|Faith and Imperialism:
Josiah Strong and the Missionary Impulse for Expansion
Among the subfields of American historical scholarship, no two seem further apart than religious history and diplomatic history. Religious historians look at the role of faith in shaping communities, in guiding the country’s morality, and influence domestic politics. While diplomatic historians look at telegrams from far-flung ambassadors to Washington, international espionage, and military power. Today, I want us to think about the ways that faith and foreign policy influence one another. Let’s start with a free-write and brainstorming session.
1) Describe (in 3-4 sentences) a historical moment when religious faith influenced American foreign policy or when American foreign policy influenced religious faith.
2) Would you argue that this influence was positive or negative in American history?
I. Introducing Imperialism
A. “Manifest Destiny’s Child”
When I teach a lecture on American imperialism at SSU, it is sometimes a tough one for students to follow—even though I title it “Manifest Destiny’s Child” and make reference to Beyonce. Perhaps I (we) should start by sketching out some definitions of imperialism.
What is imperialism?
How is it related to manifest destiny?
B. Imperialist Impulses
Several factors combined at the end of the 19th century to inspire American imperialism. Today we’re going to be talking about religion. But I want to make sure that we at least acknowledge the other impulses that drove American expansion.
What social, economic, political, and military factors inspired US imperialism?
Settlement of the domestic frontier / Conquest of Indian lands
Industrialized production creates a need for oversees markets
American naval and military might growing
Political unification after the Civil War, etc.
C. American Imperialism vs. European colonialism
Americans (including Josiah Strong) argued that American expansion was inherently different (and better) than European expansion.
How might the US model of imperialism have differed from European colonialism?
Economic dominance without direct political control.
Why might this have been so?
We had been a colony ourselves, after all, so we understood the dangers of the British model of imperialism/colonialism.
III. Introducing Josiah Strong
A. Teaching Strong
One of the most ardent advocates of expansion in the United States (up there with Teddy Roosevelt) was a Congregationalist minister and writer named Josiah Strong.
How many of you talk about Strong in your classes?
What do you say/know about him?
B. Young Josiah
Josiah Strong was born in Naperville, Illinois in 1847. He went to Western Reserve College in Ohio and became ordained as a Congregationalist minister in 1871. As a young man, he spent time as a missionary to Indians in Wyoming and then returned east to take a pastorate.
C. Immigration, Urbanization, and the Social Gospel
In the 1880s, Strong began to write the first of what would eventually be eleven books and hundreds of articles all explaining how to make Protestant Christianity relevant. This became known as the Social Gospel, and it was meant to combat the ills of urbanization and immigration.
What scared Strong and others about immigration and urbanization?
How could a Social Gospel of evangelical Protestantism address these problems?
Although Strong believed that American Christians should minister to the poor and immigrant masses as well as to Native Americans here in the United States as the 19th century came to a close, he increasingly advocated a more global approach to Christian evangelicalism. But this missionary impulse was caught up in theories of Social Darwinism and white supremacy.
IV. A “Genius for Colonizing”
Let’s take a look at Strong’s arguments for America’s “genius for colonizing.”
“The Anglo-Saxon, as the great representative of … [Christianity and civil liberty], sustains peculiar relations to the world's future, is divinely commissioned to be, in a peculiar sense, his brother's keeper…. This mighty Anglo-Saxon race, though comprising only one-thirteenth part of mankind, now rules more than one-third of the earth's surface, and more than one-fourth of its people.”
Was Strong right about the numbers here?
How might a modern reader argue against this position? [Guns, Germs, & Steel?]
“Another marked characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon is what may be called an instinct or genius for colonizing. His unequaled energy, his indomitable perseverance, and his personal independence, made him a pioneer. He excels all others in pushing his way into new countries. It was those in whom this tendency was strongest that came to America, and this inherited tendency has been further developed by the westward sweep of successive generations across the continent.”
