American Apostles: When Evangelicals Entered the World of Islam
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The surprising tale of the first American Protestant missionaries to proselytize in the Muslim world
In American Apostles, the Bancroft Prize-winning historian Christine Leigh Heyrman brilliantly chronicles the first fateful collision between American missionaries and the diverse religious cultures of the Levant. Pliny Fisk, Levi Parsons, Jonas King: though virtually unknown today, these three young New Englanders commanded attention across the United States two hundred years ago. Poor boys steeped in the biblical prophecies of evangelical Protestantism, they became the founding members of the Palestine mission and ventured to Ottoman Turkey, Egypt, and Syria, where they sought to expose the falsity of Muhammad's creed and to restore these bastions of Islam to true Christianity. Not only among the first Americans to travel throughout the Middle East, the Palestine missionaries also played a crucial role in shaping their compatriots' understanding of the Muslim world.
As Heyrman shows, the missionaries thrilled their American readers with tales of crossing the Sinai on camel, sailing a canal boat up the Nile, and exploring the ancient city of Jerusalem. But their private journals and letters often tell a story far removed from the tales they spun for home consumption, revealing that their missions did not go according to plan. Instead of converting the Middle East, the members of the Palestine mission themselves experienced unforeseen spiritual challenges as they debated with Muslims, Jews, and Eastern Christians and pursued an elusive Bostonian convert to Islam. As events confounded their expectations, some of the missionaries developed a cosmopolitan curiosity about-even an appreciation of-Islam. But others devised images of Muslims for their American audiences that would both fuel the first wave of Islamophobia in the United States and forge the future character of evangelical Protestantism itself.
American Apostles brings to life evangelicals' first encounters with the Middle East and uncovers their complicated legacy. The Palestine mission held the promise of acquainting Americans with a fuller and more accurate understanding of Islam, but ultimately it bolstered a more militant Christianity, one that became the unofficial creed of the United States over the course of the nineteenth century. The political and religious consequences of that outcome endure to this day.
598. See also Pringle to Bentley, Aug. 13, 1804, and Feb. 24, 1806, and his manuscript diary entry for April 9, 1818, both in William Bentley Papers, 1666–1819, American Antiquarian Society. The British geographer George Annesley also searched for Arabic books for Bentley and promised to send him an account of his voyages in the Red Sea; see Annesley to Bentley, Oct. 9, 1805. For Bentley’s biography and thought, see J. Rixey Ruffin, A Paradise of Reason: William Bentley and Enlightenment
India, worshippers of the horrid idol Juggernaut,” he challenged his congregation. “But have not the Indians souls as precious as the souls of your kindred?—Nay rather, they are themselves your kindred; allied to you by the ties of a common nature … forget not the partners of your blood!”24 Promoters of missions thus affirmed Enlightenment universalism: the belief that human nature is the same everywhere. (The correlate was that everyone, the world over, would learn to embrace evangelical
spewing polemics had sharpened his chin, arched his eyebrows, and lengthened his beak. Perhaps fortunately, no surviving portraits show his teeth. Some people in every age, often the young, find it impossible to resist those armed with adamantine certainties about what ails the world and how to right it. So it was with the New Divinity’s rising generation: Morse’s fixations set them afire. No sooner had young Samuel Mills gathered the Brethren than they joined in Morse’s campaign to purge the
gestating first impressions and then forming fixed attitudes about the rest of the world.7 Evangelicals meant to play an important role in making up their minds. They believed that the eyewitness expertise of their missionaries would lend weight to evangelical judgments about the world’s cultures, as well as informing the ways that Americans understood the importance of religion to the future of their republic. Ultimately, evangelicals were certain, the success of their foreign missions would
Among them was William Jowett, who, writing to Jeremiah Evarts in May 1824—a letter that quickly went public—ventured to hope that the members of the Palestine mission “may have the grace and courage boldly to follow the Captain of our Salvation … who shed his blood in Jerusalem for the redemption of the world.” By the 1820s, this romancing of martyrdom—with its assumption that the success of their cause would cost many lives—had become commonplace in the rhetoric of the foreign missions