History Matters Series - Missionary Backstories: The Peace Corps in the Ottoman Empire

Thursday, January 19, 2017
Speaker: Owen Miller
excerpt from a poster for an American Committee for Relief in the Near East fundraising campaign

It is difficult to underestimate the effect of the missionary experience, either for the Middle East or for the United States. American missionaries founded the top universities in Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon. These institutions of higher education played a key role in the education of a segment of the political elite. And in the United States, nearly all of the academic study of the Middle East, until the mid-1950s, was directly linked to missionary endeavors. Perhaps even more importantly, many ideas of philanthropy and non-profit work that we take for granted today emerged in the crucible of the century long American missionary experience in the Middle East.

Missionaries organized famine relief, and constructed dozens of schools and hospitals but they also played a critical role in disseminating accounts of violence. This was the case for the violence in Lebanon in the 1860s, in the Balkans in the 1870s and in Anatolia during the Hamidian massacres (1894-1896) and the Armenian Genocide (1915-1918).

Owen MillerOver the past decade, the study of missionaries from the United States has grown in leaps and bounds. Much of this work presumes that missionaries were always outsiders to the societies they evangelized however their children often grew up speaking local languages without a trace of an accent, and seeing the world through local lenses. This process of acculturation signals that the work of conversion was often a two-way street, and that the experience of living abroad for several generations profoundly shaped communities of missionaries.

In the Middle East, the American missionaries become involved in activities later associated with the Peace Corps, from building schools to carrying out famine relief. In Hawai'i, the American missionaries were involved in the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and the annexation of the islands to the United States. Finally, in the south of the United States, in the aftermath of the Civil War, missionaries built most of the historically black colleges and struggled against the racism of Jim Crow.

Miller's current research (including sources from the Congregational Library & Archives) brings these strands of missionary history together in the broader framework of world history. Research for his second book follows the story of a single missionary family, the Goodell or Goodale, across three generations from New England to the Ottoman Empire, Appalachian Mountains and Hawai'i.

Thursday, January 19th
12:00 - 1:00 pm

Register through Eventbrite.


excerpt from a poster for an American Committee for Relief in the Near East fundraising campaign, courtesy of the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

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