Transnational Bodies: Gender, Empire, and Christianity in the Modern British World

AHA Session 256
North American Conference on British Studies 5
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Columbia Hall 12 (Washington Hilton)
Richard Elphick, Wesleyan University
Richard Elphick, Wesleyan University

Session Abstract

Transnational Bodies: Gender, Empire, and Christianity in the Modern British World

Over the last two decades, scholars have developed a rich analysis of the modern British Empire as a complex patchwork of interacting and dynamic agencies, describing it in terms of webs, networks, and circuits.  This panel contributes to this burgeoning historiography by exploring the role of gender, as practice and ideology, in the global exchange of religious ideas. The panel is organized around the principle that Christianity’s organization and expression in the modern world was shaped by transnational exchanges and reshaped in new cultures and contexts. Each paper seeks to understand how Britons engaged in particular imperial contexts with tensions about race, sexuality, gender and authority and how those interventions reshaped empire. By bringing together the historiographies of religion, race, feminism and empire, these papers traverse the jagged edges of disciplines that rarely fit neatly together. 

 Each of these papers examines British subjects, men and women with diverse racial and gendered subjectivities, in transnational and imperial contexts and seeks to understand the cross-currents of influence across national boundaries.  Christianity was far more than an inherited system of belief; it was a source of personal inspiration, an influential cultural discourse, and a platform for political action.  It both confined women and offered them opportunities to exercise agency and authority, often in unexpected and contradictory ways. It both constrained cultural expression, and offered opportunities for individuals and community sub-cultures considered marginal, and always, in unique ways, new expressions of what it meant to be ‘Christian’ that resulted from the rich interchange of culture and belief that existed in the British world. This panel looks at a period of tremendous change in religious beliefs and practices– the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – when perceived religious indifference at home and the changing nature and logic of imperial expansion demanded that British religious institutions engage in constant reappraisals of mission, service, and reform.

The panel includes scholars from USA and Canada with expertise in British and British imperial history in East Africa, South Africa and India. Elizabeth Prevost’s work considers how evangelical Christianity mediated the clash between the colonial ‘invention of tradition’ and the humanitarian and feminist construction of African women’s rights. Pamela Walker’s paper examines how the missionary men and women of one faith mission struggled over the significance of Britishness for Christian practice in later nineteenth century South Africa. Rhonda Semple’s work examines the creation of a novel India-Christian form of masculinity in liberal protestant communities in the United Provinces of north India. The comment will be given by Richard Elphick, an historian of religion and South Africa. Together, the papers will establish the importance of using a religious lens to understand the gendered parameters of empire.

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