Where is the Pacific in American Religious History?

Charles McCrary

Note: This post is the first in a series on the Pacific Ocean. I didn’t really plan a series, but the introduction to this post quickly became too long. So, this post serves just as an introduction to the series. Please ask questions and make suggestions in the comments section, and I’ll try to address them in future posts.

American religious history is going global. As many historians move away from the nation-state as a way to organize their objects of study and instead trace other themes—capitalism or environmental change, for example—they are taken beyond the geographic bounds of the United States. The upcoming Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture will feature sessions on “American Religion and Global Flows” and “‘Religion in the Americas’ as an Organization Program.” At the 2013 AAR meeting in Baltimore, a panel considered the theme “Placing the Subfield: North American Religions, Religion in the Americas and Beyond.” Those of us paying attention to the job market likely have noticed an increase in the number of calls focusing on Latin America, the Caribbean, and/or “the Americas.” Not all of this interest has to do with the decline of the nation-state. In fact, studies of religion and government are on the upswing, with “empire,” “American in/and the world,” and “foreign relations” all providing valuable frames for the study of religion. Even in cases where confining studies to the United States might make sense, there are ways that a global approach might be beneficial. Studies of American religious freedom, for example, often center on historical interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. But these stories are bolstered by discussions of global secularity, constitutionalism around the world, and the role of religion and secularism in international relations. In short, we do need to ask important questions about what exactly our subfield is about, and in what ways geography should define “American religious history” (or “American religions” or “religion in the Americas”.) In what networks do we plot “religion”? I do wonder about graduate programs changing to “the Americas”—why not “the world”? Or “global flows”? Should Brazil be more a part of our subfield than Canton? Or Tahiti?

So, after that introduction full of things everyone knows already, I’ll get to my real question: Where is the Pacific in American religious history?

The Pacific Ocean may be the “tide-beating heart of the earth,” but in American religious history it’s usually a footnote at best. Whereas the Caribbean and South and Latin America are slowly making their way into our surveys, narratives, and programs, the Pacific is still mostly left out. One reason is that the now-standard “Atlantic World” model(s) works in a way that has, for the most part, not been attempted (and, I think, is not really possible) with the Pacific. Another reason for this absence is the narrative of American history as westward movement. Almost twenty years ago Laurie Maffly-Kipp challenged this orientation with her essay “Eastward Ho! American Religion from the Perspective of the Pacific Rim” in the edited collection Retelling U.S. Religious History. The main point of the essay is to change the perspective of our narration, i.e., to “look east,” not unlike Daniel Richter’s orientation in Facing East from Indian Country. So, this narrative still might end up a national story (perhaps “U.S.” in the book’s title already gave the game away), but one very differently told. Maffly-Kipp argued,
In the long run, integrating the history of religion on the Pacific Rim into our larger narratives will entail a series of (admittedly enormous) steps. First, we must learn about the Pacific Rim and its people ourselves, and then synthesize the religious stories of Alaskan Aleuts, Nootkas, Tlingits, Pacific Coast Indians of all sorts, indigenous Hawaiians, fur traders and whalers (Spanish, French, Russian, British, and American), missionaries (Spanish, French, Russian, British, American Protestant, Mormon, and Japanese), and migrants (European, American, and Asian). If this were not a tall enough order, we must then weave all of these actors and events into a larger narrative of American religion that relates them to an Atlantic world and an emerging hemispheric community. We will have, in short, a world history of American religion (130).
There are some problems with the approach, including the limitations of the “Rim” motif. This has to do with a land-based historical orientation that does not adequately consider water as space. David Igler, in his excellent 2013 book The Great Ocean (if you’re going to read only one book as an introduction to Pacific history, this is a very good candidate), addresses this issue: “Oceans, it would seem, hardly register on historians’ ‘mental maps’ of places that truly matter because we so often imagine the sea as a flight from history and humanity. By contrast, the ocean figured prominently on the mental maps of the earliest indigenous travelers as well as the European and American mariners who arrived in large numbers during the early modern period” (8). Maffly-Kipp was still more concerned with the history of the North American continent, which is fine, but can cause historians to miss the boat(s). There are also the theoretical problems in identifying the “religious stories” of such vastly different people—and, of course, the historical problem of what a “religious story,” as opposed to a cultural or economic or ethnic story, might be. Despite these issues, Maffly-Kipp’s call still feels fresh and could serve as an agenda-setting charge for future scholarship. Aside from a few exceptions, American religious studies has left this call largely unanswered.

