christianity and the history of China. He especially studied the history of Christian missions to the world, to find out what factors made for success and to gauge their impact on all parts of the globe for 20 centuries. He had encyclopedic interests and was a prolific writer. A devout Baptist, he was active in promoting religion around the world, and adopted a Christian perspective on history.

Education and academic career

Latourette was born in Oregon City, Oregon and attended Linfield College, a nearby Baptist school. He took his B.A. at Yale College in 1906 and a Ph.D. at Yale in 1909. In 1909 and 1910 he was based in New York as a traveling secretary for the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions. He taught in China, 1910 to 1912, at the College of Yale in China, Changsha, China. Poor health forced his return. He taught history at Reed College, Portland, Oregon, from 1914 to 1916, and at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, from 1916 to 1921. In 1918 he was ordained as a Baptist minister in the Northern Baptist denomination.

Called to Yale Divinity School, he served successively as Professor of Missions (1921-1927), Professor Oriental History, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity (1921–49), Sterling Professor of Missions and Oriental History (1949–53) and finally as Sterling Professor Emeritus from his retirement in 1953 until his death in 1968. An active Baptist, he held weekly study and prayer sessions, and taught Sunday School. He never married.

Other Achievements

Latourette held many committee roles and national leadership positions in many organizations, including the American Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Missionary Union and the YMCA. He was awarded honorary doctorates from seventeen universities in five countries and was elected president of the American Historical Association

At the Yale Divinity School, the Latourette Initiative is a proactive program to preserve and provide access to the documentation of world Christianity. It provides funding for the microfilming of published and archival resources documenting the history of Christian missions and Christian life.

Latourette's papers are archived in the Divinity Library Special Collections of the Yale University Library.

Christian history

In his presidential address to the American Historical Association, Latourette promoted the value of taking a Christian approach to the last two millennia.[1] He argued:

As the influence of Jesus has spread geographically, various results have followed which are evidence that the transforming power which Christians claim for it is at work….Through the expansion of Western peoples and their culture, mankind has for the first time been brought together. To the degree that this is the result of the influence of Jesus it is a partial implementation of the dream of the unity of mankind which is a feature of the Christian understanding of history. The struggle to regulate and eventually to eliminate the wars which make our shrinking globe so perilous a neighborhood owes much to Jesus….Such attempts at world-wide co-operation as the League of Nations and the United Nations are demonstrably to some extent from him.
Much clearer is the decisive part which Jesus has had in the efforts to combat slavery and other forms of the exploitation of men by their fellows….The list is long of the Spanish and Portuguese laymen and clergy who, inspired and sustained by their Christian faith, labored to guard the non-Europeans in the colonies in both hemispheres from the callous selfishness of their fellow countrymen. The place of his Christian faith in impelling Wilberforce in his campaign against the Negro slave trade is well known. So, too, is the role of the Quakers, Samuel Hopkins, and those touched by the Finney revival, consciences made sensitive by commitment to the Christian faith, in the movement for the emancipation of Negro slaves in the United States. We are all aware of the efforts of the Christian missionary, David Livingstone, to curb the slave trade in Africa itself. Less familiar is the share of such Christian missionary leaders as John Philip and Cardinal Lavigerie in the campaign against African slavery. Christianity has been one of the most potent forces making for the liberation and advance of the depressed classes of India. Jesus was a major inspiration of Gandhi. In land after land he has contributed to the emancipation of women. In the impact of Occidental upon non-Occidental peoples Christian missions and other agencies inspired by him have made for improved medical care, for public health, for better methods of agriculture, and for schools and universities better adapted to the new day than were their predecessors. Increasingly these features of the influence of Jesus have been spreading and now in varying measure embrace mankind.

Books by Latourette

  • The history of early relations between the United States and China, 1784-1844 (1917) full text online
  • The development of China (1917 and later editions) full 1917 text online
  • The development of Japan (1918 and later) full text of 1918 edition
  • The Christian Basis of World Democracy (1919) full text online
  • A history of Christian missions in China (1929)
  • Missions Tomorrow (1936)
  • A History of the Expansion of Christianity (7 vol 1937-45)
  • The History of Japan (1947, 1957)
  • The Chinese; Their History and Culture, 2 Vols. (1934; 3rd ed. 1950)
  • A short history of the Far East (1947, 1964).
  • Introducing Buddhism (Friendship Press, 1956). 64p.
  • "The Christian Understanding of History," Presidential address delivered at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington on December 29, 1948. American Historical Review 54: 2 (January 1949): 259-76. full text online
  • Beyond the Ranges, the Autobiography of Kenneth Scott Latourette (1967)
  • Christianity in a revolutionary age; a history of Christianity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 5 vol.
    • Christianity in a Revolutionary Age. Vol. I: The 19th Century in Europe; Background and the Roman Catholic Phase (1969)
    • Christianity in a Revolutionary Age. Vol. II: The nineteenth century in Europe: the Protestant and Eastern churches (1959)
    • Christianity in a Revolutionary Age. Vol. III : The 19th Century Outside Europe; the Americas, the Pacific, Asia and Africa (1969)
    • Christianity in a Revolutionary Age, Vol. IV: The Twentieth Century in Europe - The Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Churches (1958)
    • Christianity in a Revolutionary Age, Vol. V: The twentieth century outside Europe: the Americas, the Pacific, Asia, and Africa : the emerging world Christian community (1962)

About Latourette

  • Wilbur C. Harr, ed. Frontiers of the Christian world mission since 1938; essays in honor of Kenneth Scott Latourette. (1962)
  • Norman Kutcher, “’The Benign Bachelor’: Kenneth Scott Latourette between China and the United States," Journal of American-East Asian Relations 2.4 (Winter 1993): 399-424.
  • William Allen Speck, The Role of the Christian Historian in the Twentieth Century as Seen in the Writings of Kenneth Scott Latourette, Christopher Dawson, and Herbert Butterfield (1965)
  • James Edward Wood, Kenneth Scott Latourette (1884-1968): Historian, Ecumenicist, and Friend (1969)


  1. Latourette, "The Christian Understanding of History," American Historical Review 54: 2 (January 1949): 259-76. full text online