Converts, Colonialism, and “Trans-Imperial” Questions

Carol Faulkner

For my graduate research seminar, I recently had the pleasure of reading two books outside the field of American history. You may wonder at the insanity of assigning these new (to me) books. In this case, the reason is that each student comes from a different field, and I try to assign something for everyone. For these books, it was an especially worthwhile endeavor. Though focused on extremely different periods and different places (16th-17th century Venice and 20th India), both books discuss empire, citizenship, and the way religion helped define these geographic and political boundaries. The authors raise interesting questions for American religious historians about the social and imperial context of conversion, missionary politics, and the complicated, uncontrollable impact of certain books.

E. Natalie Rothman’s prize-winning Brokering Empire: Trans-Imperial Subjects between Venice and Istanbul looks at different “trans-imperial subjects,” including commercial brokers, converts, and translators, to show their agency in shaping the political, religious, and linguistic boundaries of the Venetian empire. I found Rothman’s discussion of converts (Muslims, Protestants, and Jews) to Catholicism especially compelling. She deemphasizes conversion as an individual experience, instead focusing on the importance of institutions, employers, patrons, and social networks. Rothman argues that “conversion should be studied as a set of historically shifting social practices rather than as individual spiritual choices.” In her chapter on the House of Catechumens, which educated converts for baptism, she writes,
I underscore how religious conversion formed a web of social practices that were deeply imbedded in processes of subject-making and imperial consolidation. The house of Catechumens was instrumental not only in mediating the ongoing relationship among converts, their patrons, and the early modern Venetian state but, more broadly, in articulating categories of religious and juridicial difference. As such, it is best understood as a trans-imperial, rather than a strictly local, Venetian institution.

For many converts, conversion offered a path to better employment, education, marriages, and, potentially, citizenship. Rothman also examines individual conversion narratives, usually composed by a priest, for the ways Venetians perceived these religious others. While Jewish and Protestant narratives emphasized the individual choice to convert, the Muslim conversion narratives emphasized changing circumstances (geographic, military, or familial), reflecting the sense of Venetians that Islam was a slavish religion. I appreciate the way Rothman embeds these conversions in their multiple social contexts, and American religious historians show signs of moving in the same direction. As John Lardas Modern argues, historians, with some notable exceptions, have focused on individual choice rather than the circumscribed religious and secular discourses that shaped the choices of antebellum Americans. 

Mrinalini Sinha’s Specters ofMother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire  discusses the unexpected consequences of the 1927 publication of Mother India, a social and religious exposé by conservative American journalist Katherine Mayo (the photo is from the book). Arguing for the continuation of British colonial rule, Mayo’s book focused on the oppressed and over-sexed Hindu woman to show that Indians were not capable of self-government. The response to the book—in India, Britain, and the U.S.—shocked its supporters in the Rockefeller Foundation and the British government. Indian nationalists, and their allies in the U.S. (including the NAACP, liberal journalists, and supporters of Irish independence), argued that the British Empire had failed to improve the status of Indian women. In Britain and the U.S., missionaries, who Mayo hoped would be her most vocal advocates, backed away from her central message.

As Sinha writes, a number of leading missionary organizations issued statements criticizing the book. One protest from seven American missionaries read:
[We wish] to pay our tribute of love and respect to the people of India from whom we, of the west, may learn many valuable lessons. We wish to express our sense of humiliation that an American should write with such unfairness and apparent prejudice in presenting India.
Sinha effectively expands the geography of empire to show the shifting political ground on which imperialists, nationalists, and missionaries operated. If we place important books in American religious history, such as the Woman’s Bible (I'm sure readers will come up with other good examples), in a trans-imperial context, what would we learn about their impact at home and abroad?

A side observation: Mayo is a fascinating figure. According to Sinha, she started her career as a researcher for Oswald Garrison Villard’s book on John Brown. Before publishing Mother India, she wrote books defending the fiscal reputation of the YMCA, promoting imperialism in the Philippines, and celebrating the efforts of the state police to control immigrants, African Americans, and labor. In addition to her lifelong partner M. Moyca Newell, Mayo’s biggest supporters were the Daughters of the American Revolution and other conservative women’s groups (Kirsten Marie Delegard’s new book on the development of female political conservatism after suffrage is on my “to read” list). Mayo was an Episcopalian, and I finished Sinha’s book wanting to know more about the involvement of Mayo and other conservative women in the religious and racial politics of the American empire.


Curtis J Evans at: February 22, 2013 at 10:13 AM said...

In many of the recent posts, I have been seeing a lot of comments and reflections about historians focusing on "individual choice" and this is generally tied to broader worries about given too much agency to historical subjects. Perhaps this displays my ignorance (of course, I freely admit my not being up to speed on a vast area of scholarship), but I'd be curious to know what kinds of works are in mind. At least during my undergraduate years and later, when I was studying, for example, slavery, or race, a great deal of emphasis was placed on economics, social history, structures, etc. Maybe slavery is an obvious case where individual agency can hardly be emphasized, though some scholarship has tried to wrestled with issues of resistance, contestations of hegemony (which the late Eugene Genovese made such a hot topic of debate in his many works), etc. But who are these historians that have tended avoided talk about "circumscribed discourses of religious and secular discourses"? In the field of religious historiography, are we talking about the different between, say a Nathan Hatch, with its democratization thesis and emphasis on the agency and movement of lay leaders, or an alternative model, of say Butler, who meticulously shows, for example, sacralization of the landscape by construction of church buildings and religious discourses of hierarchy and Christian sanction for disciplining and punishing the bodies of slaves among the Anglican elites of the late 17th and early 18th centuries? Is this critique of "individual choice" specific to a particular segment of history because labor historians or historians of the urban experience can hardly be accused, it seems to me, of focusing primarily on individual choice? I'm thinking of the rich work by Thomas Sugrue and others who have examined government policy, major structural dynamics, etc. in showing how residential segregation occurred in places like Detroit. So my query, I suppose, is a request for clarity about what historical work is in view here.