In my next post, I will provide an overview of Pacific studies and Pacific history, which have been written for decades but seldom intersect with American histories. In future posts in the series, I plan to offer suggestions for themes and topics that might bring them together, particularly for historians of religion. A Pacific-focused history of American religion could open up new topics for exploration, as well as illuminate topics already being discussed. I’ll leave off with one brief example. On this blog we have been discussing Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God (here and here) and the way corporate, political, and religious interests overlap. Other recent and forthcoming work also has focused on these intersections. The study of Americans and Europeans in the Pacific could add important missing pieces to these conversations. Missionaries from the London Missionary Society and American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions often used their Pacific locales as nodes in a network of Christian outreach as well as capitalist expansion. The Dole family—missionaries, political leaders, and capitalists—are an excellent example of how these interests were understood as part of the same project, in this case, united by an imperialist project.

What else might the study of the Pacific yield for historians of American religion? Should we be interested in the first place? Is an emphasis “global flows” too decentering, rendering our subfield too diffuse to hold together? How might graduate programs, societies, and professional groups incorporate the spaces, materials, and people of the Pacific? What models, topics, and themes might we use? …etc.?


esclark said…
No comments or questions, but I'm looking forward to this series of posts Charlie. I agree that LMK's "Eastward Ho!" feels newer than its 1997 publication year (other chapters in that Retelling book feel that way to me too). And The Great Ocean has now made my list of books to read even longer.
Thanks for this, Charlie. I have a thought and a question. To respond to your closing question: At least in relation to my research interests, the language of "global flows" doesn't adequately capture the sedimentation of relations--their asymmetries and the ability of centers of power to build, re-route, and destroy certain "flows," although often in limited and constrained ways with, frequently, ironic consequences. I am thinking here not only of commodities and technologies, but translocal knowledge-production, the regulation of bodies, and webs of relations (people, places, objects, spiritual beings). The language of networks, as you use in the post, is one way to explore structured flows that go beyond the boundaries of the US without losing sight of the imperial projects at work or the importance of local sites--their participation, adaptation, accommodation, or resistance to new networks often created through violence or the threat of violence.

I am curious: what strikes you as important (and other commentators, perhaps) when considering the continuities and differences at work between the shift from westward continental expansion to expansion into the Pacific as it became a central site of US interest in the second half of the nineteenth century?

I think there are many different ways to frame this, but for my research interests Henry Cabot Lodge has become one of the main figures I use to think through these questions. His emphasis on sea power (along with expansion of US Navy in 1880s), his eventual ambivalence about the United States' capacity to "Americanize" those deemed racially inferior, and his role in pushing through more restrictive immigration laws gesture towards some of the differences I am interested in.

The fact that so many important Washington politicians and colonial administrators in the Pacific were historians or ethnologists also begs for some more analysis linking US governance, the academic imaginary of the late nineteenth century, and the desire to possess or at least regulate parts of the Pacific (and the Caribbean, of course). A number of studies have done a great job exploring how this works in regards to race, but religion--as either a category we use or as a category circulating the networks of the historical context in question--has not received enough attention, in my opinion.

Looking forward to future posts!
rjc said…
Good to see some more focus on the Pacific here, and on oceanic space more specifically. I look forward to your future posts.

Apropos Jeffrey's comment about flows, I recommend Augustine Sedgewick's article "Against Flows" (among many others) for a critical take on the language of flows. The flow concept has helped many to get beyond static models, but it has its own set of problems (some of which Jeffrey alluded to).
Gavin Campbell said…

As someone working precisely in this field, I am delighted to see your post. I am working, for instance, on how the doctrinal fights in the 1880s in the US over "future probation" were profoundly shaped by Pacific converts and potential converts (especially in China, Japan and Korea) who were deeply concerned about the fate of ancestors. I think this is one way to knit at least parts of the Pacific together, showing how theology IN the US was not always OF the United States, and that Pacific seekers and converts could and did shape a global Protestantism. My other project is a book on the Japanese Protestant Niijima Jo (1843-90) showing not just his influence in Japan and his life in the US, but how he tried to imagine and build a kind of transpacific Protestant fellowship.

In these and similar ways, I think we can move away from stories in which the US provides the only context for explaining missionary behavior and "native" response. There are some excellent works doing this already -- Ryan Dunch, Lian Xi and Henrietta Harrison spring to mind among many. Native American studies helps here, I think.

