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In the early 19th century, American Protestants began to send missionaries abroad as part of the foreign mission movement. They were responding to the Great Commission of the Bible: to go into the world and spread the Gospel. This historical moment allowed them to do so because of political and commercial developments that provided Americans with access to the peoples of the world in an unprecedented way. Emerging alongside religious revivalism and other large-scale movements for social reform, foreign missions responded to a sense of optimism at the time over the possibility of human action to be able to bring about the kingdom of God on Earth. This movement aimed at the conversion of the whole world to Protestant Christianity, which for many of these missionaries in these decades would also involve the embrace of cultural changes. In 1810, the new era of international missions began with the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. By 1860, American missionaries were at work around the globe, with important stations in South and East Asia, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas. The conversion of the world, though, was out of their grasp; few converts came to the American missions in these years. In spite of that, missionaries opened schools, translated and distributed Scripture and other religious texts, and preached as widely as they could. As missionaries went abroad and sought to change the places they reached, they also became important sources of information about those places to their supporters at home. Missionary publications informed American readers about the people, cultures, and religions of the world and in so doing helped to shape American understandings of how the United States ought to relate to these other foreign spaces.

Article

After the Second World War, the drama of Protestant missions featured a diversifying cast of characters. Local actors in the Global South, alongside reform-minded missionaries from the North, revised the mission script. At the level of conciliar discourse, this can be seen in perhaps two primary ways: a widened table of leadership and a widening of the Christian mission itself. An increasingly diverse Protestantism shifted the trajectory of missions toward national control and social Christian emphases. Yet, these shifts in method and theology produced strikingly divergent results for mainline Protestantism and Protestant evangelicalism. For the former, the story was largely one of global dissolution, at least institutionally. Organizations such as the World Council of Churches (b. 1948), which represented the soaring hopes of the ecumenical movement, fractured under the pressure of radical student protests, postcolonial resistance, and declining donations from disillusioned churches in the 1960s and 1970s. Seen in a different light, however, mainline Protestant mission was the victim of its own advance, both abroad on so-called mission fields and at home in the United States. In many cases, mission schools directly contributed to the growth of nationalism through their curriculum and educational methods. Backlash against missionary leadership and control often centered around these educational institutions. In the North, while the institutions of mainline Protestant mission have largely declined, their progressive values are widely assumed today within wide swaths of American life in particular—especially within universities, mainstream media, and the Democratic Party. For Protestant evangelicalism, the mission story is largely one of global diffusion—explosive demographic growth, especially among those practicing Pentecostal forms in the Global South, and a rapid expansion of mission and relief organizations. Within a context of increasing diversity, evangelical mission agencies, rather than sidelining traditional Protestant mission approaches, constructed new forms of evangelical mission and social Christianity. This reshaping of global evangelicalism was the result of a multidirectional conversation often led by Latin Americans. Indeed, an entire generation of theologians, shaped by the global Cold War, rejected the importation of traditional mission methodologies. As Latin Americans shifted to postcolonial social Christianities, they pulled many in global evangelicalism with them. In terms of theological methodology, they synthesized the pursuit of justice with the evangelical offer of personal salvation. While the vast majority of Christians lived in Europe and North America in 1910 (the year of the epochal Edinburgh World Missionary Conference), in 2010 the vast majority of Christians lived in the Global South. Thus, at the level of conciliar discourse, the evangelical table of leadership and theology increasingly reflected its demographic center located within contexts of poverty, injustice, and widespread inequality.

