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.