The mysterious pull of Paul Mackensen

A few years ago, I was sitting in the periodicals section of my seminary library, crouched among Lutheran Woman’s Work, late 1940s-early 1950s.  Our Lutheran History professor had asked us to focus on any aspect of 20th century American Lutheranism and do some kind of project on it.  My partner and I had chosen to look at mission work in China, more or less at random.  She was writing a thesis on the accompaniment style of missionary work anyway. I thought China sounded vaguely interesting.

We were still trying to narrow down this vast topic, and I was sitting in the library, inhaling dust, hoping that some kind of theme would emerge as I trawled through decades of articles in this missionary magazine, sponsored by a women’s organization of the American Lutheran Church.  But it was being rather disappointing: nobody seemed to want to really talk about what was happening in China.  I started to focus my attention on the listing at the back of each issue: a list of countries, and in tiny print under the name of each country, a list of the missionaries who were stationed there, and their address.

There was a healthy list of names in post-WWII China…maybe over twenty around 1947.  But as I flipped through the issues, the number suddenly started to drop.  Dramatically.  In 1949, everybody started leaving.  Suddenly there were only four names.  Then three.  Then two.

The two names–Paul Mackensen, Clara Sullivan–hung in there through the beginning of 1952.  Then finally, Clara Sullivan’s name disappeared from the annals, and I found an article a few months later about her return.  Paul’s name and address kept appearing alone…month after month…until finally…I looked for his name in late 1952 and saw the words:

Paul Mackensen.  Address unknown.

I promptly freaked out.  I was a random seminary student staring at the name of a complete stranger in a 60-year-old magazine, and some dim part of my mind understood that this was a rabbit hole, but I didn’t care.  It was suddenly crucial that I find out what the hell happened to Paul Mackensen.

I looked carefully in the following several years of magazines, and learned that Paul had been imprisoned in China.  No one seemed to know why or how or where.  I couldn’t find any record of him being released.

So I did what any sane person would do.  I walked over to a library computer and googled the man.

To my amazement, this worked.  I found a man with Paul’s exact name (his is a unique spelling, I guess) living outside Pittsburgh.  And guess what?  I found a phone number.  And I dialed it.

I realized in hindsight that this probably violated some kind of unspoken boundary.  Uninvolved seminary students do not call up strangers and ask if they were the same guy as the one imprisoned by communist China.  They just don’t.  But I couldn’t help myself. I was desperate to know whether it was really Paul, and if it was, that he’d gotten home OK.

A man picked up the phone.  “Hello?”

“Hello,” I said.  “My name is Victoria, and I’m a student at Gettysburg Seminary. Is this Paul Mackensen?”

“Yes, it is,” said the voice. I felt a surge of relief and amazement.

“The same Paul Mackensen that was in China in the 1950s?”

“Yes.”  It might have been my imagination, but the friendliness in the voice seemed to evaporate just a little.

I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation.  I think I must have explained to Paul how I came to know of him, and I know I asked him whether he’d be willing to talk about his experience.  He said no, but very politely.  He’d been asked many, many times, by lots of people, and had always declined.  He asked how I liked seminary, and whether I knew his niece, who was also a student there.  (I didn’t recognize her name.)  I asked when he’d come home, and he said 1960.  We chitchatted.  He was sweet.  At length we said goodbye, and hung up.

I sat back in my chair.  Well.

Paul Mackensen.

Alive and safe after all.

There you are then.

I was still in the library.  I had been, at this point, in the library for a very long time.  I thought briefly about going back to my apartment.  I needed to walk my dog.  Make dinner.  Do other homework.  Things like that.

I got up and walked back to the periodicals section, and started pulling out issues of missionary magazines from 1960.

I’ve been researching Paul Mackensen for two and a half years now.

