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Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century.

Derek Chang
Published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2010

This is a good time for the history of missions. What once was a field dominated by devotional accounts of brave pioneer missionaries has now been enriched by academic historians who often have no stake in the missionary agenda itself. Instead, scholars interested in the histories of race and gender have realized that there were no more dynamic sites of cultural interaction than missions, those frontier laboratories where white Christian mission
aries contended with the realities of relationships with non-white and (often) non-Christian peoples. Most of the new histories of missions deal with overseas ministries, for obvious reasons; indeed, the term “missions” seems almost always to refer to foreign ventures. But there are signs of renaissance in home missions, too.

Following (but not necessarily concurring with) the pathbreaking work of Peggy Pascoe’s Relations of Rescue (1990), Derek Chang’s Citizens of a Christian Nation ingeniously examines the work of the American Baptist Home Mission Society among freed African Americans in North Carolina and Chinese immigrants in Oregon. Chang finds that these evangelical Baptists struggled mightily to reconcile the contradictions within what he calls their “evangelical nationalism” (7). The Evangelicals’ gospel trumpeted the fundamental equality of all before the cross of Jesus, yet they also saw themselves as the stewards of the American nation, a nation in jeopardy of racial degradation from the teeming masses of immigrants and freed people. The home missionaries never quite knew how far their commitment to spiritual equality translated into respect, integration, and release of power to Chinese and African American Christians.

I have never read a history quite like this one, with its marvelously subtle contrast of two cities that one would hardly think to compare: Portland, Oregon, and Raleigh, North Carolina. The cities’ differences—economic, social, and historical—are important, of course, but Chang effectively shows that both places bore a deep commitment to the power of white people. One would expect this from post-Civil War Raleigh, but Chang shows that the free environs of Oregon bred its own kind of racism, too. At Oregon’s constitutional convention in 1857, delegates considered a policy that would restrict suffrage to only “those of the pure white race” but instead settled on a policy that excluded any black, mulatto, or “Chinaman” (40). This move reflected white concern over the rapidly growing numbers of Chinese immigrants on the West Coast following the gold craze of the late 1840s, and the opening of the transcontinental railroad.

Chinese immigrants in the West, and freed African Americans in the South, both gave northern Evangelicals pause, for surely they needed the gospel, education, refinement, and assimilation into an inextricably racial notion of Christian American society. But there was a third group that also gave these northern Baptists concern, and that was the whites of the West, and especially the recalcitrant former Confederates of the South. To the activist Yankees among the American Baptists, those whites needed redemption, too. Chang understands well that tensions in post-Civil War America still ran along regional and class lines as well as racial ones.

White Baptists working among African Americans and Chinese sought to discern their ostensible racial and religious qualities in order to prepare them for conversion. Both groups were regarded, not surprisingly, as inferior, but their supposed heathenisms were of different types. African Americans already had deep exposure to Christianity, but their Christianity, often learned in the “hush arbors” of the slave church, had a disturbingly enthusiastic quality. Missionaries concluded that the Chinese heritage of Confucianism, conversely, made them overly cerebral. As one Baptist put it, “The Mongol, with his Confucian ethics, will make of the gospel religion rather than piety, while the African, with his emotional nature, will make, of the same gospel, piety rather than religion” (85). White Evangelicals prized an affective, intellectually rooted faith, and were not sure that African Americans or Chinese were naturally up to it.

Chang takes a more pessimistic view than accounts such as Pascoe’s Relations of Rescue of the progressive possibilities inherent within the missions’ interracial contacts. White Evangelicals sought to transform proselytes into the mode of middle-class domesticity. They helped spread the common white views of Chinese men as misogynistic, and Chinese women (at least those in America) as prostitutes. Likewise, whites saw the African American mission of Raleigh as a means for blacks to emerge from squalor and immorality. Evangelism did not temper those views; it gave Evangelicals stories through which to rearticulate them. But one’s opinion of these missionary relationships must necessarily relate to one’s view of evangelism, which Chang sees as deprecating to the proselyte almost by definition.

Chang shows that the path to evangelical respectability was hardly smooth, as Raleigh’s Second Baptist Church (the African American mission church) was rocked by legal controversies over its pastoral leadership. African Americans disagreed over whether they should have an educated black pastor (hand-picked by white missionary Henry Martin Tupper) or an uneducated African American pastor in the more traditional mode of the independent slave preachers. The Portland mission struggled with more violent, extralegal tensions, as missionary Dong Gong was assaulted, and another Chinese Christian murdered, in attacks that revealed the resentments between Christian and non-Christian Chinese.

Fears of African Americans and Chinese both produced bitter fruit in the decades following the end of Reconstruction. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 severely restricted further Chinese immigration to America, while race riots, particularly one in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, badly frightened Raleigh’s blacks, including students at the Baptists’ Shaw University. These episodes starkly confirmed the limits of egalitarianism for the Chinese and African American Christians of the Baptist missions, and mission leaders largely reacted by refocusing on the goal of racial uplift rather than justice and equity. Still, some white Baptists did take courageous stands, such as when the Woman’s American Baptist Home Mission Society in 1899 raged against the widespread lynching and dismemberment of African American men “made in the image of God” (159). And the ubiquitous threat of violence could never completely silence the Chinese and African American calls for fulfillment of the egalitarian implications of the Baptists’ gospel. In the face of white supremacist assault, the evangelical missions had left a core of those “whose hope and faith and striving would fortify them as the cornerstone of the next century’s struggles for a more egalitarian and democratic nation” (165).

Chang tells a sobering but essential story of the fate of evangelical home missions in the late nineteenth century. One weakness of this otherwise exemplary book is its overdependence on the language of cultural studies to make its argument. I found myself agreeing with much of the spirit of Chang’s analysis, but balking at its form, which I found at times turgid and repetitive. This is not a book that non-academics interested in missions would likely enjoy or even be able to absorb. Nor do I think Chang is even seeking to speak to that kind of audience, what with his talk of racialized bodies, discourses of whiteness, and such. I am not sure it occurred to Chang that some outside the academy might be interested in his wonderful evocation of Baptist missions, and that may represent the book’s greatest missed opportunity.

Another concern I have about Citizens of a Christian Nation is that it does not really attempt to plumb the spiritual significance of the missions, especially for the converts. Although Chang notes that converts aspired to spiritual and social equality with whites, he never quite gets around to emphasizing the way that African American and Chinese Christians would have undoubtedly explained their presence in the mission churches and schools: their love for Jesus, and their gratefulness for God’s grace. I am not suggesting that Chang should have made faith the focus of his book—that would be asking for a different book—but I would have liked to see more recognition that the proselytes did not primarily view themselves as converting for social status or material gain. One cannot separate these mundane goals from the spiritual significance of their conversions, but perhaps Chang dwells too much on the worldly factors. This is simply a matter of giving voice to the converts’ own understanding of their faith, as mediated as those testimonies might have been by white expectations. Was it only the “hopes of the white sponsors” that led Chinese missionary Dong Gong to affirm that no Chinese religion “can stir my heart nor satisfy my conscience” like Christianity (109)? Maybe Chang thinks this factor is too obvious to warrant mention, but it gets lost in his analysis, which, in the end, is all about power.

All this to say that the details of Chang’s research are so rich that I wish it might have a chance to reach a broader audience. This is a highly contextualized history of little-known Baptist missions that Chang has admirably rescued from obscurity, and an important analysis of the tensions between the evangelical gospel, race, and nation.

Cite this article
Thomas Kidd, “Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race inthe Nineteenth Century.”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:1 , 87-89

Thomas Kidd

Baylor University
Thomas Kidd, History, Baylor University