How evangelical missionaries, dispatched from New England to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century, failed spectacularly to convert the Muslim masses but had a lasting impact on the face of American Christianity.
Heyrman (American History/Univ. of Delaware; Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, 1997, etc.) uses the voluminous diaries and correspondence of her pious subjects to explore the origins of evangelicalism’s ongoing fascination with Islam. Then as today, women greatly outnumbered men in the pews, and editors of church bulletins hit on the idea of “command[ing] the attention of male readers, perhaps even draw[ing] them into the evangelical orbit…by treating them to the exploits of dauntless adventurers in a dangerous place.” The austere, bookish New Hampshire churchmen who set out to share the Gospel with the Turks may seem ill-suited to the role of swashbuckling warrior, but this is a story about the power of the written word to shape public opinion. Notwithstanding their comically ineffectual attempts at evangelization, the missionaries’ confident chronicles of their derring-do captivated their American audience, giving the church the “manly bona fides” felt lacking. Their private musings were often strikingly different. They came across many more Europeans who had converted to Islam than Middle Easterners who converted to Christianity, and their personal journals alternate between the worry that Islam could be the superior faith and the stubborn conviction that “desperation, drink, and lust brought most Westerners into the Muslim fold and…bravado, shame, and fear kept them there.” Heyrman’s engaging writing makes even obscure points of doctrine seem exciting and relevant, and her focus on the ambitions and misgivings of the diverse individuals populating her narrative will appeal to casual readers and specialists alike.
An incisive sociological lens on a religion in flux, which, though centuries distant, continues to hold relevance for the present day.