- Reforming the World: The Creation of America's Moral Empire
Princeton University Press's latest addition to its America in the World series provides further evidence of the depth and reach of U.S. culture beyond its own borders and of how the myriad experiences of Americans abroad impacted domestic policy and culture in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. In Reforming the World, Ian Tyrrell, preeminent scholar in the field of transnational U.S. history, argues that while pundits and policy makers might easily debate the current realities of U.S. empire in terms of economy and politics, the nation's export of Protestant morals indeed shaped the course of America's cultural expansion and its formal imperial designs from 1880 to 1930. The careers and actions of American moral reformers, a cohort that included missionaries, fundraisers, and temperance advocates, created important nexuses at which American Protestant evangelical culture intersected with colonialism, the growing hegemony of capitalism, and the politics of race and anti-imperialism both at home and abroad. Tyrrell's emphasis on informal networks of moral reformers that transcended national and colonial borders and cultures and attempted to create a global moral order rooted in Protestant values, [End Page 214] forces scholars of both U.S. empire and religion in America to rethink the connections between the two.
In part 1, Tyrrell integrates the actions, objectives, and ideologies of individuals and the larger organizations that they represented into the dynamics of global and imperial communication networks in the 1870s and 1880s. A case study of the missionary lives of Margaret and Mary Leitch provides insight into the multifaceted nature of American evangelicalism abroad. In Ceylon, the Leitch sisters both worked as exporters of Protestant cultural values, including Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) campaigns against opium, and critiqued the conservatism and gendered hierarchy of denominational missionary organizations. By the 1890s, the Leitch sisters were at the forefront of new strains of ecumenical, humanitarian evangelicalism abroad that was both dependent on the communication networks afforded by Western colonialism but also resistant to and critical of secular imperialism. By the turn of the twentieth century, American evangelicals abroad had not only forged theological and moral alternatives to what they perceived as a unidirectional approach to U.S. foreign relations but also simultaneously used their growing domestic influence to lobby policy makers to integrate Protestant morality into the colonial agenda.
Part 2 charts the rise of voluntary missionary organizations such as the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM) and the Young Men's (and Women's) Christian Association (YMCA) that by 1900 reflected Protestant responses to the simultaneous growth of postbellum economic and social upheaval at home and indigenous religious revivalism and secularism abroad. Tyrrell is particularly adept at framing the experiences and objectives of the waves of young American evangelicals in ways that complicate our common notion of American missions abroad. Volunteers, argues Tyrrell, entertained rather diverse visions of their roles within the transnational politics of empire. Some held deep personal commitment found in holiness theology as the best way to battle growing materialism, secularism, and social unrest wrought by the nexus of Western empire and capitalism. Others regarded premillenialism, or the recognition of and subsequent repentance for the sinfulness of the present world, as vital to their campaigns focused on spreading Christian morality throughout the colonial world. Whatever their theological motivations, though, volunteers were keenly aware that it was not a unilateral display of American-style Protestantism abroad but rather their ability to forge and maintain transnational, interdenominational alliances with both Europeans and local evangelicals in Africa and Asia that lent strength to their movement. Still, as [End Page 215] Tyrrell notes, the promotional literature and mission reports on these volunteer missionaries have often distorted the realities of their success. Though volunteer ranks swelled in terms of intention, actual missionary numbers were considerably smaller.
Later chapters are particularly illuminating of both Christianity's relationship to the global power dynamics of imperialism and...