Conversionary Christian place-making in 19th-century Madurai

Mary Hancock

Introduction: mission place-making and the colonial world

At the turn of the 19th century, South Asia loomed large in the American evangelical imaginary, and by 1834. Protestant mission stations had been founded in Jaffna, Bombay (now Mumbai) and Madurai. The new republic of the United States, struggling to maintain domestic political and economic order, had limited commerce with British India and no diplomatic relations (Bean 2001; Raghavan 2018). What drew American Protestants there? And what came of their presence? I engage with this history through an examination of missionary place-making in and around Madurai, a small city in peninsular India, considering the built environments that were created, the religiosities that infused their production and use, and the transcultural religious networks in which these places were enmeshed.1

Suffused with the revivalist fervour of the Second Great Awakening and acting on information supplied by British mission periodicals, American evangelicals formed societies for foreign mission, including the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in 1810. They were committed to what Emily Conroy-Krutz (2015: 7, quoting Porter 2004) termed “Christian imperialism” and, with their British counterparts, “understood that empire created a ‘reciprocal obligation to promote the spread of Christianity.’” The ABCFM began operations in South Asia initially by dispatching missionaries to support English Baptist missionaries in Bengal and then by establishing its own mission stations soon after. The size and reach of the American Madura Mission (AMM). initiated in 1834. quickly exceeded other Protestant mission societies in the region.

While American activity in India suggests how different national interests and religious motivations articulated (or not) with Britain’s imperial policies, their place-making practices reveal this mix of collaboration and disjunction on the ground (Stoler and McGranahan 2007: 16). Most work on India’s colonial urban history understands spatial production to be in the service of British colonial interests, for example, the interpretation of colonial cities as laboratories for social experiments, such as housing or sanitation measures, conceived in the metropole. Further, such work, like the bulk of urban studies, treats religion as an epiphenom-enal factor in urban development, a by-product of political and economic interests. In framing mission as a spatial project. I examine how American missionaries settled in Madurai contributed to its urban development, collaboratively and in counterpoint to British activities.21 argue that missionaries' place-making, resting on spatial practices and the mobility implied by those practices, drew on and materially mediated their own American-inflected Protestant religiosity; its con-versionary dynamic; and the tenets, practices and affective orientations that sustained that dynamic.3

Recent work on Christian modes of place-making informs my argument.4 Maintaining that most evangelicals “engage in careful, sustained work to actualize their Christian concerns in specific enduring places,” Hovland (2016: 334) proposes that evangelical Protestant spatiality is organised around simultaneous efforts to "take apart and bring together faith and place.” These efforts rest on the intentionality of missionary actors and on the conditions of possibility that enabled Christian missions to flourish in some locales while remaining marginal in others. Place-making is exemplified by the ways that Protestant missionaries worked with and through the materiality of dwelling, building and furnishing homes, churches and schools to express and help cultivate Christian community and personhood. It is also manifested in missionaries’ acts of dis-embedding or dis-emplacement, such as their efforts to sustain transregional spiritual and affective bonds with U.S. home churches through communications media and rituals of prayer and worship.

For American missionaries in 19th-century Madurai, emplacing and dis-emplacing acts were shaped by the centrality of conversion to Protestant identity. Most were Congregationalists with New England roots, with understandings of conversion that had been shaped by the Second Great Awakening's revivalism and its millennialist theology. They advocated world Christianisation, and many embraced foreign mission as an expression of the “disinterested benevolence” that Christians were enjoined to pursue (Porterfield 1997: 16-19). Conversion was understood and experienced as a behavioural, affective, spiritual and cognitive transformation that involved disavowing prior identities and assuming a new Protestant selfhood. Congregationalist thought, with its Calvinist roots, regarded this transformation as predicated on the personal conviction of one's sinful nature and the recognition that salvation, an unearned gift of divine grace, depended on belief in Jesus Christ as God's mediator.

They also understood conversion as a process, a matter of repetitions and permutations, rather than a single, discrete act or fixed condition. For both missionaries and indigenous Christians, conversion involved regular self-examination, discipline, teaching, prayer and surveillance as hedges against backsliding or other moral failings. Thus, in addition to seeking to bring non-Christians to Christianity through education and direct evangelisation, the evangelical impulse also implied the possibility, if not necessity, of Christians’ re-conversion - recommitment to Christian tenets, values and practices - placing a conversionary dynamic at the core of Protestant selfhood (Coleman 2003; Porterfield 1997).

Through their habitation and remaking of colonial spaces, American missionaries created stages for (re)conversionary practices and affects. Hoping to attract

"inquirers,” missionaries preached extemporaneously and distributed tracts to encourage private reading of scripture. They travelled regular circuits to oversee indigenous Christians, from those considered nominal (e.g., "readers”) to those who had been baptised as church members; they also trained and monitored indigenous catechists, teachers and pastors. Missionaries expected that certain social actions and institutions encouraged conversion, namely, the company of fellow believers and cycles of collective and private prayer, worship, exhortation and revival. They created their own residential clusters and, to remove indigenous Christians from the influences of non-Christian neighbours and family members, they encouraged Christian enclaves near mission compounds and established boarding and day schools and a theological seminary. They also created worship spaces, including purpose-built churches and acquired plots for cemeteries, setting them aside as places for pious remembrance of deceased missionaries. Such actions nurtured their own Protestant commitments while initiating and monitoring the process of bringing heathens to the Christian fold.