Article

Since the early 19th century, the expansion of American empire has constrained Native American autonomy and cultural expression. Native American history simply cannot be told apart from accounts of violent dispossession of land, languages, and lifeways. The pressures exerted on Native Americans by U.S. colonialism were intense and far-reaching: U.S. officials sought no less than the complete eradication of Native cultures through the assimilation policies they devised in the 19th century and beyond. Their efforts, however, never went uncontested. Despite significant asymmetries in political power and material resources, Native Americans developed a range of strategies to ensure the survival of their communities in the complicated colonial context created by American expansion. Their activism meant that U.S. colonialism operated as a dynamic process that facilitated various forms of cultural innovation. With survival as their goal, Native American responses to U.S. colonialism can be mapped on a continuum of resistance in which accommodation and militancy exist as related impulses. Native Americans selectively deployed various expressions of resistance according to the particular political circumstances they faced. This strategy allowed them to facilitate an array of cultural changes intended to preserve their own cultural integrity by mitigating the most damaging effects of white rule. Because religion provided the language and logic of U.S. colonial expansion and Native American resistance, it functioned as a powerful medium for cross-cultural communication and exchange in the American colonial context. Religion facilitated engagement with white (mostly Protestant) Christian missionaries and allowed Native Americans to embrace some aspects of white American culture while rejecting others (even within the context of Native conversion to Christianity). It also allowed for flexible responses to U.S. consolidation policies intended to constrain Native autonomy still further by extending the reservation system, missionary oversight of indigenous communities, and land use in the late 19th century. Tribes that fought consolidation through the armed rebellions of the 1870s could find reasons to accept reservation life once continued military action became untenable. Once settled on reservations, these same tribes could deploy new strategies of resistance to make reservation life more tolerable. In this environment of religious innovation and resistance, new religious movements like the Ghost Dance and peyote religion arose to challenge the legitimacy of U.S. colonialism more directly through their revolutionary combinations of Native and Christian forms.

Article

Since the mid-19th century increasing numbers of North Americans have had access to new technologies of display that feature religious artifacts. Missionaries and museum curators played an especially important role as cultural brokers in this regard. They often worked together to set up ethnographic collections, although their respective goals differed in terms of spiritual uplift and public education. In the same period, the mediation of religious objects took place in other arenas too, such as recreations of sacred sites and spirit photography. In the 20th century, religious objects were mediated through cinema and television. In each case, the materialization and mediation of religion raises a number of significant questions, including those related to the aestheticization of sacred objects in public museums and the display of things and rituals associated with religious “others.” Since the 1980s, North Americans have engaged in debates about whether to repatriate indigenous objects and human bones to their communities of origin. There have also been significant protests related to the provocative use of Christian imagery in contemporary art. Increasingly, scholars have also begun to recognize and study how museum spaces are more malleable than previously assumed, especially as new publics access them and may even (re)use the sacred objects they house.

Article

The border between the United States and Mexico has artificially divided languages, cultures, landscapes, and religions for more than a century and a half. This region is the crossroads not only of Anglo-America and Latin America, but also of multiple empires; the Aztec, Spanish, and US empires each staked a claim on this region, leaving political, economic, cultural, and religious markers on the landscape and its peoples. These imperial bodies brought their preferred religious practices and religiously inspired social, economic, and political cultures, which reshaped populations and landscapes from the 15th century to the present. Religion has been a significant dimension of this region from prior to the arrival of the Spanish through the early 21st century.

Article

Evangelism, mission, and crusade are terms related to spreading a religious message. Although all three words are primarily used in relation to Christianity, evangelism and mission have been applied to activities by traditions other than Christianity and, indeed, to secular actors, including nations. In the context of American religion, evangelism, mission, and crusade are activities through which people have contested and defined national identity and distinguished between the “foreign” and “domestic” and “us” and “them.” These delineations, even when done through activities ostensibly concerned with religious difference, have often been made on the basis of ethnicity and race. Thus, exploring evangelism, mission, and crusade illumines how notions of religious, racial, ethnic, and national difference have been constructed in relationship to each other. Considering these terms in their U.S. context, then, reveals relationships between religious and national identity, the role of religion in nation-building, and how religious beliefs and practices can both reify and challenge notions of what the nation is and who belongs to it.

