June 18, 2012

Jee Gam and Chinese American Religious Activism

By Joshua Paddison

Portrait of Congregationalist Jee Gam, from N. R. Johnston's Looking Back from the Sunset Land, 1898.
A man named Jee Gam appears on the cover of my book American Heathens: Religion, Race, and Reconstruction in California (published this month by the University of California Press and the Huntington Library). Presumably the image was chosen for its graphic impact and for how it puts a human face on the Chinese and Native American “heathens” who were denied citizenship due to their racial and religious identities during the nineteenth century.

However, I also like the use of this image on the cover for another reason: of all the people who appear in the book, Jee Gam is the person I admire most. Outspoken, brave, and dedicated to public activism, he led an inspiring life.

For readers of this blog, he is of particular interest because of what his life reveals about the religious history of the American West. Jee Gam’s story provides evidence of larger historical patterns characteristic of religion in the West: globalism, frequent migration and border-crossings, tremendous religious conflict and change, violent racial prejudice, and faith-based political activism.

Jee Gam traveled from his native China to San Francisco at age 14, arriving in 1863. He made the journey with his uncle, who had recently returned to China from the gold fields of California. Jee Gam and his uncle were tiny parts of an enormous immigration stream from China to the United States that flowed during the mid-nineteenth century. Forbade from naturalizing due to federal law, these immigrants also faced discriminatory state laws that barred them from voting, holding public office, and even testifying in court against whites. This made them extremely vulnerable to exploitation and violence, exemplified by the murder of 18 Chinese immigrants by a white mob in Los Angeles in 1871.

Still a teenager, Jee Gam found work as a servant in the house of George and Sarah Mooar. George Mooar was a Congregationalist minister and in his household Jee Gam converted to Christianity, soon becoming a colporteur and missionary among Chinese Californians. He joined the First Congregationalist Church in Oakland in 1870 and often worked as a court interpreter. Eventually in 1895 Jee Gam became the first Chinese American ordained as a Congregationalist minister, though he was still unable to become a U.S. citizen.

Illustration of Jee Gam, from the San Francisco Chronicle, September 20, 1895.
From the very beginning, Jee Gam used his influence and access to Protestant resources (newspapers, journals, mission boards, church networks) to fight for Chinese American political rights. In speeches, sermons, private letters, and public writings, he championed Chinese American suffrage and combated Chinese exclusion, passed in 1882 by the federal government. Historians such as Charles McClain and Mae Ngai have shown how Chinese immigrants in the U.S. challenged discriminatory laws via the court system, but the religious activism of Jee Gam and other Chinese Protestants has received virtually no attention.

Jee Gam based his arguments for political rights on a vision of Christianity that emphasized egalitarianism and universal brotherhood. In an era when many Americans believed that the Chinese were too heathenish to genuinely convert to Christianity, Jee Gam insisted on the religion’s inclusivity. “I am a Chinaman and a Christian,” he wrote in 1892. “I am not any less Chinese for being a follower of Christ…. I am in some sense also an American, for I have lived in America almost twice as long as in China.” He went on to call Chinese exclusion “un-American, barbarous and inhuman. It is unchristian, for it is contrary to the teaching of Christ.”

His work on behalf of Chinese immigrants extended beyond California. In 1879, on the eve of exclusion, he embarked on a tour that took him to Chicago, New York City, and Lowell, Massachusetts. He told Chicago newspapers about the daily threat of violence that Chinese Californians lived under from white “hoodlums” and called for suffrage and citizenship for the Chinese. Invited by Henry Ward Beecher to speak at Plymouth Church in New York, Jee Gam insisted that there were “about 1,000 Christian Chinamen in California.” He offered their lives—and his own—as evidence of the efficacy of mission work and the need to maintain open national borders.

Unlike many nineteenth-century Protestant defenders of the Chinese, Jee Gam resisted the temptation to demonize Catholics or other racialized groups. “Can every man have this faith, be he white, black, red or yellow?” he preached in 1880. “Yes. The beggar can have it as well as the king. The poor can have it as well as the rich; and the negro, the Indian and the Chinaman.” This sort of interracial, universalist rhetoric was becoming more and more scarce nationwide in the years following the end of Southern Reconstruction.

Jee Gam married a Chinese woman in 1871 and they had ten children, several of whom attended the University of California, Berkeley. In 1910, just past the age of 60, he decided to retire to China but died on the steamer en route. Chinese immigrants finally received the right to become U.S. citizens in 1943.

What would Jee Gam think of being on the cover of my book, I wonder? I suspect his first response would be surprise, given the hostility and prejudice he encountered during his own lifetime. However, considering his comfort operating in the public sphere, I don’t think he would object to the attention.

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