by Luke Harlow
I am excited to bring Religion in American History an interview with Gale Kenny, author of a fascinating new book, Contentious Liberties: American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica, 1834–1866 (University of Georgia Press, 2010).
Initially, the radical abolitionist founders of the Jamaica mission hoped for an “interracial utopia,” but those goals changed over time. What role did race—and particularly gendered notions of race—play in altering their vision?
The missionaries’ ideas of race and gender—and I would also add religious orthodoxy—were inseparable. The AMA missionaries (who were all white) had been forced to confront the explosive issues of interracial socializing, coeducation and women’s rights long before they left the United States. Most had attended Oberlin College, where professors and the administration tried to hold off anti-abolitionist mobs by enforcing strict religious discipline to balance out the school’s radical inclusiveness. These rules, combined with the religious doctrine of Christian perfectionism, became the ideological basis for the Jamaica Mission. Before leaving the United States, evangelical abolitionists tied true Christian piety to certain gendered behaviors (chastity, modest dress, breadwinning fathers and domestically inclined mothers), but not to race. After all, at Oberlin and in other abolitionist-friendly towns in the North, they would have frequently encountered African-American men and women who fit their definition of Christian piety while slaveholding whites or anti-abolitionist whites were considered sinners.
What was the relationship between the American “civilizing mission” and British imperial and missionary endeavor?