Few of the Europeans who settled North America in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries held the contemporary liberal view that all faiths were essentially equal before God. On the contrary, divergent religious doctrines bolstered imperial rivalries. For the British subjects in North America, almost all of whom were heirs in some respect to Reformation-era Protestantism, Spain and France represented not only economic rivals and strategic threats, but also tyrannical "popery." During the French and Indian War, anti-Catholic sentiment rose and some of the colonies forbade "papists" to bear arms.
Although residents of the thirteen colonies that formed the United States in 1776 were over-whelmingly Protestant, the religious situation already showed signs of the complexity that would become an American perennial. Roughly half of the colonists were at least pro forma Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, but there were also large numbers of Baptists, Lutherans, Dutch Reformed Calvinists, Quakers, and German pietists. Differences among these Protestants may look insignificant to the contemporary secular eye, but they bulked large at a time when taxes were levied to support established churches in most of the states. In addition, the Great Awakening of the 1740s had left a legacy of division in several denominations between evangelical "new lights" and more stolid "old lights." There were also roughly 25,000 Catholics and 2,000 Jews. Equally important, by several criteria the era in which the United States was formed qualifies as the least religious period in the country's history. Fewer than 20 percent of Americans were church adherents. Many of the foremost Founders, including the first four presidents, were influenced to some extent by deism and viewed God as a distant force in human affairs.
Recent religious developments influenced the first and foremost event of American foreign policy: the decision to separate from Great Britain. These also affected the shape of the revolutionary coalition, the size of the country, and the form of the new government. While dividing denominations, the Great Awakening had fostered colonial unity as men and women saved by the same itinerant evangelists hundred of miles apart felt a common bond. To the British government, the Awakening provided further evidence that the colonists needed a resident Anglican bishop to limit their religious autonomy. None was named, but even colonial deists viewed such an appointment as part of the comprehensive British "conspiracy" to strangle American freedom, religious as well as political and economic. The Quebec Act of 1774, which granted civil rights to French Catholics and all but established the Roman Catholic Church in that province, underscored the threat of "ecclesiastical slavery." Now, many American Protestants concluded, British tyranny had allied with papal absolutism. On balance, religious forces and issues speeded the momentum toward independence.
Religious factors also influenced decisions to support the Revolution, remain loyal to King George III, or try to avoid the conflict altogether. Adherents to the Church of England frequently sided with the Crown but there were many notable exceptions, including George Washington. Evangelical heirs to the Great Awakening disproportionately joined the patriot cause; Scots-Irish Presbyterians were particularly zealous. New England Congregationalists, the clearest spiritual heirs of John Winthrop, frequently framed the cause as part of a divine mission. On the other hand, the Declaration of Independence reflected Enlightenment republicanism rather than evangelical Protestantism. Jews usually favored independence. In general, however, religious minorities feared the loss of royal protection. Catholics were wary of living in an overwhelmingly Protestant republic. Yet Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, expected—correctly, as matters turned out—that independence would foster disestablishment. Neither Carroll's diplomacy nor military force convinced Quebec Catholics to join the United States. French Canadian bishop Jean-Olivier Briand denounced the invading "Bostonians" and threatened to withhold sacraments from Catholics who aided them.
Decisions about the war were particularly difficult for adherents to what are usually called the historic peace churches. The Society of Friends (Quakers) and the predominantly German pietists—notably, the Mennonites, Moravians, and Dunkers—are best known for their repudiation of violence. But also, instead of building ever larger cities, states, or imperial republics "upon a hill," they hoped to change the world, if at all, through a separatist moral example. During the Revolution, as in all future wars, they struggled to determine the right mix of cooperation and resistance.
