Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"Engaged in the Same Glorious Cause": Anglo-American Connections in the American Missionary Entrance into India, 1790-1815

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

"Engaged in the Same Glorious Cause": Anglo-American Connections in the American Missionary Entrance into India, 1790-1815

Article excerpt

In December of 1812, American missionary Samuel Newell sat down to write a letter home. His wife Harriet and their newborn baby had just died, and he wanted to send word to her family in Massachusetts. Yet getting this news from the Isle of France (Mauritius), where Newell was exiled, back to Salem proved difficult, as there were no ships traveling between the two. As Newell wrote, the War of 1812 was in its seventh month, and he along with his missionary brethren had been arrested in India and threatened with deportation either back to the United States or to England as prisoners of war. The first American foreign mission had arrived in Asia at a particularly inauspicious time. Disconnected from his friends, his missionary board, and his country, Samuel Newell turned to Joseph Hardcastle, a leader of the London Missionary Society (LMS), for help. It was Hardcastle who would deliver the news of the death of the first martyr to the American missionary movement, which was a fitting testament to the relationship between British and American evangelicals in the early nineteenth century. Even as the nations that the two groups represented waged war, missionaries and their supporters relied on trans-Atlantic networks for survival and information. The American evangelical connection to Britain inspired and sustained the American foreign mission movement in its first years. As Newell and his brethren discovered during their time in India during the War of 1812, however much they identified as part of a shared Anglo-American Christian project, their national identity mattered, too. As American missionaries in the British Empire during an AngloAmerican war, these missionaries provide a window on American national identity during the early republic.1

The story of the American entry into foreign mission work does not have significance only to the religious historian. It reveals the continued links between Americans and the British in the early republic. During this era of American national identity formation, global connections were incredibly important for some Americans. Historians have typically portrayed the early national era as one of isolationist or protectionist foreign relations. Embargo and non-intercourse defined the period immediately before the War of 1812, when American evangelicals began to fashion their proposals for the conversion of the world. Yet this was also a time in which Americans throughout the country were working out what it meant to be former British colonies. Not yet sure of what it meant to be "American," many Americans of this era joined the missionaries in focusing on British example for definitions of "civilization" and culture. For many Americans of the time, and particularly the inhabitants of port cities Salem and Boston who were such important figures in the early history of American missions, however, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were years of continued connection across the Atlantic and increasing ambition for national (or at least regional) prominence abroad. Evangelical Christians expressed this ambition through their participation in the foreign mission movement. Building upon a long tradition of trans-Atlantic networks, supporters of the American Board asserted their equality with Britain in representing the embodiment of "true religion" and the ability to spread that Christianity abroad. As they would discover in India, however, this equality had little basis in reality. In highlighting the Anglo-American connections in the early foreign mission movement, this article reorients our attention to the ways that Americans of the early republic created their national identity within a global context.2

The creation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in 1810 marked a new stage in American Protestant evangelization. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, American Christians had formed new missionary societies in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. …

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