Revival and Awakening

American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism

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Adam H. Becker
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , March
     2015.
     440 pages.
     $32.50.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780226145310.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Revival and Awakening, Adam H. Becker has written a fascinating and detailed account on the complicated and essential role that American Congregationalist, and later Presbyterian, missionaries played in “the development of a secularized (but not desacralized) national identity among the indigenous Christian population” of Urmia, Iran, and its surrounding territory in northern Mesopotamia (4). Most of the book examines events from 1834, when Justin Perkins, the first permanent missionary from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), arrived to establish the mission, to 1918, when World War I forced many Assyrian nationalists to flee their homeland.

The missionaries’ target population was the famous Church of the East, the Nestorian Church, or self-labelled “Syrians,” who spread the Christian gospel from the Near East all the way to China by the seventy century. The American missionaries sought “to ‘reform’ and ‘revive’ the ancient Church of the East by establishing schools, publishing and distributing literature in the vernacular, and preaching a penitential return to ‘biblical Christianity’” [American evangelical Christianity](5). The missionaries hoped that awakening these supposedly nominal Christians would create a group of indigenous Asian Protestants who could successfully convert nearby Eastern Rite Catholics, and even Muslims. While the American mission did eventually amass enough members to start the Syrian Evangelical Church in the 1860s, most people in northern Mesopotamia did not embrace American Protestant Christianity (31). Becker does not focus on the mission’s failure to convert the populace, but rather on the fact that American missionaries “unintentionally aided in the transformation of their audiences by drawing them into the discursive nexus of modernity. Nineteenth-century missions were voluntary, international organizations with a universalist tendency that while spreading the Gospel advocated ideas of liberty, progress, and Enlightenment” (19). In other words, the Protestant mission provided average men and women—not just the clergy—with the opportunity to learn in its schools and seminaries and print works in the Neo-Aramaic dialect. These factors were an important catalyst in their formation of a distinct Assyrian national identity by the beginning of the twentieth century. Possibly the most significant contribution that Becker makes to the theoretical study of religion is his notion that the categories of religion and modernity help to define one another in constructive ways rather than modernity resulting in a decline of the influence of religion.

Becker, a philologist of classical languages as well as a top notch historian, also renders Americanists a great service by delving into the journals of missionaries and indigenous assistants, Bibles, tracts, and other sources written in Neo-Aramaic. He claims that Neo-Aramaic is a language with which most scholars are unfamiliar, which results in a lack of attention given to the treasure trove of archival material relating to the missionary movement (6). Analyzing the sources of indigenous religious communities that American missionaries target and not just English language primary and secondary sources is reminiscent of the approach that Ussama Makdisi uses in his Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Cornell University Press, 2009) when he examines Maronite Christian sources written in Arabic during the ABCFM’s ministry on Mount Lebanon in the late nineteenth century. While Becker’s book is too long and complex to use in a class for undergraduates, I highly recommend the work to scholarly theoreticians of religion, as well as American religious historians and historians of Christian missions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jacob Hicks is most recently instructor of American religious history at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
June 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adam H. Becker is Associate Professor of religious studies and classics at New York University. He is the author of Fear of God and the Beginning of Wisdom

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