If all Protestant missionaries aimed to establish spaces conducive to conversion, those in South Asia perceived particular challenges and opportunities. The latter were afforded by colonial infrastructure, with missionary operations reliant on spaces made accessible by the colonial state’s expropriation of indigenous property and its creation of new roads and ports. As imperial allies, missionaries staffed local schools and undertook English-language education, thereby enacting what the colonial state deemed its civilising mission while also creating conditions thought conducive to native Christian conversion.

Among the challenges were what missionaries understood as the entrenched nature of "Hindoo” idolatry and the caste system that it buttressed (Altman 2017). They dedicated sustained attention to Hindu temples, deity icons, rimai accoutrements and liturgical cycles in the hope of undermining their spiritual, cognitive and affective claims on the population. On the one hand, they treated temples as sites of moral confrontation, where they reaffirmed Christianity by disavowing idolatry and refusing the agency granted to its material forms (Keene 2007). On the other hand, they were deeply curious about temple architecture, iconography and rimai operations, which they described in copious detail in communications with the ABCFM. They immersed themselves in the material spaces of idolatry by collecting souvenirs (e.g., rimai objects) at the board's behest. While letters were recirculated in the mission press, artefacts were re-emplaced as display items in churches and mission society offices. In those new settings, removed from spaces of idolatry, these narratives and artefacts acquired new semiotic frames. They became sites for the cultivation of Christian piety, as home church members, engaging the artefacts visually and with touch, encountered and disavowed heathenism, emulating the virtuous actions of missionaries in the field. Missionary place-making thus generated sites in both India and the U.S. where the continuous, incremental work of Christian conversion and re-conversion could unfold.

Mission, if construed as both emplacement and dis-emplacement, as embedding and dis-embedding, reveals place-making to be reliant on connections between

places. Mission projects were not simply matters of building discrete stations but always implied an inscription, backed by the force of legal institutions, militarism and rhetoric, of Christian territoriality. Networks of personnel, information and finance connected missionaries in the field to churches and mission boards in the U.S. These various networks depended on commercial travel facilities; on quotidian mobilities entailed in preaching, tract distribution, teaching, worship and sociality; and on the movement of letters, books, periodicals, money and artefacts between mission sites and board offices. With the acceleration of these exchanges over the 19th century, American foreign mission became a major globalising force, and stations like Madurai's multiplied across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific, transecting the boundaries of the British, Ottoman, Japanese and Chinese empires.

If the numbers of Christian converts remained low, especially in India, the global impacts of Protestant institutions were significant. Some scholars locate the roots of an American "moral empire” in these networks, observing that missionbased humanitarian interventions in education, famine relief, temperance and medical care transmitted American influence and served as necessary adjuncts to the exercise of military and political force (Tyrrell 2010: 5, 89-95; see also Kaplan 2002) at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. While those considerations exceed the scope of this chapter, the AMM’s establishment marked a foundational moment in this history. Its operations, understood through the lens of place-making, provide a granular example of how American interests, shaped by evangelical Christianity, articulated with those of contemporaneous imperial powers and formed a node within America’s nascent moral empire.

Entwined histories

When American Protestants' attention turned to India, Madurai was a fortified Hindu-majority city of about 35,000. Located in the interior of peninsular South India, it was dominated by the massive Sri Minakshi Sundareswarar (SMS) temple and the adjoining Tirumala Nayaka palace complex. Continuously occupied since approximately 300 BCE, Madurai served as a political, economic, and ritual centre for the dynastic states that controlled the region (Lewandowski 1977). And, if celebrated in the present as a decidedly unmodern place, in the first half of the 19th century, Madurai was a site for experiments in imperial modernity conducted through the remaking of its urban landscape.

By 1800, the East India Company had extended its claims from the coastal settlements established in the early 1600s to the traditional market, ritual and political centres of the interior, including Madurai, transforming them in piecemeal fashion into military and administrative nodes of the nascent colonial state (Heitzman 2008: 118-121, 129-135). The peninsular region was annexed by the company in 1801, following its victory over Mahratta forces in the fourth Mysore War. Upon annexation, the region (population estimated at 1.3 million) was designated as the Madras Presidency and divided into two districts, Madura and

Timievelly. The ryotwari settlement, a property regime introduced in 1820, commodified land, positioned indigenous aristocrats as landlords and tax collectors, and redefined cultivators, often bonded labourers or hereditary tenants, as smallholding peasants subject to taxation and rents. The region's rice-based economy was diversified with the company’s introduction of cash crops (cotton, tobacco, coffee, oilseeds), and Madurai continued to grow in area and population as an inland market and administrative centre for the presidency’s southern region.5 In 1866, under provisions of the Towns Improvement Act of 1865 and in the wake of the company’s dissolution and the imposition of direct parliamentary rule in India in 1858, Madurai, with a population of approximately 43,000, was declared a municipality.6 By 1900, its population had reached 105,984 and it had grown in area, with extensions to the north, east and west.