Is there any truth to this claim that immigrants and their descendents are strivers?
Again, how would one argue against this position?
“On Anglo-Saxon Predominance” (1891)
Strong was not the lone voice in the debate about faith and imperialism. Ministers across the country, especially during the Spanish-American War (as in many previous and later wars), argued that the American mission was divinely inspired and backed.
Wayland Hoyt, Pastor of Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City:
“I do not believe that there ever was a war more righteous than that which we have undertaken, nor one closer to the law of the self-sacrificing Christ that we bear one another's burdens. If there ever was a war simply for the sake of humanity with no desire or purpose of national greed of any sort, it is the one that now is upon us, calling our soldiers and the navy to arms.”
When I teach this in my class, I explain that most Americans agreed with Strong, Hoyt, and other proponents of American imperialism. But I am careful to point out that there were articulate opponents of imperialism as well. Mark Twain, W.E.B. DuBois, and other prominent liberal thinkers joined together to form the Anti-Imperialist league in 1898. Twain and DuBois argued that the US could not promote democracy and self-determination by conquering and controlling other nations.
“Nations trespass against nations without alleged warrant. Then come the apologists with abundant political and moral arguments for the deed: finally, theology takes a hand, and provides the acceptable sanction of religion. Thus, Imperialism, from gross aggression, becomes a high political expediency or moral duty.” Editorial in The Nation 1898
VI. Political Cartoons
Nothing draws the comparison more strongly between the Imperialists and Anti-Imperialists than political cartoons, an exceptionally rich source from this period.
Which cartoon is Anti-Imperialist? How do you know?
VII. Good Guys Wear Black?
The danger here is to applaud the anti-Imperialist for being wise and good while seeing Strong and the imperialists simply as condescending racists bent only on expanding the power of the United States. History is, of course, more complicated than this. Some members of the Anti-Imperialist League opposed imperialistic conquest, because they believed darker skinned peoples were too “uncivilized” and unworthy of American citizenship. Chief among these was the president of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers. Why would Gompers take this position against imperialism?
VIII. Bad Guys Wear White?
If there were mixed motives behind the opposition to imperialism, perhaps we should re-examine Strong’s motives for supporting imperialism. In the mid-1960s at the height of the Cold War, a historian did just that. Dorothea Muller argued that Strong had been misunderstood all along: that he advocated spiritual expansion and redemption, not political or military conquest. Let’s take a look at some of her evidence for this.
Strong on Love and Expansion
"The essence of Christianity is love," he exclaimed, "and love always gives. It can never be satisfied so long as there is anyone who has not received. By its very nature, therefore, Christianity is expansive. It will have no banks, it must flood the world as the waters cover the sea."
Strong Criticizes Imperialism
“If we had Christian enthusiasm for mankind, we should be preparing them [Negroes and Chinese] by the thousands to go as missionaries to their brethren. But instead, we are debauching Africa with our New England rum, and outraging China by our brutal legislation.”
Strong on Racial Tolerance
“When we get near enough to a man to see in him the likeness of Christ, whether he be white or black, red or yellow, we must needs love him.” And “I do not imagine that an Anglo-Saxon is any dearer to God than a Mongolian or an African.”
Strong on Internationalism
“Local, and even national, interests must be sacrificed, if need be, to universal interests. Or rather, world interests will prove to be the best criterion by which to judge national interests, and it will ultimately be seen that he serves his country best who serves the world best.”
So how do we teach about someone like Josiah Strong?
Is he a racist supporter of jingoistic nationalism and imperialistic conquest?
Or is he a selfless, idealist with the best interest of the world at heart?
William H. Berg, “Voices for Imperialism: Josiah Strong and the Protestant Clergy” Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association (1973).
Dorothea R. Muller, “Josiah Strong and American Nationalism: A Reevaluation,” Journal of American History (Dec. 1966).
Josiah Strong, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (1885) and Expansion Under New-World Conditions (1900)