Examining Christianity in Japan and Iowa

Professor Reinier Hesselink discussed the importance of the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier.

Courtesy Photo

Professor Reinier Hesselink discussed the importance of the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier.


The monthly Phi Alpha Theta lecture series, through the UNI Department of History, had its February installment this past Thursday, Feb. 25, focusing on the topic “St. Francis Xavier in Iowa and in Japan.”

The organization – an honor society for undergraduate and graduate students as well as professors of history – hosts a lecture series featuring one virtual presentation each month from a professor in the Department of History. The events are free to the public; however, advance registration is required to obtain the Zoom link for the lecture. The fall 2020 Phi Alpha Theta lectures were also held via Zoom in order to make them accessible to alumni and scholars across the globe. 

This month’s lecture featured the well-traveled Dr. Reinier H. Hesselink, professor of history, whose wide-ranging research interests focus on Japan’s relations with the outside world.

Hesselink teaches Liberal Arts Core and upper-level classes about Japan and Japanese history, as well as Introduction to the Study of History and World History in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.

Hesselink has also written several books, including “Prisoners from Nambu: Reality and Make-Believe in 17th-Century Japanese Diplomacy” (2002), which was published in both Japanese and Dutch editions. In 2016 he published “The Dream of Christian Nagasaki: World Trade and the Clash of Cultures, 1560-1640,” for which he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Hesselink was introduced at Thursday’s virtual lecture by Dr. Jennifer McNabb, department head and professor of history.

Hesselink’s hour-long lecture centered around a German immigrant named Francis Xavier Bullinger, who moved to Dyersville, Iowa in the 19th century.

Bullinger, as Hesselink described, “was the driving force behind the building of the Dyersville Catholic Church in 1889, a structure that would become the gorgeous Basilica of St. Francis Xavier.” This is one of 53 basilicas in the United States.

Hesselink then delved further into the historical connections between the German immigrant Francis Xavier Bullinger and his namesake, St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionaries and one of the founders of the Jesuit order.

As a missionary to Asia, the original St. Francis Xavier was the man who “brought the European religion of Christianity to Japan,” as Hesselink said. He explained that when Bullinger immigrated to America, he chose the name Francis Xavier in honor of this missionary saint.

“Evidently, Mr. Bullinger felt that in 1858, he was going to the boonies in Iowa to bring civilization,” Hesselink said.

After drawing connections between the extensive history of St. Francis Xavier and his mission travels in Asia, Francis Xavier Bullinger and the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier in Dyersville, Hesselink fielded questions from participants before the lecture’s conclusion. 

Hesselink is currently working on a new project in the form of another book, provisionally entitled, “The Suicide of Takenaka Uneme,” where he aims to explain why the samurai class enforced a ban on Christianity throughout the Japanese islands in the beginning of the 17th century. Hesselink indicated during the lecture he has nearly completed work on this project.

The Department of History is also hosting the annual Donald Shepardson Memorial Student Research Conference on Saturday, March 13 via Zoom. This event is free and open to the public, although advance registration is required.

The conference features presentations of original work created by undergraduate students. Phi Alpha Theta manages the presentation schedule, with panel moderation by graduate students, and organizes a keynote speaker for the event.

More information about Phi Alpha Theta, the Donald Shepardson Memorial Student Research Conference or the Phi Alpha Theta Lecture Series can be found on the Department of History’s website (csbs.uni.edu/history) or at their offices in 319 Seerley Hall.