Research Programs: Public Scholars

Period of Performance

8/1/2017 - 7/31/2018

Funding Totals

$50,400.00 (approved)
$50,400.00 (awarded)

Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War

FAIN: FZ-250439-17

Matthew Avery Sutton
Washington State University (Pullman, WA 99164-0001)

A book on religious activists and missionaries who served as US spies in China, Germany, Italy, and North Africa during World War II.  Sutton's work tells the stories of John Birch in China; Felix Morlion, a Belgian Catholic who spied for the OSS in the Vatican; William Eddy, a missionary's son who organized intelligence in Northern Africa; and Moe Berg, a Jewish professional baseball player sent behind the lines to interrupt work by German scientists. 

FDR drafted ten million people to serve in World War II. And he drafted God. Or at least some of God’s most valuable earthly agents. During the war the US government sent a small but influential group of missionaries and religious activists around the globe to work in covert operations and espionage. Their stories have remained hidden—until now. This analysis of religion and espionage is significant for the following reasons. (1) It illustrates how religious activists’ entwining of faith and patriotic duty made them some of the nation’s best spies, willing to sacrifice everything to execute their missions. (2) It highlights the little-known role that religion played in World War II. FDR pushed Americans to see global religious freedom as fundamental to American security for the first time. (3) It reveals how the government and the work of religious activists facilitated the rise of a new religious nationalism ostensibly grounded in the championing of global freedom of religion.

Media Coverage

In World War II, serving Jesus while spying for the United States (Review)
Author(s): David Hollinger
Publication: Washington Post
Date: 10/24/2019

When the Saints Go Undercover (Review)
Author(s): Andrew Preston
Publication: Christianity Today
Date: 9/1/2019
Abstract: Book review

Secret Agents (Review)
Author(s): Nathan M. Greenfield
Publication: Times Literary Supplement
Date: 4/3/2020

Associated Products

Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War (Book)
Title: Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War
Author: Matthew Avery Sutton
Abstract: The untold story of the Christian missionaries who played a crucial role in the allied victory in World War II What makes a good missionary makes a good spy. Or so thought "Wild" Bill Donovan when he secretly recruited a team of religious activists for the Office of Strategic Services. They entered into a world of lies, deception, and murder, confident that their nefarious deeds would eventually help them expand the kingdom of God. In Double Crossed, historian Matthew Avery Sutton tells the extraordinary story of the entwined roles of spy-craft and faith in a world at war. Missionaries, priests, and rabbis, acutely aware of how their actions seemingly conflicted with their spiritual calling, carried out covert operations, bombings, and assassinations within the centers of global religious power, including Mecca, the Vatican, and Palestine. Working for eternal rewards rather than temporal spoils, these loyal secret soldiers proved willing to sacrifice and even to die for Franklin Roosevelt's crusade for global freedom of religion. Chosen for their intelligence, powers of persuasion, and ability to seamlessly blend into different environments, Donovan's recruits included people like John Birch, who led guerilla attacks against the Japanese, William Eddy, who laid the groundwork for the Allied invasion of North Africa, and Stewart Herman, who dropped lone-wolf agents into Nazi Germany. After securing victory, those who survived helped establish the CIA, ensuring that religion continued to influence American foreign policy. Surprising and absorbing at every turn, Double Crossed is the untold story of World War II espionage and a profound account of the compromises and doubts that war forces on those who wage it.
Year: 2019
Primary URL:
Publisher: Basic Books
Type: Single author monograph
Copy sent to NEH?: Yes

The U.S. Recruited Missionaries as Spies During World War II. Their Stories Are Only Now Being Told (Article)
Title: The U.S. Recruited Missionaries as Spies During World War II. Their Stories Are Only Now Being Told
Author: Matthew Avery Sutton
Abstract: American intelligence leaders had stumbled upon the fact that missionaries make great spies. They have excellent language skills, they know how to disappear into foreign cultures and they are masters at effecting change abroad. But while missionary spooks believed that their wartime work was necessary, they also wrestled with the moral ambiguities inherent in their actions.
Year: 2019
Primary URL:
Format: Magazine
Periodical Title: Time
Publisher: Time