Tracing the Transnational and Multiracial Origins of American Protestant Foreign Missions

Saturday, January 8, 2011
Ballroom C (Hynes Convention Center)
Andrew Witmer , James Madison University
American foreign missions work is often imagined as a one-way movement originating among white Protestants in the United States and ending among indigenous groups in Africa, Asia, or the Pacific. The historical reality is significantly more complex and interesting than this image suggests. This poster session makes the case that American involvement in foreign missionary work began during the opening decades of the nineteenth century in response to the increasing global circulation of people, goods, and ideas. Using geographical and conceptual maps, along with selected archival documents, the poster traces some of those movements and reveals their connections to Protestant missionary activities overseas before 1840. The poster also features biographical sketches of key figures who helped channel the flow of missionary resources and personnel, including international travelers such as Henry Opukahaia of the Sandwich Islands, African Americans in the North and South, merchants such as Paul Cuffee, missionaries in the nation's Western borderlands, and local leaders in foreign lands. By situating early foreign missionary work within a wider world of transnational exchange, this session offers new insights into the activities and motivations of non-whites and non-Westerners in shaping overseas missionary projects. As Mae M. Ngai has noted, the transnational turn in the study of U.S. history can help scholars foreground human agency, transforming "the figure of the 'other' from a representational construct to a social actor." American missionary work invariably failed without the support of indigenous partners, and those partners possessed their own reasons for welcoming missionaries and cultivating the transnational networks their work made possible. The American foreign missionary movement was made by people from all over the globe as part of a broader nineteenth-century experience of cultural, economic, and political contact. Without ignoring the substantial power differentials that often structured these contacts, this session seeks to reconceptualize and visually depict U.S. missionary work in terms of circulation and exchange rather than one-way movement in which only missionary motivations and actions are considered.
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