The 65 years during which a colonial order was overlain on Madurai's templecentric social space saw major changes in the city's infrastructure and built environment - changes that coincided with the establishment of the AMM and on which it collaborated. Invoking familiar imperialist tropes, company officers sought to “open” the city, which was figured as a space of danger and contagion. These spatial and administrative apertures enabled the company’s surveillance and navigation of a complex, layered urban world, ensuring efficiency in resource assessment and extraction. These efforts were launched by the district’s collector, John Blackbume, who took office in 1834.

Urban renewal entailed forcible displacements of indigenous residents and new claims on urban space by both the company state and colonial elites, including the American missionaries. It began with demolition of the city’s fortifications and the reorganisation of its temple-centric core and continued with the stabilisation and expansion of transport arteries and the creation of suburban residential spaces. Blackbume began operations by demolishing some sections of the fort's walls and auctioning other portions of the fort and its embankment on the condition that purchasers aid in demolition and new construction (Chandler 1911: 13; Viguier 2011: 225 ). By 1840, the fort’s walls were razed, a surrounding ditch filled in. and the stone-lined embankment partially disassembled (Chandler 1911: 13). Renovations at each of the fort’s four original gates included "bazaar squares” and cart depots, and by 1844, one such square had been completed at the east gate, with the AMM claiming an adjacent plot that included a residence, a church and a school (Chandler 1911: 13). The transformation of the temple-palace complex in the city's core followed a similar pattern. Claiming that temple-adjacent buildings were fire and/or health hazards, the company razed structures and offered inducements for relocation, including grants for purchasing land in areas created by the fort’s demolition (Chandler 1911: 15; Viguier 2011: 226). By 1844, over 200 homes had been built or were in progress on newly acquired plots north of the temple (Viguier 2011: 226-228). Contemporaneously, the company demolished some sections of the palace and repurposed others for offices (Chandler 1911: 15). The SMS temple precincts also underwent infrastructural development. The drainage system was extended, the three streets that served as concentric ritual procession paths were widened, and two outer streets were laid in the fort's footprint to facilitate access between the city's core and new regional transport arteries (Breckenridge 1976: 241-244; Chandler 1911: 14).

Alongside these efforts, new regulations were imposed on property assessment, transfer and taxation, as well as on building styles and materials (e.g., thatched roofs were prohibited and building heights limited) and temple operations. Although temples and other indigenous religious institutions had been beneficiaries of company officers' donations and patronage during prior centuries, the company, under pressure from evangelical interests in Parliament and within its own ranks, began to enforce its religious non-interference policy more vigorously; alongside this, the resources accumulated by temples attracted company scrutiny (Breckenridge 1976: 219-220, 222). At the time of the region’s annexation, those resources, which included land, buildings, jewels, precious metals, currency and produce, had been audited and a system of taxation devised, with a share of revenues redistributed among the temples within the Madras Presidency.7 Thus, as the city's fortifications were demolished to open the city to its surroundings, the temple at its centre was also opened to state surveillance and administration. By 1866, colonial territoriality, funded in part by the company's capture of temple resources, had been overlain on the temple-centric city.

America in Madurai

The missionaries' arrival in Madurai coincided with the company’s programme of urban transformation, and they benefited from and collaborated with this project. The AMM was launched by three missionaries fluent in Tamil who, with their wives, were sent from the board's Jaffna (Ceylon, now Sri Lanka) station; they were joined by two new recruits from the U.S. Upon arrival in Madurai, they were welcomed by Blackburne and. with the company’s support, embedded themselves into Madurai’s spatial fabric.8

Through their practices of habitation and their resignification of space as Christian, American missionaries acted as both racial allies and moral critics of the company state. While recognising bonds of whiteness with British colonisers, missionaries departed from and at times criticised company policies, such as religious non-interference, with their explicit advocacy of the Christianisation of those deemed heathen, be they "Hindoo,” “Mahometan,” or “Romanist.”9 They also sought the abolition of caste, which they understood as buttressing “Hindoo” ideas and practices, and advocated for women's education. And, diverging from the company's imposition of English, they envisioned a vernacularised form of Christianity with missionaries expected to gain fluency in regional languages and eventually superintend congregations led by Indian pastors and catechists.

American missionaries, moreover, aimed to settle permanently in British India, as distinct from the temporary residence anticipated by company officers and employees. They were committed to lifelong mission service, and missionaries, predominantly male during this period, arrived with wives and sometimes children.10 They constructed new buildings and rented others, selecting locations

Conversionary Christian place-making 45 strategically to integrate mission spaces within company-engineered networks of communication, drainage and transportation. In mm, mission settlements formed hubs in the new territories of Christian influence that missionaries hoped to overlay on company-controlled areas.

