- Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century
Derek Chang's title reflects two unrealized dreams: that of full citizenship on the part of African Americans and Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century, and that of a wholly Christian nation on the part of evangelical missionaries in the United States. Together, the three groups imagined a "national citizenship based on shared Christianity" (p. 3).
Chang focuses on white missionaries in the American Baptist Home Mission Society and their converts in an African American mission in Raleigh, North Carolina, and a Chinese mission in Portland, Oregon. He argues that mission participants renegotiated the meanings of race, citizenship, and Christianity during a brief window of opportunity after the Civil War and before the end of Reconstruction in the South and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Chang demonstrates that American Baptists and other Northern missionaries believed African Americans and Chinese immigrants to be a threat to their expanding evangelical empire. But they also believed in their own power and obligation to meet that threat with conversion rather than to repel it through restrictive laws. Even as they stood up to exclusionary white supremacists, American Baptist missionaries of European descent crafted equally exclusive—and rather more insidious—depictions of cultural and racial difference. White missionaries argued that black Southerners and Chinese immigrants could become Christian, but then deemed them defective Christians and defective Americans—African Americans with all the spirit and none of the understanding of their faith, and Chinese with the reverse. The missionaries spoke widely of these perceptions, their words ringing with the authority of the racial expert.
But the missionaries' commitment to what Chang terms "evangelical nationalism" also helped to create physical space and points of cultural contact through which African Americans and Chinese immigrants challenged white supremacist understandings of race fostered both within and without the missions (p. 7). They applied "the creativity of their solutions to the problem not of difference but of white supremacy" and took advantage of the [End Page 858] opportunity to connect with supporters across racial lines and to build autonomous institutions of their own (pp. 157-58).
Participants in the Raleigh and Portland missions experienced and responded to white supremacy in distinct ways. African Americans in Raleigh "balanced the hierarchy of uplift with a commitment to material and structural change" (p. 125), clashing with white administrators who denied them access to leadership and power. Chinese immigrants in Portland enlisted elite white supporters to help build a network among West Coast Chinese Christians. Even after the Exclusion Act was passed, they worked to demonstrate their worthiness of citizenship in a Christian nation—sometimes at the risk of reprisal not only from anti-Chinese whites but also from Chinese immigrants who rejected Christianity.
A few years separate the two missions' establishment, but Chang compares them at equal stages of development, rather than at the same moment in time. If it sometimes takes the reader a moment to catch up to his quick shifts from East Coast to West and small jumps in chronology, Chang always makes it worth the effort. The interwoven analysis of the two missions makes Chang's story national rather than regional and buttresses his argument regarding "the mutually constitutive nature of race, religion, and the nation" (p. 8). Chang's creative use of denominational and institutional archives is a model for historians of religion and race, and his argument that evangelical nationalism had broad and lasting implications make his book essential reading for anyone interested in race and ethnicity, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and American religious history.