God's Interpreters: Protestant Missionaries, African Converts, and Conceptions of Race in the United States, 1830-1910

Witmer, Andrew Daryl, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Kett, Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, Department of History, University of Virginia
Gallagher, Gary, Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward, Department of History, University of Virginia

During the nineteenth century, as Western scientists were busy carving humanity into separate races based on allegedly immutable biological traits, Protestant missionaries in Africa defended an older, biblical perspective affirming basic human unity. This study contextualizes the "civilizing mission" of Western missionaries in sub-Saharan Africa within American debates over race between 1830 and 1910, tracking scores of missionaries and African converts as they journeyed, textually and physically, across the Atlantic Ocean, and back again. More than just interpreters of sacred texts for Africans, missionaries and African converts also became leading interpreters-"God's interpreters"-of African peoples for Americans. While most missionaries were highly critical of the cultures they encountered in Africa, their work caused them to affirm the full humanity of the continent's inhabitants. Without transcending the racialized thinking of other white Americans, they resisted the determinism at the heart of racial science. At the same time, religious and scientific understandings of human difference were co-constituted throughout the nineteenth century. Polygenists, Darwinists, and anthropologists drew on missionary reports to construct their theories, and as the century progressed, a new generation of white missionaries absorbed these theories and became increasingly pessimistic about African capacities, producing sharp disagreements within missionary circles over matters of race, faith, and culture. The stakes were high as Americans fashioned their concepts of human difference, for they were arguing over nothing less than the role of race in defining personhood and its rights. Missionary reports from Africa were oft.en cited in domestic debates over the capacities and rights of African Americans, disputes embedded in the social and political contexts of slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, and segregation. Protestant missionaries and African converts were critical participants in these discussions, drawing on their expertise in African language and culture to define race in a process that knew no national boundaries. This study shows that American racial orders were both huilt and resisted with evidence gathered through missionary labor in sub-Saharan Africa.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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