Members of all of the peace churches faced some degree of ostracism, seizure of property, loss of employment, and imprisonment when they refused to pay taxes or swear allegiance to the new government. The German pietists—predominantly rural, further from the political mainstream, and generally willing to pay fines in place of military service—suffered less than the Quakers. The Society of Friends contained some strong loyalists and was suspected of shielding many more. Other members were expelled for fighting in the Revolution; a prowar contingent seceded to form the Free Quakers. Quakers also began their practice of providing humanitarian assistance to all victims of the war
Just as religious affiliations influenced the Revolution, both the war and the ultimate victory decisively affected the religious scene. The departure of loyalist Anglican clergy left the successor Episcopal Church weakened. The alliance with France dampened fears of "popery," much to the benefit of American Catholics. The Constitution precluded religious tests for federal office and the First Amendment banned an "establishment of religion." Religious minorities, sometimes in alliance with Enlightenment deists, began a long but ultimately successful campaign for disestablishment in the states. Thus, although religious denominations would continue to influence foreign policy, they enjoyed no constitutional advantage over secular lobbies. A treaty with Tripoli in 1796 assured the Muslim ruler of that country that the government was "not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." The absence of a federal establishment prompted competition, which in turn encouraged both religious commitments and a proliferation of faiths as clergy from rival denominations competed to win adherents. Also, the grassroots egalitarianism nurtured by the Revolution provided a hospitable environment for the theologically and institutionally democratic Baptists and Methodists.
The victorious revolutionary coalition began to fall apart almost immediately. Disagreements about faith and foreign affairs shaped the development of acrimonious party politics starting in the 1790s. The Jeffersonian Republicans were religiously more diverse and tolerant than the Federalists. Looking abroad, the Republicans tilted toward revolutionary France, while the Federalists typically admired Great Britain—which they viewed as a bastion of Christianity rather than French infidelity. During the War of 1812, Federalist Congregationalists and Presbyterians reiterated their admiration of British Protestantism and characterized impressed seamen as runaway Irish Catholics unworthy of sympathy. Baptists and Methodists denounced the autocratic Church of England and hailed the Republican President James Madison as a friend of religious liberty.
Above and beyond these controversies was the broad consensus that the United States must expand its territory, trade, and power. Expansion often received but did not require a religious rationale. Thomas Jefferson, who held the least conventional religious beliefs of any president, arranged the Louisiana Purchase, the largest single land acquisition in American history. Even Protestant clergy who viewed expansion as part of a divine plan often supplemented Scripture with economic and geopolitical arguments.
John L. O'Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, captured the dominant expansionist theme of republican mission when he famously proclaimed the "manifest destiny" of the United States in 1845. The continent was destined to be American by a nonsectarian Providence for a great experiment in freedom and self-government.
Even so, religious controversies relating to foreign policy proliferated between the 1810s and the 1850s—partly because the United States was expanding its territory and international interests. Equally important, this era of manifest destiny coincided with another revival among Protestants that lasted at least through the 1830s and the first mass immigration of non-Protestants. By the 1850s the three largest religious groups were the Methodists, Baptists, and Catholics; the population also included 150,000 Jews, most of them recent immigrants from German states.
The second Great Awakening energized virtually every reform campaign of the first half of the nineteenth century. Two in particular intersected with the history of foreign policy: the creation of an organized peace movement and a systematic Protestant missionary effort.
Northern Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians provided most of the leadership and rank-and-file strength of the peace movement. In 1815, David Low Dodge, a devout Presbyterian, founded the New York Peace Society, perhaps the first such organization in the world. There were many other local stirrings in the wake of the War of 1812. In 1828 the most important among them coalesced into the American Peace Society.
Historical accounts of Protestant missionaries typically begin with the creation of the first "foreign" mission board in 1810 and then trace evangelical activities in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. This perspective has a certain plausibility, not least because many missionaries viewed the story that way. Yet it obscures the essential fact that for several generations U.S. foreign policy also occurred on the North American continent. The Africans and Asians encountered overseas were no more alien to bourgeois Protestant missionaries than were the Native Americans whom their precursors had been trying to convert since the 1600s. Moreover, mission boards sent evangelists to American Indian "nations" well into the nineteenth century. As the historian Kenneth Scott Latourette observed in The Great Century in the United States of America (1941), the conquest of the American West was a "vast colonial expansion, nonetheless significant because it was not usually regarded as such."