Article

The American foreign mission movement at the turn of the 20th century adopted as its watchword “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” The rapid expansion of missionary boards and the enthusiasm of volunteers and supporters corresponded with European and US colonial expansion around the world. For many evangelical observers, the opening of the world seemed to offer the greatest opportunity yet to share the gospel with all. “The crisis of missions,” as one prominent author put it, required that Christians recognize the spiritual importance of this moment. Divine providence appeared to be removing obstacles to evangelization. Failure to act decisively would be a form of apostasy, an abandonment of responsibility toward God and the world. Inspired by a revivalistic spirit, women and men joined a growing list of missionary and moral reform organizations. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions continued the work it had started in the early 19th century. New organizations like the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions and the World Student Christian Federation created networks that linked Christian evangelists and communities around the world. They published magazines, books, and pamphlets and sent inspectors, organizers, and speakers on tours of the United States and Great Britain and on grand transoceanic voyages. In 1910 the movement celebrated progress and planned for next steps at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Steeped in a sense of moral and racial superiority, attendees promised to transform the world. Women found an increasingly important place in the US foreign missionary movement, especially as evangelical work diversified to include the establishment of schools and medical missions. American women labored in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere and eventually made up the majority of workers in the field. Women brought with them an ideology of domesticity that they hoped to share with their sisters abroad. Women from the US viewed local women in the missions as socially degraded and in desperate need of moral uplift. The moral authority that came with female standing in the home seemed to explain the elevated status and Christian liberty enjoyed by American women. At the same time, as more highly educated single women entered the field, the movement created space for new models of womanhood. These “New Women” lived independent lives out in the world, apart from the confines of the home. American missionaries at the turn of the century became deeply entangled in the imperial connections of the United States and the world. While it would be a mistake to reduce their work simply to a particular strand of imperialism, it is important to understand their connections to American expansion. Missionaries took advantage of openings created by colonial activity and contributed to the spread of American cultural, political, and economic influence at a critical moment in the development of national power in the international arena.

Article

Reformation and mission are not unconnected concepts. According to Luther, every single person, being a helpless sinner in the eyes of God, needs to hear God’s word as law and gospel. The church’s mission finds its source, content, and strength in the missio Dei, God’s mission to save the lost. The Christian church’s mission on earth is to preach and lend credibility to its proclamation through Christians’ witness of a new life of evangelical freedom. Church doctrine and real-life practice of one’s Christian identity converge on the mission field, that is, in Christians’ daily life of witness as they fulfil their human callings in the new freedom of evangelical faith. It was precisely the lack of an authentic Christian piety, including gospel-aligned practice within medieval Christendom, that prompted Luther to set out on a mission to “Christianize Christendom,” beginning in Germany and extending beyond. Though Luther’s “missionary” agenda crystalized primarily during 1517–1522, he arrived at a fuller understanding of the dire state of Christianity in Germany after his Saxon visitations of 1528. His vision of a genuinely Christian church emerged as he processed the biblical witness in the light of his own monastic experience as an Augustinian friar, the legacy of selected scholastic teachers, medieval mystics and renewal movements, earlier reformers, and the ideas of 16th-century humanists, as well as a number of his contemporaries, and, above all, his colleagues in the so-called Wittenberg Circle. Motivated by his understanding of the missio Dei, Luther’s mission was to destroy the existing rampant idolatry and superstition in its various forms and to reintroduce the theocentric message of the gospel which changes not only humans’ ideas about God and their attitudes toward Him, but also the Christian practice of piety in the areas of liturgy, the personal life of a Christian, and one’s social, political, and economic engagements. United in faith to Christ, believers are moved by the Holy Spirit away from religious schemes of merit to a theocentric, communal vision of life in true devotion, which not merely produces new obedience but entails it. Luther did not champion a one-sided internalization, spiritualization, and individualization of faith. Much of the medieval heritage could be reappropriated in the renewed Christian faith and practice, provided the old forms were conducive to evangelical teaching. Luther realized that the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration in Christians will never be complete in this life, just as the mission of the gospel will not achieve the conversion of all. Instead, “real Christians” are to live in repentance, ever renewed in faith, hope, and love as they patiently bear the cross of suffering. While never losing hope in the final victory of God over the forces of the devil, Christians must accept that they will always be a minority, constantly under attack by the evil one. Persecution may help the church to live and spread the gospel. In what Luther considered to be the final stage before the imminent apocalyptic closure of history, the newly Christianized, evangelical church must use all its resources for the sake of faithful proclamation of the gospel—even to Jews, Turks, and newly discovered territories (though these emphases are rather marginal in Luther). For this to happen, new preachers and teachers need to be trained and new evangelical schools must be established, which is the duty and responsibility of Christian landlords and magistrates. Christian liturgy and preaching, evangelical catechesis, the singing of Christian hymns, the spreading of Reformation pamphlets and woodcut engravings, Christian art, architecture, and prayer are all effective missionary tools at the church’s disposal. An acute sense of apocalyptic urgency stimulated in Luther not only a highly focused, disciplined, courageous stance and action, and a strong prophetic self-perception, but also impatience with his opponents, which resulted in some inexcusable statements against Jews, “papists,” Anabaptists, and other dissenting groups of his time. While Luther’s agenda of Christianization took root almost exclusively in Germany and Scandinavia, his effort to reinvent an evangelical (i.e., theocentric, gospel-oriented) piety found its new expression in later pietistic renewal movements (among Lutherans, Moravian Brethren, and Methodists), thereby influencing, though indirectly, global Christianity and mission.

