Book Project

The Religious Roots of Transnational Relief:

Calvinism, Humanitarianism, and the Genesis of Social Fields

Under advance contract at the University of Chicago Press.

The 1860s calls to establish the Red Cross Movement—the first modern large-scale network of humanitarian relief societies—were met with some enthusiasm, but they also provoked skepticism, pragmatic objections, and ethical opposition. And yet, within little over a decade, the movement became a prominent presence in European, and later global, philanthropic life with outposts fast spreading across the continent and beyond. The growing movement permeated new ideas about organized humanitarian activism—that humanitarian societies are an independent and permanent sector, that they should work impartially, and that they must be afforded neutrality—and these principles continue to undergird the humanitarian community today. In this project, I ask how and why this shift occurred, and how it contributed to the establishment of long-distance humanitarianism as a social field.

Based on archival research at the International Committee of the Red Cross and related archives, I identify the crucial role of Evangelical Calvinism and of patriotic discourse and imagery in propelling the principles propagated by the early Red Cross. I show that the founding members of the Red Cross came to believe that an independent and neutral network of relief societies should be established based on their Calvinist beliefs about the nature of warfare and human agency. Compared to other ideas about medical relief circulating at the time, their proposed program fit directly with intersecting political, organizational, and moral concerns that preoccupied multiple parties across mid-nineteenth-century Europe. Indeed, actors ranging from nobility to working class identified the Red Cross with their own (often quite different) understanding of the common good and adapted its proposals to their own contexts.

By the 1870s, the notions that humanitarian relief societies must maintain a permanent presence in civil societies, that they must maintain a level of autonomy from other institutions, and—crucially—that they must be evaluated on their own terms had become widely and internationally prevalent. Despite considerable differences from the Red Cross, contemporary humanitarian INGOs continue to rely on the same ethical infrastructure and thus bear the imprint of their late-nineteenth-century antecedents. Based on these findings, I highlight the ways in which preexisting belief systems contribute to the establishment of new social fields and shape the logics that govern them.

One paper from this project, focusing on the role of national-level dynamics in the nineteenth-century diffusion of humanitarian logic, was recently published in The Sociological Review. Another paper, focusing on the religious origin of the logics of the humanitarian sector, appeared in Sociological Theory in 2016.