Friday, November 30

Christian Missionaries and the British Empire!- A Book Review

Many people have this rather fond idea (hope?) that the British Empire was a benign secular liberal democratic force. I have referred to the fact that the Indian Mutiny of 1857 was partly due to Christian Evangelism as proven by much recent scholarship but many, quite learned people, have simply refused to listen to this. But then again, when it comes to religion, even learned people's brains seems to dribble away.

Here's a review of a recent book on this topic (and it has gone into my amazon wish list!:)):

Read and ponder about how the links of religion and state still exist.

Andrew Porter. _Religion versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries
and Overseas Expansion, 1700-1914_. Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 2004. xviii + 373 pp. Maps, index. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN
978-0-7190-2822-9; $31.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7190-2823-6.

Reviewed for H-Albion by Roger B. Beck, Department of History, Eastern Illinois University

God and Caesar

It seems so simple. As Jesus said in the Gospels, "Render unto Caesar
the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's"
(Luke 20:25). But for the Christian missionaries who went forth to
spread the gospel in "heathen lands," Caesar was always nearby, and it
was not always clear who was due what.

In _Religion versus Empire_, Andrew Porter is concerned with this
question from the outset: "The subject of this book is at once the
entanglement of British missions with Britain's empire and the extent of
their separate development" (p. 1). Porter provides a vivid illustration
of this tight intertwining of empire and mission in an example from
South Africa. As the first four London Missionary Society missionaries
were leaving for Cape Town, they found themselves without a ship and
having to ask for imperial assistance. They eventually sailed on the
convict transport, _Hillsborough_, bound for Botany Bay, arriving at the
Cape in March 1799. Porter reflects that their dependence on this free
passage represents in a stark but simple way "the impossibility for
missionaries of escaping the embrace of government, whatever illusions
they might entertain as to the likelihood or desirability of
independence." They had the "expectation that they could take advantage
of a government offer or facilities (however apparently 'providential')
without risk of compromise or obligation," and Porter observes that such
naïve notions proved to be "perennially recurring features of
missionary thinking and much traveled pathways to 'political'
involvement with government" (p. 76).

Porter also seeks to perform a much needed amalgamation of three
"relatively distinct and enormous literatures, the first on Britain's
imperial history, another on Britain's domestic religious and
ecclesiastical past and that concerned with the local histories of
distinct regions or colonial societies around the globe." These three
literatures have evolved quite distinctly and yet the study of
"Christian missionary expansion, whether as agents of British expansion
overseas, as expressions of popular and provincial British religious
commitment or as a critical influence in shaping local politics and
identities," has the potential to both broaden our knowledge of each
area, and also erect bridges between and among all three (p. 7).

This tour-de-force by the Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at King's
College, London, is the most definitive account to date of British
imperial expansion working, and not working, hand-in-hand with the
creation and expansion of international British missionary networks.
These networks are the central focus of Porter's narrative, a narrative
that reaches back into the eighteenth century and forward into the
twentieth, to present a complete picture of this imperial dance.

Porter begins with a broad overview of missionary practices and
precedents from 1701 to 1789. The majority of recent British missionary
scholarship focuses on the period after the publication of William
Carey's famous essay, _An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to
use means for the Conversion of the Heathens_, in 1792, and his
departure on mission to India in 1793. Carey's essay marked the
beginning of the modern Protestant missionary activity; that is,
missions primarily to Africa, India, and Asia, particularly China.
Porter returns us to an earlier period to review British missionary
activity among the Indians and Africans in the American colonies to
demonstrate that "by the time Carey set sail, developments in Britain's
Atlantic and Caribbean colonies had long and amply illustrated the chief
missionary problems and possibilities which were constantly to recur and
shape the connections of missions and empire" (p. 16).

Porter's second chapter looks at the reorganization of missionary
enterprise from 1790 to 1812, a period when British interests begin to
expand around the globe and a re-evaluation was made of how to interact
with the native peoples they met and what responsibilities they had
toward them. For many Christians, but not all, it was clear that
Christianity had to be carried to these foreign lands, and it is during
this period that many of the great missionary societies were formed:
Carey's Baptist Missionary Society (1792); the London Missionary Society
(1795); the Edinburgh (Scottish) and Glasgow Missionary Society (1796);
and the forerunner of the Church Missionary Society (1799). In this
period, the links between imperial expansion and missionary expansion
were quite tenuous. Both groups were feeling their way literally through
new territory. Porter's observes that "in this period it is difficult
not to be struck by the comparatively insignificant place occupied by
empire in the minds of many evangelicals. To a degree that at times
could leave onlookers quite bemused and evangelicals themselves open to
ridicule, their thinking was dominated by the concept of an
all-embracing, superintending Providence" (pp. 58-59). The youthful
exuberance and sense of enthusiasm in spreading the Gospel is evident in
all the missionary literature of the time. There are very few doubts
about the rightness of the mission, and little thought given to empire,
unless it be the Kingdom of God.

In chapter 3, Porter reviews the development of the initial terms of
engagement between British mission and empire from 1800-30. By the
beginning of the 1800s missionaries were discussing the question of
whether to "follow the flag" or to strike out on their own. "Colonialism
was by no means necessarily conductive to missionary activity" (p. 64),
but these newly formed organizations, under funded, understaffed and
with very limited knowledge of the world, frequently had little choice
but to follow the flag. Hopping a transport ship, as the South African
example above illustrates, was often the only option available. "There
was to be no escape for the missions," Porter notes, "from encounter and
engagement with, even dependence on, governments, whether imperial or
colonial. At first, however, neither side sensed where events were
leading and neither state nor mission societies wanted dealings with
each other" (p. 65).

