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Inquiring into Empire: Princeton Seminary’s Society of Inquiry on Missions, the British Empire, and the Opium Trade, Ca. 1830‐1850

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Princeton Seminary was intimately involved in the North American foreign missions movement in the nineteenth century. One remarkable dimension of this involvement came through the student-led Society of Inquiry on Missions, which sought to gather information about the global state of the Christian mission enterprise. This paper examines the Society’s correspondence with Protestant missionaries in China regarding their attitudes to the British Empire in the years 1830‐1850. It argues that the theological notion of providence informed Princetonians’ perceptions of the world, which consequently dissociated the Christian missionary task with any particular nation or empire. An examination of the Society of Inquiry’s correspondence during the mid-nineteenth century reveals much about Protestant missionaries and their interactions with the opium trade and the results of the First Opium War (1839‐1842). Princetonians’ responses to the opium trade and the First Opium War led ultimately to a significant critique of western commercial influence in East Asia. In conclusion, this paper questions the extent to which commerce, empire, and Christian missions were inherently associated in nineteenth century American Protestant missionary activity.

Affiliations: 1: Princeton Theological Seminary, Email:


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