Article

Home Missions in the United States was a white Protestant missionary movement within the geopolitical borders of the U.S. empire—both its contiguous states as well as its colonial territories—as they developed and shifted through a long history of U.S. imperial expansion, settlement, and conquest. From the beginning of the 19th century, Anglo-Protestants in the United States became invested in the home missionary movement to secure Christian supremacy on the land that made up their newly forming white settler nation. Home Missions was occupied with both the formation of a sacred homeland and the homes within that homeland. As a dual-homemaking endeavor, home missionary projects functioned as settler colonial technologies of space-making and race-making. They not only sought to transform the land into an Anglo-Protestant possession but also racialized people as foreign to maintain Anglo-Protestant sovereignty over the spaces mapped as a home through colonial conquest. Centering settler colonialism within an analysis of Home Missions denaturalizes home and foreign as taken-for-granted spatial categories by considering them colonial significations. Home Missions sought to remake conquered territory habitable for Anglo-Protestant settlement, using the concepts home and foreign to govern people differently within that conquered territory. Gaining prominence in the postbellum United States, women’s societies for Home Missions cooperated across multiple Protestant denominations and between multiple missionary sites across the U.S. empire in forming a transcolonial network aimed at uplifting the homes of the nation. These colonial sites included missions to “Indians,” “Negroes,” “City Immigrants,” “Orientals,” “Mountaineers,” “Loggers,” “Porto Rico,” “Alaska,” and more. White women entered new public spheres by making the racial uplift of homes across the nation a practice of imperial domesticity. Women in Home Missions sought to create subject citizens of the U.S. nation by shaping the habits, tendencies, and racial constitution of people through the cultivation and management of Christian homes. Homes were spaces of both racial uplift and the maintenance of racial purity. Thus, missionaries were not only preoccupied with making Christian citizens for the nation but were also concerned with maintaining racial distinctions characteristic of the anxieties of U.S. colonial governance at the turn of the 20th century. Through Home Missions, Anglo-Protestants participated in an imperial process that sought to transform the land and its inhabitants while also forming racializations, gender systems, and political economies that mapped onto an imaginary in which a particular vision of settled homes/homeland occupied a central analytic. By treating “home” in Home Missions as a critical category, one is able to reconsider the maneuverings of religion, empire, nation, race and gender/sexuality within the context of settler colonial conquest, possession, and settlement.

Article

Sarah E. Dees

Native American religious traditions encompass a diverse array of beliefs, practices, and features of material culture and society that reflect and shape individual experiences and communal life among Indigenous communities in what is today the United States. While Native American religious traditions have long been the subject of scholarly inquiry, a field of study dedicated specifically to this topic only emerged in the mid-20th century. Because historical sources describing Native religions often wove ethnocentric biases or anti-Indian sentiments into descriptions of Native beliefs and practices, present-day inquiry requires critically reflexive interpretation of primary sources and attention to insiders’ perspectives. Today, scholarship on Native American religions draws on numerous methodological approaches to explore key features of these traditions, including ceremonies, stories, philosophies, art, and social institutions. While these features vary greatly by religious community, practitioners of Native religions often emphasize the significance of land and the environment, their cultural heritage, and relationships between humans and non-human entities, spirits, and ancestors. Many practitioners of Native American religions would resist the notion that a “religious” or “spiritual” realm can be separated from “secular” aspects of society or culture; thus, in addition to focusing on constitutive features of the religious beliefs and practices themselves, an understanding of Native American religions requires attention to broader social and cultural issues, including politics, law, health, and education. Furthermore, just as Native traditions were dynamic prior to the 15th century, they have been shaped by contact with non-Native religions and cultures since the first instances of European colonization. The historical conditions of European and Euro-American settler colonialism and encounter between Native and non-Native communities necessitate attention to issues such as Christian missionization and the ensuing Indigenous responses to Christianity, U.S. federal Indian policy, legal battles over Native American religious freedom and self-determination, and the place of Native religions in mainstream U.S. culture. While these themes and issues illuminate some shared features of Native American religions, the unique histories and characteristics of specific communities necessarily subvert efforts to articulate a simple, comprehensive definition of “Native American religion.” And, while knowledge of the past is essential for understanding Native American religions, a historical focus in itself is insufficient if it ignores the ongoing presence of Native American religious expression. Practitioners of Native American religions today emphasize religious continuity as well as creativity and change, blending long-standing historical traditions with more recently established religious innovations.