The AMM initially claimed space near the fort’s east gate, just north of the partially refurbished palace and the government offices it housed. Missionaries rented dwellings owned by company officers within and outside the city's fortifications, using them as worship spaces, schools and residences for local assistants and servants. During the decade that followed, the AMM expanded its property holdings at the east gate to over nine acres to accommodate additional structures.

Imagined as islands of white, American Christianity, mission homes were valued as teaching tools for demonstrating the virtues of a Christian household (Heim 1994). As the AMM’s 1852 Report asserted: “Next to the direct influence of the preaching of gospel there is no power so mighty as that exercised by a well conducted Christian family and it is an influence, moreover peculiarly Protestant.”11 Mission dwellings were barriers against the effects of the tropical climate, which was deemed responsible for stigmatised racial characteristics such as dark skin, licentiousness and indolence. With a hybrid bungalow style and mix of imported and locally sourced furniture, utensils and decorative items, including imported watches, clocks and almanacs, they enabled missionaries to maintain temporal and material identifications with the worlds they had left behind. For example, rituals of Christian self-making, such as Sabbath observances and prayer services, were synchronised with the liturgical calendars of home churches, and missionaries were punctilious, in journal entries and letters, in noting dates and times using Western conventions.

The AMM pursued both direct evangelisation and teaching in the city’s changing landscape. If the dominating presence of SMS marked Madurai’s need for Christian influence, the city’s compact layout and existing network of local and company-built schools gave the Americans stages for action. Direct evangelisation took the form of open-air preaching along the thoroughfares near the SMS temple, and during festivals, missionaries and catechists claimed the feeder roads at the city’s edge for tract distribution.12 They soon acquired additional plots for new, mission-built churches.

Teaching was carried out initially in schools convened in temple pavilions, the verandahs of mission bungalows, gardens and repurposed sections of the palace. Missionaries saw schools as means to amplify their impact, and in 1835, they agreed to supervise 26 ofthe company's schools in Madurai. By 1838, the number of schools under their supervision had grown to 60, one-third of which were located in surrounding villages.13 By 1845, in addition to supervising company schools, the AMM operated four boys’ boarding schools, two girls' boarding schools, two girls’ day schools, one theological seminary and an English-medium school attended by mostly upper-caste Hindus, though within the next decade some schools were consolidated and the English-medium school closed, with mission-supervised schools only multiplying again in the late 1860s.

Although evangelisation did not necessitate purpose-built Christian churches, churches, like homes, were crucial spaces to sustain missionaries’ own re-conversionary dynamic because of their design features and size. By the midcentury, churches had been built near the sites of the demolished fort’s east and west gates. The East Gate Church was described as “a commodious and handsome building on the model of a New England meetinghouse” (Chandler 1911: 120), identifying it as a distinctively Christian space within the city’s Hindu landscape. With their prominent bells, churches also helped create the Christian soundscapes that missionaries considered critical adjuncts to mission space. Bells were obtained from the U.S. and from local foundries (Chandler 1911: 121-122). They conjured memories of home while imposing acoustic order on a soundscape that, filled with the voices of devotees and vendors, calls to prayer, and the sounds of the drums and other instruments that accompanied processions, missionaries found noisy and discordant.14 Upon his arrival in Madurai in April of 1857, missionary William Capron noted: "It was very pleasant the first Sabbath after our arrival to hear the sound of the church going bell whose clear tones rung out over the city, so far superior to the tinkling of the bells of that immense and wealthy heathen temple.”15

The AMM's operations depended on the company’s geographic and administrative opening of Madurai. While the fort's demolition had enabled the AMM to initiate a settlement network in Madurai, they also benefited from the razing of its residential and commercial spaces, which put some plots into commercial circulation, severing the ties of hereditary use rights and other non-commodified forms of ownership. Although the American board, as a foreign corporate body, could not purchase land outright, the company furnished long-term deeds of occupancy for missionaries and occasionally allowed individuals to make private purchases. The deeds required annual quit-rent and were sometimes contingent on missionaries’ clearance and levelling of the plots.16

By 1866, the AMM's station comprised three residential clusters each with adjacent schools and/or churches, located at the fort's original east, west and south gates.17 The Christian spaces and sounds that encircled the SMS temple prompted missionaries and indigenous Christians to imagine its weakening hold on the populace, with one catechist writing in 1853 that "heathen temples are now actually habitations of numerous bats.”15 Adjacent to each compound were settlements of low-caste and Dalit Christians who served as pastoral assistants and domestic servants. The cart depot at the west gate property facilitated the Madurai missionaries’ regional circuits. The AMM was granted a plot for a burial ground near the west gate in 1842 and. in 1851, it constructed an adjacent hospital.19

