November 12, 2023

The Revenge of the Arabists

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by Andrew Doran, Senior Research Fellow

The ghosts of America’s missionary-diplomats haunt campus protests, Europe’s streets, and the Middle East.

In August 1806, five students at Williams College gathered to pray and discuss their grand vision for bringing Christianity to the world. A lightning storm prompted the five to take shelter under a haystack. Today, that haystack vigil is marked by a Berkshires-quarried marble obelisk topped by an orb, a symbol of the global missionary vision of the young Puritan men who huddled there — for whom neither New England nor the New World were sufficient.

In the decades that followed, thousands of Protestant missionaries were dispatched around the world. Some established missions in the Near East, most prominently in Beirut, where their religious zeal had to be tempered owing to Muslim and Christian sensitivities to proselytism. So the missionaries became teachers, and in 1866 the Protestant missionaries launched the American University of Beirut. The would-be preachers became professors. In time, their gospel message of liberation became political rather than spiritual.