I’ve done big projects like this before, and recognize my own propensity for getting wrapped up in the minutiae of my research–when I was writing my thesis on the uses of gardens in Shakespeare in college, I could discourse at length about the mythic signifiers in the etiological narratives of the lilium candidum. 

But Paul’s story is different. I really don’t expect anyone else to give a shit about the lily.  But Paul’s story seems to speak to everyone to whom I’ve told it.  There is something universal and poignant and deeply sad about what happened to Paul Mackensen that kept–and keeps–me invested in it, trying to figure out just a little bit more every time I read through the letters that make up the bulk of my file on Paul.

Oh, the letters.  Let me tell you about the letters.  Let me tell you about the amazing and somewhat frightening archival capacity of Lutheran church bodies.

I told my professor about Paul, and she recommended I write to the chief archivist of the ELCA, over in Chicago.  I emailed Joel the archivist, told him about Paul, and asked if he had any materials related to Paul’s case.

Joel responded by digitizing and sending Paul’s entire file to me.  This amounted to several hundred pages of letters, with a couple of forms and newspaper articles thrown in.

Here’s the story they reveal, as I’ve pieced it together:

Paul Mackensen, 1948. From flickr, ELCA Archives.

Paul Mackensen was going to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in 1945 when he applied to be a missionary.  He was on track to be ordained by the American Lutheran Church, which his father also served, pastoring a church in Baltimore.  On his application, Paul marked a preference for China.  It must have been a strong preference, because the weird thing about Paul’s application is that it was submitted to the United Lutheran Church of America–not Paul’s native ALC.  The only reason I can think of that accounts for Paul’s weird choice to be ordained by one church body but called and employed by another is that he really, really wanted to go to China.

And he did, setting sail in 1948, after spending a year studying Chinese at Yale.  He arrived in Tsingtao, China, in September of 1948, and joined the American Lutheran Mission at Shantung, which the ULCA had inherited from German missionaries in the 1920s, when Germany was shrinking its mission fields in order to recover from WWI.

Paul was 23 years old, and had at this point spent almost four years preparing to come be a missionary in China.  He was there for only four months before the mission family came together to discuss evacuations. He was one of four people who decided to try and stay for as long as they could.

Tsingtao fell to the Communist army in 1949, and the turnover was reportedly peaceful. But situation in China was deteriorating quickly for foreigners, and American missionaries were clearly not going to be permitted to stay and continue with their work.  Two of Paul’s compatriots left in 1950.  Paul and Clara applied to the new government for exit permits.  Clara’s was granted, and she left in early 1952.  Paul’s application was refused.

On March 11th, 1952, Paul was arrested in the middle of the night and imprisoned in a detention center for political prisoners just outside Tsingtao.  It took almost a month for the news to leave China, carried into Hong Kong by a German missionary who had been Paul’s neighbor and friend.  No one knew what the charges were.

Dear Friends,

We have just received word from China about your son, which distresses us very much; and will be bad news for you folks.
Rev. Olsen, from Hong Kong, cabled us under date of April 3d, with the following message:
MACKENSON IMPRISONED MARCH SEVENTH CHARGES UNKNOWN NO DETAILS LETTER FOLLOWS

–Dr. Gotwald, Exec. Sec’y of the ULCA Board of Foreign Missions, in a letter to Paul’s parents, dated April 3rd 1952.

Paul was imprisoned for five years, four of which were spent in a detention center for political prisoners outside Tsingtao, where witnesses claim that he experienced everything from malnutrition to manacles to solitary confinement to Communist indoctrination.  Paul finally got a trial in 1956, where he was charged with “threats against security” and sentenced to 5 years in prison, commencing from the date of his arrest.  Paul’s trial took place one month after China agreed that all foreign civilians would be permitted to return home (the Geneva agreement).  At this point, only 14 American missionaries remained in China. Paul was the only Protestant–the rest were Catholic priests.

