- Citizens of a Christian Nation: Evangelical Missions and the Problem of Race in the Nineteenth Century
In Citizens of a Christian Nation, Derek Chang explores race and citizenship through an examination of northern Baptist missionaries' work with communities of newly freed slaves in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Chinese immigrants in Portland, Oregon, in the years following the Civil War and before Jim Crow and the 1882 suspension of Chinese immigration. Through their Home Mission Society, American Baptists ambitiously evangelized and tried to spread spiritual and racial uplift among the Chinese and the freedpeople, whom, they believed, would form the foundation of a new egalitarian Christian nation. Although Baptist missionaries were critical of racism, Chang argues convincingly that their projects helped emphasize the separateness of former slaves and Chinese immigrants in American society rather than pave the way for their assimilation.
Whereas by the end of the Civil War most white Americans did not see themselves as citizens of an egalitarian, multiracial society—indeed most saw freedpeople and Chinese immigrants as threats—Chang's subjects saw things differently. In their work among the freedpeople, Baptist missionaries had similar expectations as did the Freedmen's Bureau—that is, to help freedmen and -women adjust to freedom. But missionaries also encouraged freedpeople and Chinese immigrants to assimilate into what they predicted would become a new Christian nation. Toward that end, the Home Mission Society sent Massachusetts native and U.S. Army veteran Henry Martin Tupper and his wife to Raleigh to start a mission school and church for newly freed slaves. It was no surprise that Raleigh's southern white Baptists did not welcome Tupper, and, indeed, Tupper viewed his task as a foreign mission. Almost ten years later, the powerful white [End Page 118] Portland First Baptist Church invited the Home Mission Society to start a church and school in the well-established Chinese community. The society sent two men, Dong Gong and E. Z. Simmons. A native of southern China, Dong Gong had worked in California as a laborer, continued his Baptist education in China, and returned to the United States as a missionary. Simmons hailed from Mississippi, but he had also lived in China. Although Gong and Simmons were outsiders, Portland's white Baptists welcomed and supported them. Here the differences between the two missions are telling. Because Chinese workers could never become citizens (Chinese were not allowed to naturalize until 1943), Baptists believed their work in Portland was an extension of their missionary work in China. And, indeed, Dong Gong, like many other Chinese workers, returned to his family in China. On the other hand, freedmen and -women were citizens, and few expressed any interest or desire to emigrate to Africa, where they might continue the work of the Baptist church. Black North Carolinians' spiritual uplift did not relieve them of the burdens of dealing with white racism.
Although he acknowledges that few sources documenting the voices of former slaves and Chinese immigrants have survived, Chang nonetheless carefully mines Home Mission Society reports and letters. Here he finds evidence that allows readers to see that, although both freedpeople and Chinese immigrants were eager to become citizens, members of each group also viewed the mission churches and schools as tools for the realization of their own aspirations. Here, too, the differences are important and revealing. Already Christians, blacks in Raleigh were particularly eager for an education, so before building a church, Tupper opened a school where day and night students received a basic education. The Raleigh mission only began focusing on formal theological education two years later. The Chinese community of Portland, on the other hand, enjoyed the benefits of a rich institutional life that included thriving mutual aid societies and businesses and spaces for cultural and social events. Christianity was a harder sell, and Chinese Christians were often ostracized. Here the Baptists made inroads with the Chinese Mission School, which held out the promise—imperfectly realized—of white allies, fellowship, and respectability...