Citizens of a Christian Nation, Redux

Paul Harvey

Several months ago Ed Blum posted his thoughts on Derek Chang's Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century (and some other books dealing with religion and war) here. My review of Chang's fine book has just come out in the Journal of American History, and I'm posting it in below.

White northern Baptists in post-Civil War America perceived themselves as “emissaries of the Christian nation.” They carried the gospel of Christ and of American civilization to the freedpeople of the South and to Chinese immigrants in the West. They sought to create a “conduit for the inclusion of alien populations into the brotherhood of Christianity and the nation.” For them, this was part of the new birth of freedom. In doing so, however, they also produced “discourse of difference that made that inclusion yet more difficult.” In seeking to “uplift” African Americans and Chinese, they perpetuated “racial difference through culture and religion” (68-69). The heathen black and the heathen Chinese could be transformed, but they also had to be transformed. In return, the African American and Chinese immigrant subjects turned the language and institutions of uplift and nationalism to their own benefit. Especially by working to establish independent institutions and find leadership roles within them, “their example undermined a significant part of the ideological foundation on which white evangelical uplift was based” (125).

So Derek Chang argues in this engaging study of the work of the American Baptist Home Mission Society in North Carolina (mostly in Raleigh, focused on the building of what became Shaw University) and in Portland among the Chinese community there. Chang gives the evangelicals their due. In the face of Klan violence in the South and anti-Chinese hooliganism in the Northwest, American Baptists worked to develop institutions that would incorporate the freedpeople and the Chinese into a Christian brotherhood.

Ultimately, neither the well-intentioned evangelicals nor their freedom-seeking African American and Chinese subjects fulfilled their dreams and goals as they wished, for “acts of racial terror limited the radical hopes of the home mission project and frustrated the attempts of evangelicals, blacks, and Chinese to fashion an inclusive nation through such interracial enterprises” (157). In the end, while the white Baptists took refuge in a “strain of evangelical nationalism that emphasized orderly hierarchy and stability over redemptive quality and democracy,” African Americans and Chinese “continued to fight for the transformation they desired, using mission resources to “position themselves in the larger battle over their place in the civic order” (158).

Focusing on freedpeople in and around Raleigh, North Carolina and Chinese immigrants in Portland Oregon, Chang’s comparative research and theoretical reflections shed fresh light on the subject of post-war religious reconstruction. Specialists will enjoy the endnotes, where Chang dialogues at length with fellow scholars. More general readers likely will be surprised by the efforts of white elites in Portland to restrain anti-Chinese violence. Despite being “permanent aliens,” for a time the Chinese in the Northwest enjoyed a degree of social inclusion never experienced by African Americans, who theoretically were included in the nation through the postwar constitutional amendments. In the end, both groups suffered at the hands of the virulent racial terrorism of the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Their American century would have to wait.


Joshua Paddison said…
I agree -- this is an important book, pushing our conceptions of Reconstruction and home missions in new directions.
Great review Paul. I've put this on my list of books to read as I get to work on my diss. proposal.