- American Women Missionaries in the World
Competing Kingdoms is a fine collection of essays about American Protestant missionary women. Its selections highlight the “soft” or cultural imperialism of the missionaries’ determination to spread Christianity around the world, which the volume’s editors view as crucial to understanding the full meaning of American empire. A component of that national empire, the American Protestant empire consisted of missions that were not simply hegemonic sites, but locations where American women met and interacted with others, provoking changes that were the result of complex negotiations. The authors present their topics as a way to view “women missionaries not as a homogeneous group of cultural imperialists but as people who reinvented the meanings of American nationalism and imperialism as they negotiated competing nationalisms and imperialisms in varying colonial settings” (2). They held certain ideas about gender, religious faith, and citizenship and nationhood, and those ideas often proved highly individualistic, inconsistent, and contradictory.
Part I presents two introductory essays that lay the foundation of the volume. In the first, “Women’s Mission in Historical Perspective,” the historian Jane Hunter recounts writing her 1984 (now classic) work, The Gospel of Gentility.1 She discusses the new scholarly approach to the history of women missionaries that embraces multiple points of view and acknowledges the inextricable link between gender, sentimentalized domesticity, and American imperialism. Ian Tyrrell, a pioneer of transnational history, follows Hunter’s piece with “Woman, Missions, and Empire,” an example [End Page 195] of this new approach. Tyrrell examines the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to show how “Evangelical religion and belief in exceptionalism shaped the outward thrust of cultural expansion in which women were implicated as architects and emissaries” (48). These introductory essays affirm the rich analytical opportunities for linking gender with cultural approaches to internationalism and transnationalism.
The selections in Part II, “Women,” highlight the continuing importance of gender analysis in studies of missionary women. Three of the four essays focus on biographical case studies: Harriet Newell, an early nineteenth-century Congregationalist missionary who died before reaching India; H. Frances Davidson, who, about a century later, functioned through the Brethren in Christ Church as an “honorary man and a spiritual mother to young African men” in Rhodesia (95); and Gertrude Howe, a member of the Woman’s Foreign Mission Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church tasked with opening a school for girls in the Chinese port city of Jiujiang in the 1870s. Although these women undertook their duties with the approval of their male-controlled denominations, each managed to expand the boundaries of gender conventions. The section concludes with Susan Haskell Khan’s essay on the “Woman Question” in India, showing how missionary women in the interwar period played a “prominent role in ecumenical Protestant efforts to promote international cooperation and challenge overt forms of racism in the United States” (143).
“Mission” is the theme for Part III, and its essays look at these religious institutions “as sites of encounter [that] emphasize the relationships women missionaries had with the states of their host countries” (9). Betty Ann Bergland’s article on the Bethany Indian Mission in Wittenberg, Wisconsin, shows that missionaries did not have to travel overseas to engage in the complicated relationship between religious conversion, the concept of nation, and empire building. For fifty years, first- and second -generation Norwegian immigrants to the upper Midwest endeavored to spread Lutheranism among the various Native American tribes there, making good use of the Women’s Missionary Federation. But other missionary women sailed across oceans to become enmeshed in the same complex connections...