Carol Faulkner at: February 22, 2013 at 3:03 PM said...

I think the concern about overemphasis on choice (for the purposes of this blog) is in the field of American religious history, and particularly how the study of American protestantism has led to historians' acceptance of evangelical language stressing the agency of the individual to overcome sin. Modern acknowledges that a number of religious historians do take inequality and social structure into account. When reading Rothman, I actually thought of Paul Johnson's classic Shopkeeper's Millenium, as an example of the influence of social class and networks on religious identity. But the questions historians ask change, as they have in the study of slavery.

Carol Faulkner at: February 22, 2013 at 4:05 PM said...

I should add for clarification that Modern explictly focuses on middle-class white northerners, so a population (unlike slaves) usually assumed to have some religious agency. But as Rothman suggests for Venice, who has religious choices (or was depicted as having choice) needs analysis.

Curtis J Evans at: February 22, 2013 at 4:28 PM said...

Thanks, Carol, for some clarification. Sorry for all the typos in my previous post. I've heard lots about Modern's book and it is on my "must read" list. I'd be curious how works like Ed's "Reforging the White Republic" fit into this discussion. Here northern middle-class Protestants are the chief actors, even though one could argue that they are fundamentally circumscribing the lives of others in Ed's narrative. But Ed stresses their role in forging a racial or ethnic nationalism. I've always seen Ed's work as call for a robust role in religion as a distinctive force in this process, which would seem to be to an attempt to supplement or challenge in some ways other narratives that have looked at political, cultural and social processes that led to reunion of the North and South. But nonetheless, these northern Protestants come away looking like quite important figures with major motive force as historical actors. Ed, of course, can describe his own project much better than I can and his is only one book among many others. But given its recent publication date (2005), I wonder how this kind of work would be regarded by these worries about an overemphasis on choice. In any case, I'm glad to read more about this discussion and your post reminded me of my own need to read more widely in this literature.

Edward J. Blum at: February 23, 2013 at 3:27 PM said...

As I read Modern and Lofton, what I find striking and similar about both is how they are trying to show the confines (and the ways confining structures) are created - whether they be media/technological or they be discourses. I take this to be as a response to the "agency" scholarship that emerged following the new social history of the 1960s, particularly in the realm of subaltern studies that emphasized the agency of people who had often been seen as "powerless" or within to the structures or paradigms created by others. I think the work Curtis is drawing attention to (whether it is mine or his amazing Burden of Black Religion or Matt Sutton's work of Sister Aimee ... all of which came out at around the same time) shows pretty well agency-within-structures, structures-circumscribing-behaviors, and the some people who try to expand (or explode) the confines. Frances Willard is a perfect example clearly of someone who acts ... she helps make a mighty reform organization. She is also one circumscribed by various forces, including emerging notions of national and international whiteness. But she is also trying to use tools at her disposal to change certain games ... so her love for the bicycle, for instance, because it allowed women to distance themselves from male attackers.
I think all of these folks are having debates, in part, with different groups. For instance, in Reforging the White Republic, I'm was trying to prove one thing to folks in religious studies (take the creation of whiteness seriously as part of your enterprise) and something very different to Eric Foner and Reconstruction historians (take the power of religious beliefs, movements, and ideologies seriously and not as secondary issues). It is easy for all of this to get mish-mashed up when lumped together. All that is to say, I agree with Curtis that I have never been fully certain who or what Modern is striking a blow against ... but I feel the same way about the invocations of Tracy Fessenden's description of "non-specific Protestantism." Decades ago, Martin Marty would have simply called them "Protestants" and talked very much about how they formed and held onto religious, legal, and cultural power. But of course, Professor Fessenden looks at some very different sources at points and she is engaging the scholarship on 'the secular' and 'secularism', which did not exist in Marty's day (those debates were about secularization ... something very different). Eh ... this comment is far too long.

Edward J. Blum at: February 23, 2013 at 3:28 PM said...

and please excuse typos, etc. long day cleaning with baby on hip and mother-in-law now out of town

Edward J. Blum at: February 23, 2013 at 3:35 PM said...

another example of agency-versus-structure from historians is Louise Newman's _White Women's Rights_ where she examines the push for women's rights (from white women) from 1870 to 1920 as built upon the existence and re-creations of notions of gendered-racialized confining structures ... including language, laws, access, and even technologies of photography and imagery. But at the center, right, are the choices these women made ... rather than the various entities that shackled them.

Edward J. Blum at: February 23, 2013 at 3:38 PM said...

As if you want one more response from me, I have written a piece responding to Modern (and Charles Taylor) on what would their ideas look like if we included slaves and slavery to the mix. Presented on it at a marvelous conference at Syracuse - led by Vincent Lloyd and Jon Kahn - and I think they are doing a book with it. At its core, I look at what the life, experiences, and work of Henry Box Brown have to say to all of it.

Flynn Nellis at: February 24, 2013 at 3:24 AM said...

How is this volume different from Korcok’s dissertation presented last year at CCLE X?

Carol Faulkner at: February 24, 2013 at 6:47 AM said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response Ed! I wish I'd been able to see your paper at SU. And I'm glad Curtis raised the question!

Curtis J Evans at: February 24, 2013 at 2:43 PM said...

Thanks, Ed. This is very helpful, particularly in pointing to specific examples of the scholarship in mind (and helping me to see who my conversation partners should be). My colleague Catherine Brekus wrote a fascinating article on agency, though I don't think it was published. As I recall, it was given at a local workshop. She raised especially poignant questions about agency in respect to gender and women's studies.

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