Sunday, January 11, 2009


In the opening scene of Dickens' original story, two gentlemen visit Scrooge's office asking him to donate to charity. In the text, this two characters are described as "portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold." Traditionally they are portrayedas warm, smiling, proper British gents--as pictured above and below.

In "A Southern Christmas Carol" these characters are transformed from two portly English gentlemen into a married couple whom the script identifies simply as the Missionary Man and Missionary Lady.

These missionaries are a unique American (and Southern) character type. Obviously dedicated and completely sincere in their quest to help those suffering from the Great Depression, they nevertheless have the flair and showmanship of talented salesmen or entertainers. When they enter Old Man Scrooge's office, they take over the space, launching right into their prepared pitch, smiling warmly the entire time.

There are many stereotypes of religious Southerners from the period of the Great Depression--such as the character Elmer Gantry. Such characters are often portrayed as charlatans or con artists--or worse yet as backwards thinking bigots. Too often overlooked is the fact that there were devout Christian missionaries working in the rural South and Midwest in the 1930s who were decicated to advancing the rights of women, of the poor and of black Americans. These missionaries were part of the Social Gospel movement. On the outside one might assume that such missionaries were politically conservative, but in actuality they tended to be somewhat left of center. (Remember the Great Depression was also the era of the New Deal.) As Christians they believed that they had been called to fight poverty and injustice.

A group of Social Gospel Missionaries from the 1920's

Jimmy Bishop as 'Missionary Man' in the original 2003 production

Social Gospel 'Missionary Ladies' in the 1930's

Karen Beyer as 'Missionary Lady' in the 2003 & 2004 productions

One such group was the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Southern Methodist Church. Not only did this organization work tirelessly to help the poor, but they worked to advance better education and civil rights for black Americans. This organization served as the inspiration for the fictional "National Social Outreach Missionary and Tract Society--Southeast Division" which the Missionary Man and Lady represent in the show.

Peter Lewis, Karen Beyer & Jimmy Bishop in the 2003 production

The Missionaries' first scene with Scrooge is mostly humorous: they find it impossible to warm his cold heart despite their best efforts, and they are truly horrified the poor taste of his attempts at humor. Later--when the Ghost of Christman Future shows Old Man Scrooge the tragic outcome of Eppie's life after the death of her only son--the Missionaries appear again, this time in a more serious scene, and offer help to the woman.

Allison Upshaw & Karen Beyer in the 2003 & 2004 productions

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