In 1956, Paul’s family got a letter that deeply frightened them: Paul reported that he has been taken on a tour around some major Chinese cities and has seen “something of the REALLY new China, a China none of us knew before, and about which you have probably heard little through the screen of cold war propaganda.”

He continued by expressing complete satisfaction that the Chinese are holding up their end of the Geneva agreement, “But I am somewhat disturbed that the Chinese in the U.S. aren’t faring so well….They are innocent victims of unwarranted discrimination.” He says he knows his parents must be going through a lot, seeing their own son imprisoned in a foreign country, but claims the situations are completely different, as he freely admits his “open hostility to trends in Chinese domestic affairs” and his fault in “aiding those who would turn back the course of Chinese history.”

Paul went on to say that, when his sentence was finished in ten months, he planned to stay in China, since if he left he probably wouldn’t be able to get back in . He writes that he will resign as a missionary at an appropriate time.

And then, on a discordantly mundane note, he asks his family to send recent pictures, if that’s at all possible.

Paul was indeed released five years after he’d been arrested.  He resigned as a missionary and stayed in China until 1960, teaching English in Shanghai. Whenever anyone asked him about his decision to stay, he would reply with some variation on, “I would like to study what is going on in China.”

Paul Mackensen, Hong Kong, 1957. Flickr: ELCA Archives.

A few times, when speaking with close friends, he would hint that guilt undergirded his decision to stay: “He knew his parents wanted him to come home but felt that making up for his wrong-doing had to take precedence over his feelings for his parents.” When questioned, even by friends, about the exact nature of this wrongdoing, Paul was vague, saying only that his punishment had been just and deserved. Nothing in conversations or correspondence contradicted any of the beliefs he had espoused in the radical letter from 1956, though his friends noted that he remained sensitive to their differing opinions, and never sought to argue with them.

It wasn’t long after Paul was released that the question of his spirituality came up.  In a confidential note, Secretary Erb would read that a piece of an interview with Paul that was left out of the official report:

While at the hotel talking with Paul, Rev. Gross asked him, “Paul, this is a personal question and you don’t need to answer it, but do you believe in anything?” Paul’s reply, “What do you mean?”. Rev. Gross said, “I mean in God, in Christ and so on?” Paul hung his head and said, “I’d prefer not to answer that.”

Paul came home in 1960, explaining vaguely that “A person’s got to come home sometime.”  He resigned from the ALC clergy roster, and got a job working for Greyhound.  He eventually got married, settled down, had kids.  He never, ever talks about what happened in China.

Paul Mackensen with his sister and brother-in-law, Staten Island pier, 1960. Flickr, ELCA Archives

I don’t know what happened in 1956 that so dramatically changed Paul.  I don’t know why he decided to stay in China.  I don’t know why he ultimately decided to leave it.  I can make educated guesses about what happened to his spirituality under the incredible strain of imprisonment and indoctrination, when there was no sign that his church or even his family cared about him.  (When Paul arrived home, he didn’t even know Dr. Erb’s name–and this was a man who had handled all the correspondence of Paul’s case, kept the family up to date, and went to Washington to lobby for Paul.)  But even that, I really don’t know.

And as much as I’d like to know the answers to some of those mysteries, the thing about Paul’s case that really grabs me is that everyone who’s involved in it seems changed by it, somehow.

There’s Paul himself, who clearly has a very organized, clean-cut way of thinking about the world in his 1945 application, only to come out of China 15 years later knowing that nothing was ever as it seemed to be–not even him.  A lot of people wonder whether Paul was brainwashed.  I don’t know; but I’m convinced that Paul himself didn’t believe so.  But he was painfully aware that he no longer fit into the mold of “American missionary,” or even “Christian” (as Christianity was defined by 1950s America) when he emerged from prison.