In chapter 4, Porter connects the three fields of historical
study--imperial, British domestic, and overseas local--with missionary
activity from 1800 to 1835. One example he cites is that of Dr. John
Philip and his battle with both the local British imperial officials at
the Cape and the local white settlers over black labor and black rights.
In this instance, Philip appealed back to Britain, where the
increasingly powerful London Missionary Society and the Clapham Sect
could influence domestic opinion and support Philip's pleas to
Parliament. Most of the missionary societies gained strength and
membership during this period and this growth related to the "continuing
debate about the meaning of 'civilization' and especially the
possibility of civilizing, or improving the conditions of, non-European
peoples" (p. 92). The debate soon encompassed the "three
C's"--Christianity, civilization, and commerce--and the questions as to
which of the three "either could, or should, be introduced first, in
what forms and with what degree of overlap" (p. 93).

By 1850, there were in place global networks of British Protestant
mission activity. In chapter 5, Porter describes how these networks
developed between 1814 and 1850, "fostered by the active pursuit of
common goals and the intermarriage of members of missionary families"
(p. 117). These global networks were part of a general expansion and, as
Porter calls it, a "new wave" of missionary activity that occurred in
the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. This "new wave" was due, as Porter shows in
chapter 6, to the fact that the missionary societies "were riding high
on the back of the humanitarian tide" during that period (p. 137). By
mid-century, however, the enthusiasm and excitement of the earlier days
were waning as it became more and more evident that the primary goal of
bringing indigenous individuals to Christ was not succeeding as rapidly
as planned or expected. In chapter 7, Porter discusses how the search
for converts and success or failure "always reflected local social and
political conditions" (p. 164). And even in those places where
conversion had been somewhat successful, little consideration had been
given to the configuration of the indigenous churches, the future roles
of the converts in those churches, or indeed, the future of the missions

In chapter 8, Porter focuses on the development of the "faith" missions
in the second half of the nineteenth century as one response to the
decline in support and enthusiasm felt at mid-century. These evolved
from a desire to return to a simpler approach to mission work, and
reforms included the replacement of the term "missionary society" with
"mission," the dismantlement of the societies' home organizations, and a
straightforward approach to fundraising that took in donations and sent
them directly out into the field. Theologically there was a shift as
well. Missionary societies in the first half of the century generally
held a post-millennial ideal that expected missionary activity to aid in
the ushering in of Christ's Second Coming, and was rooted in the
Enlightenment ideas of progress. This post-millennial ideal was replaced
in some quarters in the second half of the century by a pre-millennial
ideal that viewed the world more pessimistically and expected "Christ's
imminent return to judgment, _after_ which the millennium would dawn.
For the missionary the pre-millennialist imperative was to push ahead
with evangelism on the widest possible front before the Second Coming
occurred" (p. 194). A common characteristic of these faith missions was
"a determination to operate in isolated and unfamiliar territory, as far
as possible beyond any European influence or colonial rule and at a
distance from other missionary bodies" (p. 224). China, the interior of
Africa, and the Muslim world all became prime targets of faith mission
activity. Thus while it has been the fashion for historians to perceive
closer links between the missionary effort and imperialism in the second
half of the nineteenth century, Porter shows that "many missions devised
wholly different plans for recovery and advance" (p. 224).

Despite the wide appeal of the faith missions, from 1860 to 1895 "for
most evangelicals ... the future lay not in wholesale rejection of the
recent past and the mounting of new kinds of mission but in the revival
and adaptation of existing and more familiar traditions" (p. 225). In
chapter 9, Porter describes the strategies and activities of the two
wings of evangelical Anglicanism represented by the Universities'
Mission to Central Africa and the Church Missionary Society. Chapter 10
is a wide-ranging discussion of missionary activity during the high age
of imperialism that demonstrates how little British imperial motives in
this period corresponded with the theory and practice of mission. As the
century drew to a close then, "an important part of the missionary
movement's attempts to sustain its appeal and generate renewed support
thus involved its re-appropriation of the secular humanitarian goals so
significant to its progress in the first half of the nineteenth century"
(p. 315).

These secular humanitarian goals, Porter argues in chapter 11, gave rise
to a significant degree of "anti-imperialism" among Protestant missions
in the two decades before the Great War. Missionaries held to a
continued belief in the fundamental unity of humanity. This belief put
them at odds with the racist and Social Darwinian theorizing evolving as
the imperialist scramble reached its zenith. In his final chapter,
Porter reflects on the broad conclusions that might be drawn from his
study, and what directions future research might take. In the end, and
as the reference to giving unto Caesar at the beginning of this review
suggests, "missionaries might not advocate empire, but were often
associated with institutions or beliefs identified by local peoples with
imperialism" (p. 316). But, as Porter demonstrates in this sweeping
analysis of the connections and disjunctions between religion and
empire, "although missions could not avoid empire, they were determined
to put it in its place" (p. 330).

All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!!!

1 comment:

Mabs said...

Thanks for the very good review. Here is a good addition discussing Porter's Generic Strategies. I hope you find it helpful as well.