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America's God and the World: Questioning the Protestant Consensus

Abstract

Like many historians, I am working on a ghost story. This one begins in 1813, the beginning of the American Baptist mission to Burma. Like those told by John Modern and Mark Noll, this story is contoured by war—the American Civil War and a series of Anglo-Burmese Wars waged between 1824 and 1885. Its specters appear in missionary letters and diaries, newspapers reports, illustrated travelogues, and concurrently produced Burmese royal chronicles and ritual networks. As I chase these ghosts, I am continually haunted by a bellow I hear coming from historians who have reclaimed evangelicalism as the determining subject of American religious history.

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1 Noll, America's God, 9, 227–228.

2 Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America, 46, 15, 6, 4, 15.

3 Catherine L. Albanese, America, Religions and Religion, 3rd ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1998).

4 This evangelical media circulated concurrently with the productions of home missionary movements that Modern writes about in his first chapter, “Evangelical Secularism and the Measure of Leviathan.” In his sections on the incorporation of infidelity and the business of mission, Modern acknowledges, “Evangelical media institutions positioned themselves at the frontline of an epic battle—waged in ‘foreign and pagan lands’ but more importantly on their own soil.” I agree that home missions were important in this period, but foreign missions, too, influenced the protestant sense of religion and society. Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America, 89.

5 Emily E. Chubbock Judson, Memoir of Sarah B. Judson, Member of the American Mission to Burmah (Cincinnati, Ohio: L. Colby and Company, 1849), 161.

6 Reverend Edward Stevens, “Maulmain.—Journal of Rev. Mr. Stevens. Tour to Yay—Amherst,” Baptist Missionary Magazine, November 1849.

7 Ibid.

8 The term “religion” has no direct equivalent in Burmese or in the language of the country's canonical religious texts, Pali. The Pali term “sāsana” is often translated as “religion,” but as Alicia Turner's study of religion in colonial Burma shows, the two terms “were distinct, if overlapping, categories operating at the same time.” Turner defines sāsana “as the life of the Buddha's teachings after he is gone; it is the condition of possibility for making merit and liberation.” By focusing on this Buddhist term, Turner is able to demonstrate how, in colonial Burma, “religion as a category was not static but a moving container for a variety of discourses and projects that was itself undergoing continuing redefinition.” Turner's study focuses on period between 1890 and 1920, but her arguments regarding these categorical issues also apply to the Anglo-Burmese War period discussed above. Alicia Turner, Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i, 2014), 9, 1, 10.

9 For more on the power dynamics of Burma's Konbaung dynasty, see Michael W. Charney, Powerful Learning: Buddhist Literati and the Throne in Burma's Last Dynasty, 1752–1885 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2006).

10 Emily C. Judson, Memoir of Sarah B. Judson: Member of the American Mission to Burmah (New York: Sheldon, Lamport & Blakeman, 1855, c1848), 5n.

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Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
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