When the Medium was the Mission: The Atlantic Telegraph and the Religious Origins of Network Culture

by Jenna Supp-Montgomerie, New York University Press, 2021, 295 pp.
Paperback $35.00, Hardback $99.00, ISBN: 978-1479801497

Everyone loves a good success story, especially our own. Yet, histories of achievement can foster a kind of presentism that ignores just how unpredictable and haphazard historical development often is. Jenna Supp-Montgomerie’s excellent study, When the Medium was the Mission: The Atlantic Telegraph and the Religious Origins of Network Culture, begins with the premise that failure, fault, and error are historically generative and thus mark rich moments of scholarly investigation. She takes as her case study the 1858 Atlantic Telegraph Cable that stretched from Newfoundland to Ireland. Technologically, the cable was largely ineffectual. Most of its messages arrived garbled, the vast majority that did make sense said very little at all; in any case, the cable stopped working entirely within a month of its first transmission. Nonetheless, Supp-Montgomerie uncovers a widespread utopian optimism surrounding the cable that was grossly disproportionate to its technological achievements. The medium was the message because the press, missionaries, and religious communities alike saw the mere existence of new communication technology as constituting the providential arrival of a Christian globalism that was Protestant and American. This imaginary reveals the interwoven character of media and religion in the nineteenth century, that even something as disappointing as a technological misfire on this scale could still embolden idealistic expectations of worldwide Christianization.

The book is organized into four chapters and bookended by an introduction and epilogue. Each chapter bears out a different vector of the nineteenth-century religious imaginary situated within the short life of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable. The materiality of this episode forms a lynchpin for the book’s argument. Supp-Montgomerie’s account takes infrastructural religion seriously: those nonhuman elements that animate religious life, institutions, and doctrines. The jumble of wires, insulation, signals, and receivers that comprised the telegraph had a material existence that “had no regard for the structuring beliefs about them or the world around them” (12). In its attempts to eliminate distance and unite disparate peoples throughout the world, the failed transatlantic cable reveals the constant presence of social fragmentation, fractured nationhood, unreliable communication, and the sheer impossibility of building authentic community through technology. The cabled networks (like all other technologies) in no way derive from naturally occurring phenomena but are instead consequents of human intention without being bound to it. Or, put another way, technology has unintended consequences, both as a result of its own composition, and, perhaps more importantly, as a result of the ways that
historical actors use it. What emerged from the Atlantic Telegraph Cable was an entire framework for thinking about Christianity, nationhood, perfection, and network connection. Yet the technology failed to effect any of these at all in the way people hoped.

Chapter 1 focuses on missionaries who conflated the invention and adoption of the telegraph with progressive, divinely guided Christian civilization. Modernity was Protestant, and technology was the infrastructure that created the conditions for conversion. Supp-Montgomerie presents this chiefly through the missionary Cyrus Hamline, who in this mindset presented Samuel Morse’s telegraph to the Ottoman Sultan, Abdülmecid I. Yet the Christian unity Hamline sought was undermined by Abdülmecid’s own modernizing designs under the Tanzimat restructuring of Ottoman government, as well as by the resistance of local populations at attempts to consolidate the sultan’s rule over disparate regions of the empire.

Chapter 2 continues this theme by examining how this close relationship between technology and Christianity shaped conceptions of American nationalism. Here was a
community that was as imagined as it was emotional, with euphoric expectation that the telegraph would promote peace and unite the world into global communion. The press and politicians alike used a shared collection of images and metaphors to define this new world in American and Protestant terms. That the telegraph did not even come close to bringing about global peace and unity (the Civil War was only a few short years away, not to mention world- wide colonial expansion) speaks to the affective social power of religious imaginaries.

Chapter 3 explores the utopian nature of this imaginary through a consideration of the Oneida Community’s response to the Atlantic Telegraph Cable. Theologically, Oneida understood social unity as the fruition of faith. The time-space compression that supposedly resulted from the telegraph thus signified for the Oneida Community the authentic means for fostering worldwide Bible Communism.

The fourth chapter shifts attention from the anticipation and reception of the telegraph itself to the actual messages sent by it in 1858. Though most of the verbiage was meaningless on its own, telegraph operators, ministers, and the press nonetheless imbued it with religious meaning. Supp-Montgomerie here returns to the framework of infrastructural religion as a means to supplement structural interpretations on one hand and poststructural theories on the other. The material reality of the cable itself and the electrical pulses transmitted either way bore meaning that was independent of the discursive, albeit unintelligible, texts sent between interlocutors on either side of the Atlantic. Meaning accompanied the text without actually existing within it.

Overall, When the Medium was the Mission is an impressive, original work that is an important contribution to American religious history and the history of communication. It helps us to think more clearly about the power of religious imaginaries in the shaping of self-identity, institutional directions, and the networks we create— even as failure and disconnection disrupt those relationships. Supp-Montgomerie’s insistence that we situate human intention alongside the unexpected influence of non-human materials results in a more nuanced description of historical development than focusing on ideas or human agency alone.

David Reagles, Bethany Lutheran College