Infrastructural development afforded connectivity within the city and between Madurai and its hinterland. The new streets contained the city’s temple core and connected the earliest spaces of colonial modernity; they were also axes for continued expansion. New regional arteries helped missionaries create a Maduraicentric mission district: a main station surrounded by accessible substations and Christian villages. During its first decade of operation, the mission also expanded beyond Madurai, establishing residences, schools and churches at substations to the north in Dindigul ( 1837), to the east in Tirupuvanam and Tirumangalam (1839) and to the southeast in the zamindari of Sivaganga (1841). By 1863, the AMM estimated a district-wide Christian population of about 62,000 persons (Colton 1863). In Pasumalai, four miles southwest of Madurai, missionaries constructed a theological seminary in 1844 and, over the objections of indigenous landholders, gained title to about 90 acres of arable and non-cultivated land (Richardson 2002). By 1847, much of Pasumalai had been made over into a Christian settlement, encompassing a church, residential structures, a classroom building, a dining hall, a kitchen and an infirmary.

The AMM's claims on and occupancy of space reveal its dependence on and co-constitution of the company's property regime, while grounding its conversionary projects in new spaces. Like the company, the AMM framed its work as opening Madurai, and by collaborating with the company it materialised this opening through specifically Christian modes of habitation. As missionaries sought to convert others to Christianity they also cultivated and sustained their own Christian personhood.

Conversion in place

American missionaries sometimes expressed dismay that the core work of mission, evangelising and education, was curtailed by temporal duties associated with the acquisition, management and maintenance of properties. They nonetheless recognised that Christian conversion had spatial correlates: Churches were spaces for cultivating Christian personhood; missionary homes demonstrated the virtues of companionate marriage and time-discipline; schools created conditions for Protestant becoming. In addition, their own re-conversionary experiences were emplaced, often triggered by sensory encounters with “Hindoo” ritual spaces, practices and objects. In this section, I zoom in on the conversionary practices that animated these spaces, with particular attention to schools and to the diverse sites of missionaries' encounters with local religious practices, considering the simultaneous processes by which they took apart and brought together faith and place.

Christianisation, from a Protestant perspective, depended fundamentally on literacy because it afforded a direct personal encounter with the words of God in scripture. This encounter, facilitated by the distribution of scriptural tracts, set the stage for the renunciation of heathen practices, including caste, and the embrace of a new Christian identity that began with recognising oneself as a sinner. Missionaries also found Christian-allied models for conceiving both space and time in sciences, such as geometry, astronomy and geography, and, as educators, they hoped that imparting knowledge of Western science would further undercut the claims of heathen ideas. These diverse aims were conjoined in educational projects that missionaries wove into Madurai's spatial remaking.

In addition to what missionaries considered the beneficial effects of isolating students from non-Christian family members and neighbours, boarding schools were spaces of both educational and social activity, the latter situated in mixed-caste dining, prayer and assembly spaces. In the mid-1840s, missionaries ramped up these efforts with a new ritual, the “love feast,” designed to force indigenous Christian converts to fully disavow caste. The love feasts, mixed-caste meals prepared and served by low-caste or Dalit cooks, were held at boarding schools and the Pasumalai seminary, where the AMM had the power to impose its own moral geography. The love feasts were short-lived. Not only did they cause smdents to leave the schools and catechists to renounce Christianity, they also caused angry confrontations with both Christian and non-Christian families.20

Conversionary projects were also pursued through science education, which they hoped would effect a cognitive reorientation of vernacular spatio-temporal principles and unseat "tenacious adherence to ancient usages and the system of mutual checks and restraints exercised by one over the other.”21 AMM missionaries introduced astronomy and geography in all schools, using tools that included globes and telescopes. Missionaries with sufficient fluency in Tamil delivered public lectures on these topics and seized on astronomical events, such as eclipses and the October 1837 appearance of a comet, as teaching opportunities.22 Finally, they tried to inculcate Western systems of time reckoning by printing and distributing Tamil-language Christian almanacs.23

These new systems of space and time reckoning were reinforced by the timediscipline that structured mission education, labour and liturgical cycles. For example, company schools ordinarily recessed on new and full moon days, both of which were ritually significant for Hindus and Muslims. Missionaries, predictably, were vexed by this assertion of heathen temporality. One. Daniel Poor, devised a means to constrain teachers' adherence to this ritual cycle by making their receipt of wages contingent on attending training sessions on those days.

The same missionary described the opportunities for moral confrontation that schools’ locations within Hindu temples offered. At one such school, taught in the antechamber of a Ganesha temple. Poor found that questions posed by "respectable persons present... gave fair opportunity for bringing forward the great truths of the gospel.”24 He also described a less successfill interaction. When asked by Poor where "God” was, one student pointed to the figure of the deity sheltered in the shrine. Poor later reported:

I made a truce with this god in the beginning that I would not attack him in person in his prison house if he would allow me to teach the commands of god to the children. It is rather marvelous to me that he consents to such proposals or even keeps the peace while I am preaching.25

Although Poor’s archly worded description implied that schools, like churches, functioned as conversionary spaces, those outcomes were never assured. Indeed, missionaries admitted that conversions were few, with annual reports distinguishing between the many who received tracts and made inquiries, the fewer who attended services, and the small numbers of baptised members. Those who were suspended or excommunicated were also carefully enumerated.

