|Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Paul, Minnesota|
|Did Adoniram Judson’s wife own a $1200 coat?|
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Days like these are rough. I am trying to get in 3-5 hours a day on the ABS project, but some days my schedule at Messiah College makes it difficult. For example, today I had an 8:30am meeting, which means I had to get up an hour earlier to do my ABS work. I have not yet had a cup of coffee.
My morning was spent on two tasks:
1. Organizing my notes in preparation for writing my chapter (Chapter Four) on the “General Supply” (ABS attempt to provide a Bible for every American).
2. Reading through The Reformer, a religious periodical published by a Philadelphia anti-mission Baptist (or at least I think he is a Baptist–not completely sure yet).
I would have never been aware of the existence of this periodical if an ABS agent in frontier Illinois did not mention it in an 1828 letter. The publisher of The Reformer, James Rakestraw, is staunchly opposed to benevolent societies and missions organizations that are interdenominational in nature. He is particularly hard on the American Bible Society because he thinks the ABS is only concerned with making money from the sale of Bibles. There is a strong populist flavor to The Reformer. The writers publish scathing attacks on Christians who they believe have succumbed to wealth and materialism. In one issue I read this morning the editors attacked the wife of missionary Adoniram Judson for wearing a coat from India which they believe was worth $1200.
The Reformer was popular among Primitive Baptists in the Midwest during the 1820s. These Baptists often hindered ABS attempts at supplying the region with Bibles. Stay tuned.
|Noah Webster: Anti-Jacobinist|
This morning I had the privilege of chairing a session on “Religion and Transatlantic Print Culture” at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. Actually, I was pinch hitting for Kyle Roberts of Loyola University-Chicago, who could not make it to the conference. My responsibilities? Introduce the panelists and read Roberts’s comments.
I expected a solid panel, but I did not anticipate learning so much.
Jonathan Den Hartog of Northwestern College (St. Paul) began the festivities with a paper on religion, Anti-Jacobinism, and print culture. (For those unfamiliar, Anti-Jacobinists were 1790s intellectuals who opposed the political ideas associated with the French Revolution). From a religious perspective, Anti-Jacobins opposed French irreligion, Paine’s Age of Reason, and the dangers of the Illuminati. Den Hartog focused on four American Anti-Jacobin writers: grammarian Noah Webster, clergyman Timothy Dwight, printer William Cobbett, and novelist Sally Sayward Wood.
Lily Santoro of Southeast Missouri State presented a paper on the ways in which American Protestants used British texts across the Atlantic “border” to shape a distinctive discussion of science and religion in the early republic. She focused on intellectuals such as Yale professor Benjamin Silliman and Baptist minister Thomas Staughton who used the study of the natural sciences to support their republican and Christian faith.
Ashley Moreshead of the University of Delaware (both Ashley and Lily are/were Christine Heyrman students) talked about British contributions to American missionary periodicals. Missionary magazines created a sort of imagined community of Protestants that transcended national boundaries. Her paper reminded me of the work by Susan O’Brien, Frank Lambert, and others who have written similar things about the First Great Awakening.
(I hope these descriptions do some justice to the three papers).
I should also add that this panel was a model for how to present complicated ideas in a compelling, passionate way. There were no bells and whistles (Powerpoints, handouts, etc…), but all three papers were presented in a way that was very accessible to the non-specialists in the room. I don’t think I have ever heard names and phrases such as “William Paley,” “Edmund Burke,” “natural religion,” and “heathen millions” uttered in such an enthusiastic way.
In his comments, Kyle Roberts asked Den Hartog to think harder about how (and if) less popular Anti-Jacobin works were disseminated. He wondered whether Santoro’s intellectuals and science writers were distinctly “American” in nature. And he asked Moreshead to examine how magazine editors repurposed European content to suit their needs.
Den Hartog, Santoro, and Moreshead are doing some great work. I look forward to reading their forthcoming works. Happy to be a pinch-hitter. (I have always been a big fan of Manny Mota and Rusty Staub).
L.D. Burnett is one of the more thoughtful and dedicated writers in the history blogosphere today. I have no idea how she manages to work on her dissertation in intellectual history at the University of Texas at Dallas and still write such compelling posts at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, but I enjoy reading what she writes.
In her recent post, entitled “Secular Academic Homilitecs 101,” Burnett reports on Washington University’s inaugural Danforth Distinguished Lecture. The lecturer was noted Berkeley historian David Hollinger and the topic was his current project on evangelical missionaries. Jon Butler, Darren Dochuk, and Molly Worthen responded to Hollinger’s lecture and Hollinger offered a rejoinder.