Missionaries played three major roles in this continental colonialism. First, their glowing descriptions of the land drew settlers westward—sometimes to disputed territory. Oregon was such a case, where the U.S. advantage in population helped secure a peaceful division with Great Britain in 1846. Second, along with Methodist circuit riders and countless local revivalists, missionaries instilled bourgeois traits useful for developing and holding the frontier. Third, they worked to christianize the Indians as part of an effort to assimilate them. In 1819 the federal government began funding churches to inculcate the "habits and arts of civilization" among Native Americans. Missionary successes in this area did not save the Native Americans from the inexorable forces of expansion. The Cherokees in the southeastern United States accepted Christianity and their leader adopted the name Elias Boudinot, after the first president of the American Bible Society. Even so, they were forcibly removed beyond the Mississippi River in the 1830s.
Overseas missions ultimately became, as the historian John K. Fairbank wrote in The Missionary Enterprise in China and America (1974), the nation's "first large-scale transnational corporations." The institutional beginnings were modest. Spurred by the awakening at Williams College and Andover Seminary, Congregationalists took the lead in 1810 in founding the (temporarily) interdenominational American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Within a decade, missionaries were sent to India, Hawaii, and the Middle East. Although diverse denominations soon created their own boards, the ABCFM remained the leading sponsor of overseas missions for the next fifty years.
The fields of activity were determined by opportunity as well as theology. The ABCFM established missions in India and Ceylon because Great Britain barred their establishment in Burma. Not only did the Holy Land have an obvious appeal, but also the Ottoman Empire permitted missionaries to work with its Christian communities (although they were quite willing to offer Protestantism to Muslims and Jews as well as Coptics, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox believers when those opportunities arose).
While rarely advocating racial equality, white religious leaders were nonetheless eager to send black missionaries to sub-Saharan Africa. According to prevailing medical theory, blacks were less susceptible than whites to tropical diseases. Whatever the motives of their (usually) white sponsors, black missionaries often felt a special calling to save Africa from paganism and Islam. In addition, thriving African Christian communities might serve as a refuge from persecution and show the world that blacks could build civilized societies.
The first missionaries concentrated on bringing individual men and women to Christ, perhaps as a prelude to his imminent Second Coming. Always few in number, they hoped to establish indigenous congregations to carry on the work. At first, too, they paid close attention to the quality of faith among aspiring converts. Missionaries and their sponsoring agencies frequently agonized over the question of how much they should modify indigenous cultures. Some evangelical Protestants thought a large measure of "civilization" necessary for Christianity to take hold. In theory, most wanted to change local ways of life as little as possible consistent with the demands of the gospel. In practice, both the prevailing definition of civilized morality and their own personal traits undermined missionary restraint. Inevitably, they fostered values esteemed by middle-class Protestants: hard work, efficiency, technological innovation, sexual propriety, and respect for "true womanhood." The missionaries were usually ignored, often opposed, and sometimes physically attacked. Even converts mixed Protestant precepts with aspects of their previous religious faiths. Missionaries learned to simplify Christianity and relax their requirements for spiritual rebirth.
Pre–Civil War missionaries did not see themselves as agents of American economic expansion. Frequently they set out for places where trade was negligible and unlikely to develop. They often assailed merchants for their chicanery, sale of alcohol, and promotion of prostitution. Yet Charles Denby, Jr., U.S. minister to China later in the nineteenth century, was correct to see missionaries as "pioneers of trade." Businessmen who contributed to missionary societies and provided free passage on ships agreed. In many cases missionaries were the only translators available to entrepreneurs trying to open foreign markets.