Consistent with what missionaries reported as discouraging rates of conversion was the ongoing resistance to the spatial hegemony of the company and its missionary allies. There had been overt resistance to the demolitions of Madurai’s housing stock, with other spatially grounded forms of resistance also reported. When missionaries took to the streets to evangelise, audience members regularly interrupted and ridiculed them. Missionaries regularly sought (but rarely received) permission to enter temple and mosque complexes to deliver educational addresses about Christianity and were often confronted by groups opposing their presence.26 The aforementioned Daniel Poor remarked on his delivery of one such lecture during a "Hindoo” wedding. After extolling the virtues of companionate marriage, under the guise of pedagogy he read out the Tamil text of a Christian marriage sendee including the actual marriage vows, “so that they might know the simplicity of our method.” This act of ritual hijacking was meant to forcibly dis-embed the couple from the space of idolatry: "I put it pointedly to the bridegroom whether he would thus promise, to which he promptly replied yes. This produced a slight sensation in the company as though he had done something wrong but I commended him for his answer.”27

As implied in Poor’s reports, direct encounters with Hindu temples were opportunities to refute idolatry's power and reaffirm Protestant values and beliefs, to dis-embed themselves from the densely heathen place of the mission field and re-embed themselves in a universalised Christian community that transcended the discrete and dispersed places of Christian settlement. Missionaries nonetheless recognised that they were never free from the possibility of compromising entanglements in the spatio-temporal worlds of heathenism. Their experience of the fragility and porosity of Christian selfhood as they moved within heathen ritual space and exerted themselves in the discernment of the godly from the demonic are suggested in a letter written in 1836 by William Todd. Declaring, “I fear I have polluted myself with idols,” Todd recounted a "case of conscience” brought on by the American board's request for artefacts for home churches to use in teaching Americans about the "extent of idolatry” and to help them direct their prayerful attention to the mission cause.28 Todd’s purchase of a Ganesha figure for the board's collection had led him to wonder whether a "secondary species of idolatry is rising up in the churches,” and he questioned the value of viewing them, even as curiosities: “If these abominations were sentient beings they must be pleased with the unexpected attentions which they are now receiving from Christians.”29

As Todd suggested, objects like the Ganesha figure were both desired and feared, serving multiple functions and affective valences as they moved between different ritual spaces and semiotic ideologies (Davis 1997; Hancock forthcoming; Keene 2007). As material metonyms of heathen places, they were feared and even despised because they encapsulated idolatry and the misattribution of divine agency to material form on which it rested. They circulated, however, as products of the re-conversionary dynamic of mission, acquiring virtue as products of missionaries’ own encounters with and disavowals of heathenism. Likening themselves to the first generations of Christians described in the New Testament's Acts of the Apostles, missionaries saw themselves as re-enacting the foundational moment of Christian becoming by refuting idolatry.30 Furthermore, the re-contextualisation of heathen artefacts within Christian spaces fed a nascent ethnological imagination while encouraging audiences to form comiections with missionaries and mission fields through the affect-laden, prayerful attention they attracted.31 But, as Todd cautioned, objects like the Ganesha figure also retained the capacity to entrap viewers, to reconstitute the ritual spaces of their origins, as they enjoyed "unexpected attention” of new viewers.

Conclusion: mission’s afterlife

In the history of the American Madura Mission that he prepared for its 75th anniversary, John Chandler envisioned a still-hoped-for Christianisation of Madurai in this way: "While the great Minachi Temple holds the center of the town, these four schools [for Hindu girls] together with the four churches of the Mission scatter Christian influences in the way of the people coming from the four quarters into the town” (Chandler 1911: 319-320). Nearly a century of "Christian influences,” however, had not led to conversions at the rates that the AMM had hoped. Of Madurai's over 105,000 residents, only 3% identified as Christian, and most were Roman Catholic.32 The AMM itself was dissolved in 1934 and its properties transferred to local religious institutions.

Although Christian conversion rates remained low, the AMM achieved more success in its educational efforts. As of 1911, it maintained high schools, boarding schools, a college and a seminary in Madurai, alongside two hospitals, a book depository and a reading room.33 In Pasumalai. a boys' high school, a women's teacher training institute, a men’s college and a printing press were added to the original seminary complex and residences. And in 1904, the seminary-affiliated college was reconstituted as a new, secular men's college, American College. With funding secured from John D. Rockefeller, American College’s campus was moved to a newly established residential area north of the city.34 Beyond the city, a Christian territory took shape, with the Madurai station serving as hub for a network of other mission institutions, including schools, training institutes for women and men. churches and dispensaries.

