American Apostles: When Evangelicals Entered the World of Islam
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The surprising tale of the first American Protestant missionaries to proselytize in the Muslim world
In American Apostles, the Bancroft Prize-winning historian Christine Leigh Heyrman brilliantly chronicles the first fateful collision between American missionaries and the diverse religious cultures of the Levant. Pliny Fisk, Levi Parsons, Jonas King: though virtually unknown today, these three young New Englanders commanded attention across the United States two hundred years ago. Poor boys steeped in the biblical prophecies of evangelical Protestantism, they became the founding members of the Palestine mission and ventured to Ottoman Turkey, Egypt, and Syria, where they sought to expose the falsity of Muhammad's creed and to restore these bastions of Islam to true Christianity. Not only among the first Americans to travel throughout the Middle East, the Palestine missionaries also played a crucial role in shaping their compatriots' understanding of the Muslim world.
As Heyrman shows, the missionaries thrilled their American readers with tales of crossing the Sinai on camel, sailing a canal boat up the Nile, and exploring the ancient city of Jerusalem. But their private journals and letters often tell a story far removed from the tales they spun for home consumption, revealing that their missions did not go according to plan. Instead of converting the Middle East, the members of the Palestine mission themselves experienced unforeseen spiritual challenges as they debated with Muslims, Jews, and Eastern Christians and pursued an elusive Bostonian convert to Islam. As events confounded their expectations, some of the missionaries developed a cosmopolitan curiosity about-even an appreciation of-Islam. But others devised images of Muslims for their American audiences that would both fuel the first wave of Islamophobia in the United States and forge the future character of evangelical Protestantism itself.
American Apostles brings to life evangelicals' first encounters with the Middle East and uncovers their complicated legacy. The Palestine mission held the promise of acquainting Americans with a fuller and more accurate understanding of Islam, but ultimately it bolstered a more militant Christianity, one that became the unofficial creed of the United States over the course of the nineteenth century. The political and religious consequences of that outcome endure to this day.
If, as William Bentley believed, English was a deist at the time he broke into print in Boston, he had changed his views substantially by the time he left Egypt. 34. Fisk to Evarts, April 18, 1822, ABCFM, reel 513; Fisk to Isaac Bird, May 7, 1822, SCMC. 35. English, Narrative of the Expedition, 60–61. In 1824, English published Five Pebbles from the Brook: A Reply to “A Defence of Christianity” Written by Edward Everett … (Philadelphia, 1824), a piece he professed to have written in the summer
English denied ever becoming a Muslim, but allowed that “he had often joined in prayer, both with the Turks and with the Jews, as they addressed the Supreme Being alone.” Knapp, Treasury of Knowledge and Library of Reference, Part VI, American Biography, 96. 8. EPIPHANIES 1. “Letter from Mr. King,” Sept. 24, 1822, Paris, in Evangelical and Literary Magazine, Dec. 1822; the account of the journey from Paris to Valletta appears in his journal entries from Sept. 30 to Nov. 12, 1822, ABCFM, reel
Librarians throughout New England and New York have also made invaluable contributions, even if some might have wanted to hide in the stacks when they saw me coming yet again. Most notable is the longtime (and now emeritus) head of special collections at Middlebury College, Andrew Wentink—every scholar’s dream archivist—who introduced me to the single most important source for this study. After swearing never to get an agent, now I can’t imagine publishing a book without the help of Dan Green,
Mohamed returned from a trip to Constantinople, and he had invited an eager Fisk to inspect his “library of several hundred volumes.” “I have not met with a mussulman before who seemed to care so much about learning,” Fisk marveled, not a little flattered by the notice of a man who was also “said to have been intimate with Hallit Effendi, a celebrated Counsellor of the Porte [the Ottoman sultan] who had his education in France.” At last, a Muslim who seemed to have stepped from the pages of Sir
Muslim beliefs to the “light” of Christianity, but when beating the drum for missions, evangelicals often pointed up some of the common elements of the two faiths. In 1784, the Oxford don Joseph White promoted planting Protestant missions in India on the grounds that the Muslims there were not “in a state of barbarism” but “already a race of men and citizens, who by an easy transition might pass to a full belief of the doctrines of Christ.” After all, Islam had prepared its adherents to “embrace