Government officials saw the missionary enterprise as a means to extend American political influence. Writing on behalf of the ABCFM to King Kamehameha of Hawaii, President John Quincy Adams declared that "a knowledge of letters and of the True Religion—the Religion of the Christian's Bible" were the only means to advance any people's happiness. Despite such endorsements, the U.S. government offered less direct help than overseas missionaries wanted.
The Middle East, which attracted the largest number of missionaries before the Civil War, provides a case in point. Commodore David Porter, the American chargé d'affaires in the Ottoman Empire from 1831 until 1843, urged Turkish officials at all levels to safeguard the missionaries, worked to establish consulates in places where they operated, and occasionally arranged visits by the navy as quiet demonstrations of American strength. At the same time, Porter repeatedly warned against offending Muslims. From the perspective of the Turkish government, missionaries were welcome as long as their activities were not disruptive. But their proselytizing inevitably offended not only Muslims, but also Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians. Disruptive responses included riots, destruction of property, and occasional murders.
The missionaries in the Middle East and their patrons at home worked diligently to influence government policy and enjoyed mixed success. Missionaries themselves received consular or diplomatic appointments in Athens, Beirut, and Constantinople. Encouraged by an ABCFM lobbyist, Secretary of State Daniel Webster wrote Porter in 1842 that missionaries should be assisted "in the same manner" as merchants. Indeed, in the Middle East they seem to have received slightly more direct assistance than businessmen. Still, government action fell short of their hopes. Warships were dispatched only to "show the flag," not to fire their cannon in retribution for attacks on missionaries, and the Turkish-American treaty of 1862 contained no provision guaranteeing the right to evangelize.
The worldwide Christian missionary campaign was confined neither to Protestants nor to Americans. From the perspective of the Vatican, the United States itself remained a mission field under the supervision of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith until 1908. While this subordinate status should not obscure the American hierarchy's quest for influence and autonomy, Catholic bishops, priests, and nuns necessarily concentrated on preserving—or creating—faith among millions of immigrants and their children. Thus, few Americans participated in the Vatican's far-flung missionary efforts. Among Protestants, the largest number of overseas missionaries came from Great Britain until roughly 1900. Friendly contacts between Protestant and Catholic missionaries were rare in the early nineteenth century. More typical was the complaint by ABCFM representatives in the Middle East that agents of popery allied with Islamic infidels to thwart their efforts. On the other hand, American Protestant missionaries not only cooperated with their British counterparts, whose efforts predated their own by at least two decades, but also sought protection from British diplomats and warships. This cooperation was both a sign of and modest contribution to the rapprochement that proceeded fitfully between the two countries.
Although no more than two thousand American missionaries had been sent abroad by 1870, their impact on indigenous cultures was occasionally extraordinary. Nowhere was their influence more apparent than in the Hawaiian Islands. When the first missionaries, from the ABCFM, arrived in 1820, Hawaii was already enduring rapid—and usually destructive—change through contact with the outside world The missionaries were appalled by many Hawaiian practices, including polygamy, incest, and the "licentious" hula dance. To some Hawaiians, however, these evangelical Protestants seemed preferable to the merchants and sailors who had introduced alcohol, prostitution, and deadly diseases. The missionaries' shrewdest tactic was to cultivate Hawaiian royalty. By 1840 they had transformed the islands into a limited monarchy with a legislature, judiciary, and constitution barring laws "at variance with the Word of Lord Jehovah."
Although the ABCFM initially cited Hawaii as an example to emulate, success there was neither problem-free nor permanent. Many pro forma converts lapsed into what the missionaries considered sin. Despite zealous efforts to exclude religious rivals, advocates of Catholic and Mormon "idolatry" established footholds. Even Hawaiian Christians prayed for relief from white "mission rule." The ABCFM reprimanded its representatives for going beyond their charge to bring the gospel. Yet the political and social changes were irreversible. By the 1850s former missionaries, their children, and protégés had established themselves as Hawaii's elite.
