“Localizing” the Global Mission Project: American Foreign Missionaries as Participants in Local Networks of Action and Knowledge

AHA Session 12
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Room A703 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Xia Shi, New College of Florida
Xia Shi, New College of Florida

Session Abstract

Postcolonial scholars have highlighted the role of foreign missionaries in colonial knowledge production and orientalist discourse. This approach has situated missionaries, as non-state actors, within the broader framework of cross-cultural encounters, exchanges, and interventions in the modern world. As a result, scholars have succeeded in replacing hagiographies of missionary piety and enlightenment with more nuanced and ambivalent assessments of the global missions movement. Nevertheless, the global context of missionaries’ colonial or imperial actions must not obscure the extent to which missionaries were also implicated in decidedly local relationships both at home and abroad. In both of these contexts, missionaries enjoyed privileged positions, which could entail political and military protection and cultural authority. However, missionaries also faced the limitations inherent in their status as colonizing agents whose sense of mission necessarily involved reshaping and redefining both American and non-American localities. The cooperation or opposition of other local actors is thus an integral part of the narrative of missionaries in the modern world.

Our panel seeks to ‘localize’ the history of the global missionary project by placing missionaries within specific but diverse material and discursive networks. Jochen Arndt’s paper argues that American missionaries in mid-nineteenth-century KwaZulu-Natal reworked pre-existing local African notions of language and identity in their efforts to create a ‘Zulu’ Bible, a project which was part of a global effort to bring the Bible to people around the world. Daniel Knorr’s paper explores the conflict prompted by missionaries’ attempts to procure property in Jinan, China during the 1880’s. The Jinan missionaries found themselves at odds with both indigenous actors and their space-management prerogatives and their colleagues in China and the U.S., who questioned their motivations and priorities as they sought to establish a mission post that was locally meaningful.  Scott Libson’s research shows that global issues also reshaped local American perception of self and the world. He demonstrates that late nineteenth-century American missionaries’ efforts to galvanize support at home for the cause of the Armenian Christians contributed to the development of America’s urge to reform the world in its image. Extending our chronological reach, Julie Chamberlain complicates our understandings of the American missionary enterprise by moving away from the normative Christian subject and examining new and heterogeneous efforts to “reform the world” in the name of religious pluralism, freedom, and reconciliation. Drawing on fieldwork at a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, she examines the efforts of one organization to promote pluralism in Muslim countries and the religious, racial, and national tensions that inevitably arise in the process.

Examining the global context of American missionaries, these papers underline the ramifications of transplanting local understandings about religion and culture to new locales across the world, including the home country. By placing American missionaries within these networks--and by extending the very concept of the missionary enterprise--this set of papers offers new insights into missionary contributions to the history of places around the world and America’s view of itself and its sense of global mission.

See more of: AHA Sessions