While the AMM’s spatial projects marked the city in enduring ways, its impacts were also felt transculturally, within the broader ambit of America’s moral empire. The Christian imperialism of the first missionary generation was, by the end of the 19th century, fused with the new social gospel, which promoted Christianisation alongside programmes for social and economic reform, such as temperance. American College was a special site for such efforts. Along with a handful of other secular colleges founded by Protestant missionaries between 1860 and 1920, it was an outpost of America’s moral empire, a space where American interests, conveyed in curricular materials, pedagogy and instructors recruited from the U.S., transected the boundaries of other imperial formations. Its first principal, AMM missionary William Zumbro. captured both the aspirations of American moral empire and the college’s contribution to it in a 1908 essay. He observed that American political and commercial influences in India were negligible, asserting that America’s only direct influences were through missionaries who went out “with an American idea of a fair chance to all and a helping hand to the one who is in need.” Mission schools, with their scientific and industrial training designed to enhance graduates’ employability in teaching, government service and commerce, “crystallized much of the best that America has” (Zumbro 1908: 292).

American College exemplifies the mission-affiliated institutions that hastened the coalescence of American moral empire while also revealing its formation in networks of mission travel, information and finance of the 1830s. Well before American College’s founding, the transcontinental and localised mobilities of missionaries inscribed a Christian (and Americanised) modernity on Madurai and delivered the city, in words, pictures and artefacts, to co-religionists in the U.S. The artefacts, especially, invited collisions between the semiotic ideologies of American Christianity and Hinduism, with missionaries finding unexpected moral benefits and perils in these entanglements. Fed by missionaries’ donations, American Board collections grew to over 3,000 objects by 1895.35 Over the course of the century, they served simultaneously as ethnological specimens and as inducements to piety, reminders of the still-urgent task of world Christianisation on which mission was founded. They were incorporated into Protestant worship and pedagogy, in Sabbath schools and seminary instruction, and in the "monthly concerts” where congregations assembled to learn about distant mission fields and to offer collective prayer for mission purposes, eventually finding mass audiences in large-scale missionary expositions.

The story of the AMM's Christian place-making in Madurai reveals moral empire as not only a network of institutions but a product of the affective, material and haptic experiences of missionary place-making. These entanglements engendered distinctive processes of evangelical place-making, the simultaneous emplacement of faith in specific conditions and localities and its dis-emplacement through the mobility of images, objects, persons and ideas. Mission spaces enabled American exceptionalism to go global, even as they entwined it in local practices, desires, mores and imaginaries.


  • 1 On the historiography of mission in British India see Cox (2002), Kent (2004), Mosse (2012), Porter (2004), Viswanathan (1998), van der Veer (1996), Zupanov (1999).
  • 2 By contrast, Viguier’s study of Madurai’s development merely noted the existence of a Protestant church and a Catholic settlement. See Viguier (2011: 230).
  • 3 Lefebvre (1991); see also Biischer et al. (2011), Cresswell and Merriman (2016), Hancock and Srinivas (2018), Jensen (2013), Urry (2007).
  • 4 Bergmann (2007), Bielo (2013), De Rogatis (2013), Hovland (2016), Kong et al. (2013), Sutherland (2017).
  • 5 “Madura District.” The Imperial Gazetteer of India (new edition). Vol. 16. (1908-1931): 394-395. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • 6 “Madura District.” 406.
  • 7 Hurdis Report, January 26-28, 1802. Madura District Collectorate Records, Vol. 1248, cited in Breckenridge 1976: 143.

“Reverend D. Poor’s Journal.” p. 2. ABC 16.1.9, A467, Reel 499, #24. American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission [hereafter ABCFM]. Blackburne donated Rs. 200 per year to the AMM. A Judge Thompson averaged Rs. 780 per year and in 1841 was appointed a corresponding member of the Prudential Committee of the ABCFM. Between 1836 and 1847, donations from British officials were about Rs. 1,000 per year along with a one-time donation of Rs. 3000 from the government to support schools (Chandler 1911: 31-32).

Daniel Madras, “Memorial to the Right Honorable Sir Frederick Adam, KCB, from Ministers and members of the different denominations of Protestant Christians in the Presidency of Fort St George.” 6 August 1836. Cited in Breckenridge (1976: 195).

Because tropical climates were thought to stir sexual desire, aspiring missionaries were expected to marry in advance of foreign postings; the single women who applied for mission posts were sometimes sent as teachers, but only wives deemed suitably pious and skilled were designated “Assistant Missionaries.” See Bowie et al. (1993). Burton (1994), Flemming (1992), Forbes (1986), Haggis (1998), Haggis and Allen (2008), Hill (1985), Ramusack (1990), Robert (1996).

“Report, September 1852.” p. 6, ABC 16.1.9, A467, Reel 467, #48. ABCFM.

"Report for Madura, Year ending December 31, 1837.” p. 14. ABC 16.1.9, A467, Reel

466, #2; “Extracts from D. Poor’s Journal, Madura.” p. 4, ABC 16.1.9. Reel 499, #2. ABCFM.