No field offered less promise than China in the early nineteenth century. The population was indifferent. The Manchu dynasty barely tolerated missionaries (often disguised as businessmen) along with other foreign "barbarians" in an enclave near Canton. In 1858 the Reverend Samuel Wells Williams judged the Chinese "among the most craven of people, cruel and selfish as heathenism can make men." Thus, the gospel must be "backed by force if we wish them to listen to reason."
Force came primarily in the shape of the British navy. American missionaries enthusiastically backed Britain's frequent assaults and regretted only that U.S. warships rarely joined the fray. The Opium War that began in 1839 was a turning point for China and the missionaries there. With few exceptions they cheered the British victory, even though it meant continuation of an illegal narcotics trade the Chinese were trying to suppress. Perhaps, they reflected, God was using naval bombardments to open China to the gospel.
The Sino-British agreement that ended the Opium War in 1842 and established five treaty ports was the first of many "unequal treaties" that provoked Chinese resentment. In 1844 the Treaty of Wanghia granted the United States access to these ports and most-favored-nation status. The pact was largely the work of three missionaries, one of whom, Dr. Peter Parker, became U.S. commissioner in China a decade later.
The Taiping Rebellion, led by Hung Hsiuchuan, again showed that evangelism could be a catalyst for extraordinary and wholly unanticipated consequences. After living briefly in the house of a missionary, Hung baptized himself and created a religious movement combining elements of Christianity, Confucianism, his own mystical visions, and a reformist social program. In 1851 he led an uprising against the Manchu dynasty; by the time he was defeated, at least twenty million Chinese had been killed.
Although missionary influence certainly did not cause the Taiping Rebellion, and both Protestants and Catholics repudiated Hung's syncretic faith after an initial show of interest, the revolt made the Manchu court more wary than ever of Western religion. At the same time, the revolt rendered China less able to resist Western power. After further British bombardment, in a few instances aided by the U.S. Navy, China agreed in the late 1850s to new and increasingly unequal treaties with the West. Thus, unlike their colleagues in the Middle East, missionaries in China were guaranteed the right to spread the gospel.
A second Great Awakening at a time of mass non-Protestant immigration energized prejudice as well as domestic reform and missionary activity. Slurs against Jews routinely included the charge that their ancestors had crucified Christ. Nonetheless, Jews seemed less threatening than the more numerous and raucous Catholic immigrants. Neither the nativists who burned convents nor the Catholics who fought back with equal vigor were moved by the fine points of theology. Even so, well-publicized attacks on "popery" by prominent clergy hardly served the cause of tolerance. No clergyman was more prominent than Congregationalist Lyman Beecher. In A Plea for the West (1835), Beecher accused the Vatican of flooding the frontier with ignorant immigrants who were easily manipulated by priests. Unlike anti-Semitism, hostility to Catholics affected national politics. In the mid-1850s the nativist American Party, popularly called the Know-Nothings, became a powerful force in Congress.
As the population grew more diverse during the first half of the nineteenth century, so too did diplomatic personnel and political controversies involving religion and foreign policy. Starting with the Jeffersonian Republicans, Jews served as diplomatic and commercial representatives abroad, notably in Scotland and the Caribbean. The first major post went to Mordecai Noah, appointed consul at Tunis in 1813. Removing Noah two years later, Secretary of State James Monroe claimed that his Judaism had been an "obstacle" to performance of his duties. It seems doubtful that the Muslim ruler of Tunis was discomfited by Noah's religion. Indeed, Noah's appointment continued a diplomatic tradition in which Jews often served as mediators between Christians and Muslims. Responding to inquiries by Noah's political backers of various faiths, Secretary Monroe backtracked to say that his religion, "so far as related to this government," played no part in the recall. Many Jews remained unconvinced.
