Review: Emily Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic

Emily Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015)

Christian Imperialism

In February 1812, eight American missionaries—five ordained clergymen and three of their wives—set sail for India as representatives of the recently established American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Though the specifics of their mission were ill defined, and none of the eight lasted long in India, their mission marked the propitious beginnings of the foreign mission movement in America. Over the course of the next four decades, more than one thousand men and women were commissioned by the ABCFM to missionize non-Christian peoples far beyond the borders of the early American republic. In Christian Imperialism, Emily Conroy-Krutz analyzes the experiences of the ABCFM missionaries from roughly 1812 to 1848. She argues, as the title of her book implies, that the missionaries were agents of “Christian Imperialism,” a vision and effort to convert (and civilize) “heathen” peoples around the globe that variously worked in concert with and in contest against other forms of early American imperialism.

The book’s early chapters provide a helpful overview of the ABCFM’s beginnings and the scope of their ecclesiastical and imperial project. Missionaries set out for Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, and Africa, and launched missions closer to home in the borderlands of the expanding North American frontier. Along the way, missionaries developed what Conroy-Krutz calls a “hierarchy of heathenism,” ranking regions around the globe based on the local populations prospects for conversion and civilization. Those rankings were determined in large part on various locales’ interaction with other forms of Anglo-American and British imperialism, including colonization and trade. Subsequent chapters examine in greater detail missions to India, the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations, Liberia, and Singapore. Each of these several missions highlights different aspects of the Christian Imperial project: Cooperation with and reliance on British trade networks in India; settler colonialism in the Cherokee Nation and Sandwich Islands; the politics of slavery and free black settlement in Liberia. But each also revealed strains between the missionaries’ vision and that of governmental leaders and traders (to say nothing of native populations being proselytized). Whereas the earliest missionaries imagined their aims almost perfectly aligned with other forms of both British and American imperialism, they quickly learned otherwise. The War of 1812 broke out while the first group of missionaries was en route from America to India, placing them in a newly precarious position. But conflict with Britain did not turn the missionaries into full-fledged agents of American expansion. Clergymen and educators in the Cherokee and Choctaw nations found themselves at odds with increasingly aggressive policies of Indian removal under Andrew Jackson, while those in Liberia grew increasingly frustrated with colonial leaders who did not prioritize Christian conversion as central to their project. The failed mission to Singapore in the 1830s reminded missionaries once more of the precarious place they occupied as Americans in the British Empire while exposing the difficulties of succeeding in their aims without the support of government officials, merchants, and others.

This, then, is a history of early America that takes place everywhere but. Too often, analyses of America’s place in the Atlantic World (and beyond) stops with American independence. But as Conroy-Krutz shows, the early United States was not only “continental and republican,” but also “international and imperial” in important ways [5]. Christian Imperialism not only globalizes the early American republic. It also challenges both the timing and the nature of American imperialism. It is an important contribution to recent research highlighting the early 19th century as an important moment in American imperialism and to a growing body of literature re-examining the relationship between religion and imperial culture, in America and beyond.

My few qualms with the book are relatively small. On the opening page of the prologue, Conroy-Krutz identifies Adoniram Judson, one of the eight individuals who sailed for India in 1812, as “one of the first foreign missionaries from the United States” (xiii). While that phrasing does leave her some flexibility, the fact remains that Judson and his fellow travelers left for their missions three decades after the first American missionary went abroad. In 1782, George Lisle, a black Baptist preacher, left Georgia for Jamaica, where he preached to slaves and established the first Baptist societies there. He was followed soon after by others. In 1784, Jeremiah Lambert was assigned by the first conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church to labor in Antigua. That same year, two more Methodist preachers accepted assignments in Nova Scotia, and five years later, American Methodist preachers entered British Canada.[1] Conroy-Krutz might also have further interrogated the place of anti-slavery in the Christian imperial imagination. The subject receives some attention in the chapter on Liberia (and once more, briefly, in the conclusion), but I could not help but wonder if it might have been incorporated at various points throughout the book, especially since debates over abolitionism in the 1840s are highlighted in the conclusion as a key turning point in the ABCFM’s history. Those are relatively minor points of critique, and both might actually be intentional omissions by the author. Conroy-Krutz is right in highlighting the work of the ABCFM and its missionaries as the first systematic foreign missionary movement by Americans, and the Congregational and Presbyterian missionaries it employed were certainly part of the imperial project abroad in ways neither Baptists or Methodists at the time were. And the selective attention to slavery does succeed in de-centering the black-white binary of race in early America, highlighting instead the “hierarchy of heathenism” that existed in the early American imperial imagination.

The book is a must-read for scholars of early America, religion, and empire, and should also work well in the classroom. The book is relatively short (just over 200 pages) and would be appropriate in both graduate seminars and upper-division undergraduate courses. I even considered assigning it in my U.S. History survey this fall (I’m waiting for the paperback), and have already crafted a lecture based largely on the book. That I’m so eager to have others read the book is perhaps the highest praise I can offer.


[1] Interestingly, Methodist preachers withdrew from their foreign stations at almost the exact same time that the ABCFM began sending missionaries abroad.


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  1. Pingback: This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History – Imperial & Global Forum


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