I very much look forward to more.
Maffly-Kipp said…
Thanks, Charlie. This is exactly the kind of in-depth scholarship I called for nearly 20 years ago. In fairness, there has been some follow up, notably, Bret Carroll's Historical Atlas that follows the narrative trajectory I outlined in my article. But there is so much to be done to integrate Pacific history (call it basin, rim, or whatever) into our histories. I'm working on pieces of it, but I welcome the company!
Charlie McCrary said…
Thanks, everyone, for the responses.

To respond to the issue of flows, I'll say that I agree with the critiques (Jeff's and Sedgewick's), but I'd temper it by acknowledging that at least it's a step in the right direction within a field that often still remains fixed on national stories. Also, I do think "global flows" is better for a program than "the Americas" (though not as good as "global networks"), since I don't see much reason why the study of North, Central, and South America is a more useful way to organize knowledge than, say, "American religions within global networks," or something like that.

Jeff's question about the shift from continental expansion to expansion into the Pacific is a great way to start to organize these concerns. There are many people better equipped to answer it than I am. It seems to me, though, that the federal government was somewhat late to the game--following other Americans, such as capitalists and missionaries, as well as European nations--in turning attention to the Pacific. (The U.S. Ex. Ex. didn't launch until 1838! American whalers had been in the Pacific for decades, and ABCFM missionaries had been in Hawai'i for almost 20 years.) One main difference was the style of colonization. Most American interactions with Pacific islands weren't colonialist in such a straightforward way (with a couple obvious exceptions.) There was more exchange, less settler colonialism, just more moving pieces in play. That's a very incomplete answer to a very good question. There are some people, including Gavin Campbell, who could fill this in much better.

One of the things I want to accomplish with this series is to figure out ways to use Pacific histories to modify larger narratives of American religious history, which is exactly what Dr. Maffly-Kipp advocated and, here and there, has been taken up. The main issue, for me, is how to structure the story. What are we looking for? Two upshots of that essay were that a Pacific orientation helps account for the rise of "Eastern religions" in the U.S. and the importance California to our narratives of American religion. What else are we trying to explain? The recent turns toward interest in the state and capitalism afford ample opportunity to consider the Pacific as well. When I read in that essay, "It is no coincidence that the United States began encouraging the immigration of Asians just as African slavery was being abolished" (143), I think there are many questions we could ask about this from our field's perspective, but it should also be clear that this is not primarily a story about religion. It can, however, be an entry-point into discussions about the role that religious organizations have had in global capitalism, how they thought about and used railroad, how religious categories factored into valuations of races, how religious identities and motifs factored into strategies of resistance and domination, and so on.

To wrap up this long reply, perhaps it would be helpful to contextualize why I'm thinking about this. As I prepared my comprehensive exam area list in "Pacific studies, 1700-1900" (focused mostly on the South Pacific), my advisor urged me to include more work on "religion." Frankly, I couldn't find much, outside of missions histories. There's a wealth of good material from scholars like Anne Salmond, Greg Dening, Matt Matsuda, Vanessa Smith, and many more, that most people in our field never read. It's always just one or two steps removed from the things we already talk about in our field--in our journals, grad programs, AAR panels, this blog--but still removed. If we all knew about Lahainaluna, or Pacific whaling, or Niijima Jo, or the Guano Islands Act--in the way that we all know about Phillis Wheatley or Italian Harlem or Billy Graham--how would our field be different? Would it still be our field?
Gavin Campbell said…
Terrifically interesting. It's unnecessary, but let me add just a little to the discussion.

The field's focus on "domination and resistance" has yielded terrifically important insights. But it also becomes an obstacle when it does not allow us to see religious contact in any other way. This means any Pacific peoples who assent to Christianity do so for "resistance" or because they have been "colonized." This, I think, is a disservice to those peoples, under the guise of sympathy with their plight. It makes their religion merely functional -- only understood within its response to immediate political and economic challenges.

A Pacific focus keeps "domination and resistance," while simultaneously allowing us to see additional aspects of the transpacific relationship. Flows is problematic, but find me a category that isn't. Yet by de-centering nation we can recall that Americans were not the only mobile people in the transpacific.

To me, one of the most interesting possibilities is examining the relationship between US-based Christians and their Pacific counterparts: what Jeffrey Cox calls “the conflict between universalist Christian religious values and the imperial context of those values.” Several terrific works have done this already, but by specialists in Asia, rather than in the US.