“Doomed Romance” seems a more apt title for a lurid paperback than a scholarly work. But Christine Leigh Heyrman, a professor of history at the University of Delaware awarded the prestigious Bancroft and Francis Parkman prizes for her two previous books on 19th-century evangelical Protestantism, unearths plenty of fervent emotions in her account of an 1826 scandal that embroiled the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in the murky tale of a broken engagement. Cheerfully confessing that “years spent in the company of high-minded people have given me a taste for low gossip,” Heyrman plays up the drama with anachronistic, pop culture-inspired chapter titles (“Satisfaction,” “Like a Virgin”).
Heyrman is serious, however, about the broader significance of her story, the crux of which is this: In the 19th century, missionary service overseas offered American women a chance to explore the world, but powerful men took away those opportunities when women’s new independence threatened traditional gender roles. The book focuses on Martha Parker, who wanted to marry minister Elnathan Gridley and join him as a missionary spreading Christianity in Palestine — the only problem being Thomas Tenney, a poor schoolteacher to whom she was previously engaged, and who waged a determined campaign to discredit Parker.
“Martha Parker was at once the beneficiary of profound changes that were reshaping the lives of many American men and women and a casualty of resistance to those changes,” Heyrman writes. Evangelical Protestantism, which dominated the major American denominations in the early 19th century, provided its female adherents with access to schooling beyond rudimentary literacy and meaningful roles in charitable, educational, social reform, and missionary organizations. Parker seized those opportunities; she attended the elite Bradford Academy and in 1825 joined her sister Emily in running a New Hampshire “school for young ladies” that offered a rigorous curriculum including rhetoric, logic, chemistry, and philosophy. With their elder sister Ann, a missionary in Beirut with her husband, Isaac, Martha and Emily typified the sort of accomplished, assured women developed and supported by the evangelical movement — for a while.
Jeremiah Evarts, head of the American Board, which recruited and authorized foreign missionaries, was one of the prominent evangelical men who encouraged women to actively participate in their faith. When Martha accepted Elnathan’s proposal in April 1826, two months after she had told Thomas she couldn’t marry him, Evarts judged her “a very valuable accession” to the Palestine mission. But he was unsettled by an anonymous letter he received in June warning, “disclosures will ere long be made of [Martha Parker’s] conduct, which will give the enemies of the Missions great occasion to triumph.” Evarts knew that some influential evangelical men were uneasy about the increasing visibility and assertiveness of women in religious organizations and church congregations. These men had so far supported the fledgling foreign mission movement, which was barely 20 years old and shakily financed, but their support could vanish if they decided that missionary service was another forum for uppity women. To approve Martha’s marriage and overseas assignment without causing a public uproar, he needed to disprove the letter’s implication that she demonstrated unseemly female pride and ambition, dumping a humble schoolmaster “to pursue her dreams of public acclaim and spiritual virtuosity by marrying a missionary.”
Evarts wrote to Tenney, who seized the chance to force Martha to see him (she had refused since she broke the engagement) and “convince her of the wrong of which she has been guilty.” She was so undone by Thomas’s reproaches and veiled threats that when Elnathan came to see her a few days later he found a woman with “her whole nervous system deranged.” Heyrman chronicles Martha’s panicked maneuvers to placate Thomas, reassure Elnathan, and satisfy the American Board’s doubts in a cliff-hanging style that gins up the tension but also muddles the chronology. And sometimes she takes her analysis a step further than seems warranted: It’s a stretch to compare Thomas’s actions with “today’s ‘revenge porn’.”
Heyrman is on safer ground when she positions evangelicals’ conflicted attitudes about female empowerment as examples of ambivalence that endures today: “While some Americans welcome the new gender equality …others resent the competition and mourn the loss of those advantages that assisted earlier generations.” Her nuanced assessment of Martha’s efforts to portray herself as a good Christian who desired only to serve, which unquestionably involved manipulating facts about her conduct and masking her very real ambition to grasp a meaningful role for herself on a larger stage than Puritan New England, will strike a chord with any woman who strives for professional success but feels obliged to prove that she is also a good wife and mother. Heyrman acknowledges that, once her engagement to Elnathan had been challenged, Martha strung along Thomas to make sure she would have someone to marry. “[If] that made Martha Parker less than perfection,” she writes, “so, too, were the circumstances of women’s lives, then and now.”
Martha’s attempt to mold circumstances to her liking didn’t end well, but Heyrman closes on a hopeful note, with a daughter fulfilling some of her mother’s thwarted ambitions. “Doomed Romance” has its faults, primarily a confusing structure and a weakness for overstatement, but Heyrman’s empathetic connection with her 19th-century characters — even those whose actions she deplores — makes for vivid and compelling history.
DOOMED ROMANCE: Broken Hearts, Lost Souls, and Sexual Tumult in Nineteenth-Century America
By Christine Leigh Heyrman
Knopf, 304 pp., $27.95
Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar and the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”