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When the Medium Was the Mission: The Atlantic Telegraph and the Religious Origins of Network Culture – Dr. Jenna Supp-Montgomerie

By Dr. Jenna Supp-Montgomerie

The Oneida Community has long been studied for their most notable divergences from their nineteenth-century New York neighbors: their belief that Christ had already returned, their sharing of financial resources and profits from their business ventures, and (most famously and most scandalously) their rejection of monogamy. The 300 or so people who lived in the grand Mansion House in Oneida, NY, and the satellite communities across New England practiced a radically new way of life and were proud of it. The Oneida Community regularly appears in studies of US religion as the paragon of fringe experimental living. But in one very important regard, they were absolutely mainstream: they shared in the wildly popular and utterly unlikely conviction that a telegraph cable across the Atlantic would suddenly and seamlessly unite the world.

This improbable fantasy—that a simple cable could create global unity out of a condition of notable fracture (the US Civil War began a mere three years after the 1858 Atlantic Telegraph Cable)—was widespread in the U.S. It can be found in political speeches, newspaper reports, paintings and lithographs, telegraph patent applications, and requests for government funds. Most spectacularly, it was the motivation behind a sweeping series of city-wide celebrations across the young country on September 1, 1858. Cannons boomed, fireworks exploded, politicians pontificated, memorabilia abounded, lights illuminated buildings, and—that very evening—the Atlantic Cable of 1858 gave its last garbled messages before failing completely. How could a historian of US religion and media not love this telegraph cable with its impeccable timing and knack for drama? These rusting wires, still disintegrating at the bottom of the sea, stand as an apt metaphor for the durable dream that networks are systems of connection and the recalcitrant reality that networks function through all sorts of disconnection.

We rely on firewalls, lament the impossibility of eye contact on Zoom, quietly unfollow those “friends” whose humblebrag tweets make us crazy, and then describe digital networks as systems of connection. Connection and networks have become nearly synonymous and are often the only legible way to imagine our social and technological relationships. Connection, as an obvious social good, surfaces in pleas for political unity, inspires accounts of unlikely friendships, and goads young people to “network” to ensure professional success. It has become commonsense that connection in some form or another can solve any problem. Among the heart-wrenching lessons of covid-19, we have surely learned that not all connection is desirable and that some forms of disconnection are modes of care. When the Medium Was the Mission argues that the equation and positive valuing of media networks as connective emerged out of the religiously saturated context of the nineteenth century as illustrated by the US obsession with the 1858 Atlantic Telegraph Cable in all its remarkable, fragile glory.

US American fascination with ocean telegraphy hailed from many corners of US life, from missionaries in the Ottoman empire to politicians in Philadelphia. The Oneida Community is a particularly striking example of this avid declaration of spontaneous global unity because they never offered even a hint of plan for how one might make such a necessarily local practice go global. Most public discourse described worldwide unity emerging suddenly and effortlessly from Atlantic telegraphy: William D. Kelley, who had recently helped to found the Republican Party and would shortly serve as a representative of Pennsylvania in Congress, asserted that the Atlantic cable “brought the nations of the earth face to face.”[1] Judson Smith, a leader of the US Protestant missionary organization, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission, announced that the telegraph was “binding all parts of the world into the circuits of swift intelligence” and, thus, “space and time are almost annihilated, the continents are near neighbors, and even the islands of the sea have lost their isolation and form a part of the closely linked system of the world.”[2] President Buchanan sent a telegram to Queen Victoria on the 1858 Atlantic cable that read, “May the Atlantic telegraph, under the blessing of heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world. In this view will not all the nations of Christendom spontaneously unite in the declaration, that it shall be forever neutral, and that its communications shall be held sacred in passing to the place of their destination, even in the midst of hostilities.”[3] (Of course, the British saw the 1858 cable, which ran from Ireland to Newfoundland, as a venture that joined the UK to its colony, and thus were slightly more skeptical about the unity Buchanan foresaw. The New York Times reprinted a report from the London Daily News that offered this wry suggestion: “Perhaps Mr. Buchanan would like to secure the neutrality of the British fleet also, in case of war.”[4])

So, on the one hand, it makes sense that the Oneida Community, an utterly US American religious movement, would announce the laying of the 1858 Atlantic Telegraph Cable with this headline in their newspaper: “NO MORE DISTANCE! NO MORE WAR! THE CONTINENTS UNITED.” But, on the other hand, the Oneida Community—with their enthusiastic sexual and financial sharing—must have known that their particular style of global unity would take some delicate arrangement. What siren song called so many US Americans to tether their particular dreams for global unity to a faulty copper cable? And what made such improbable dreams appear to be such sure things?

When the Medium Was the Mission looks to this mid-nineteenth-century moment of rapidly expanding networked infrastructure in rail and telegraphy before the term network was popularized in English. Here, before these practices became established as technologies and protocols, we can see more clearly the entanglements that made certain elements—among them connection, political neutrality, speed, and ubiquity—definitional for networks while entrenching cultural habits of hiding other important network elements, such as disconnection, colonialism, race, violence, lags, and gaps. Although we now expect new technologies to be rather secular ventures, looking to the early telegraph clarifies that religion in a variety of forms was a powerful engine of the social energy that situated connection at the heart of the definitional mix. Religious missionaries acted as agents for Morse and Vail’s machine, religiously motivated wars spurred telegraph construction, religio-colonial routes of power determined where telegraph lines were built, and religious rhetoric provided a ready and powerful storehouse of images to fuel the imaginaries of a united networked globe. Most important, the electric charge of nineteenth-century religion, with all its effusive emotion, provided the affective force that made these definitions durable. In this light, the way we construct, inhabit, imagine, and use networks today has not snipped its religious roots; rather, we find in contemporary commitments to networks as systems of connection the resonance of religious rhetoric, matter, and affect reverberating with gusto.

[1] William D. Kelley, Oration Delivered by the Hon. William D. Kelley at the Celebration of the Laying of the Atlantic Cable, Held at Philadelphia, September 1, 1858 (N.p., 1858), 2.

[2] Judson Smith, “Missionary Outlook,” In Eightieth Annual Report of the American Board of  Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Presented at the Meeting Held at Minneapolis, Minnesota. October 8–11, 1890 (Boston: Samuel Usher, 1890), xliv.

[3] “James Buchanan to Victoria,” telegram, August 19, 1858, in Board of Trade and the Atlantic Telegraph Company, Board of Trade and the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Report of the Joint Committee Appointed by the Lords of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade and the Atlantic Telegraph Company to Inquire into the Construction of Submarine Telegraph Cables; Together with the Minutes of Evidence and Appendix (London: G. E. Eyre and W. Spottiswoode for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1861), 232.

[4] “Our Foreign Correspondence,” New York Times, October 1, 1858.

Jenna Supp-Montgomerie is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Communication Studies at The University of Iowa. When the Medium Was the Mission: The Atlantic Telegraph and the Religious Origins of Network Culture is available now with NYU Press: