Comments on Ian Tyrrell
Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire took the approach to transnational history from the “topic” perspective. Up until this book we were really looking at comparisons of different nations or some variation of that. This is different because while it does focus mainly on US policy, it’s written primarily about missionaries with a subtopic of prohibition and temperance. Missionaries were (and are) not exclusively American, but the manner in which the United States latched on to missionaries as a way of imposing American exceptionalism in parts of the world in which they felt they could impose their moral superiority.
I also felt that a subtopic was gender and the experience women gained in organizing through missionaries. As Tyrrell states, “As feminist historians have observed, mission stations gave women an opening to organize, gain expertise, and assert leadership roles.” Playing these roles in mission stations gave women experience that they could then use in their quest for the right to vote.
However, the general theme seemed to be that the U.S. used missionaries and their quests to eliminate the use of alcohol and prostitution as a way of being seen as morally superior. They felt that if they were seen as morally superior, it gave them license to impose upon other nations. This would give them additional resources and power.
I think that the interesting topic in Tyrrell’s book is the imposition of American exceptionalism by missionaries and their almost obliviousness to this. The American christian missionaries of the late 1800s early 1900s were not working to spread American ideals, politics, or business for that matter, but rather they were working under the flag of a transnational christian humanitarian ideal. They wanted to spread a higher moral society not because it was American, but because it was Christian. In doing this, they were without realizing actors in the American imperialism of the time.
This book clearly presents a transnational idea and network that is the christian humanitarian mission network of the time which ultimately reveals American moral attitudes of the period.
It’s interesting to note that for about the third week in a row now, we are presented with a study that seems to show that while transnational ideas and spaces can be important, they are challenged (and defeated) by nationalism? I could be wrong, what do you guys think?
Hey Alan! In response to your question, I would agree that the transnational ideas and spaces are challenged by nationalism, but I think defeat might be a strong word. With this book and the past books we have read, I found that transnational ideas seem to enrich nationalism, almost working in conjunction. I would not say that this is a reciprocal relationship because I don’t believe nationalism enriches the transnational ideas, but in terms of this book, the christian humanitarian movement became a huge part of what would be considered the “American” nation at the time. I think that in focusing less on nationalism and more on the dispersion of these transnational ideas, that national cultures are inherently influenced. I hope this made sense, if not i’ll try and clarify in class!
This book was an interesting read because I have not often studied history through the lens of ‘morality’. I found the topic of evangelical US missionaries along with American expansionism extremely relevant to defining transnational history because of the inherent internationality of the movement. The interactions and communication between missionaries and foreign citizens cause a transfer of thought and priority, as seen in the Leitch sisters who advocated for aid outside of their American identity. While the point was to perhaps, as Emily said, to promote their moral superiority, it also affected the missionary moral objectives. I’ve started to notice that, while reciprocity is not a requirement in transnational history, there is an inevitability of a transference, tangible or abstract.
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