H. Fischer-Tiné u.a. (Hrsg.): Spreading Protestant Modernity

Spreading Protestant Modernity. Global Perspectives on the Social Work of the YMCA and YWCA, 1889–1970

Fischer-Tiné, Harald; Huebner, Stefan; Tyrrell, Ian
Mānoa Valley 2021: University of Hawaii Press
Anzahl Seiten
280 S.
€ 104,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Mischa Honeck, Universität Kassel

Historical scholarship on modern empires has been one of the main beneficiaries of the global turn in international history, which has reshaped the field since at least the 1990s. Where scholars once focused on the state and military as the chief hubs of imperial might, more recent analyses have emphasized how cross-border webs of hierarchy and privilege were also forged by a broad array of nongovernmental actors and phenomena such as migration, corporations, tourism, religious movements, anticolonial protest, and civic organizations. As a result, this “new imperial history” has broken down artificial barriers separating domestic and foreign power struggles, and in doing so, ascribed greater importance to the global footprints left by individuals and institutions, colonizers and colonized, that operated outside the halls of the state.1

The marriage between global and imperial history is far from over and, as the intriguing volume edited by Harald Fischer-Tiné, Stefan Huebner, and Ian Tyrrell demonstrates, still capable of generating new insights. Spreading Protestant Modernity puts the spotlight on two major disseminators of what promoters termed Anglo-American or “Anglo-Saxon” civilization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), founded in 1840s London, and its sister organization, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), established roughly a decade later. The editors’ decision to study the transnational infrastructures erected by both the male and the female branches of this self-styled Christian lay movement in tandem is a salutary one. It corrects an imbalance in the literature, which so far has privileged research on the more famous YMCA. But it also allows for greater attention to the role played by gender norms and gendered practices in the formation of a “global moral empire” that fused ideas about spiritual and secular development, about building healthy bodies and building Christian character.

Portraying the Y less along the lines of a strictly religious missionary enterprise and more as an agent of modernization that globalized Protestant notions of social, economic, and humanitarian progress is the book’s key objective. In pursuit of that goal, the editors, all three of them experts on the Y’s multiple histories, recruited an international group of scholars who specialize on various aspects of the Y’s past in places as diverse as the colonial Philippines, interwar Czechoslovakia, the mid-twentieth century United States, and post-World War II Ethiopia. Thus, the book manages to recapture some of the “extraordinarily ambitious range of interests and geographical locations” (p. 20) that characterized the Y’s cross-border activism in the period under investigation. Readers might have wished for more chronological balance as the early twentieth century is somewhat overrepresented in the book. Overall, the chapters succeed in showing how the modernization policies of the two British and later US-dominated Christian lay organizations were received, adapted, and sometimes subverted in different regions of Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe.

As is the case with most edited volumes, some contributions are more compelling than others, but not a single one disappoints. The chapters written by Dolf Alexander-Neuhaus and Stefan Huebner open fascinating windows on how indigenous actors reframed the Y’s social gospel to satisfy local needs, thereby dismissing any type of colonial dualism that relegates non-Westerners to passive recipients of developmental agendas hatched by Euro-Americans. While Neuhaus examines how Japanese reformers exploited familiar Y tropes to legitimize Japan’s hegemonic claims over South Korea, Huebner shows that Filipino and Chinese physical educators were adept at harvesting Western-style muscular Christianity tenets for the purpose of invigorating Asian anticolonial nationalisms. Another rich exploration of the multilateral engagements fostered by the Protestant social gospel movement – and of their limitations – is Doina Anca Cretu’s chapter on the Y’s growing presence in Romania after World War I. Cretu credits the tempering of ethnic animosities in the newly created Romanian nation in part to the internationalist message spread by Y activists on the ground, but makes clear that this same message enraged young antisemitic chauvinists who did not want to include their Jewish neighbors into their vision of a modern Romanian state. A similarly ambiguous picture emerges from Paul Hilmer’s and Ryan Bean’s piece, which details the Y’s investment in strengthening father-son relationships in the United States from the 1920s to the 1960s. Although white middle-class educators hailed the Y-Indian Guides, a recreational program rife with invented Native American motifs, as progressive for rejecting the traditional authoritarian model of fatherhood, the Indian Guides faced severe criticism from civil rights activists who opposed the program for perpetuating stereotypes of native cultures as primitive and inferior.

In sum, the image painted by the various chapters of the Y’s “global civil society” (p. 2) is convincing albeit not particularly surprising. Spelling out how a Protestant-humanitarian movement bent on proselytizing “Western” ideals of modernity was remade in encounters with competing imperialisms, internationalisms, and (anticolonial) nationalisms basically confirms what new imperial historians have been arguing for some time now: modern empires are not willed into existence by a small group of metropolitan elites. They are contact zones shot through with conflict and contradictions, expansive networks in which power was not equally shared but always subject to contestation.

What, then, is specific about the Y in this larger history? The book seems to suggest that distinctions of the imperial and the transnational collapsed more easily in religious lay organizations such as the YMCA and the YWCA, whose spread depended as much on building trust and amity among distant brothers and sisters as on performances of civilizational superiority and technological prowess. This is plausible. Where the book falters is in systematically mapping out the Y’s relationship with other social organizations – many of them with origins just as white, Protestant, and middle-class – that traveled the same global roads of empire and internationalism. Rotary International comes to mind, as do youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts, who get a cursory nod, or the Girl Guides, with whom the YWCA cultivated cordial ties.2 The mention of youth, finally, points to another missed opportunity. What role did age play in forging bonds of faith, fellowship, and progress across, but also despite lines of race, gender, and nationality? Was there a common transnational language or shared imaginary of youth that aided the Y’s global expansion, or which the Y helped to invent and infuse in other cultures? The Y, after all, carried “Young” on its banner. A few chapters offer isolated musings on these questions. Still, the larger meaning of concepts of youth and old age for reinvigorating old (trans)national and imperial communities as well as for creating new ones remains elusive.

If future scholars opt to pursue these questions, they will certainly profit from consulting this fine volume, which illuminates unexplored geographical and political niches in the Y’s long and mercurial global career. Spreading Protestant Modernity is a useful addition to the historiographies of modern religious movements, (de)colonization, and globalization. More precisely, it is a welcome reminder that empire or internationalism is the wrong question to ask about the interconnected world of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More often than not, it was both.

1 On the major themes and concerns of new imperial history, see Ulrike von Hirschhausen, A New Imperial History? Programm, Potenzial, Perspektiven, in Geschichte und Gesellschaft 41 (2015), pp. 718–757. For a US-centered approach, see Paul A. Kramer, Power and Connection. Imperial Histories of the United States in the World, American Historical Review 116/15 (December 2011), pp. 1348–1391.
2 See, for example, Brendan Goff, Rotary International and the Selling of American Capitalism, Cambridge, Mass. 2021; and Kristine Alexander, Guiding Modern Girls. Girlhood, Empire, and Internationalism in the 1920s and 1930s, Vancouver 2017.

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