American Apostles REVIEW
Christine Leigh Heyrman’s study of early American perceptions of Islam is a picture of what my own Master’s thesis might have looked like with twenty more years of research and thinking supplied to it. Her analysis of the literature about Islam that early missionaries had available to shape their perspectives would have been invaluable to me twenty-four years ago. The access that she obviously had to the newly found journals of Pliny Fisk and to the reports of the Palestine mission of the ABCFM would have probably hijacked my entire thesis project it is so interesting.
My work looked at more missionaries over a wider geographical area and timespan, but it may well be that the story of Pliny Fisk, Levi Parsons, and Jonas King is the ideal way to tell the story since their experiences were so formative. And what is the story? It is a story of young men sent off to find the truth about something so long as it conformed to an expectation of what that truth would be. It is a story about how these young men reacted to realities that were significantly more complex than the caricature that they were expecting.
What Heyrman’s book reveals is that the sources about Islam that Americans had available in 1819 were as diverse as the sources that exist and cause such cultural tension today. In every decent early nineteenth century library, there were books that said that Islam was a menacing ideology on the one hand - and books that said that it was a force of rationalism and reasonableness on the other. There were books that argued that it was a religion that held sway by force and superstition and others that hinted that its power over millions of souls was entirely justified by its intrinsic humanistic appeal.
Heyrman introduces the subject by explaining the importance of the first American missionaries in the history of American perceptions of Islam though they may have had little historical impact on Muslim perceptions of Christianity. “But if these explorer missionaries left a little impress on the Middle East,” she notes,
“they made a profound impact on their vast American audience. By both their words and their silences, by what they did and left undone, the Palestine missionaries shaped the ways in which many in the United States imagined Islam and it's adherents.”
One of the central convictions that Levi Parson and Pliny Fisk left Andover seminary with was the vital importance of theological correctness in the formation of personal and national character. They were convinced that neither a person nor a nation could not be both unorthodox in their belief and moral in their behavior. The logic would have been simple. Morality requires regeneration. Regeneration requires faith, and that faith had to be correct. The argument is well expressed in this passage about a New Hampshire minister by the name of Asa McFarland
“a formidable alloy of Scots ancestry and Calvinist conviction, who denounced the view ‘that it is not of material consequence what men believe, provided they maintain an upright character.’ On the contrary, as he assured his congregation in Concord, New Hampshire, ‘our domestic felicity is to be imputed to the influence of gospel principles.’ It was a refrain that resounded in Evangelical churches and publications: without the proper sort of Christianity, there would be no American republic – at least, not one worthy of that name. Only the right kind of religion, meaning evangelical Protestantism, could make for the right kind of state and society, providing the foundations of family harmony, social order, and political stability.”
Fisk and Parsons would have assumed (despite plenty of controversy here in America) that heterodoxy and morality were inseparable and this may well have been the foundation stone of their faith that was most susceptible to experience when they arrived in the Middle East. How was Levi Parson’s likely to assimilate the experience of being cared for so tenderly by Muslim doctors as he was slowly dying in Egypt in 1822?
Heyrman makes it a central part of her argument that missionary reports back home (and the use that the mission board made of them) were mortally flawed by the fact that the missionaries were having experiences with Islam that both confirmed and disconfirmed the caricatures that the Board wanted to publicize. She notes that the reports were both influential and incomplete. “Installments from the missionaries’ journals became a staple of cheap, widely circulated religious periodicals and even some secular newspapers,” she writes,
“Their pages became the primary resource - for some people, the most trusted resource - of information about the rest of the world, endowing evangelicals with the cultural authority that would empower their movement to mold public opinion on matters of foreign-policy.”
“Missionaries would serve as unimpeachable observers and trusted commentators who's first-hand testimony would show that the wrong kind of religion fostered gross inequalities, despotic regimes, and despicable customs. As MacFarlane summed up that strategy, even though some liberal thinkers might suggest 'that the condition of society is as happy in heathen as in Christian countries,' missionary reports about the 'religious rites and moral habits of the heathen' would loudly contradict such an impious assertion.'”
