The Divided Mind of 19th-century “Evangelical Nationalism”

by Steven P. Miller

Recently, I had a flashback to my first major conference presentation. It was at the 2003 annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association. Amid my excitement—read: nervousness—I was a less than stellar listener as my fellow panelists held forth. Still, I listened well enough to be surprised when the panel commentator routinely referred to a “Tappan” who had served as a Baptist missionary in post-Civil War North Carolina. I was pretty sure Cornell historian Derek Chang had mentioned neither Arthur nor Lewis in his paper. The commentator had meant to say “Tupper”—as in American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) minister and Shaw University president Henry Martin Tupper, one of the protagonists in Chang’s original and important new book, Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century. Original, in no small part because another main character is Fung Chak, an ABHMS missionary who oversaw its Chinese Mission School in Portland, Oregon. Important, because Chang uses his case studies to offer insightful reflections on, in the words of his introduction, “Evangelical Christianity and the Problem of Difference.”

A while ago I mentioned offhand that Gary Gerstle’s civic-racial nationalism heuristic might be useful for teaching American religious history. My point was that we should keep religion at the center of discussions about historical understandings of American-ness (not the most original of proposals, to be sure, as other contributors to this blog have been doing so for quite some time!). Chang’s book is a welcome additional step in that direction. I especially like his emphasis on the inclusive, as well as the exclusive, side of 19th-century custodial evangelicalism, which he encapsulates in the term “evangelical nationalism.”

Here’s more from The University of Pennsylvania Press: Through its domestic missionary wing, the American Baptist Home Missionary Society, Baptists ministered to former slaves in the South and Chinese immigrants on the Pacific coast. Espousing an ideology of evangelical nationalism, in which the country would be united around Christianity rather than a particular race or creed, Baptists advocated inclusion of Chinese and African Americans in the national polity. Their hope for a Christian nation hinged on the social transformation of these two groups through spiritual and educational uplift. . . . Citizens of a Christian Nation chronicles the intertwined lives of African Americans, Chinese Americans, and the white missionaries who ministered to them. It traces the radical, religious, and nationalist ideology of the domestic mission movement, examining both the opportunities provided by the egalitarian tradition of evangelical Christianity and the limits imposed by its assumptions of cultural difference. The book further explores how blacks and Chinese reimagined the evangelical nationalist project to suit their own needs and hopes.


Janine Giordano said…
Another flashback: I read an article of Derek Chang when I was in undergrad for a research paper on this topic, and his exploration of the intersection between Christianity and citizenship became an inspiration for my senior honors thesis and graduate work. So excited that he is also a real person and his book is out! :)