Army of the Lord in many guises

Missions and Empire
October 20, 2006

Were Christian missionaries, as critics allege, mere "handmaidens of the [British] Empire"? Did the propagation of Christianity favour the expansion and consolidation of imperial rule? The contributors to this volume suggest otherwise or, at the least, are at pains to demonstrate the complexity of that relationship.

As Andrew Porter remarks in his overview of the period 1700-1914, imperial control, colonial societies and the missionary movement "intertwined in divergent and ambiguous ways". Or, as Norman Etherington puts it in his introduction, the "most striking feature" of the missions was their diversity, so much so that "the trajectories of missions and empire hardly bear comparison". Just as some British missionaries worked outside the empire, so missionaries from other nations, Catholics and Protestants, operated in British colonies.

Missionaries could be vociferous critics of empire (as Alan Lester demonstrates in examining early 19th-century attitudes to slavery and white settler societies). Some, as in India, were conscious of their lowly place in the colonial hierarchy, while for others, whose thinking was dominated by belief in an all-pervading Providence, the empire was insignificant.

The impact of the missionaries was not necessarily very great. After 40 years, the Serampore Baptists could claim only 43 converts. Missionaries died, deserted or "went native". "Only through an understanding of missionaries' faith and their trust in Providence and the Bible," Porter observes, "can historians hope to explain the incurable optimism and missions' persistence in the face of death, hardship, deprivation and the tiny number of converts."

Yet, while stressing the diverse nature of the "missionary endeavour", contributors to Missions and Empire also suggest that white missionaries were less important in spreading Christianity than those they influenced or inspired. Robert Eric Frykenberg notes that in India, Christian missions often attracted their greatest followings where the imperial connection was least evident (as in the princely state of Travancore) and argues that the process by which "people turned Christian" was "primarily a by-product of indigenous rather than foreign agency".

The primacy of indigenous agency is a theme echoed and elaborated on by other contributors to this volume - notably John Barker, Peggy Brock and Robert Edgar in relation to New Zealand, the Pacific and Africa, where local converts and evangelists did much to make Christianity acceptable. As Brock remarks: "New Christians did not simply parrot a European message but communicated their own understandings of the Bible. They transmitted aspects of their own cultural heritage along with ideas received from foreign missions." This process of adaptation and transmission is seen by these contributors as vital in enabling Christianity to shrug off negative associations with white men and imperial injustices and ultimately to ensure Christianity's postcolonial survival. The end of empire, far from witnessing the demise of Christianity, has, several contributors note, seen its "explosive" growth - especially in Africa, where the number of adherents grew from 75 million in 1965 to more than 350 million in 2000.

It is the need to explain this long-term success that sets the relatively upbeat tone for these essays. The book certainly makes the case for a fresh look at the relationship between missions and empire and from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Most of the essays focus on specific geographical territories, but two contributions step outside the regional and chronological framework. Observing that missionaries "invested an inordinate amount of energy in producing written material", Gareth Griffiths presents a fascinating account of the texts produced by (and often on behalf of) indigenous converts, especially in the form of narratives of their captivity and release from slavery, and asks how far converts were able, nonetheless, to communicate a sense of their own agency.

In discussing "Women and Cultural Exchanges", Patricia Grimshaw and Peter Sherlock demonstrate how, in moving away from the earlier neglect of women's missionary roles, scholars have asked new questions of the archives and started to uncover the tangled relationship between gender, race and empire. Patrick Harries shows how missionaries started out in the 19th century by being among the earliest overseas agents of the emerging discipline of anthropology, only to become, with time, disengaged from its professional pursuit and finally, after decolonisation, to emerge as critical objects of study in a field they had helped bring into being.

In a volume such as this, there are inevitably several lacunae. The coverage given to missionary education, and more especially medicine, is skimpier than current scholarship might allow, and the involvement of missionaries in coercive projects of social control, such as the Criminal Tribes Act in India, is passed over entirely. Although the volume opens with an assessment of missions in British North America by Eliga H. Gould, there is no substantial discussion of post-emancipation Caribbean. And, while sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific figure in several papers, Asian societies receive scant consideration.

In consequence little is said about missionary engagement with the literate societies that Etherington refers to as those regions "dominated by well-entrenched universalising creeds and sacred written texts". Some of these, notably China, lay outside the formal empire but were still vital to missionary strategies and their reception. As the essay on "Decolonisation" by David Maxwell notes, the Communist takeover in China and the triumph of nationalism in India were a cause of significant concern to missions in still colonial Africa.

Despite its laudable attempt to differentiate between imperialism and evangelism, at times Missions and Empire seems too narrowly conceived and appears not to recognise the extent to which Christianity revitalised other religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Etherington remarks at the outset that "the explosive expansion of Christianity in Africa and Asia during the past two centuries constitutes one of the most remarkable cultural transformations in the history of mankind". It is a grand claim, and an important hypothesis, but one that is not adequately demonstrated.

David Arnold is professor of South Asian history, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Missions and Empire

Editor - Norman Etherington
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 332
Price - £32.00
ISBN - 0 19 925347 1

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