As rhetorical attacks against Muslims at home are combined with military assaults abroad, Americans would do well to ask ourselves why we believe what we do about Islam. The invention of Islam in the minds of Americans is not a 21st-century innovation: it grows from a long history of encounters between Christians and Muslims. Christine Leigh Heyrman elaborates one such encounter, which began 200 years ago.

In the early 1800s, evangelical zeal pulled a mix of devout Protestant missionaries to the Middle East. The confluence of a spacious piety and personal ambitions propelled these American seekers to strange lands, where spiritual adventures were entered into diaries, repackaged into reports from the evangelical front lines, and enthusiastically consumed by the Ameri­can public. These narratives shaped perceptions of the Middle East and its inhabitants, establishing attitudes that would inform policies abroad and biases at home. The legacy of these narratives remains with us today, shaping our constructions of faith and politics across cultures.

Heyrman, who teaches American history at the University of Delaware, tells of Protestant evangelicals instituting missionary societies to convert heathens and heretics in distant corners of the world. The Middle East held particular prominence in the Christian imagination as the site where past and future converged. This region was heralded as both the ancestral birthplace of the church and the place where the world’s denouement would unfold at God’s appointed time.