In 1840 the persecution of Jews in parts of the Ottoman Empire attracted widespread attention. Officials in Damascus charged Syrian Jews with killing a Catholic monk and his servant in order to use their blood in Passover services, arrested dozens of Jews, and tortured some of them to secure spurious confessions. Both the "blood libel" charge and attacks upon Jews quickly spread to other parts of the empire. French diplomats apparently encouraged the persecution in order to maximize their own country's influence. Great Britain led the international protests and the United States joined in. American diplomats were instructed to use their good offices "with discretion" to aid Jewish victims of persecution. According to Secretary of State John Forsyth's instructions, the United States was acting as a friendly power, whose institutions placed "upon the same footing, the worshipers of God of every faith."
Public meetings by Christians and Jews alike encouraged government action. Some Jewish leaders hesitated to rally behind their Eastern coreligionists; others doubted the prudence or propriety of seeking government action. Ultimately, however, the Damascus affair brought American Jews closer together and legitimated demonstrations against anti-Semitism abroad. Six years later they organized protests against the persecution of Russian Jews. During the 1850s, along with such Christian allies as Senators Henry Clay and Lewis Cass, they denounced a treaty that recognized the right of Swiss cantons to discriminate against Jews. The administration of President Millard Fillmore negotiated cosmetic changes in the agreement.
Foreign policy issues prompted animosity as well as cooperation among religious faiths. Many Protestants supported Jewish protests not only because they valued the republican principle of equal treatment of all white citizens, but also because they wanted to set a precedent for receiving equal treatment in Catholic countries. John England, the Catholic archbishop of Charleston, attended a mass meeting condemning the Ottoman persecution of Jews in 1840. Conversely, Jews and Catholics were bitterly divided over the Mortara affair in the 1850s. Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish child in Bologna, Italy, was secretly baptized by a servant and then removed from his family by the church. Caught between Catholic and Jewish constituencies, President James Buchanan claimed that he could not intervene in the affairs of another state.
The Mexican War was the most controversial foreign policy event between the War of 1812 and World War I. Although sectarian religious arguments were not absent, rival interpretations of the nation's nonsectarian republican mission predominated among proponents and opponents alike. According to opponents, President James K. Polk had provoked an illegitimate war with a fellow Christian republic. According to proponents, not only did the United States need to defend itself in an undemocratic world, but also the corrupt Mexican state resembled European autocracies rather than a true republic. Therefore, an American triumph would help to purify Mexico and inspire the forces of liberty everywhere. Instead of fostering freedom, opponents countered, such a victory would increase the territory open to slavery.
In this complicated ideological context, the major denominations took no official stand on the war. The Disciples of Christ, which had just begun to emerge during the awakening, called it a crime. Presbyterian leaders showed the most enthusiasm, especially about the prospect of saving Mexico from Catholic "idolatry." Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Quakers, the strongest foes of slavery, were also the most ardent opponents of the war.
The issue of Catholic loyalty to the United States engaged American nativists, Mexican military strategists, and the Polk administration. Circulating lurid tales of seductions by Mexican nuns, nativists feared that the Catholic troops, roughly 1,100 in number, would spy for or defect to the enemy. The Mexicans hoped so. Despite their propaganda efforts, only a few Irish-American soldiers switched sides to join the Battalion of Saint Patrick.
As president and leader of the Democratic Party, which received a disproportionate share of the Catholic vote, Polk declined to make the war an anti-Catholic crusade. Emissaries to the Mexican Catholic hierarchy emphasized that their church was not endangered by the U.S. invasion. Polk asked the American bishops to recommend Catholic chaplains for the army. In addition, Moses Beach, Catholic editor of the New York Sun, served as one of Polk's numerous agents seeking to secure a peace treaty. Many American soldiers accepted the ready-made stereotype that Catholicism had corrupted the Mexican government and rendered the population docile, yet some found the priests surprisingly amiable and enjoyed the romance of billeting in monasteries.