Refusing to write: A critique of 19th-century American missionary practice

Authors: John Kendall*, University of Minnesota
Topics: Cultural Geography, Religion, Social Theory
Keywords: religion, Nestorian, Assyrian, ontology
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: 8201, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Since their arrival in the 1830s, the American missionaries at Urmia had felt it imperative to ground their work in institutions of writing. Soon after their entrance into Persia, they erected a teachers’ school in order to instruct "Nestorian" bishops in Syriac literacy and basic arithmetic. By 1840, the station procured a printing press with which missionaries began to publish Syriac Bibles on site, and eventually Syriac-language periodicals. Yet, despite the relentless effort of the evangelical missionary enterprise to interpellate native Christians as literate subjects, a problem plagued this project’s completion: during religious fasts, Nestorians refused to write. Observance of God during holidays demanded an abdication of all work, and writing was a labor as sinful during sacred time as tilling the fields. Reading and writing against the missionaries’ trivialization of “superstitious” Nestorian holidays, this paper seeks to honor Nestorian refusal as not merely an indigenous cultural resistance against the violent imposition of missionary practice, but more importantly a radical refusal to forsake the ontological dimensions of faith. For Nestorians, it was neither the deferred time of writing nor the distance forged between reader and writer, but the cyclical time and intimate space of face-to-face, ceremonial encounters which established the possibility of piety. By refusing to write during sacred time, and moreover by recognizing writing as a labor alienated from God, Nestorians revealed that it was in fact the missionaries who had, precisely by collapsing faith and work into one another, forsaken their own relation to God.

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