Missionary Diplomacy, Applied

Emily Conroy-Krutz

If you want to understand American foreign policy today, you have to understand the history of Protestant foreign missions and its deep entanglement with American diplomacy for more than a century.

I’ve been struggling to write that hook for my new book for longer than I care to admit. I don’t think I’m alone among SHEARites in feeling a bit nervous about applied history. I do not want to be accused of presentism. I’ve been trained to be leery of writing useable pasts. Yet Katrina Ponti is clearly right: Our present moment needs us as historians to speak up and take our seat at the table. Over the past few months, as I’ve thought about this roundtable and what I might have to say about applied history, I’ve also been getting Missionary Diplomacy ready for publication. I’ve been thinking a lot about audiences and arguments and how to explain why anyone (everyone!) should want to read the book. And while I’ve got archivally grounded and historiographically significant answers to that question, I will reflect here on the applied answers. What can a book about nineteenth-century religion and foreign relations tell us about policy today? Quite a lot, actually.

Dr. Peter Parker sits looking at the viewer with a

Dr. Peter Parker, by Lam Qua (1840). Parker was a missionary diplomat who combined his evangelistic and medical work with translation and secretarial roles for the US in China, including translating during the 1844 negotiations over the Treaty of Wanghia. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The most important lesson from Missionary Diplomacy might be summed up like this: The long history of missionary entanglement with U.S. diplomacy has resulted in a Protestant worldview being embedded in American foreign policy. Missionary definitions of civilization, morality, good government (importantly including a definition of religious freedom that allowed for proselytizing), and humanitarianism found their way into treaties and diplomatic negotiations for generations. This does not mean that all diplomats have been (or are) active Protestants, nor that Protestant missionaries always have been successful in shaping American policy in their image. But they have had an outsized influence on American diplomacy for a long time, and the ongoing implications of that can be hard to recognize if we don’t understand the history. An applied history approach to this story might focus on two main themes: the importance of religion in American foreign relations, and the role of missionaries as (perceived) experts.

 Religion matters for American foreign relations

It mattered in the past, and it matters today. The nineteenth-century story that I tell in my book traces the development of American Protestant missions and American diplomatic institutions alongside and in conversation with each other. Over the course of the century, Protestant missionaries were entangled with the work of American diplomacy, with particularly influential roles in Asia, the Middle East, and the Pacific Islands—areas that were of interest to missionaries before they became of major interest to the State. Once they established new mission fields, they demanded the government follow them and provide them with support and protection. They served as consuls and translators, working for the American government as it defined its early relationships with foreign powers. Over the course of the century, they forced conversations within the U.S. government about issues that really matter: the meaning of citizenship, the duties of the government to its citizens abroad, and the definition(s) of religious freedom.

What does this nineteenth-century story have to tell us about how and why religion matters for foreign relations today? On the simplest level, the answer to that question is that none of these issues have been fully settled today. Religious freedom continues to be a major priority of American foreign policy, and its meaning continues to be contested.  And, as stories from Haiti, India, Turkey, and more reveal, American missionaries continue to find themselves in dangerous situations. As American citizens, what protection can they expect from their government as they go about their proselytizing? These questions have a long and illuminating history.

Christian missionaries have long been (and continue to be) explaining America’s role in the world to domestic audiences

Certificate from Missionary Society of the Evangelical Association of North America, including an image of an angel trumpeting salvation while holding the Bible.

This certificate from Missionary Society of the Evangelical Association of North America (1850) provides a strong visualization of nineteenth century missionary thinking about race. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia (https://www.librarycompany.org).

At the heart of missionary diplomacy was “missionary intelligence.” Missionaries wrote about the world, and they did it often, at great volume, and for a wide readership. The effect of all of this writing was simple: Missionaries claimed to be experts about the world, and American readers believed them more often than not. That expertise claim mattered. When American missionaries decided that a particular international crisis demanded American attention (even intervention), they could draw upon their networks of readers and supporters to make the United States take notice. Their writings about foreign people and places shaped American ideas about foreign cultures and foreign people. At times, this could mean that American readers might empathize with and see themselves as connected to foreign people of different racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. At other times, it could mean that American readers imbibed missionary prejudices and judgements about foreign groups. Often, it was both at once.

Recognizing these patterns in the past helps us to see them active in our own time as well. When I have talked about my work over the past few years, there have been countless examples of people telling me about missionary visitors to their churches growing up who taught them about some country they had not known about before, or who inspired them to get active in one cause or another. And the numbers of Americans involved in mission work has only grown from its nineteenth-century past. While numbers are difficult to verify, according to Mission Guide, over one million Americans take part in short-term mission work abroad every year. Huge numbers of American citizens, then, experience the world through a missionary framework. The most important difference today might be that there are more groups of American experts abroad who are shaping domestic American ideas about the world, its people, and how the United States ought to relate to it. But understanding missionary intelligence can help us to understand some of the dynamics at play even in non-missionary groups: What priorities are buried in “expert” writings? What unnamed values are at play in shaping what international events we are told to care about, and which we are not?

 Now, as in the past, there is no shortage of crises around the world demanding attention. As Congress debates how, when, and where to provide aid, the echoes of this long history continue to resonate. From where I sit, those questions about which global crises our attention is being drawn to, and which are not, are some of the most important ones we must ask ourselves today. The history of missionary diplomacy, applied, can give us the tools to do just that.

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