There’s Earl S. Erb, who like most red-blooded Americans in the 1950s, wouldn’t be caught dead around a man with communist sympathies, but who managed to write to Paul when Paul resigned as missionary: “I can understand your desire to contribute to the ‘peace, happiness, and welfare’ in speaking about the people of China. From your letter I assume that as a citizen of the foreign country it is not possible for you to serve as a minister of the Gospel in China, and, therefore, you are seeking another type of work to fulfill your desire to serve the people of China.”  In other words: I understand you, and I understand that you can’t do what you feel called to do as an American missionary.  Erb offered Paul his blessing–and this is a remarkable thing.

And there are the changes I witness in listeners when I tell this story.  As a culture, we so often want to have the solution, know the answer, provide the explanation.  I confess straight up when I tell this story that I’m confused about an awful lot of it, and this sets people up for wanting to tell the story to me. To reinterpret the details I share, and configure them into an explanation.  To help me be less confused.  And I’m grateful for the chance to hear their thoughts.

But there are so many twists and turns and unknowns Paul’s story that it defies the boxes everyone–myself included–long to put it in.  I watch that change happen as I tell the story: the transformation people undergo from a confidence they can figure it out to the humbling admission that they just don’t know how to spin this.  Despite the simple facts of his case, Paul remains complicated.  His case remains mysterious.  There is no moral to his story.  There’s just a vague sense of disquietness, the sense that something is left hanging.

And that makes this story all the more real, the more captivating to me.

I began compiling my research into a paper last summer, and as I did so, I felt compelled to reach out to Paul once again.  I wanted to let him know that I wouldn’t solicit an interview, but would always be open to learning more of his story.  And most of all, I just wanted to tell him, somehow, what it all means to me.  And even this, I struggled to put into words.

I also wanted to find some way of telling you that your story has touched me.  I will likely never know nor understand everything, or even a part of everything, that you underwent in China.  Yet even so, the scale of what you endured—particularly the poignancy of the isolation you must have experienced, both during your incarceration and after—as well as the profound love you evinced for the Chinese people, has engaged more than my academic interest.  It has also touched my heart.

I never heard back from Paul.  But I hope he doesn’t mind, anyway, that I continued this research.  That I share his story, and try to do it justice.
Most of all, I really just hope that he is happy.
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9 Replies to “The mysterious pull of Paul Mackensen”

  1. His story is very similar to that of the Ricketts and Harriet Mills who all returned to the USA and admitted that they had been spies when it was clear that they were not. This really befuddled Americans at the time. You probably know that William Worthy interviewed Mackensen in 1957 and pronounced him on of the most tragic cases he’d ever met.

    1. Thanks, John! I don’t know the story of the Ricketts and Harriet Mills. I had seen the Worthy interview (a fabulous story in its own right), and the whole thing just seems so deeply peculiar, particularly because Mackensen chose to stay in China for four more years. The pieces of the puzzle just don’t lead to a coherent picture.

      Thanks for reading, and for the new names.

  2. Hello Victoria, I am a Mackensen descendant from my mother´s side. Many of the Mackensens emigrated to Canada and the US from the area I come from. I have done some research of the Mackensen family, many of them became lutheran ministers. So the grandfather of Paul Mackensen who was a minister in Brent, Bruce, Canada. Later the familiy moved to the US.

    Congrats for winning the Abdel Ross Wentz Prize. Is your essay of Paul Mackensen available as PDF? And are there more digital papers available from the achives? I am very interested to get more information.

    But there was another Paul Mackensen, who disappeared in China in 1923. He was in a mission too. He was an uncle of “your” Paul Mackensen.

  3. Paul’s father was pastor of St Paul ELC (SE Baltimore) for 20 + years until late 50’s. Every Sunday Service included a prayer for Paul’s safe return from China. Our senior leadership maintained contact with his siblings and now 60 years later that connection is fragile. But a few of us still remember the influence that the Mackensen family had on us. His father was a stern leader and our catechism classes were ‘work’ , but matched Martin Luther’s Plan for teaching 12 year olds. Thank you for your pursuit and final written product.

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