Reforming Empire: Protestant Colonialism and Conscience in British Literature (Volume 1)
University of Missouri, 2002
304 pp., 55.0
Good Citizens: British Missionaries and Imperial States, 1870-1918 (McGill-Queen’s Studies in the Hist of Re) (Volume 34)
Charles M. Johnston; James G. Greenlee
McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999
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 exemplary instance of multi-layered insight grounded in carefully documented research. Chapters of The Imperial Horizons of British Protestant Missions, 1880-1914 were first produced under the auspices of the North Atlantic Missiology Project, which during its tenure did more to stimulate first-order scholarship on mission history and theology than any other single program of the last half century. The volume is edited by Andrew Porter, Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at King's College, London, and author of several seminal studies on various aspects of the British empire during its broadest extent in the 19th and 20th centuries. Porter's introduction ably outlines the book's general themes: during the period when European powers scrambled to construct empires in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, British Protestant missionaries could be found enlisting God for the cause of imperial expansion but also employing historic Christian teaching to chastise the builders of empire; even at the height of British expansion, many missionaries (though more in the field than at home in agency headquarters) gained a strong sense of Christianity as an international force breaking free from strict European definition; and, in Porter's own words, "most missionaries were not conscious imperialists in either a political or denominational sense."
An unusually helpful set of five essays underscores the complexities of British missionary activity in Africa. According to Andrew Ross, early conceptions of the missionaries as promoting "conversion" (and speedy ecclesiastical equality between Africans and Europeans) gave way from the 1880s to "trusteeship" (and racist assumptions about the inability of Africans to function as ecclesiastical equals). During the same period, as detailed by Steven Maughan, the desire by some leaders of British agencies to link missions and the expansion of British international influence floundered in the face of religious weakness at home and contentions abroad concerning the morality of empire. Brian Stanley's examination of the statement on government produced by the great Edinburgh missionary conference in 1910 shows how the British and American authors of the report (including Alfred Thayer Mahan of naval seapower fame) were much more sanguine about the ability of missionaries to exert political influence overseas than were missionaries active in the field. Deborah Gaitskell's chapter records substantial changes on the ground in the recruitment and activities of women missionaries, but little change in how missionary societies thought about the place and contribution of these female workers. And John MacKenzie extends the growing interest in missionaries as scientists by recording the substantial contributions that British missions made to several kinds of theoretical and applied inquiry, including ecology, architecture, medicine, astronomy, and photography.
A notable feature of the missionaries' extensive scientific interests, as also of other mission activities featured in these essays, was the beneficial legacy of David Livingstone, which extended well beyond his death in 1873. Even more notable, however, are the hints these African essays offer about the "world Christianity" that British "global missionaries" were planting, sometimes inadvertently, in African soil. Thus, advanced opinions in the generation before 1880 accepted the African control of African actions that would emerge in full force from the 1930s onwards; female missionary initiatives at the turn of the century foreshadowed what Deborah Gaitskell calls the "powerful parallel female church world" that soon developed as a major agent of Christian expansion in several African regions; and widespread missionary nervousness about the simple export of Western ecclesiastical forms played some role in the emergence of African independent churches.
The book's other essays are equally illuminating. David Bebbington's assessment of Protestant theology in this age of empire shows how evangelical themes of sin and atonement could function as a corrective to imperial excess but also as a goad to expansion, especially when opposed to the designs of Roman Catholic France. Chandra Mallampalli carefully records how mingled messages from the West, of both enlightened Christianity and post-Christian Enlightenment, provided models for various constructions of Indian Hindu nationalism. And Lauren Pfister offers an important re-evaluation of the conventional contrast that has been drawn between two of the era's most important missionaries to China, J. Hudson Taylor (1832-1905), the great promoter of itinerant evangelism, and Timothy Richard (1845-1919), the energetic advocate of cultural Christianization. Pfister's case is convincing that Taylor and Richard represented different, but complementary, aspects of the era's multi-dimensional, and frequently ambiguous, British missionary efforts.
That same kind of conclusion has been reached in other significant recent studies that also feature British Protestant engagement with the wider world. Christopher Hodgkins' careful trawling through five centuries of British literature in Reforming Empire demonstrates that it is almost as easy to find a robust tradition of Protestant anti-colonialism as to document Protestant complicity in rampant imperialism. For every apologist eager to excuse the destructive consequences of "the White Man's Burden" there was a Samuel Johnson who condemned England for presuming to rule Ireland, supported liberation movements among indigenous peoples, and spoke favorably of interracial marriage. For every lightly Christianized social Darwinist justifying the trusteeship of dusky natives there was a C. S. Lewis to complain, "We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch" (The Four Loves). If Hodgkins misses the complexity to be found in colonial ventures themselves, he more than makes up for it by skewering the notion of a unified Christian approval of British imperialism.
A book that treats much the same period as Andrew Porter's symposium is the welcome study by James Greenlee and Charles Johnston. Their Good Citizens divides mission executives at the height of the British empire between those tending toward "spiritual free trade," who wanted to keep as far from the politics of empire as possible, and those promoting "God's greater Britain," who viewed imperialism as a handmaiden of the gospel. Yet like the writers in The Imperial Horizons of British Protestant Missions, Greenlee and Johnston insist that "ambiguity, contradiction, and paradox" characterized all varieties of British Protestant opinion. Their signal contribution is to reveal the complexity in mission executives' reactions to the Boer War in South Africa, the Boxer Rebellion in China, the revelation of Belgium atrocities in the Congo, and the course of World War I. No one witnessing the tumults, the criticisms, the worried reappraisals—in a word, the agony—of these executives as they tried to both promote their Christian tasks and uphold standards of "good citizenship" in that perilous era could ever fall prey to the simplistic missionary stereotypes of popular fiction and film.
Unfortunately, a lot more people watch bad movies and read silly books than pursue solidly grounded history. Which means that with respect to popular attitudes toward the Western missionary past, there is still a lot of work to do.
Mark Noll is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. His book The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys will be published by InterVarsity in April.
1. Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Eerdmans, 2003).
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.
See all comments