Article

Religions are fundamentally spatial, as they require space in which to assemble, to engage in ritual practices, and to form community. Every religious group that has existed in the United States has made a spatial imprint on the country, and that spatiality—that physical character—is also a constitutive component of religious experience. Spaces not only host religious practices but also contribute to their meaning and salience. Thus, understanding religious life in America includes understanding the spaces in which it occurs. The diversity of religious life in America is apparent from the countless religious spaces and buildings that have occupied the national landscape, including Native American earthworks and burial mounds, Catholic and Protestant missions and churches, Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and Sikh gurdwaras. But how are we to understand these diverse buildings and spaces? The location of built spaces and the totality of the landscape in which they exist constitute a religioscape, within which they provide information about their religious communities through their size, location, and architectural style. The internal organization and spatial plans of these built spaces also provide information on liturgical and congregational functions and efforts to facilitate religious experiences and establish and maintain authority or power. Considering both these aspects of religious space and architecture provides insight into how religious diversity functions in the United States and how groups have expressed their religious beliefs and interests and interacted with others to cooperate and compete within the American landscape.

Article

From the late 1970s to its defeat by the Government of Sri Lanka in 2009, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought for Tamil independence in Sri Lanka. The ultimate aim of what was often considered to be one of the world’s most disciplined and efficient insurgency groups was to create an independent Tamil homeland (which they called Tamil Eelam) in the northern and eastern parts of the island. The LTTE based itself on a unique mix of Tamil nationalist, socialist, and feminist visions of a new future for the marginalized Tamil communities of Sri Lanka. The LTTE became feared for its extensive use of suicide missions, carried out by soldiers of both Hindu and Catholic backgrounds. Because of the marginalization of the Tamil-speaking Muslims from the Tamil nationalist project, none of the LTTE soldiers were Muslims. Generally speaking, religion played—and in the 21st century continues to play—a minor role in the ultimate nationalist goal of establishing Tamil Eelam. Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka centers around Tamil culture, language, literature, and regional identity, not religion. The LTTE’s official ideology was strictly secularist, expressing a clear separation between religion, the state, and politics. The LTTE accepted individual religious practices in its ranks—for example, having a personal crucifix or a holy picture within military camps, but did not facilitate institutionalized religious practice. Yet religious formations, controversies, and practices have been important, if not crucial, to Tamil separatism and, ultimately, to the LTTE itself. In a short period of time, the LTTE developed a unique martial culture and martyr cult, drawing on numerous cultural and religious sources in Tamil society. This martyr cult encompassed references to the Christian tradition of martyrdom, Hindu bhakti (devotional) literature, and classic Tamil heroic poetry. Each martyr’s self-sacrifice formed part of a symbolic universe that was fundamentally nationalistic, but Christian and Hindu references and ritual language were employed to help to legitimize the sacrificial act. The ideology of martyrdom transcended the martyrs’ religious backgrounds, and instead of a place in paradise or release from the cycle of reincarnation, it promised eternal life in the memory of the nation. Within the cultural and political universe of the LTTE, the nation and its territory became sacralized, and the LTTE’s meticulously articulated martial culture began to take on quasi-religious qualities. At the ideological level, the LTTE propaganda machinery managed to balance secularism, deep religious sentiment, and religious diversity, and religion functioned as a multilayered concept used for a variety of purposes by military and political leaders. Religion can also be identified as various “fields” within the movement: “civil religious,” “Śaiva religious,” and “Tamil Catholic religious,” allowing for overlapping yet distinct Hindu, Catholic, or nonreligious identities under the sacred canopy of Tamil nationalism.