American Apostles

When Evangelicals Entered the World of Islam

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Christine Leigh Heyrman
  • New York, NY: 
    Hill and Wang
    , September
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Christine Leigh Heyrman’s American Apostles explores the early American encounter with Islam through an examination of the first American Protestant mission to the Islamic world—the “Palestine mission” of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Between 1819 and 1825, young New Englanders Pliny Fisk, Levi Parsons, and Jonas King circulated throughout the eastern Mediterranean, seeking and largely failing to find a toehold for evangelical Protestantism. Within six years, both Parsons and Fisk were dead and King was preparing for a new field.

While these missionaries left behind no converts, they did leave behind their impressions of Islam—Heyrman’s focus in American Apostles. As she argues, missionary periodicals and books were crucial channels through which Americans encountered the broader world in the early nineteenth century. As the first American missionaries to the Ottoman world, Fisk, Parsons, and King were uniquely positioned to shape Americans’ attitudes towards Islam. This they did, “inventing” an Islam that built on existing, sometimes contradictory, evangelical stereotypes—a religion spread and sustained by violence, deleterious to character and womanhood, prone both to excessive sensuality and rationalism.

This was not inevitable. As Heyrman shows, New Englanders had access to a variety of understandings of Islam. Readers could find Unitarian William Bentley arguing for Muhammad’s stature as a great lawgiver in the Salem Gazette. They could weigh Washington Irving’s fictional Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan, who kept tight control of his Tripolitan harem, against the real-life impressions of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose widely-circulated 17th century account of Istanbul hinted at the liberating effects of the veil. These variegated impressions were not idle. New Englanders mobilized them to argue all sides of the day’s pressing issues, including gender roles, slavery, and Christian doctrine, adding up to “a veritable din in print” (48). Amidst that din, evangelicals raised their voice through missionary publications, condemning Islam as an inferior faith contrived by a violent religious grifter.

However, all was not as it seemed in the ink of the published missionary reports. Heyrman argues that Pliny Fisk’s experiences led him to be caught between the “crusading” impulse of deprecating Islam as an illegitimate faith and the “cosmopolitan” impulse to understand its spiritual power. Comparing Fisk’s private journals to his published materials, she argues that Fisk was privately obsessed with understanding “the hidden man of Islamism”: the source of Islam’s authentic appeal. The missionary was transfixed by the case of George English, an American who had converted to Islam and joined Muhammad Ali’s Egyptian government before apostasizing and fleeing the country (with Fisk’s help). At Acre’s al-Jazzar Mosque, Fisk recorded an epiphany in which he seemed to understand how Islam fulfilled in Muslims what Christianity fulfilled in him. In Jaffa, he spent months studying the Qur’an with a Muslim sheikh, taking detailed notes that suggest an attempt to authentically engage the faith. However, Fisk omitted these impressions from his published reports. The editors of his posthumous “memoir” likewise excluded them.

If Fisk privately drifted towards the cosmopolitan impulse, Jonas King ensured the victory of the crusading impulse—even as the crusade itself failed. King made no concessions to Islam’s appeal. Instead, he sought direct confrontation that would make for colorful reports back home (for instance, illicitly riding his horse through the gates of Damascus). According to Heyrman, King intentionally presented himself as a new model of masculine evangelicalism, aggressive in the confrontation with Islam, in hopes of reversing the feminization of the church back home. In this way, King participated in the redefinition of evangelical manhood that Heyrman explored in her Bancroft-winning Southern Cross. In the end, King’s invented Islam and reinvented evangelical manhood won out over Fisk’s quiet cosmopolitanism. This victory, Heyrman argues, continues to shape American culture and religion today.

American Apostles shares with Southern Cross Heyrman’s unique ability to compress large historical forces into single characters and situate seemingly abstract historical encounters in fully-realized settings. In Southern Cross, the tensions between evangelicalism and Southern culture were resolved in Southern parlors. In American Apostles, the scene shifts to New England studies and Maltese ports, but the effect is the same. Heyrman simply excels in capturing the transnational missionary milieu, doing so in language that matches the elegance of the book’s cover. The work is worth reading for that alone.

Heyrman’s central arguments, however, do contain weaknesses. Undergirding the entire work is the claim that the missionaries greatly impacted American Protestantism and the broader American culture, an impact that Heyrman assumes rather than demonstrates. Nowhere does she show how the missionaries’ impressions were received. This is unfortunate because, while scholars like Hans-Lukas Kieser and Hilton Obenzinger (absent from Heyrman’s notes) have already examined Fisk and Parson’s discourse, scholars have yet to actually document their impact on the wider American public.

Heyrman also builds much of the work around the apparent gap between Pliny Fisk’s private writings and published works. However, it is not clear how great that gap actually was, at least in terms of Fisk’s impressions of Islam. For example, Heyrman identifies Fisk’s 1819 farewell sermon as exemplary of the standard evangelical “invention” of Islam, providing a number of quotations demonstrating Fisk’s harsh appraisal. Omitted, however, is Fisk’s assertion that Muslims “have, indeed, much of truth in their system.” At the same time, Heyrman is rather parsimonious in including quotations demonstrating Fisk’s private, more “cosmopolitan” appraisals of the religion. She describes his aforementioned visit to al-Jazzar mosque as “a moment of epiphany…that went beyond acknowledging the affinities between evangelical Protestantism and Islam to grasping their import” (207). However, Heyrman includes no quote from Fisk’s journals suggesting such an epiphany—just orientalist daydreams about learning Arabic among “Mussulman doctors.” She also includes quotations from William Jowett’s published travelogue saying much of the same, which rather contradicts the point. Was there really, then, such a chasm between missionaries’ published depictions of Islam and their private engagement with it? It seems likely that the tensions between crusade and cosmopolitanism were more public—and less tense—than Heyrman lets on.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Walker Robins is Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Oklahoma.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christine Leigh Heyrman is the Robert W. and Shirley P. Grimble Professor of American History at the University of Delaware. She is the author of Commerce and Culture: The Maritime Communities of Colonial Massachusetts, 1690–1750 and Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, winner of the 1998 Bancroft Prize.


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