When the Medium Was the Mission

The Atlantic Telegraph and the Religious Origins of Network Culture

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Jenna Supp-Montgomerie
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , February
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There are two iconic moments that undeniably put telegraphs at the center of American religious history: the 1872 painting American Progress by John Gast and the 1844 pronouncement by Samuel Morse “What hath God wrought?” after sending the first American telegraph. Gast depicted Manifest Destiny trailing a telegraph wire behind her as she led white settlers into the American frontier and as Native Americans fled in front of her. This image, Jenna Supp-Montgomerie argues in When the Medium Was the Mission, was not merely a general image of civilization as a combination of technological modernity and religious faith. Rather, the telegraph required the moods and symbols of American Protestant religion. Symmetrically, American Protestants practiced their religion with the telegraph.

There are four case studies in the book that encapsulate the entanglement of religion and the telegraph: (1) an American missionary’s instrumental role in exporting the telegraph to the Ottoman Empire, (2) the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions’ (ABCFM) obsessive discussion of telegraphs, (3) the proliferation of talk and images (such as American Progress) in 19th-century America that conflated religious progress and the telegraph, and finally, (4) the Oneida community’s theorization around telegraphs. Only the first of these case studies is about religious people using telegraph technology. This case study of a technologically savvy missionary providing parts for a broken telegraph machine at a crucial moment in Ottoman history illustrates the book’s themes with narrative panache. But the less biographical narratives within the book, including newspaper and organizational reports, are crucial to Supp-Montgomerie’s claims that religious discourse was as important as specific religious actors’ interactions with telegraphs.

To explain the relationship of religion and infrastructure (such as telegraphs), Supp-Montgomerie shows that our sense of infrastructure must include diffuse religious talk and feelings about infrastructure. Further, in a delicious turn of phrase, Supp-Montgomerie explains that religious feelings about infrastructure were more like a “fizzle” than the passionate, deeply held beliefs we often associate with religious affect. Even a superficial enthusiasm, untethered from the technology’s ability to deliver on its promises, creates emotional investment in infrastructure. Quoting politicians and journalists (many of whom we can assume were generally religious if not particularly known for their religion), Supp-Montgomerie argues that the religious fizzle translated into economic investment.

The ABCFM, the most powerful Protestant interdenominational mission organization in the 19th century, embodies what Supp-Montgomerie means when she says “religion”: they are the Protestant secular, a form of Protestantism that became indistinct from general principles of civilization and nationalism in the 19th century and that managed (unlike Catholicism or Mormonism) to weave itself into the basic structure of American legal and cultural norms. But Supp-Montgomerie also describes this Protestantism as infused with the excessive feeling of evangelical revivalism and the perfecting spirit of utopianism. For example, the ABCFM longed for telegraphs because telegraph technology (at least in their idealized understanding) would allow them to missionize the world more efficiently. Not only would missionaries be able to connect through communication networks, but the technology itself would missionize heathens by demonstrating the power of American civilization as a combination of religion and modernity.

Supp-Montgomerie’s central intervention into the study of media networks and religion is to clarify that the fantasy of networks as totalizing forms of connection elides networks’ inherent production of disconnection. Secular Protestantism also imagined itself as a totalizing network Christianizing the world, and this network also relied on disconnection. This argument is elegantly demonstrated in chapter 1 in which Supp-Montgomerie shows that missionary discourse constantly invoked the bigness and totalizing perfection of global mission, and yet, missions relied on a gap between heathens and civilization. Supp-Montgomerie argues that “networks produce and require a background that is not, and cannot be, part of the network itself” (70).

Networks’ reliance on disconnection is further explained in chapter 4, which breaks with conventions of American religious history by providing a chapter length treatment of Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Lacan, and the media studies scholar James Carey. Using these theorists Supp-Montgomerie explains that networks gain a sort of transcendent status in modernity (think of the internet’s imagined capacities), but as the telegraph usefully demonstrates, modern communication networks did not create immediate global understanding. Rather, much like language itself (in Lacanian theory), it is the gaps, the tendency for signifiers to simply point to other signifiers, that load our emotional experience of networks. Telegraphs demonstrate this nicely: for the first few years of telegraph communication, telegraphs communicated little more than simple messages inviting others to send messages, requests such as “Repeat word before ‘in,’” and meaningless messages such as “Sentence” that demonstrated the potential for further communication (170). Supp-Montgomerie thus describes a broader modern faith in networks: most utopic hope in networks is not about the actual meaningful content of communication, it is about a proliferation of signals that show people could communicate with the whole world. As the chapter on the Oneida community explains, this love affair with networks fits perfectly with religious utopianism, which also imagines an end to sin through perfect human connection sometime in the very near, but always slightly forestalled, future.

Supp-Montgomerie is successful in demonstrating that talk about telegraphs proliferated not only throughout religious discourse in the late 19th-century but that all discourse about networks relied on religious signifiers. The telegraph, this book demonstrates, is not simply a story that intersects with religion; the telegraph is religious and religion was telegraphic. Religious studies should take heed of Supp-Montgomierie’s placement of non-human actors at the center of religious history.

The book is less convincing in arguing that this entanglement was material rather than discursive. Religious people certainly talked about telegraphs and telegraph promotion certainly relied on religious discourse, but was religion in fact integral to the fleshy, wooden, and salt-crusted materiality of telegraphic infrastructure? Here Supp-Montgomerie would resist my distinction. Network infrastructure, she argues, is not simply these tangible forms of materiality, it is also “ontological multiplicities built of actions, forces, and matter that often elude observation and include plenty of what Parikka calls “real . . . non-solid things” (62). In other words, infrastructure is also the invisible but material atmosphere of affect. It thus seems possible then that any history of discourse would in some ways be a study of infrastructure.

Finally, the book raises fascinating questions about how historians should switch back and forth between the terms “religion,” “protestant secular,” and specific religious communities such as Oneida. Throughout the book Supp-Montgomerie evokes but resists media studies’ provocation that there is something inherently transcendent about media, or in Carey’s framing, there is something inherently religious about media. And yet Supp-Montgomerie continuously relies on the Durkheimian sensations of religion (its binding and excitable tendencies) to explain the way that religious enthusiasm contributed the “fizzle” of telegraphic excitement. If protestant secularism’s affects happen to overlap with our intuitions about religious effervescence, we need more explanation (and not just description) of this historical formation. All of these concerns are merely happy engagement with a book that is never meek and boldly asks its reader to be conversant with both Jacques Lacan and Tracy Fessenden. When the Medium Was the Mission is a welcoming invitation for religious studies to rise to the challenge of true interdisciplinary rigor.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dana Wiggins Logan is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Date of Review: 
May 17, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jenna Supp-Montgomerie is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Communication Studies at The University of Iowa.


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