Elevate Difference

Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812-1960

A great deal of important criticism has emerged recently in the area of women’s contributions to the history of evangelical Christianity, and this collection brings together some of the scholars largely responsible for this upsurge in interest. Among them is Jane Hunter (The Gospel of Gentility), as well as critics studying the records of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American women working for missionary organizations and religious groups as they imposed and also perhaps transformed American imperialism. The somewhat sunny description of this project, an examination of “the work of American women missionaries in American cultural expansion,” might strike students of post-colonial theory—or even readers of fiction like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible—as strangely euphemistic.

It’s hard to read these accounts of women who traveled throughout the world and affected and were affected by the various cultures with which they engaged without remembering the outcome—that is, the devastating consequences of colonialism and the horrific exposure of the arrogant and naïve assumptions that underlay these “missionary” efforts. One of the mainstays of the archival holdings of my own institution is an enormous collection of missionary papers: letters, diaries, and other records kept by the legions of Christian women from the American southeast, sent on global missions to “convert the savages.” On the one hand, it’s extraordinary to follow these women, who had been bound by the conventions of domesticity, at once to view the world through their own apparently inflexible filters—and yet also be themselves changed by the experience.

The argument of Competing Kingdoms takes this observation one step further: women’s involvement in missionary work transformed the nature of American colonialism itself. Kingsolver’s missionaries are victimized by their cultural arrogance and ignorance, but they are ultimately transformed by this exercise in “cultural expansion.” And so readers here are asked to view the global efforts of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), or of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), for example, as complex in their motivations and results. Amy Kaplan’s brilliant phrase “Manifest Domesticity” captures both the connection of these movements to aggressive American expansionism and also to the “sentimentalized domesticity” inherent in much of women’s religious practice which, by virtue of exposure to international travel and cultural difference, was itself altered. Hunter notes that the mission was to convert the “savage to homebody,” and of course the conversion experience operated on those doing the converting, as well.

Ian Terrell’s essay on the WCTU and Hunter’s treatment of the YWCA both suggest the possibility of further scholarship on the complex role organizations like these played in the lives of women and in the cultures they affected. The essays generally represent careful archival scholarship, admirable in scope, covering singular figures and particular cultural instances—in the Philippines, Congo, Egypt, India, Ottoman Empire, Rhodesia, China, Japan—although none representing Central or South America.

In studying African American missionaries in Congo, Sylvia Jacobs concludes that “mission ideology always assumed a negativism about the society in which missionaries worked” and that missionaries “could respect African culture, society, and religion but still want to change them.” The most compelling part of this story is the transformations that occurred within those who sought to transform others. Whether or not these women collectively mitigated the effects of American colonialism remains an open question.

Written by: Rick Taylor, July 2nd 2010