This is something I had never connected in my own writing about the missionary movement. Andover had been established in direct reaction to the liberalization of the theological education offered by Harvard. When the two colleges split, one (Harvard) was left free to proceed on an even more liberalizing track while the other (Andover) was free to turn “hard right” having no counter-force to its evangelical absolutism.
Ironically, both schools would have been able to fight their battle by proxy in the Middle East for if, as the liberals began to insist, a person could be good without Christ and a church could be a light to the society without a belief in the Trinity, then surely, the Muslim world could be used as a measuring stick, for had they not, long ago, thrown away the central doctrines of evangelical Christianity? Why not send missionaries to the Islamic world with the stated intention of converting them but with the immediate task of gathering evidence in the ongoing war against Unitarianism and Universalism? They hoped that the missionary reports would confirm that a Christless, Trinityless, salvationless society like the one Islam had produced would prove a parable and an example to all, “But for the grace of God, there will go we.” “From the sacred sites, their Palestine missionaries would serve as informed, experienced experts,” says the author,
“establishing beyond any doubt the falsity of Muhamed's creed, the fatuity of its claims to supersede the New Testament, and it's poisonous effects on the sultan’s dominions. Their reports from the field would amplify the images of Islam that earlier evangelicals had done so much to keep alive, enabling the foreign missions movement to extend its operations throughout the Middle East.”
And thus, while there were ample written accounts to support either side of the argument in the libraries of New England, Andover seminary where all these evangelical missionaries were being incubated, leaned heavily on the books that suggested that it would be impossible to find a man who was both good and Muslim. “Less polemical and even positive estimates of Mohammed and his faith, the work of other Enlightenment thinkers, circulated widely in the United States,” Heyrman insists when comparing those sources that fed the missionary diet at Andover, “and some readers accepted them as more accurate than the Islam described by evangelicals.”
I was interested to discover that even though the brethren who joined the group of aspiring missionaries at Andover were inclined to rely more heavily on the sources that both damned and disparaged Islam, they were not ignorant that there was an argument going on.
They read Claudius Buchanan’s A Star in the East (1809) that announced to the world that Muslims would convert if given the Gospel. They read Leonard Woods 1814 memoir of Harriet Newell that assured readers that the conversion of the heathen was a worthy mission for a great soul. They read Jedidiah Morse’s widely available The American Universal Geography that explained just how backward and morally crippled the Islamic world was. “Only Britons and New Englanders escaped almost unscathed from Morses appraising eye,” Heyrman writes, “the rest of the world’s inhabitants he embalmed with only the faintest praise before burying them in rebuke.” Missionary recruits read Reverend Joseph White’s celebrated polemic against Islam. They read Volney’s Voyage in Egypt and Syria that castigated Islam for being the cause of all sorts of social evils evident in the Levant.
But, they also read George Sale’s translation of the Koran with its complimentary analysis of all that the sacred text of Islam offered the world. They read Dutch explorer Carsten Niebuhr’s records of his explorations of Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula in the 1760’s, a book that explained that there was a good deal of diversity in Islamic culture and particularly in regard to openness to dialog. The missionaries read complimentary reports of Turkish life and culture from George Barell’s Letters from Asia in 1819 just as they left for the Middle East. They read John Sargent’s Memoirs of Henry Martyn (1819) with its insistence that Muslims were perfectly capable of entering into a civil and serious dialog about apologetics. They read Ignatius Moradgea’s four volume history of the Ottoman Empire with its argument that the failings of the Ottomans were not a consequence of their commitment to Islam so much as of a forsaking of that pure religion for superstitious beliefs unconnected to it.
Fisk was particularly impacted by his conversations with George English, a man who had converted to Islam and then decided to leave Egypt some years later, a devotee of neither Islam nor Christianity in the end. No doubt, Fisk had hoped to learn from English some secret argument that could, by some power of rhetorical alchemy, turn a Christian into a Muslim or a Muslim into a Christian. English’s answer was simple but troubling; It’s complicated.
What is so interesting to me is that missionaries like Pliny Fisk and Levi Parsons and Jonas King were being encouraged to see Islam the way that the founders of Andover and the American Board insisted that it had to be seen (as a diabolical imposture) and that despite being led to do so on the whole, they were much more open to looking into alternative points of view. Alternative points of view, as it turned out, would forever undermine their ability to remain uncompromised in the face of experience if that experience proved to be more nuanced (as it inevitably did.) “Such were the many and often contradictory images of Islam that circulated in the early republic,” the book tells us,
“For some readers, that variety was an intriguing curiosity; for others, a source of confusion, doubt, even outrage. Pick up the Salem Register, and there was William Bentley praising Mohammed, the legislator. But page through any evangelical publication, attend any missionary sermon, and up popped Mohamed the imposter.”
This is where it gets particularly interesting. Heyrman notes that the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had morphed into the largest corporation in the early republic and that its message, conveyed through its various publications and fund raising efforts, had a national reach that went beyond churches in terms of influence.
“Much of what filled the Panoplist pages (later, the Missionary Herald) came from the journals and letters of missionaries. As the American Board's corresponding secretary, Salem's Reverend Samuel Worcester maintained an extensive correspondence with missionaries and with supporters of missions throughout the United States. He and his successors in that job also took a free hand to all missionary communications before they appeared in the Panolplist, censoring anything that might bark the shins of donors, real or potential”
Heyrman was interested to know if missionary reports then were likely to deliver accurate pictures of Islam (or if they delivered confirmations of the organization’s world view and agenda). Were they objective in their reporting or biased? Were they “fair and balanced”? Was their corporate slogan “We report. You decide”? Were they the National Geographic or Fox News, CNN, and the Heritage Foundation? What emerges from that question is an argument that at every level, the pipeline for actual first-hand experience was being tampered with, ironically before it ever came out of the missionaries’ pens.
It is Heyrman’s contention that missionaries like Jonas King understood what the Board wanted to hear and what would sell papers and raise donations and catered to it in all his reporting. His reports were full of stories about the “masculine Christianity” of the missionaries heroically standing up to an intolerant Islam in the name of Christianity and American republicanism. Where events played out that could easily be used to confirm biases back home, they were reported on extensively. Where events transpired that might contradict the Board’s agenda, they were left unreported. Where events that could be used to support the “party line” were unavailable, Jonas King would go out and provoke them. Clearly, donors all over New England were not contributing funds to send missionaries who would determine that Muslims were as moral or more moral than American Christians.
In American Apostles, we are told that conscientious missionaries like Pliny Fisk became ever more hesitant to feed the American public what they wanted to hear. She writes:
“Among the many revelations of Fisk's private journal, then, is the distance between the Ottoman world he experienced and the version he and the other Palestine missionaries concocted for home consumption.”
In Fisk’s journal, for instance, he records that the worst moral influences in Smyrna where he first landed in Turkey, were American merchants from Salem and Boston who were deeply involved in the opium trade. Both Parsons and Fisk began to develop actual relationships with Muslims as they traveled and as they sought to learn the indigenous languages. It seems that both were capable of seeing the dark side of Ottoman life – they did arrive at the beginning of the Greek civil war for example and witnessed plenty of atrocities committed on both sides. But both were having their “four legs good – two legs bad” preconceptions sand-blasted by actualities. They could see that sometimes the Muslims were more open to them than the indigenous Christians and sometimes the leaders of the local Christian communities were more antagonistic to their presence than the Muslims. “Parsons shared his new outlook only with Fisk,” Heyrman writes,
“who in turn told no one. Both men were already practiced at self-monitoring, and they knew, too, that the American Board would take particular pains to censor any dispatches from the Palestine mission. That was because as Parsons lay dying in Alexandria, he was becoming a celebrity back in the United States.”
