JF: What led you to write Christian Imperialism?
ECK: It started with a story about Americans in the British Empire. In 1812, when the first American foreign missionaries reached India, the War of 1812 had just begun and eight American men and women now found themselves in British territory, ordered to return to the United States, and placed in police custody. They did not leave, but spent the war years divided into smaller groups, some fleeing the police and trying to find alternate mission locations and others trying to convince the local governments in India that they were not an American threat, but Christian allies in the task of converting India to Christianity and “civilization.” I came across that story when I was working on a seminar paper in graduate school and was fascinated by the boldness of the missionaries who asserted their right to be in India and played with the questions of their identity as Americans and as Christians. For some of their British missionary allies, the Americans were maddening in their lack of a plan and unwillingness to follow the rules of the East India Company in determining where they would go and what they would do.
These early American missionaries felt that they were following Providence and fulfilling their duty to take part in the conversion of the world, even as the power of their country to help them do that work was severely limited. I wanted to know much more about them and to try and figure out what inspired this movement that they were part of and what it could tell us about national identity in the early United States. I wanted to know what they thought they were doing in India in 1812, and how they found their way to open mission stations around the world by the mid-1840s.
The project grew out of these linked questions of why the foreign mission movement began when it did and where Americans wanted to go as missionaries. In 1810, when the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was founded, the ambitious global scale of the ABCFM’s plans are quite surprising, and so I wanted to think about what their decisions about where to go and what to do when they got there can tell us about how early 19thcentury American Protestants thought about the role of their country in the world. The result is a book that traces American missionaries in Asia, Africa, North America, the Pacific, and the Middle East in the years before 1848 as a way of thinking about ideas about race, religion, civilization, and empire in the early republic.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Imperialism?
ECK: In the early 19th century, the American foreign mission movement was motivated by an idea that I have termed Christian imperialism, a claim that America and other supposedly Christian nations such as Britain should spread Anglo-American civilization and Protestantism to the peoples of what they called the “heathen world” as a way of fulfilling their duty to spread the gospel. As they went about four decades of missionary work, they asserted the centrality of this role even as the political realities of the world around them ultimately did not conform to this vision of an American international role.
JF: Why do we need to read Christian Imperialism?
ECK: Christian Imperialism takes a broad-scale view of the foreign mission movement as a way of thinking about the US in the world during the first decades of the nineteenth century. If you are interested in how Americans have thought about the role of their country in the world, this is an important part of that story. Missionaries were some of the earliest Americans to live abroad, and their writings about their experiences were influential to how Americans at home understood the peoples of the world. They worked alongside imperial and colonial projects around the world—including the British East India Company, the Colonization Society, and the U.S. government—and had an important perspective on how religion and politics ought to relate to each other. By looking at missionaries in Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, North America, and the Middle East within the same study, I try to reconstruct the foreign mission movement as it would have been thought about at the time: a project with truly global ambitions that emerged at a moment of American political weakness on a global scale. Thinking about how those two things fit together can reveal a lot about the place of America in the world. In light of these difficulties, missionaries had to prioritize where they went and what they did, and their decisions are revealing of their thinking about race and “civilization,” and of how that thinking shaped and was shaped by their religious beliefs and political and economic structures. The book should be of interest to readers who want to know more about not only the history of missions, but of the role of the US in the world, of American imperialism, and of religion and race.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
ECK: I was lucky to have some really great history teachers in high school and college that helped me to see how exciting it could be to become a historian and try to answer big questions through a careful reading of primary source documents. In my first semester as an undergraduate at Columbia, Alice Kessler-Harris introduced us to E.H. Carr and to the idea that how we frame our questions matters, and where we go looking for our answers matters. It was that training in women’s history that really inspired me to think about history as a career. Once I started exploring archives and discovering the fun ways that research can take you in new directions you weren’t expecting, I was hooked.
JF: What is your next project?
ECK: I’m starting work now on a project looking at women and transatlantic reform before 1840. In part, this is emerging out of some research on women in the foreign mission movement that I did for this project but I’m planning on moving beyond missions to think about the ways that men and women in the US and Great Britain were talking about women’s participation in reform movements—particularly religiously motivated movements—in the decades between the Revolution and the 1840 World’s Antislavery Conference in London. It’s very early stages, but I’m having a lot of fun with it so far.
JF: Thanks Emily! Sounds like a great new project!