Matthew Shannon, E&H Associate Professor of History, Writes Book on Missionary Americans in the Middle East

by Leah Prater

Dr. Matthew Shannon, Associate Professor of History at Emory & Henry College, will publish a book that presents a unique historical perspective on Presbyterian missionaries and other Americans that lived in Iran during the previous century. The forthcoming book, Mission Manifest: American Evangelicals and Iran in the Twentieth Century, is a year away from being published with Cornell University Press, as part of its United States in the World series, in 2024.

Shannon’s research explores U.S.-Iran relations and international history. His first book, also published with Cornell, is titled Losing Hearts and Minds: American-Iranian Relations and International Education during the Cold War. While that book looked at Iranian students in the United States, his current book turns to Americans in Iran. Shannon says the books are “two sides of the same coin,” because they examine the transnational connections between Americans and Iranians when their countries were allies, prior to the 1979 revolution.

“Missionary archives are really rich and complicated,” Shannon says of the documents he analyzes from the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. These primary sources add to our understanding of religious history, U.S. foreign relations, and modern Iran. “The actors involved in these histories have feelings and emotions,” which he sees in written and typed documents, along with sources such as maps, photographs, and films. Many of these people lived in Iran for decades, often with multigenerational familial ties to the country, so the archives reveal “the human piece of history.” Shannon also researches in the U.S. National Archives, but he says that “we don’t get that richness in government documents.”

Mission Manifest explores the history of Presbyterian missionaries, other Americans with ideals, and their Iranian partners between the 1940s and the 1960s. The mission of this group became manifest in churches, but also, more importantly, “in developmental programs such as maternal health centers, literacy initiatives, co-ed English language schools, and education for women,” Shannon explains. Most of these Americans eventually returned to the United States, with some playing important roles in the U.S. government, higher education, and the neo-evangelical movement.

We will have to wait another year to read Mission Manifest, but Shannon is, most recently, the editor of American-Iranian Dialogues: From Constitution to White Revolution, c. 1890s-1960s. Shannon is also the principal investigator of the Community School Oral History Project, in partnership with the Presbyterian Historical Society. Shannon says he was inspired by colleagues in the field to begin the oral history project on the school, which existed in Tehran from 1935 to 1980. “I saw how rigorous and creative oral histories could contribute to my work.” He also hopes that the interviews, which will begin to roll out later this year, along with a collection of documents on the school’s history in an open-access digital archive, will be of interest to students and scholars in various fields.

Now in his tenth year at E&H, Shannon, who teaches modern U.S. and world history and co-directs the CORE 300 program, says that a research sabbatical provided by the college in 2020, as well as a 2021 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, offered the opportunity to immerse himself in these projects and finish writing his forthcoming book, Mission Manifest. “There’s no way I could have completed this book without that generous support.”

“Missionary archives are really rich and complicated,” Shannon says of the documents he analyzes from the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. 


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