"The seed of the missionary spirit": foreign missions, print culture, and evangelical identity in the Early American Republic

Moreshead, Ashley E.
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University of Delaware
Evangelical Protestants in the early American republic published pamphlets, memoirs, and periodicals as a way of identifying to each other and to the unevangelized world who they were and what it meant to be an evangelical, creating their own "print culture" as they tried to preserve the purity of their message while establishing a transformative presence in the world around them. Promoters of foreign missions created their own subset of evangelical literature that recruited volunteers and financial support for evangelical missions overseas. In their efforts to draw attention to the foreign missionary cause, producers of missionary literature tapped into different concerns that evangelicals shared as they navigated the evolving culture of the early republic, specifically in the Northeast, where most early leaders of the foreign missions movement were headquartered. They engaged several cultural processes--including the creation of national and denominational identity, the evolution of American masculinity, and the debates over women's roles in the early republic--and thus contributed their own perspectives to textual dialogues about the nature and evolution of American evangelical identity. This dissertation focuses on the creation and promotion of the first two American foreign missions organizations, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions, and the eventual formation of a Presbyterian Board. These northern reformed evangelicals got involved in foreign missions due to the influence of their British counterparts, who created the first voluntary missionary societies and urged Americans to follow their example. Missions periodicals perpetuated the transatlantic aspects of evangelical identity, encouraging readers to identify with multiple communities--national, international, denominational, and evangelical--at the same time. Missionary biographies provided visions of evangelical character formation that included selfless ambition, cosmopolitan nationalism, and heroic masculinity, offering a version of evangelical sainthood that could appeal to young men with career ambitions, broadened horizons, and frontier mythology heroes. Edited female missionary memoirs provided images of evangelical womanhood, facilitating a public dialogue about the roles women should play in foreign missions, one that both missionaries in the field and people at home could participate in. Memoirs also offered models of female subjectivity that could appeal to educated, pious, ambitious young women. They depicted women exercising autonomy in their decisions to join foreign missions and seek meaningful work overseas, without threatening mainstream patriarchal values. Such literature helped to unite supporters behind a foreign missions movement while reinforcing the heterogeneity of evangelical identity in the early republic.