You can read all about the lecture here, but I particularly enjoyed Burnett’s description of Molly Worthen’s comments:
There was nothing static about conservative American evangelical missions in Molly Worthen’s telling – nothing static about the evangelicals, and nothing static about how Worthen brought them to life. Instead of delivering her remarks from her seat at the table, Worthen took the podium. And then she took the room. Her argument about the vitality and complexity of evangelical thinking about missiology was not only clear in her prose but mimetically instantiated in her delivery. Molly Worthen didn’t just give a talk; she it, in the fullest and best sense of the word. Everyone in that room, from the distinguished historians at the front to the junior scholars at the back, saw and heard in Worthen’s contribution a pitch-perfect match between style and substance, argument and audience. She has studied Billy Graham, but she clearly could have schooled him too. Like both Butler and Dochuk, Worthen brought a smart, strong challenge to Hollinger’s argument, and she delivered with clarity and confidence that gave listeners every confidence that she knew exactly what she was talking about. That to be a hard act to follow.
This is the same Molly Worthen I experienced only a few days earlier in Chattanooga and it is the same L.D. Burnett I have been reading for several years now. Excellent.
I know Bill Svelmoe from our days grading AP U.S. History exams in San Antonio. He is a fine scholar of American religion at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, IN.
But I had no idea that he was a novelist!
(It is also good to see that Den Hartog has joined the ranks of the Religion in American History bloggers!)
Here is a taste of Den Hartog’s review:
Svelmoe shows respect for the missionaries he writes about. He recognizes a real selflessness that would take individuals halfway around the globe to care for the bodies, souls, and cultures of indigenous groups that can give little in return. Further, as one character observes, these flawed missionaries are the only ones doing such works. Among the missionaries, Philip finds thoughtful individuals, true wits, and genuine piety. They reflect, at their best, a community that Philip aches to be a part of. Further, he finds this community at its richest at the Communion table. When this community becomes shut off, it truly is a matter of tragedy. Also, Philip finds a christocentric faith. Reading the Gospels carries Philip back to the focus on Christ, one of the wellsprings of traditional evangelicalism.
More good news for historians. The Yale Divinity School’s Day Missions Library is in the process of digitizing 1500 volumes of annual reports from missions agencies. The reports date from 1850-1950. The new database will be searchable, but it is not clear if it will be available online.
The digitization project, funded through a 2009 grant from the UK-based Arcadia Foundation, focuses on early annual reports of missions agencies in the Day Missions Library and marks the first time the Library has digitized portions of its own collections. Once digitized, the documents have searchable text capabilities.
Many of these documents, totaling some 1,500 volumes, are more than 100 years old and in particularly fragile condition. Most date from 1850-1950, a time when the foreign missions enterprise was in its heyday and when tens of thousand of missionaries sailed from North America, Britain, and Europe to Africa, China, and many other distant locales. Taken together, they weave an intricate tapestry of the day-to-day activities of missionaries, not only in relation to their own activities in evangelization, education, and medical work, but also about political unrest, plagues, local customs, and other cultural phenomena.
A report of the Foochow Missionary Hospital, for example, describes a cholera epidemic spreading through Foochow in 1919, and efforts to fight child slavery and child labor. The staff was traumatized when a young father sold his four-year-old daughter assuming he would need money for treatment of an ulcer on his foot, which the missionary hospital ended up treating free of charge. Buried deep in the report is a short mention of “guerilla fighting” in the countryside, the only mention of the social unrest that would usher in the communist revolution.
Another report, from the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society at the beginning of World War II, chronicles the struggles of hospitals and schools in the Yenping Conference, under threat of Japanese bombs or Communist raids. The report gives credit to the churches for instituting reforms against foot binding, child-marriage, concubinage and slavery, as well as moral reforms against drinking and gambling, even as it warns that war may soon shutter the schools and hospitals.
I was struck today by a piece in the London Times by columnist and self-professed atheist Matthew Parris. Parris believes that God may be the answer to the host of problems facing Africa. “Missionaries, not aid money,” Parris writes, “are the solution to Africa’s biggest problem–the crushing passivity of the people’s mindset.”
For Parris, religion, particularly Protestantism, liberates. He writes:
We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.
Parris challenges the notion, apparently popular among “Western academic sociologists,” that the African tribal situation is generally “good” for the African people. Here is his dissent:
I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.
Once again, Protestantism is the way to counter such tribalism:
Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosophical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.
As a student of religion in the United States I am often critical of the so-called “liberating” power of American Protestantism. The Protestant emphasis on individualism, liberty, and freedom has always been connected to political and cultural values that we might call “American,” but they can also be taken to unhealthy extremes that lead to materialism, self-interest, and the undermining of authentic community. In this context, as I argued indirectly in The Way of Improvement Leads Home, tribalism or local attachment or “place” may offer an alternative moral vision to the Protestant, cosmopolitan, universal, individualistic, ambitious idea of “America.”
I am no expert on Africa or its tribal system, and I am probably going out on a limb here, but I am inclined to say that when it comes to Africa I would withdraw this harsh critique of Protestant individualism If Parris is correct, tribalism in Africa has led to tyranny. In this sense, the liberating power of the message of Protestant missionaries may be the answer in Africa in the same way that John Paul II’s Catholicism, a brand of Catholicism that was also critical of American individualism and consumer capitalism, was partly responsible for the fall of communist tyranny in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe.