Methodists and India: Mapping, Contact, and Travel in the Christian Advocate, 1860-1890

As I posted last week, this weekend I presented a paper on the topic of Methodist Media to the American Society of Church History at this year’s American Historical Association meeting. Below is my paper from the panel.

Methodists and India: Mapping, Contact and Travel in the Christian Advocate, 1860-1890

Michael J. Altman, Emory University

What could bourgeois Methodist readers have known about India and how could missionary work abroad have brought them this knowledge?  Today, I will begin to answer these two questions through an analysis of The Christian Advocate in the late nineteenth century. The Christian Advocate, published in New York and the official weekly publication of the Methodist Episcopal Church, rose to a circulation of 63 to 70 thousand by 1879 and as one historian claims, “the paper became an icon of bourgeois America.”[i] The Advocate circulated among a growing middle class during the rise of the popular press in America and, therefore, the representations of India and Hinduism contained in its pages sparked the minds of a broad Evangelical readership.

I focus on three themes in the pages of the Advocate regarding India and Hinduism: mapping, contact, and travel.  First, missionary reports mapped out India as a geographic and spiritual field for missions work.  Second, women in America were especially recruited to join in the missionary effort and make spiritual and imaginary contact with Hindu women in India. Finally, in order to see the fruits of the Methodist mission work in India, writers sent letters and stories of conversions, conferences, and revivals that allowed American Methodists to travel to India and see the Holy Spirit at work.  In all three cases, imagination brought India into American homes through the pages of the Advocate.

When the Christian Advocate used the term “mission field” it referred to more than just an agrarian metaphor.  As an agrarian metaphor, the mission field was a place to be developed—where spiritual seeds were planted and brought a harvest, to use the New Testament metaphor.  But a “mission field” was also a geographic metaphor.  It was a geographic place with borders and boundaries.  It had a location.  Combining the agrarian and geographic connotations of the word, a mission field was a geographic space that belonged to a certain group.  One writer made this distinction in the Advocate when he wrote, “Observe, it is not Our Mission in India, but India, Our Mission Field.”[ii] The Advocate was one tool in creating a Methodist community that thought in terms of a “we,” the Methodist Episcopal Church, and that saw India as “ours.”  This emphasis on possession framed the way writers in the Advocate mapped India as a mission field that belonged to the reader’s community.  By using geographically bounded conferences to divide the subcontinent into thirds and by reporting statistical gains in conversions and church memberships, writers attempted to galvanize a sense of communal and spiritual possession over India in the imaginations of readers.

Framing the mission field as a Methodist possession allowed the Methodist Episcopal Church to divide up its geography for easy management.  The same article from above mapped out three conferences for readers:

If a missionary society should propose to send missionaries to some unoccupied filed in India where will they find it?  In South India?  The South India Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church has stretched its lines over South India.  In Bengal?  The Bengal Conference claims all Central India as its field.  In North India?  The North India Conference claims all North India.  We have not only taken in all the territory, but we have taken in all the other missions, ‘so to speak.’[iii]

In this article, the reader moved from the south to the north surveying the subcontinent and claiming each geographical section for the Methodist mission field.  Beyond that, the final sentence reached out and pulled all missionary activity in these spaces under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  The result of this mission field map was a shared possession over the geographic space by all Methodists.  As Sumathi Ramaswamy has theorized, “the modern map enables the citizen-subject to take ‘visual and conceptual possession’ of the nation-space that he inhabits.”[iv] The Advocate served to build a community through a weekly shared newspaper.  Through mission field maps like this one, Methodist readers shared in a sense of possession over India that characterized all contact with the subcontinent.

Besides mapping the geography of India into separate conferences, the Advocate also provided readers with census-like data to map the spiritual state of the subcontinent in quantifiable terms.  Articles in 1869 listed conversion, membership, and church numbers from various parts of India and gave readers a chance to quantify the value of their communal possession.[v] Other articles provided data on the religious makeup of specific provinces.[vi] Working through this “enumerative modality” of knowledge, as Bernard Cohn has called it, Methodist missionaries and writers “objectified social, cultural, and linguistic differences among the peoples of India.”[vii] Were all conversions the same?  Were there various degrees of conversion?  Someone who attended a Methodist service weekly was not the same as someone who has been baptized and never returns to church.  Similarly, a single category encompassed Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and “Aborigines.”  Throught he categoriest they deployed, missionaries offered readers knowledge about India that erased some differences and highlighted others.  The mission field was a form of spiritual conquest and needed religious intelligence to aid in its goal.  As reader’s imagined India as a mission field, writers in the Advocate gave them maps for imagining the geography of the mission field and quantitative data to know the non-Christian others that inhabited it.

Just as the Advocate geographically divided the mission field, writers also divided the mission work between the genders.  While men were given the job of preaching in the mission field, American women, both overseas and at home, were charged with saving the souls of India’s women.  Articles and lectures by women printed in the Advocate first identified the desolate state of “Hindu womanhood” and then charged American women with bringing the only solution to this problem: Christianity.  Women in America had the solution to all the problems of women in India.  The woman to woman mission between America and India established a contact zone between American women, both at home and India, and Hindu women.  American women were given representations of what “Hindu womanhood” was and were then recruited to head to the mission field or support those in the mission field to save these women.  American women could then read conversion narratives about high-caste Hindu women that served as rewards and proof that their work in support of the mission was successful.  American women came into imagined contact with Hindu women and Indian Christian women coverts through the pages of the Advocate.

Women writers in the Advocate represented women in India, and especially Hindu women, as incredibly persecuted and victimized by their society and culture.  In a piece from 1888 titled “Hindu Womanhood” Jennie Bingham writes in reference to her title, “Do we not at once think of zenana-seculded child-women, having all the ignorance and immaturity of childhood, with none of its innocence and beauty?”[viii] She goes on to point out that these women lack education and Christianity, the two things that have made American women successful. An 1883 lecture titled “Woman’s Work for Woman in Asia,” repeats this same representation of Hindu womanhood but adds in the element of Hindu widowhood.  “There are 21,000,000 of widows, and half of these were never wives…paganism makes the condition of widows in India yet so desolate that it is a common remark among Hindus that the old form of immolation by fire was preferable as a fate for a young woman, or even an old one, than widowhood.”[ix] Among the evils the lecturer lists in the speech are “child marriages,” “enforced widowhood,” “total neglect of the education of daughters,” “the arbitrariness of divorce,” and “infanticide.”  These representations brought American Methodist women into contact with Hindu women.  In the midst of the late nineteenth century women’s movement American women came into contact with a desolate, uneducated, and dark Hindu womanhood.

But there was a solution to the darkness of Hindu womanhood.  As one writer put it, “Christianity is the most potent civilizer.  Its introduction into a country can but advance the mental status of that country.  The woman condition is the exact measure of progress.”[x] To help the progress of Hindu women, American women had to spread Christianity throughout India.  Women could never be free unless they were part of a Christian society.  For these women missionaries, education accompanies the spread of Christianity.  As one writer notes, “Missionaries begin their work by teaching women to read.  That advance step taken, everything else in the way of culture follows.”[xi] The combination of Christianity and education would not only save the souls of Hindu women, but it would redeem their whole culture.

However, this cultural redemption could not occur without the help of American women and women readers of the Advocate.  As the lecture title “Woman’s Work for Woman in Asia” claims, this work was by women for women.  “We have power to send medical missionaries to these populations; we have power to send both secular and sacred education to women throughout Asia; and he who knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is a sin.  Let this wail sound in the ears of sensitive women!”[xii] The “we” here is the women’s missionary societies, gendered as feminine, yet the scripture quoted talks in male pronouns and then the lecture closes with a call to women.  The specific work between women in America and women in Asia occupied a space gendered as feminine.  However, it was situated within a much larger frame of Christian missions to the world that was dominated by the patriarchal structures of American Evangelicalism.  Despite this overarching patriarchy, the Advocate constructed a contact zone between women in American and women in India that tried to motivate female readers in America to seek the empowerment of women overseas.

