Converting Europe: Protestant Missions, Propaganda and Literature from the British Isles (1600-1900)

Stefano Villani's picture
September 30, 2016 to October 1, 2016
Maryland, United States
Subject Fields: 
British History / Studies, Early Modern History and Period Studies, European History / Studies, Modern European History / Studies, Religious Studies and Theology

Converting Europe: Protestant Missions, Propaganda and Literature  from the British Isles (1600-1900)

Girton College, University of Cambridge
30 September -1 October 2016

Organisers: Dr Simone Maghenzani (Girton College) and Prof. Stefano Villani (University of Maryland)

The birth of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1698 marks the beginning of direct institutional involvement by the Church of England in missionary activity abroad, and a new season of proselytism. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, numerous societies of religious propaganda were created both by the Established Church and non-conformists in Great Britain and Ireland, starting with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in 1701. The clear connection between missionary activity and British imperial expansion has been extensively investigated by historians, who have often highlighted the rhetorical and political importance of the British colonial enterprise in shaping new global Christianities. Neglected in this narrative has been the intense missionary action that these organizations, and British Protestantism more widely, engaged in towards Catholic Europe.

The conference aims to investigate the historical and theoretical context that favoured the birth of missionary institutions, looking in particular at their actions in continental Europe. We want to put together historians of the British Isles, of continental Europe, global historians, experts in Protestantism, Catholicism, and Jewish history, and ask them to go beyond the traditional boundaries of their historical disciplines. Furthermore, we will explore the origins of this missionary commitment in the religious and political turmoil of the seventeenth century, moving away from earlier approaches which emphasised the role of (solely) English religious life after the Glorious Revolution. Similarly, we adopt a long-term overview, overturning the distinction between early modern and modern: we are including the nineteenth century in our investigation, highlighting the continuity of Anglican and non-conformist missions in Europe. In doing so, we position the conference at the forefront of the debate on religious history, contributing to the radical reconsideration of the chronology of European religious history currently debated by historians. Finally, we believe necessary a constant comparative approach with Catholic missions.

This new approach is also an attempt to change the traditional perspective that saw the global Evangelical expansion as a one-way movement outwards from Europe, to the peripheries of the world. It is our contention instead that global missions and the emergence of global Christianities profoundly changed European churches at home. The attempt to spread Protestantism in Europe was indeed the product of a missionary experiment that had been tested in America, Africa, and Asia. It is our ambition to show how, in a striking theoretical overturn, continental Europe was considered a missionary land, just another periphery of the world, whose centre was instead in Imperial Britain. Catholic countries (particularly Spain and Italy) were often described using colonial language, with an emphasis on their backwardness, and their need to modernize. In this sense, the British missionary offensive in Europe has provided conceptual material to what can be called a true "imaginary colonialism". In the ideological construction of a global Evangelical Christianity, the history of this (failed) attempt to convert Europe had a role that has not been adequately investigated until now.


Friday 30 September, Stanley Library, Girton College, Cambridge

9.15 Introduction – Dr Simone Maghenzani and Prof. Stefano Villani

9.30 Chair: Prof. Francisco Bethencourt (King’s College, London)

Missionary Models

Prof. Simon Ditchfield (University of York) ‘One World is not Enough’: the Myth of Roman Catholicism as a World Religion

Prof. John Coffey (University of Leicester) Confessional Rivalry and the Rise of Protestant Missions

11.00  Tea Break

11.20 Chair: Prof. David Maxwell (Emmanuel College, Cambridge)

The Origins of Global Protestantisms

Dr Gabriel Glickman (Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge) Protestant Europe and the English Missions in Colonial America, 1660-1714

Prof. Andrew Barnes (Arizona State University), British Imperialism and the Regeneration of Africa: Missionary Debates about the Introduction of Civilization in Africa

12.50  Lunch

14.00 Chair: Prof. Alexandra Walsham (Trinity College, Cambridge)

Catholic Europe: A British Missionary Land

Prof. Stefano Villani (University of Maryland, College Park) Converting the Pope: seventeenth-century Quaker Missions in the Mediterranean

Dr Simone Maghenzani (Girton College, Cambridge) ‘Opening to Italians the Doors of the Heavenly Truth’: English Connections and the Italian Bible, 1600-1900

Catherine Arnold (Yale) Asylum and Charity: the Church of England, the British government, and aid for French Jansenists, 1717-1732

16.15 Tea Break

16.45 Chair: Prof. Ulinka Rublack (St John’s College, Cambridge)

Institutions of Propaganda

Scott Mandelbrote (Peterhouse, Cambridge) Books and the Trade for Souls: the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and the Trustees of Dr Thomas Bray in the Early Eighteenth Century

Prof. Brent Sirota (North Carolina State University) The London Jews' Society and the Roots of Premillennialism, 1809-1829

Saturday 1 October, Wolfson Court, Library Room

9.00 Chair: Prof. Eugenio Biagini (Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge)

Churches and States

Dr Andrew Thompson (Queen’s College, Cambridge) Identifying Interests: British Protestants and the European States System in the Early Eighteenth Century

Dr Gareth Atkins (Magdalene College, Cambridge) Missions on the Fringes of Europe: British Protestants and the Orthodox Churches, c. 1800-1850

Dr Michael Ledger-Lomas (King’s College, London), ‘City of Atheism and Popery and Pleasure’: Protestants and the Conversion of Later Nineteenth-Century Paris

11.00 Tea Break

11.15 Chair: Prof. Philip Soergel (University of Maryland, College Park)

Imagining Protestant Networks

Prof. Adelisa Malena (Ca’ Foscari University, Venice) German-Anglo-Italian Religious Networks and Cultural Transfers at the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century

Prof. Sugiko Nishikawa (University of Tokyo) Uniting a Protestant Europe: the SPCK and its Networks

We gratefully acknowledge the generous support of: Girton College, Cambridge; The Trevelyan Fund (History Faculty, Cambridge); The Lightfoot Fund (History Faculty, Cambridge); Department of History, University of Maryland (College Park); The Spalding Trust; The Royal Historical Society; EMoDiR – Early Modern Dissent and Radicalism Research Network

Contact Info: 

Dr Simone Maghenzani (Girton College) and Prof. Stefano Villani (University of Maryland)

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