“Self-monitoring.” What a seemingly universal human problem. I remember hearing about it first when reading the Iraq War Intelligence Report by the U.S. Senate. As I recall, the reason it was believed at the highest ranks of the American government that Saddam Hussein had WMD was that the various layers of “self-monitoring” that went on as intelligence was transmitted up the intelligence community food chain. For example, there was this Muslim intellectual who Fisk described as “greeting him with the affection of a father.” When this line is transcribed into the official newspaper of the board – it is redacted by an editor to read, 'with great affection.'
No doubt, “with the affection of a father” sounded almost Catholic and in any event, made it altogether seem as though a Muslim scholar had everything that one would need to be a beloved professor at Andover. Heyrman makes much of this observation that there is a marked difference between what Fisk writes to the Board and what he observes in his journal. What seems to be happening, according to her researches, is a decision on Fisk’s part to actually learn what Muslims think and to learn what motivates them to be good people or bad. “His private journal reveals that the last half of 1823 marked a transformative passage in Fisk's life,” we are told,
“one which would set him on a course that diverged sharply from the expectations of the American Board and the trail being blazed by Jonas King. … Those months begin with Fisk immersing himself in local cultures and training an almost ethnographic eye on Ottoman Syria's peoples.”
Fisk’s journal records a transformative experience that he had in the Jazzar mosque in Acre for example.
“Beneath two domes, palm trees spread and fountains played; rows of cloisters lined three sides, one of them housing the library, the others, rooms for travelers and students. Here was an oasis in a ‘hot country,’ a delightful spot to Fisk, 'where my imagination was filled with the idea of the learned Musselman's in the times of the caliphs of Baghdad and Cairo passing their time in such places.' Then his reverie drifted from the glory of the medieval Saracens to the present: 'I was dressed in my turban and robe with a beard already of tolerable length, and I almost fancied that I could soon become master of Arabic in such a place, surrounded by musseleman doctors.'”
“Fisk had found plenty to abominate about the Ottoman empire, but much to admire as well,” Heyrman continues,
“His surrender to the Jazzar mosque's enchantment show the effects of his eclectic reading, his connections with other well-traveled Westerners, and his growing number of Muslim acquaintances - many of whom he did not mention in his reports to the Board. But to his private journal he confided his delight in these new circles, including an evening he had spent at the Cairo home of Ishmael Gibraltar, the Pasha's admiral.”
“What stands out is Fisk's resolve to get Islam right - to gain an accurate understanding of its core doctrines and practices. To that end, he quizzed his tutors in Arabic as well as any other Muslims whom he met. What he discovered was that, as among Christians, their beliefs and practices varied. Even to basic questions, such as whether Muslims prayed to Mohammed, his informants offered different answers.”
“A rigorous, honest cultural broker, he struggled to see Islam clearly, not through a glass darkened by the rivalries within Christendom or the striving of American evangelicals for broader appeal. [Had he lived longer] his reports from the Middle East over many years might've carried forward the work of Henry Martyn's memoir, challenging caricatures of Islam as a religion of ignorance and intolerance.”
“From the start of his life in the Levant, he censored his official journals, glossing over or admitting all together in those pages his widening circle of Muslim acquaintances and his entanglement with George English. During his last years in the field, he registered his resignation by communicating as little as possible with the American Board and refusing to return to the United States. Then there was his final, most eloquent silence: the book that he never wrote about his conversations with Sheik Khalil. The longer he spent in the Middle East, the more his encounters with Islam fled into Fisk secret life. That retreat might have reflected his growing recognition of how little he understood Islam; more surely, it's signaled how well he understood the expectations of most other evangelicals.”
Unfortunately, Pliny Fisk contracted a fever and died in Lebanon in 1825. This, says, Heyrman, had implications for American perceptions of Islam for many years to come. “As Pliny Fisk's voice faded out, that of Jonas King filled the void.”
Question for Comment: When there are multiple first hand reports and editorials about some subject that you have no personal experience with, how do you determine what to believe?
 For decades, Jedidiah Morse reached a vast audience in the early republic. The Universal Geography's sheer heft and ubiquity lent gravitas to its deliverances, affording evangelicals an immense advantage in shaping the way in which all Americans understood the world and it's religions.