MISSIONSmissionary attitudes and practices
missions and colonialism
Christian missionary activity reached its apex during the long nineteenth century. The movement emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in response to the growing influence of evangelical Protestantism and the expansion of European commercial and political interests around the globe. During this period evangelical Protestants in particular developed a greater sense of urgency about the Christian obligation to spread the knowledge of the gospel. While the suppression of the Jesuits on the Continent throughout the eighteenth century weakened Roman Catholic missions, English and German Protestants initiated the first significant Protestant missionary activity during the early 1700s. German Pietists, especially the Moravians, established mission stations in India, Africa, and the Caribbean. Anglicans, strongly influenced by the Pietist movement, founded the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Promotion of the Gospel to work in British colonies. At the end of the century, the fall of Catholicism during the French Revolution inspired British evangelicals to organize missions to France in the hope of encouraging the growth of Protestantism there. Protestant missionaries were also sent to various parts of Russia.
The most significant factor in the expansion of Protestant missions, however, was the invention of the missionary society, a voluntary organization of ministers and laypersons dedicated to the support of foreign missionary activity. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century these institutions established their missions in India, the South Pacific, Africa, and the Caribbean, and became the defining characteristic of the missionary movement. The first societies appeared in Britain during the 1790s. The Baptist Missionary Society, established in 1792, was quickly followed by the predominantly Congregationalist London Missionary Society (LMS) in 1795, and the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1799. The British example inspired the formation of similar institutions on the Continent, including the Netherlands Missionary Society (1797), and German societies in Basel (1815) and Berlin (1824). Cooperation between the British and Continental societies was common. The Dutchman Johannes Van der Kemp, active in the creation of the Netherlands Missionary Society, eventually established the first LMS mission in the Cape Colony. John Philip, a director of the LMS missions in southern Africa, helped to establish mission stations for the Paris Evangelical Mission during the 1830s in present-day Lesotho. The CMS drew many of its first missionaries from the graduates of Lutheran seminaries in Germany.
The missionary impulse sprang from more than a mere concern for the salvation of so-called heathen souls. Evangelical Protestants understood human history as the unfolding of divine ordinances and the fulfillment of God's purposes, chief among them the spread of Christianity throughout the world. The providential expansion of European commercial power added to the obligation of Christians to evangelize the far corners of the globe. Commerce and Christianity became increasingly linked as necessary elements of the process of civilization and were celebrated by prominent missionaries such as David Livingstone.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, missionaries approached their work with a strong belief in the divine purpose and in the Enlightenment ideal of human progress. They assumed that introducing non-Christians to the gospel would lead them to convert, and set them on the path toward civilization. They believed that with salvation came civility and respectability. The adoption of Western manners and styles of dress by converts were taken as outward signs of the authenticity of their Christian faith. Missionaries also focused intensely on the translation of the Bible into indigenous languages, and in many cases the training of indigenous evangelists to assist their work. The missionary societies encouraged the creation of self-sustaining, indigenous, Christian communities, which might free missionaries and resources to be directed into new unevangelized areas of the globe. These communities, however, were slow to develop, and the societies remained dependent on the continued support of the religious public in Europe to finance their work.
The second half of the century saw the emergence of new attitudes, and important changes. In the 1860s, J. Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, argued that missionaries should do more to appreciate and to assimilate themselves to indigenous cultures. Taylor created controversy by dressing himself in Chinese style clothing, but his mission converted more than one hundred thousand Chinese by the end of the century. The relative lack of success in other mission fields, especially Africa, increased skepticism within the missionary movement about the potential for large-scale conversions before non-Christians had been exposed to all of the benefits of Western civilization. Missionary activity shifted away from merely proselytizing, and placed greater emphasis on medical care, education, social welfare, and even industrial training. Most significantly, women began to play a much greater role in missionary work after 1850. Unmarried women, in particular, entered the mission field in large numbers as evangelists, doctors, and teachers. So much so that by the end of the century women missionaries outnumbered men by two to one.
The dramatic expansion of Protestant missions during the first half of the nineteenth century also sparked a resurgence of interest in Roman Catholic missions. In Restoration France, mission crosses planted throughout the countryside were symbolic of the renewed efforts of Catholic missionaries to revive the French church. Foreign missions were also revived, especially during the second half of the century. Among the most prominent organizations was the Society of Missionaries of Africa, more commonly known as the White Fathers, founded in 1868 by the archbishop of Algiers, Charles-Martial-Allemand Lavigerie. Beginning its work in northern Africa, the society eventually sent missionaries south of the Sahara by the later 1870s. Lavigerie instructed his missionaries to also concentrate their efforts on establishing Christian communities among orphans and emancipated slaves, while developing good relations with local indigenous authorities. Additionally, missionaries focused on training indigenous catechists to aid their work. The White Fathers suffered severely from the persecution of Christians in Uganda during the late 1880s, but by the twentieth century had made significant progress in Central Africa developing parishes and diocese under the leadership of African clergy.
Historians frequently interpret the surge of missionary activity as a central component of nineteenth-century European colonial expansion. Missionaries appear in
these accounts as advance forces of colonial authority, transporting the values of bourgeois society and paving the way for European domination. Others, more sympathetic to the missionary movement, emphasize the positive contributions of the humanitarian and educational efforts of the missionaries. The relationship between missions and colonial authorities was complex. Colonial governments tended to support missions wherever they felt religious expansion might strengthen their influence, and missions sometimes opened the doors through which colonial authority followed. Supporters of the missionary movement celebrated the use of force to open China to Western trade in 1850s, because it also opened China to the gospel. In other instances, however, missionaries' concerns for the well-being of indigenous or slave populations directly conflicted with the interests of settlers, slave owners, and colonial officials. The popularity of missionary work, especially in Britain, gave the movement considerable political clout, as in the early-nineteenth-century debates over the abolition of slavery. Over time, the relationship between missions and colonial government became less antagonistic and more cooperative. Another of the most powerful legacies of the missionary movement, however, was its tendency to cultivate resistance among indigenous populations. For all of the missionary movement's contributions to the expansion of European culture and colonial power, it made an equally significant contribution to the development of opposition to colonial rule.
Ajayi, J. F. A. Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1841–1891: The Making of a New élite. London, 1965.
Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa. Vols. 1 and 2. Chicago, 1991 and 1997.
LaTourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity. Vol.2. New York, 1975.
Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions. New York, 1986.
Stanley, Brian, ed. Christian Missions and the Enlightenment. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2001.
Walls, Andrew. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Edinburgh, 1996.
Michael A. Rutz
MISSIONS. SeeIndian Missions .