Women readers of the Advocate were rewarded for their support of woman to woman missions in India through conversion narratives that reported the success of the work overseas.  A letter from Miss Mary F. Seelyee, an American missionary in Calcutta, printed in 1874 told the story of the conversion of a “little native girl” who was baptized and accepted into the church there after answering correctly to some basic doctrinal questions.  The girl offered clear answers about the doctrine of the trinity and redemption through the death of Jesus.  As the letter described, “Looking up very earnestly into her minister’s face, she made answer: ‘The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.’”[xiii] In this letter the educational and spiritual goals of the mission were fulfilled.  The eight year old girl offered mature, well spoken answers to religious questions that bring her salvation.  She is educated and saved simultaneously.  Through letters and stories like “The Little Girl in India” American women were able to see the fruit of their contact with Hindu women.  Women and girls were being educated and saved and, through the Advocate, American women shared in the contact zone of missionary work.

The Advocate offered more than just contact between women; it also allowed readers to travel across India alongside missionaries.  Through letters from itinerant preachers and missionaries readers were taken to the front lines of the mission field where Christianity was conquering Hinduism.  These letters allowed readers to travel to India and observe the mission field first hand while simultaneously presenting the superiority of Christianity over Hinduism.  As one letter opened, “Many of your readers in America go to conference, and many more read and hear a great deal about going.  Now perhaps it would prove interesting to them to hear how Methodist preachers in India go to conference.”[xiv] Correspondence from India, printed in the Advocate, brought American Methodists along for the ride, so to speak, as missionaries did their work in the field.  Readers were able to imagine themselves in the midst of the Hindu other spreading the Gospel.

While these letters were meant to show Methodists at home the success of the mission, they often gave readers a chance to see missionaries confront Hinduism on the ground in India.  In allowing readers to travel the front lines of this confrontation, these letters presented representations of the Hindus the missionaries were actively opposing.  For example, the 1873 article, “A Memorable Meeting at Lucknow,” described a series of revivals staged by missionaries during a Hindu religious festival.  Before describing the revival meetings, the writer notes, “They say that they commemorate the victory which this deity [Rama] obtained over Ravana, king of Ceylon, thousands and thousands of years ago.”[xv] A more detailed example occured in the article, “The Devi Patan Mela,” printed in 1884.  The writer spends about a fourth of the article describing the sacrifices during the Hindu ritual they have organized their preaching to oppose.  This description is summarized: “It was calculated that one animal a minute was sacrificed from sunrise to sunset of every day for a week; thus not less than 5.040 animals were cruelly and uselessly immolated during the time we were present at this great pandemonium.” [xvi] Before these writers can describe the great Christian revival they must take the reader with them through the details of the Hindu ritual. However, there was never any doubt by the writers that the Christian revival was the true religion and the Hindu ritual was false.  For example, one revivalist wrote, “I would simply answer that the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, is the only true atonement and remedy for sin.”[xvii] Though readers could see the rituals of the other, they were always reminded of the truth of their own Christian religion.

In each of these letters, predictably, Christianity won the day at the end.  A Hindu devotee tells the missionary, “Sir…I went to the mela a Hindu; I have returned a Christian.”[xviii] During the revival “A score of persons were convinced of sin and asked the prayers of the Church.”[xix] So the reader, traveled to India and observed Hinduism, but only so that the Hinduism they see can be overcome by Christianity.  Unlike actual missions travel, this travel was always successful.  The reader never reached India to find natives resistant to their preaching.  Rather, the “missionary reader” always found souls ready to turn to the Gospel and convert from Hinduism to Christianity.  These missionary readers echoed the closing words of the letter from Lucknow: “O that the power of the Most High might be abundantly poured out upon all our Churches in India.”[xx] Readers of the Advocate could travel to India and witness this outpouring firsthand.

