David Hollinger is Preston Hotchkis Professor Emeritus at the University of California-Berkley. This interview is based on his new book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America (Princeton University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write Protestants Abroad?
DH: In the 1990s while writing books about multiculturalism (Postethnic America, 1995) and about Jewish intellectuals (Science, Jews, and Secular Culture, 1996), it struck me that many missionaries were precursors of the most defensible aspects of multiculturalism and were indeed the Anglo-Protestant equivalents of the cosmopolitan Jewish intellectuals who were famous for having expanded the horizons of American culture. I became annoyed at the patronizing and negative pictures of missionaries that were dominant among scholars and in popular culture. I also remembered, having long since forgotten it, what a powerful, charismatic figure was cut in my church-centered childhood by missionaries on furlough from China and India. As a little boy in Idaho and Washington, these people in their Sunday night lectures made me aware of a world much wider than my own surroundings.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Protestants Abroad?
DH: Deep immersion in foreign cultures led many missionaries to adopt relatively generous attitudes toward the varieties of humankind, causing these missionaries to question as provincial a great variety of Home Truths accepted by most of the folks at home. Between about 1920 and 1970, ecumenically inclined, anti-racist missionaries and their children advocated foreign policies friendly to the self-declared interests of non-white, decolonizing peoples, and promoted domestic initiatives that would later be called “multicultural.”
JF: Why do we need to read Protestants Abroad?
DH: To call attention to an egalitarian theme in the Christian tradition that is much less visible in the current era than it was fifty, seventy-five, and one hundred years ago. To make clear that Americans who have benefited from “white privilege” have done very different things with their color-produced opportunities, and have sometimes fought against the very racism of which they were the beneficiaries. To remind ourselves that contact with people very different from ourselves can liberate us from narrow understandings of what the possibilities for human life actually are.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DH: I wrote an entire essay (“Church People and Others”) answering exactly this question, posed by the editors of Becoming Historians (edited by James Banner and John Gillis, 2009), which I reprinted as Chapter 8 of my own book, After Cloven Tongues of Fire (2013). The short answer is that I did this because I did not know what I was doing! I thought it would be easier than philosophy and theology, the other fields that most interested me. I was mistaken. It proved to be very demanding, or so it has seemed to me. But what made me stay with it is probably more important than the naïve conceptions of the calling that led me to it. What made me stay with it was the ever-growing awareness that the study of history was a virtually boundless opportunity to explore an infinity of questions about what it meant to be human. The title of the “Church People and Others” piece refers to how I found my way from the society of my youth into the overwhelmingly secular circles of academia.
JF: What is your next project?
DH: Two things are in the works. First, I have been writing a family memoir that I may or may not publish, organized around my father’s difficult path to the ministry and his even more difficult departure from it. It is an account of a “Pennsylvania Dutch” family’s migration from Gettysburg to Saskatchewan, and how my father and his siblings were almost destroyed by the blizzards and by the unwise decisions of my grandfather, who was a leader of the Church of the Brethren and a Brethren in Christ bishop when the two denominations worked together in Canada in the 1920s and 1930s. Second, I am making notes for what might be a short, essayistic book (modelled on Postethnic America) about religion and politics in modern America. This book would address some of the problems that follow from the sort of thinking authorized by 2nd Corinthians 10:5 (every thought captive to Christ, etc.), and would attempt to bring some clarity to the widespread discourse about the function of religious ideas and affiliations in contemporary American public life.
JF: Thanks, David! I can’t wait to read both of those books!