Ironclad Commitments: Religious Freedom and Missionary Diplomacy
While we’ve been spending the past weeks desperately trying to keep up with a rapidly moving newsfeed, we can be forgiven for skimming over the content of President Trump’s remarks at the United Nations on September 24. He proclaimed that “the future does not belong to globalists,” but rather to “patriots,” in a speech that generally conformed with the mistrust of internationalist associations that has marked his administration. Globalism has been exerting a “religious” pull on world leaders, Trump warns, but that is not the only mention of religion in the speech. As Trump put it, the United States has an “ironclad commitment” to the world: “protecting religious leaders and also protecting religious freedom.”
Historians of American religion and law have had a lot to say about the history of the United States’ commitment to religious freedom abroad—and its role in framing and sustaining American empire. What strikes me most in looking at these remarks is the easy pairing of two quite different concepts—the protection of religious leaders and the protection of religious freedom. There can be important connections between the two, but there are also moments when they seem in stark contrast. When the religious leaders who are being protected are American missionaries trying to convert non-Christians overseas, for example, discussions of religious freedom and persecution can get convoluted very quickly. We have seen this during the Trump administration in the coverage of the release of Rev. Andrew Brunson and the death of John Allen Chau, but it is not new. For as long as American Christians have sent missionaries abroad, there have been moments of tension around how active the United States ought to be in protecting those missionaries and their freedom to evangelize around the world. The questions this raises for the role of religion in American diplomacy resonated as clearly in the early republic as they do today.
Mid-nineteenth-century missionaries evangelized in an era in which the State Department was very much in development. In many of the regions where missionaries were active, it was missionaries, not diplomats, who could claim to be the Americans with the greatest knowledge of language, customs, and people. These claims of expertise could be seen in the writings that American missionaries produced for domestic audiences as well as the ways that, in some locations, missionaries combined their evangelistic work with service to their country. These missionary diplomats could be consuls, translators, and advisors, and their blending of political and religious categories shaped American diplomacy in important ways.
When missionaries got in trouble with local governments, for example, they could introduce the question of how far the United States could and should go to protect its citizens abroad. Did the U.S. government need to protect the right of citizens to evangelize? The trial of Jonas King presented just such a question. King, who in the early 1850s was both missionary and consul in Greece, had been twice arrested and twice convicted for statements against the Orthodox Church. He was imprisoned and ordered to leave the country. His property was seized. His missionary board demanded government intervention on King’s behalf. It was a matter, they felt, of justice and religious liberty: The State Department needed to defend King’s religious freedom and the rights of American citizens abroad.
In the American press, King’s imprisonment and banishment was depicted as a miscarriage of justice. The New York Observer sympathized with this man who was, they reported, “the benefactor of Greece, the accomplished scholar, the devoted missionary,” and, importantly, “the only accredited agent of our Government in this kingdom.” These American supporters understood Greek law to merely prevent King from publicly reviling the Orthodox Church, and they viewed his evangelism as in compliance with that law. When his defense was rejected, they claimed that all Protestant worship was being banned.
The U.S. government agreed, though it was also clearly a tricky situation. The first question: Had King actually violated Greek law, or was he the victim of persecution? Missionaries, as U.S. citizens, could expect the protection of the State Department, but like all other Americans abroad, they were expected to comply with local laws. Secretary of State Daniel Webster believed King’s religious freedom to have been infringed, but the State Department also understood that it would be setting dangerous precedent to engage in a debate over religious doctrine. Ultimately, the Department appointed George Marsh, the American Minister at Constantinople, to investigate the matter. His efforts ultimately resulted in the revocation of King’s banishment and nearly two hundred pages of documents laid before the U.S. Senate. As he negotiated with the Greek government, Marsh argued that it had violated its own definition of religious toleration. The United States would, it turned out, defend the religious freedoms of its missionary citizens around the world in the mid-nineteenth century.
King was not alone, though his case was a dramatic one. Around the world, American missionaries were firm in their commitment to religious freedom as a priority in American diplomacy. When missionaries found themselves as translators or advisors during treaty negotiations, they were sure to push the inclusion of their right to preach, teach, and evangelize wherever they were active. Over the course of the century, as the bureaucracy of the State Department became more professionalized and changed the context of missionary diplomacy, these dynamics shifted. This earlier era, and the diplomatic priorities that it helped set, continued to have important implications for American foreign relations well into the rest of the century and, indeed, our own era.
What we mean when we talk about religious freedom can be confusing, in both domestic and the international contexts. Conflating the protection of the rights of religious leaders to evangelize with the protection of religious freedom as such has a long American history. Untangling the history of nineteenth-century missionary diplomats will hopefully help us to make better sense of the place of religion in our own foreign relations.
 “Rev. Jonas King Condemned,” New-York Observer (Apr, 8, 1852), 114.
19 November 2019
About the Author
Emily Conroy-Krutz is Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University.