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Protestant Mission, American Empire, and the Uses of History in Hawaiʻi and the Philippines, c. 1880-1930



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Smith, Thomas David 


This dissertation considers how American Protestant missionaries made use of historical narratives and ideas about history to justify and contextualize U.S. evangelistic and imperial projects in the Pacific Ocean in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. History has generally been understood as a tool used by U.S. imperialists to bring coherence and meaning to their imperial designs, and missionaries have been widely recognized as key agents in disseminating information about other parts of the world for Americans. This thesis, however, pays greater attention to the local contingencies and contests which shaped the ‘knowledge’ which missionaries produced.

In both Hawai‘i and the Philippines, Protestant mission accompanied the 1898 arrival of formal U.S. empire, though in very different ways. In Hawai‘i, missionaries’ 1820 entrance prefigured annexation, giving rise to a hegemonic white settler society with missionaries and their descendants at its core. On the other hand, there were no Protestants in the Philippines until after American annexation due to prohibition by Spanish Catholic rulers, and as such missionaries rode the coattails of U.S. power. Accordingly, missionaries’ historiographical choices reflected not a cohesive American imperial epistemology, but rather their differing relationships with religious ideals, U.S. hegemony, and indigenous knowledge in each setting. Their narratives indexed varying missionary needs, the contingency of U.S. imperial power, and the impact of local traditions of historical narration.

Through analysis of the historical knowledge missionaries generated, the dissertation argues that conceptions of an American empire in the Pacific did not move seamlessly from the United States outwards, but involved negotiations by a range of actors at a local level, including missionaries, who were more invested in their local situation than in totalizing ideas of U.S. empire. As such, it moves beyond the scholarly tendency to emphasize the scope of U.S. power, and turns attention instead to its kaleidoscopic nature.





Preston, Andrew
Sivasundaram, Sujit


United States, Pacific Ocean, Protestant missionaries, Hawai‘i, The Philippines, colonialism, imperialism, religion, indigeneity


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
The research was sponsored by an Arts and Humanities Research Council studentship (AH/L503897/1), with a match-funding contribution from Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge.