The Religious and Anti-Chinese Roots of “Replacement” Theory

By Kathryn Gin Lum | July 26, 2022

San Francisco, California, Chinatown. Chinese Railroad Workers Mural, by Amy Nelder. Stockton Street. (Via Alamy)

The “Great Replacement” theory didn’t just emerge in Buffalo, El Paso, Pittsburgh, Charleston, or any of the other racist mass murders of the 21st century. There’s a long history to white Americans’ fear of being replaced. This history is often traced back to the early 20th century when falling birth rates among Anglo-American families, coupled with worries about fecund immigrants from Eastern Europe, fueled the eugenics movement and Immigration Act of 1924. But it was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that saw the first federal attempt to enshrine something like a “Great Replacement” theory into U.S. law. To make the case for exclusion, anti-Chinese activists warned of the evils that would overrun America if “heathen” hordes were allowed free entry.

For the Reverend Samuel Blakeslee, the United States was supposed to be God’s bastion for Christianity. In an 1877 address given before the General Association of Congregational Churches of California, and later submitted in a report to the California State Senate’s Special Committee on Chinese Immigration, Blakeslee said that America had been preserved “for thousands of years for the experiment of true Christian liberty” against the “petrified tyrannies, errors, vices, and irreligions of the old continents.” Erasing the presence of Native Americans, Blakeslee, like many before and after him, saw America as a city on a hill for the rest of the world.

But for Blakeslee, the Chinese threatened all of this. He had originally come to San Francisco some 20 years earlier in part to missionize the Chinese. Yet, the language barrier proved too difficult for him and he turned from thinking that the Chinese could be effectively evangelized in the U.S. to arguing that the Chinese would instead convert Americans to heathenism if allowed to immigrate freely. “To prostitute all American advantages and opportunities to a vast people, confirmed in old systems of debasement, idolatry, prejudice, immorality, and clannishness…is exceedingly dangerous,” he charged. “It is exposing our whole country and its policies to volcanic eruptions of heathen hosts and abominations.”

“Heathens” were understood to be people who worshiped anything but the one true God, misdirecting their energies to the worship of nature, idols, or their own dead. Originally, the term referred to those Europeans who lived on the edges of society and rejected the new Christian religion, choosing instead to worship the old gods like Thor and Odin. Over time, the term expanded to include anyone who fell outside of the Abrahamic traditions – not Christians, not Muslims, not Jews. Europeans and Euro-Americans read all of these “heathens” through the same lens, as people who didn’t know how to take care of their bodies or their lands, and who needed Christians to help. Activated by the Great Commission’s charge to “make disciples of all nations,” missionaries went overseas to try to do just that.

But it was one thing to go to the “heathen,” and quite another when the “heathen” began arriving on America’s shores. Though some ministers continued to see the arrival of the Chinese as an opportunity to convert them, others, like Blakeslee, began to claim that immigration restriction was necessary to keep America itself from becoming heathenized. The Great Commission needed to become the Great Omission, omitting anyone who threatened to replace the white American Christian way of life with something else. To think otherwise, Blakeslee alleged, was “false Christianity, false benevolence, false patriotism.” America needed to be a fortress. True “patriots” needed to defend that fortress in order to preserve a way of life that the rest of the world was supposed to emulate – but only from a distance.

There was a crucial economic component to anti-Chinese hostility. White laborers worried about Chinese competition and feared that capitalist elites were bringing Chinese workers into the country to take the place of Black labor after the Civil War, pricing white laborers out of existence. This, too, anticipates the “Great Replacement” theory’s belief that “American elites are conspiring to replace so-called real Americans with immigrants from poor countries.”

But fear of economic competition from the Chinese also had religious roots. Heathenism was supposed to be the reason for the negative qualities the Chinese brought to America. Anti-Chinese demagogues claimed that Chinese laborers were willing to live on next to nothing, crowding into tenements in Chinatown and making meals from rats, because their “heathen” religion taught them to devote all their energy and earnings to dead ancestors. Focusing on their dead, they supposedly neglected their living, bringing down the quality of life wherever they went. As Reverend William Lobscheid, pastor of San Francisco’s United German Evangelical Lutheran St. Mark’s Church, put it in 1873, “Is this lack of public spirit not a proof that you are Pagan?”

By contrast, Europeans had “improve[d] the country” wherever they settled, said Lobscheid. But this required money: money to spend on sizeable homes, healthy food, clean clothes, churches, schools, and hospitals. Blakeslee explained that money kept the white “American laborer” and his family from “liv[ing] more nearly like a heathen.” He added that the “Chinese, in his less expenses, can always underbid the American unless the American will descend to the same level with him, in a cheap, wretched, uncivilized, unchristian manner of living.”

Anti-Chinese hate took vicious and violent forms. Again, religion was at the heart of it. In a February 1873 speech, Father James Buchard, a Catholic priest, referred to the Chinese as “these pagan, these vicious, these immoral creatures” and claimed that they were “incapable of rising to the virtue that is inculcated by the religion of Jesus Christ.”

The following month, Methodist missionary Otis Gibson valiantly tried to defend the Chinese in the face of such hate. He countered Buchard’s insinuation “that to murder a Chinaman would not be a greater sin than to kill a monkey.” Gibson understood all too plainly that dehumanizing the Chinese as intrinsically inferior heathens, rather than seeing them as humans made “of one blood,” opened the door to extreme violence against them. The litany of hate crimes against the Chinese in the late 19th century — the massacre of ten percent of Los Angeles’s Chinese population in 1871, and another massacre of over two dozen Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885, among many other incidents of violence — proved him sadly correct.

Gibson, and others such as Presbyterian missionary William Speer, had spent time in China. Their views of the Chinese aligned with an older posture of respect for the longevity of the Chinese empire and for fine Chinese goods, coupled with paternalistic pity for Chinese heathenism. But they always saw the Chinese as capable of conversion, and they believed that the arrival of the Chinese on America’s shores was a providential development that would make it easier to missionize them without having to travel all the way to China to do so.

That the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882 shows how Gibson’s and Speer’s views became increasingly muffled by the clamor of anti-Chinese demagogues over time. Whereas Gibson and Speer drew on the Great Commission to argue that the Chinese should be allowed entry, anti-Chinese ministers argued for a Great Omission to preserve America as a Christian nation.

The Great Omission reveals an abiding impulse to exclude or eradicate “threats” to white American identity. The Christian case against Chinese immigration set a precedent for later white Christian nationalists that exclusion — whether carried out through law or extrajudicial violence — could be an appropriate response to the presence of people they believed to threaten their way of life.

Though the Buffalo shooter from May didn’t claim to be a Christian, he rooted “whiteness” in the “religion of Christianity” and “Christian values.” And at least one of the Patriot Front members arrested in Idaho in June had ties to a church whose pastor has supported Christian nationalism. The “Great Replacement” theory that motivated the shooter, and the Patriot Front’s belief that America belongs to Europeans, represents nothing but the tired, paranoid, violent case for the preservation of white Christian America that this country has seen again and again.


Kathryn Gin Lum is Associate Professor of Religious Studies in collaboration with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and History (by courtesy) at Stanford University. This article is based on ideas first presented in her book, Heathen: Religion and Race in American History, published by Harvard University Press in May 2022.

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