Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century (review)
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Reviewed by
Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century. By Derek Chang. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Pp. 237. $39.95 cloth)

After the Civil War, white northern Baptists sent missionaries under the auspices of the American Baptist Home Missionary Society (ABHMS) to work among both African Americans in the South and Chinese immigrants on the west coast. Examining the interactions of these three groups, Derek Chang concludes that while mission ideology promised equality and citizenship to blacks and Chinese, it also constructed new patterns of racial exclusion.

Chang focuses on ABHMS efforts to establish Shaw University for blacks in North Carolina and a mission for the Chinese in Portland, Oregon. Building on earlier works that separately examine these two efforts, Chang helpfully structures his book around themes that consider these groups in a comparative format. Grounding ABHMS efforts in an ideology he calls "evangelical nationalism," Chang argues that Baptist missionaries sought to stave off perceived threats of disorder and uncertainty posed by freedpeople and Chinese immigration. Through conversion, education, and uplift, ABHMS missionaries believed they could effectively incorporate these people into their vision of a Christian nation. But while blacks welcomed education, they disagreed with white missionaries by demanding black ministers, pushing for black school administrators and interacting with fellow blacks on a much more egalitarian basis. Both groups differed from ABHMS leaders in pushing for full social equality and responding forcefully to white racial violence. Chang locates much of these conflicted racial consequences in an evangelical nationalism that contained both hierarchical and egalitarian elements. "The very foundation of the missionary project," he asserts, rested on racial difference, a hierarchical element that implicated evangelicals in constructing notions of racial difference (p. 9). But evangelical missions also contained egalitarian hopes to establish an inclusive nation. Ultimately, the "hierarchical relationships [End Page 145] engendered by evangelical uplift frustrated black and Chinese hopes more often than it facilitated them" (p. 10). Missionary discourse promoted assimilation through conversion but also marked blacks and Chinese as alien.

This is complicated business. While Chang effectively demonstrates that the ABHMS ideology contained both hierarchical and egalitarian elements, the interplay between the two is still not quite clear. Did evangelical conversion inevitably mark blacks and Chinese as racially different if white Baptists had been actively converting fellow whites for well over a century and continued to do so through revivalism? Chang also asserts but does not really demonstrate that missionary ideology contributed to biological conceptions of race. Finally, if the primary goal of the ABHMS really was to ensure social order, it seems that it would have been far easier for them to support Chinese exclusion instead of opposing it. Fully capitulating to southern white supremacy in the 1870s, as almost all northern whites did, also would have been easier than continuing the expensive higher-education project to produce black ministers, teachers, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and politicians, a task that no other whites assisted blacks with at that time.

Still, Chang correctly argues that these groups were linked in the ways they negotiated these complex race relations. Baptist officials did not recognize problems in their paternalism and their missionary project could not stem the tide of white racial violence in the 1890s. Blacks and Chinese used missionary resources to fight for their rights, protest against discrimination, develop community leaders, and build institutions. As Chang perceptively notes, this may have been the most important legacy of these missionary interactions. [End Page 146]

Jay Riley Case

Jay Riley Case is an associate professor of history at Malone University in Canton, Ohio. He is finishing a book on the evangelical missionary movement, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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