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Reforming Empire: Protestant Colonialism and Conscience in British Literature
University of Missouri, 2002
304 pp., $55.00
Good Citizens: British Missionaries and Imperial States, 1870-1918 (McGill-Queen's Studies in the History of Religion. Series Two)
James G. Greenlee
McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999
296 pp., $110.00
by Mark Noll
The New History of Missions
The missionary in popular media is often a simple figure moved to action by simple motives for often base or self-serving ends. So it was with the sexually repressed protagonist of W. Somerset Maugham's Rain, the missionary females likewise conquered by carnal passion in Seven Women and At Play in the Fields of the Lord, or the not very clever Congregationalists who mess up the idyllic primitives in James Michener's Hawaii. These stereotypes of popular fiction offer a natural complement to the stereotypes of postcolonial moral outrage. Missionaries as anthropologically challenged stooges for Western imperialist expansion, commercial exploitation, and environmental destruction figure large in the type of postcolonial discourse that is too intense to pause for actual historical research.
Febrile stereotyping is now a special shame, since actual historical research on the motives, mixed achievements, complexities, ironies, and changes over time of Western missionary practice has become very sophisticated. To be sure, this sober historical literature treats directly only part of the worldwide picture. In a helpful distinction articulated recently by Lamin Sanneh, the rising quantity of solid missionary history bears most directly on "global Christianity," or the effort to export versions of Christianity shaped by the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the scientific and commercial revolutions of recent Western history.1 Only indirectly does it relate the story of "world Christianity," or the rise of indigenous forms of the faith in non-Western societies that have not been shaped by the main Western developments. Yet so alert have some authors of the newer missionary history been to the complex dimensions of actual situations and events that their contributions to "global Christianity" turn out to illuminate at least some aspects of "world Christianity" as well.
The latest contribution to the outstanding Eerdmans series, Studies in the History of Christian Missions, is an ...