Monday, September 21, 2015

Emily Conroy-Krutz's "Christian Imperialism"

Emily Conroy-Krutz is a historian of nineteenth-century America specializing in global history of the early American republic. She has particular interests in American ideas about empire and the international dimensions of American religion and reform. Her first book, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic, focuses on the American foreign mission movement and American imperialism.

Conroy-Kurtz applied the “Page 99 Test” to Christian Imperialism and reported the following:
Page 99 finds us towards the end of my chapter on mission schools and conversion and one of my favorite stories from the book, about the marriage of an early convert named Audee. Audee and her husband, Babajee, were among the first converts at the American mission in Bombay during the 1830s and their stories are important for our understandings of what this first generation of American foreign missionaries thought conversion would look like and thus what they were trying to accomplish. Audee first came to the missionaries’ attention when Babajee requested baptism while living with a woman outside of marriage. For American missionaries deeply concerned with spreading Anglo-American “civilization” alongside their Protestantism, this would not do. In this respect, Audee was a symbol of many of the complaints that the Americans had about Indian culture and caste. As a widow, caste expectations prevented her remarriage, marking any relationship she had with sin in the eyes of the missionaries. And yet she also presented an opportunity. If the couple were to be married at the mission (as they did), they would be the first Indian couple married there, visibly embracing American gender and religious practices. Page 99 tells the story of Audee’s second Christian wedding after Babajee’s death, a public event designed to show a clear contrast between Christian and Hindu traditions and values. After the missionaries told their American supporters this story, Audee disappears from their records. Her transformation—from an example of the cultural problems that prevented conversion into an example of the possibilities of conversion—had served its purpose.

Audee’s story highlights the ways that American missionaries of this era conflated culture and religion. To be a “true Christian,” they believed, one had to also adopt Anglo-American culture (such as its gender norms). The direction of causality between “civilization” and “Christianity” was unclear, but missionaries were sure that a link existed. When they looked to see evidence of conversion, or even of the possibility of a given people to ever be converted, they looked for signs of civilization. As I discuss throughout the rest of my book, they tended to find those signs largely in the company of empires. The book as a whole is about the ways that those experiences in empire shaped the evangelical understanding of America’s place in the world in the early 19th century. Audee’s story highlights the human dimensions of those experiences.
Visit Emily Conroy-Krutz's website.

--Marshal Zeringue