Unintended Consequences

Middle East scholar Heather Sharkey’s new book examines the impact of American Presbyterian missionaries in Egypt.
January 1, 2009

In 1854, a group of American Presbyterian missionaries left Philadelphia and traveled to Egypt as part of a larger Anglo-American Protestant movement for universal evangelization. Over the next century, they gained few converts. Nevertheless, says Heather Sharkey in her new book, American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire, the encounter reverberated across cultures and continues to affect our own times. “The experiences of the American Presbyterians in Egypt,” she writes, “suggest … that missionary encounters, as episodes in world history, broadly affected institutions, social practices, and ideas, exerting influences that went well beyond the range of professing Christian communities”.

Sharkey, an associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, is an expert on Modern Middle Eastern and Islamic history. Her previous book, Living with Colonialism: Nationalism and Culture in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, looked at how British colonialism functioned in Sudan, stimulated new forms of nationalist thought and shaped the nation-state that emerged at decolonization. Sharkey was inspired to write her new book while living in Center City, Philadelphia. The city is peppered with missionary monuments from the early 20th century, such as the headquarters of the World’s Sunday School Association, located next to the former Wanamaker’s department store. Headquarters of the Presbyterian mission to Egypt were located at 15th and Race streets.

Missionary history is far richer than a story of religious conversions. - Heather Sharkey

In her current book, Sharkey observes that although relatively few people in Egypt changed their religious allegiances because of the missionary encounter, the experience led to many unexpected cultural “conversions” in how Americans and Egyptians thought about themselves and the world. “The history of the American mission in Egypt was not merely a history of religion and religious practice,” she writes, “it was a history of ideas, and ideas have power.” The cross fertilization and impact of those ideas are a large part of the social history that Sharkey traces in American Evangelicals in Egypt.

Drawing on Arabic and English sources, she examines the influence that missionary schools, hospitals, rural development and literacy projects, and other programs had on Egyptian Muslim and Christian communities. Sharkey suggests that the missionaries promoted new models of family and gender relations as well as distinctly American ideas about freedom of expression, civic participation and voting. They provided new forms of social welfare and philanthropy that the Egyptian government and NGOs later adapted. At the same time, the missionaries tried to promote American ideas of individualism and religious free choice that clashed with traditional Egyptian Islamic assumptions.

Ultimately, the missionaries’ evangelical overtures engendered resistance from Muslim activists and led to the emergence of new organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. These Muslim organizations, in turn, prompted the Egyptian government to enact legislation to curtail missionary activities. By the early 1930s, changing political circumstances in Egypt were leading the American Presbyterians to revise their approach to missionary service in ways that had long-term repercussions for the culture of American evangelicalism and for the liberal-conservative Protestant divide. Sharkey finds that even Muslim activists came out changed by the missionary encounter insofar as many of them adapted Christian-missionary methods of popular outreach such as preaching in coffee houses and the establishment of youth groups and sports clubs.

The missionaries’ experience in Egypt also shaped how American politicians (as well as scholars, artists and tourists) conceived of, portrayed and behaved toward the Islamic world. “[Missionaries] transmitted information and opinions that influenced U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East,” writes Sharkey. “However, they also challenged U.S. policies, particularly after 1948 vis-à-vis Israeli and Palestinian affairs, when American Presbyterians in Egypt voiced support for the Arab peoples.”

Missionary history, Sharkey argues, is far richer than a story of religious conversions. American Evangelicals in Egypt looks broadly and deeply at the impact of American Presbyterian missionaries on “the social, cultural, and political lives of individuals and communities.”  All parties in the encounter came away transformed, often profoundly, and in ways they could not have expected.