- Conflict, Conquest, and Conversion: Two Thousand Years of Christian Missions in the Middle East, by Eleanor H. Tejirian and Reeva Spector Simon
Compared to their counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, Christian missionaries in the modern Middle East affected relatively few formal conversions. Nevertheless, in the past 15 years, scholars have begun to appreciate how missionaries in the Middle East exerted far-reaching cultural, political, and economic influences on the region, through schools, hospitals, and other institutions. Scholars have also begun to appreciate how missionaries variously strengthened, mediated, and deflected forms of European and American imperialism, while forging long-distance connections between the Middle East and their home countries.
In Conflict, Conquest, and Conversion, Eleanor H. Tejirian and Reeva Spector Simon recount the history of Christian missions in the Middle East in light of this burgeoning scholarship. Noting that most works on missionaries have focused on particular countries, missions, or periods, Tejirian and Simon aim to survey “the entire landscape of Western missionaries — Roman Catholic as well as Protestant, European as well as American, their impact on the region, and the effect of their activity on other aspects of Western involvement in the Middle East” (p. ix). They do so in a dense and fast-paced chronicle of missionary history. [End Page 493]
The authors begin their survey with the career of Jesus and his disciples, and end around 1920. They cover the history of early Christianity, the Crusades, the Protestant Reformation, and Catholic Counter-Reformation, before surveying the activities of both Catholic and Protestant missionaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries. American Protestant missionaries feature as the most dynamic characters in their narrative — the most pedagogically innovative, the most diverse, and also, in many ways, the quirkiest.
The vast temporal scope of this book makes it possible for the authors to trace continuities and recurring themes in this history of Christian missions. For example, to illustrate the persisting importance of the Crusades for European Christian imaginations, the authors describe Kaiser Wilhelm’s visit to Jerusalem in 1898. The goal of this visit was to bolster Ottoman-German relations, though it probably did more to fulfill the Kaiser’s Orientalist fantasies. “Dressed in a white costume evocative of the Teutonic knights and with a golden eagle atop his helmet,” they write, “Wilhelm rode into Jerusalem through a breach in the walls that had been prepared especially for his entourage” (p. 117).
The authors assume that readers will approach this book with a firm grasp of Christian, European and American, and Middle Eastern history. For this reason, they do not explain certain concepts or issues that will be familiar mostly to expert readers — for example, the terms for debate in early theological controversies over the nature of Christ (which were so important in determining sectarian schisms), or the changing fortunes of Jesuits vis-à-vis the Roman Catholic church. This means that the book is not intended for newcomers to mission history. Nevertheless, scholars with a special interest in the history of missions are likely to welcome this book as a reference that is useful and concise.
If anyone questions the importance of the history of Christian missions to the modern Middle East, then a quick look at this densely detailed book will dispel doubts. The authors succeed in showing how Christian missions have inextricably connected the religious, cultural, and political history of this region over the past two millennia. At the same time, they distill current scholarship on the subject, making the book valuable to those who work at the intersection of Christian studies and diplomatic history.
Heather J. Sharkey is Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton University Press, 2008).
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