Emily Conroy-Krutz. Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015. 264 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-5353-3.
Reviewed by Timothy C. Hemmis (Spring Hill College)
Published on H-War (January, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Commissioned by God: Empire and Early American Christian Missionaries
In Christian Imperialism, Emily Conroy-Krutz addresses a gap in the historiography of early American missionary history. Conroy-Krutz investigates the lives of a select group of American foreign missionaries and shows how American evangelicals lived in the world. Although a small group, these men and women left an extraordinarily abundant record of correspondence about their experiences abroad. The author argues that American missionaries from Bombay to Singapore to Africa saw their world through an imperial lens, which should shift historians’ understanding of American imperialism as emerging not after the Civil War, but from the founding of the nation.
In 1812, the same year the United States declared war on Great Britain, eight American missionaries traveled to South Asia to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Conroy-Krutz demonstrates that over the next few decades hundreds of American missionaries would also hear the call to travel aboard spreading Protestant Christianity. The recently created American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions modeled its organization after British examples and realized that in order to gain an American audience and support there had to be “tales of conversion from heathen paganism to Christian civilization” (p. 20). With recent success stories of British missionaries in India, American evangelicals decided to form their own organization. Conroy-Krutz shows that these missionaries began to search the globe for potential areas for evangelism and commercialism. These missionaries focused on areas outside North America, because evangelizing Native Americans did not have the same appeal as natives in “exotic” places such as Asia or Africa. In a sense, evangelizing Native Americans was stale and not glamorous enough. Ultimately, the Anglo-American overseas missions wanted to export their idea of Christian civilization to the rest of the world.
Even during the War of 1812, American and British missionaries in India cooperated for a greater purpose—Christ. They created a transnational network of missionaries that put aside national and political differences to promote the gospel. The American missionaries learned and copied from their British counterparts, including hiring British agents such as missionary William Carey to help with the finances in Bengal. Although the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had a difficult start in India, by 1860 the mission in Bombay had stabilized. Building on the British model, the American Board finally achieved a foothold in India.
Initially, the mission field saw an increase in church attendance, but not a rise in conversion. Conroy-Krutz suggests that this low conversion rate was due to the cultural demands of the missionaries. For example, a member of the Brahmin class would lose his status if he converted to Christianity and could be imprisoned for such an action. Therefore, American missionaries became frustrated at the low number of converts, and decided to find a solution to this problem. Their answer was missionary schools. These schools would not only teach students about Christianity, but also indoctrinate them in Western ideals.
Despite the reluctance of early missionaries to serve in North America, some evangelists saw it as a worthy mission field. Conroy-Krutz also examines the role of the American Board in evangelizing the Cherokee and the Choctaw in the 1810s and 1820s. From its inception until Andrew Jackson’s election, the United States government funded the American Board’s missions through the Civilization Fund. Their job was to help convert Native Americans to Christianity and to spread Western-style development among the tribes. After the War of 1812, the American Board moved into Cherokee lands. The United States government hoped that the Native Americans would quickly assimilate into Anglo-American society. Despite reports from the missionary schools, many white Americans, including President Andrew Jackson, believed that Native Americans could never assimilate into society and pushed for removal. Most members of the American Board thought that the Cherokee Nation had shown progress toward civilization and should not be removed; however, the American appetite for land eventually won the day. The author shows that these missionaries sought to protect their Cherokee brethren and during Indian Removal several missionaries were persecuted for their stance.
The author illustrates the complex intricacies of empire and missionary work around the globe. She effectively demonstrates how American missionaries came together with British evangelicals to take advantage of political and commercial imperialism to spread the gospel. One target was the port of Singapore. Conroy-Krutz argues that “commercial power made Singapore attractive to missionaries, for it meant that Singapore had a large and diverse population of Asian settlers” (pp. 184-185). She points out the use of the new term “Christian colony,” but in reality nothing was different: the Anglo-American missionaries wanted to bring their idea of civilization to Singapore (p. 188). However, no official missionary colony was founded in Singapore. Regardless, missionary work still played an important role in the region.
Overall, Conroy-Krutz’s argument that missionary work brought Americans onto the world stage before the United States’ own imperial age stands on solid ground. She successfully shows how American evangelicals in the early American republic thought of themselves as citizens of a larger nation—a transnational Christian kingdom, which pushed the boundaries of the American republic. It raises the question, has the United States of America always been an empire? This looming question will undoubtedly lead to more research and debates about American imperialism. Nonetheless, this reviewer believes that Conroy-Krutz has splendidly confirmed that the seeds of American imperialism were planted during the early years of the republic. Overall, Christian Imperialism is fantastic scholarly work that deserves attention and praise. It will be a great addition to undergraduate and graduate classes alike because it also furthers the historical debate about American empire by examining an often overlooked segment of the population—missionaries.
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Timothy C. Hemmis. Review of Conroy-Krutz, Emily, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic.
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