Mission reports refer to supervision of 16 schools for high-caste Hindus. 13 low-caste schools, two girls’ schools and one private English-language school for “IndoBritons.” Over 30 other schools in surrounding villages were also established. “Report for Madura, year ending December 31, 1837.” p. 3, ABC 16.1.9. A467, Reel 466, #2. ABCFM; “Donation to Certain American Missionaries for Purposes of Public Instruction.” IORF/4/1832/75934: September 1837-April 1838. India Office Records and Private Papers, Records of the Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India, 1620-1859, India Office Library, British Library.

John Lawrence to Rufus Anderson, 18 April 1836, pp. 5,8. ABC 16.1.9, A467, Reel 499, #56; John Lawrence to Rufus Anderson, 27 May 1836, p. 3. ABC 16.1.9, A 467, Reel 499, #60. ABCFM.

William Capron to Rufus Anderson, 20 April 1857, p. 4, ABC 16.1.9, A467, Reel 467, #179. ABCFM.

“Copy of Land Owned by ABCFM on the Glacis, Date of Original 18 April 1850, signed by R. Parker, as Collector” p. 7. ABC 8.2.17, Box 3, Folder 7. ABCFM.

Outside the fort’s footprint, just north of the city, was a fourth station, Madura Fort Station (later named Melur), whose compound housed a residence, school, small church and storage structures; those properties were sold in 1857 (Chandler 1911: 73).

Winfred to Rufos Anderson, 3 July 1853. ABC 16.1.9, A467, Reel 467, # 60, p. 2, ABCFM.

"Revised List of Tombs of Europeans and Americans in the Madura District with Inscriptions Thereon” Madura: Madura Collectorate Press (1904). IOR'V/27/74/41. India Office Records and Private Papers, Records of the Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India, 1620-1859, India Office Library, British Library.

John Rendall, Letter accompanying Annual Report for 1857, ABC 16.1.9, A467, Reel

467, #106, p. 28.

For example, William Todd to Rufos Anderson, 9 January 1837, pp. 6-7, 10,11. ABC 16.1.9, A467. Reel 499, #23; "Prospectus of an English school for the inhabitants of Madura under the supervision of the American Missionaries, August 1836” in “Extracts from D. Poor’s Journals.” pp. 9-10, ABC 16.1.9, A467, Reel 499, #31. ABCFM.

“Journal of a Visit to Madura, by Rev. D. Poor. Printed at Manepy, 1837.” ABC 16.1.9 A 467. Reel 466, #1 pp. 8-9; Rev. D. Poor's Journal (November 1835), p. 4. ABC 16.1.9, A467, Reel 499, #24. ABCFM.

  • 23 “Rev. D. Poor’s Journal” (November 1835), p. 2. ABC 16.1.9, A467, Reel 499, #24; Daniel Poor to Rufus Anderson, May 3, 1836, Madura, p. 7. ABC 16.1.9, Reel 499, #34. ABCFM.
  • 24 “Extract from D. Poor’s Journal.” 27 June 1835, p. 8, ABC 16.1.9, A467, Reel 499, #35. ABCFM.
  • 25 Ibid.
  • 26 “Extracts from D. Poor’s Journals.” 2 May 1836. p. 9, ABC 16.1.9. A467, R499, #31. “The Journal of Cone" pp. 1-4. ABC 16.1.9 A467, R 466, #34. Both ABCFM.
  • 27 “Extract from D. Poor’s Journal.” 1 August 1836, pp. 9-10, ABC 16.1.9, A467, Reel 499, #191, ABCFM.
  • 28 William Todd to Rufus Anderson, 15 September 1836. P. 2. ABC 16.1.9, A467, Reel 499, #33. ABCFM.
  • 29 Ibid.
  • 30 “Journal of a Visit to Madura. By Rev. D. Poor.” p. 4. ABC 16.1.9. A467, Reel 466, #1. ABCFM. See also “Plea for the Monthly Concert: A Sermon by Andrew L. Stone.” pp. 6-7. ABC 85.9, Box 8, “Monthly Concert” Folder, ABCFM.
  • 31 William Todd to Rufus Anderson. 15 September 1836, p. 1, ABC 16.1.9 A467, Reel 499, #33. ABCFM.
  • 32 District-wide, the AMM had 17,600 members, with 11 stations and a presence in 506 villages. Imperial Gazetteer, p. 391.
  • 33 “Inventory of the Board’s Property of the Mission, 1892” and "Inventory of the ABCFM Property in Madura District, South India" both ABC 8.2.17. Box 6, “Madura” folder. ABCFM.
  • 34 James L. Barton, “Presented to the Prudential Committee, April 4, 1905, to be sent to the Corporate Members of the Board.” Pamphlet. In Folder, “Case of John D. Rockefeller and Tainted Money.” ABC 41, Box 11. ABCFM.
  • 35 “Report of the Sub-Committee on Library.” 30 June 1939. ABC 85.9, Box 8, Museum folder. ABCFM.


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