Reports from the mission field mapped the geography of India, enumerated the conquest of the Christian mission there, established contact between American and Hindu women, and took readers on a trip to the front lines of the mission.  Furthermore, these reports constituted a missionary discourse about Hinduism and India that existed prior and alongside the intellectualist discourses of the Unitarians, Transcendentalists, and Orientalists.  This missionary discourse constructed its own meanings for Hinduism and India.  For readers in America, Hinduism was reduced to the representation of an inferior religious tradition to be conquered.  The mapping of the subcontinent into a mission field provided the frame for understanding the Methodist mission as both religious and imperial.  Secondly, the reports of revivals coinciding with large Hindu rituals and the conversions that took place at these revivals served as reports from the front lines of the crusade.  The former claimed possession over India and the latter proved it.  Besides the alleged clear failure of Hinduism to withstand the superior civilization of Christianity, the reports of the deplorable state Hindu womanhood further solidified the missionary discourse’s representation of India.  The desolate state of women spoke to the inferior and uncivilized nature of Hinduism and the contact between American and Hindu women galvanized the sense of Christian possession and accomplishment.  For American women, missions work to Hindu women was “our” work and India was “our” mission field.  The Christian Advocate offered readers a chance to use their imaginations to map out all of India as a missionary possession, travel to see Christianity conquering heathenism, and make contact with Hindus in the process. All of this came without ever leaving their homes and without the risks of on the ground missionary intervention.

[i] Robert H. Krapohl, “Christian Advocate”  Popular Religious Magazines of the United States, Mark P. Facker and Charles H. Lippy eds. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995), 104.

[ii] J. Baume, “India, Our Mission Field” Christian Advocate (1866-1905), June 28, 1888, 437, (accessed March 3, 2008).

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Sumathi Ramaswamy, “Visualizing India’s Geo-body,” Contributions to Indian Sociology, 36, 1-2, (January-August 2002), 151.

[v] “The Methodist Episcopal Church in India” Christian Advocate (1866-1905), July 15, 1869, 221, (accessed March 3, 2008).

[vi] “The Earnest Words From India” Christian Advocate (1866-1905), October 28, 1869, 341, (accessed March 3, 2008).

[vii] Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 8.

[viii] Jennie M. Bingham, “Hindu Womanhood” Christian Advocate (1866-1905), September 27, 1888, 639, (accessed March 3, 2008).

[ix] “The Lecture: Woman’s Work for Woman in Asia” Christian Advocate (1866-1905), March 22, 1883, 181, (accessed March 3, 2008).

[x] Willing, “Intellectual Uses”

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] “Lecture: Women”

[xiii] “The Little Girl in India” Christian Advocate (1866-1905), October 1, 1874, 318, (accessed March 3, 2008).

[xiv] J. D. Brown, “Letter from India” Christian Advocate (1866-1905), April 5, 1866, 106, (accessed March 3, 2008).

[xv] B. H. Badley “A Memorable Meeting at Lucknow” Christian Advocate (1866-1905), November 27, 1873, 377, (accessed March 3, 2008).

[xvi] “The Devi Patan Mela” Christian Advocate (1866-1905), June 12, 1844, 392, (accessed March 3, 2008).

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Badley, “Memorable Meeting at Lucknow”

[xx] Ibid.


2 thoughts on “Methodists and India: Mapping, Contact, and Travel in the Christian Advocate, 1860-1890

  1. I just finished reading your paper. I found it both informative and thought provoking. I am reminded that all “reporting of the facts” has, at it’s core, a bent toward making the venture, whatever it may be, appear to be a success. The Advocate, in it’s desire to keep the Methodist community informed, may have over-simplified the issues, but they also shed light on the plight of millions of India’s citizens who lacked eternal hope until the Gospel of Jesus Christ was introduced. Education is good. Fair and respectful treatment of men, women, and children is certainly preferable to abuse. But providing the opportunity for human beings to receive the free gift of salvation from sins, made possible by the atoning death of God’s Son, Jesus, is the “greatest good” toward which anyone can strive, and succeed.


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