John O. Choules and Thomas Smith. The Origin and History of Missions; a Record of the Voyages, Travels, Labors, and Successes of the Various Missionaries, Who Have Been Sent Forth by Protestant Societies and Churches to Evangelize the Heathen.... Boston: Gould, Kendall and Lincoln, and Crocker and Brewster, 1842. 1:Frontispiece.
R.G. Wilder. Mission Schools in India of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, with Sketches of the Missions among the North American Indians, the Sandwich Islands, the Armenians of Turkey, and the Nestorians of Persia. New York: A.D.F. Randolph; Boston, Crocker and Brewster, 1861. Frontispiece.
1801 saw the outbreak of war between the United States and the so-called “Barbary States” of north Africa. The Barbary States interfered with commerce in the Mediterranean Sea by intercepting merchant ships, ransoming sailors, and exacting tribute. American resentment eventually became military intervention by a newly formed navy and marines. With war came an escalation of self-congratulatory cultural sneering, as American publishers reprinted British translations of the Koran and biographies of Muhammed, meant to expose their “absurdities” to empower Christianity to compete against Islam more effectively.
“What is the power of that principle which draws thousands from their country?,” asked the American missionary Samuel Parker in 1838. Parker lamented the fact that capitalist energy seemed both to precede as well as to exceed Christian devotion, since American traders outnumbered American missionaries in the Middle East and everywhere else in the world. How could religion be made as inspirational as capitalism in sending Americans overseas?
American traders enjoyed support for their enterprises from the U.S. State Department, War Department, and Navy Department. They did not need to organize collectively. Missionaries needed to, and did. 1810 saw the establishment of the first of numerous foreign missionary organizations in the United States: the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. One portion of the American missionary movement’s “foreign” ambitions was directed at Native Americans inhabiting western North America, another at indigenous peoples around the world — including the Muslim world in the Middle East, now targets of conversion rather than warfare.
Unlike traders on land and sea who tended to come and go after brief visits or short sojourns, missionaries committed themselves to residing far from home, as strangers in strange lands. Sarah Huntington, an American missionary in Syria, described this process as a daunting combination of “demolition and reconstruction” of self. To what degree would missionaries shed their former expectations and habits, and adapt to new circumstances? How might they retain their Americanness while overseas? And could indigenous peoples ever come to be commensurable to Americans? Was Christianity able to make them so?
Missionary after missionary puzzled over the obduracy of foreign cultures. The lesson R.G. Wilder drew from his years of frustration in India was to target indigenous children. Customs, language, indeed the very ways of thinking and communicating, seemed to render foreign adults impossible to convert to Christianity. With children there seemed a chance.
Even so, heathens might become Christian, and foreign cultures might become a tiny degree or two more “modern,” but a fundamental incommensurability remained between Americans and most other peoples in the world. Christianity was presented as universal in its way, but full cultural modernity was exceptional — the exclusive possession of the Americans, Britons, and select other Europeans. So Americans persuaded themselves, and repeated to themselves.
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James Wilson Stevens. An Historical and Geographical Account of Algiers; Comprehending a Novel and Interesting Detail of Events Relative to the American Captives. Philadelphia: Printed by Hogan and M’Elroy, 1797.Complaining that the Barbary States kidnapped American sailors, Stevens blamed Islam for causing north Africa’s descent from Carthaginian civilization into “barbarism.”
The Life of Mahomet; or, the History of that Imposture which was Begun, Carried On, and Finally Established by Him in Arabia; and which has Subjugated a Larger Portion of the Globe, than the Religion of Jesus has yet Set at Liberty. Worcester: Printed by Isaiah Thomas, Jun., 1802.Worried that Islam outnumbered Christianity in the world, the author of this biography insisted that Christians must study Islam in order to compete effectively with it.
The Koran, Commonly Called the Alcoran of Mahomet. Translated from the Original Arabick into French, by the Sieur De Ryer ... the Whole Now Faithfully Translated into English. Springfield: Printed by Henry Brewer, for Isaiah Thomas, Jun., 1806.This was the first American printing of The Koran, meant to expose its “absurdities,” implicitly positioning Christianity to be a rational religion.
Samuel Parker. Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains, Under the Direction of the A.B.C.F.M. Performed in the Years 1835, ‘36, and ‘37; Containing A Description of the Geography, Geology, Climate, and Productions; and the Number, Manners, and Customs of the Natives. Ithaca: Published by the author; Mack, Andrus and Woodruff, Printers, 1838.One portion of the American missionary movement’s global ambitions was directed at Native Americans inhabiting western North America, in competition with commercial and military interests.
James Wyld. An Atlas of Maps of Different Parts of the World; Designed to Show the Stations of the Protestant Missionaries. London: J. Wyld, 1839.Wyld trumpeted the global reach of both British and American missionary programs in their joint effort for Christianity to outcompete Islam in the world.
Choules, John O., and Smith, Thomas. The Origin and History of Missions; a Record of the Voyages, Travels, Labors, and Successes of the Various Missionaries, Who Have Been Sent Forth by Protestant Societies and Churches to Evangelize the Heathen.... Boston: Gould, Kendall and Lincoln, and Crocker and Brewster, 1842.The American John Choules completed the Briton Thomas Smith’s labor in recording an ecumenical history of Protestant missionary programs emanating from both their countries.
Edward W. Hooker. Memoir of Mrs. Sarah L. Huntington Smith, Late of the American Mission in Syria. New York: Published by the American Tract Society, 1846.By the 1820s the American missionary movement had established stations around the world often in tandem with the British missionary movement, both struggling with language barriers.
Emily C. Judson. Memoir of Sarah B. Judson, Member of the American Mission to Burmah. New-York: L. Colby and Company, 1848.Women were vital to the American missionary movement as activists and supporters at home, and as missionaries abroad — where the death of a child could acquire great poignancy.
R. G. Wilder. Mission Schools in India of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, with Sketches of the Missions among the North American Indians, the Sandwich Islands, the Armenians of Turkey, and the Nestorians of Persia. New York: A.D.F. Randolph; Boston, Crocker and Brewster, 1861.While training themselves to live in foreign countries, missionaries built schools in order to target children for both religious and cultural re-education, as their entering wedge of influence.