Missionaries


Missionaries
   Missionaries played a major, albeit complicated and unofficial, role in the new imperialism of the nineteenth century. Until the 1820s, missionary activity was largely confined to existing colonial holdings in the New World, coastal regions of China, and portions of South East Asia. In Asia, obstacles to further expansion included prohibitions by the British and Dutch East India Companies on missionary activity in their holdings, lest it alienate potential trade partners and interfere with commerce. As for Africa, missionaries were discouraged from moving beyond existing mission fields in Portuguese Angola and Mozambique by a combination of physical danger from disease, African resistance, and opposition from practitioners of the transatlantic slave trade who worried about the effects that evangelical efforts would have on their operations.
   The onset of the Industrial Revolution and the success of the abolitionist movement changed all that. Europe’s Industrial Revolution not only estranged workers from religion, it also created a host of social problems including alcoholism, declining standards of living, and growing crime rates. Churches responded to these threats by developing temperance movements, schools, hospitals, orphanages, and urban missions to return the poor to God. As these European-based mission societies took shape, their members began talking about the need to expand their efforts and evangelize among so-called heathen populations elsewhere in the world. These calls gained additional impetus from the abolitionist movement, which highlighted the horrors of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. When the East India Company’s charter was amended in 1813 to allow missionary activity in India, the floodgates opened and missionaries rushed out to both Asia and Africa. By the early nineteenth century, Protestant missions from the United States and various European nations were active in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Catholics, on the other hand, were still reeling from the effects of the French Revolution and the dissolution of the Jesuit order and therefore preferred to concentrate the bulk of their efforts until the 1870s on winning people back to the faith in Europe. Thereafter interdenominational rivalries ensured that Catholic missionaries flocked to new mission fields around the world in an effort to make up for lost time.
   Once in place, missionaries like David Livingstone helped promote interest in potential colonial areas through their work as explorers. Others helped pioneer ethnography and anthropology by studying and writing up their observations of indigenous cultures and societies. In the process, these early scholars made European business concerns aware of the commercial possibilities of colonial possessions. Missionaries soon joined business leaders in creating powerful colonial lobbying groups that pressured European parliaments to take on new colonies, arguing that only European rule could provide the necessary political stability that would enable both evangelical and commercial activities to flourish. For example, missionaries, merchants, and land speculators successfully joined forces and induced the British government to assume formal control over New Zealand in 1840. As French participation in the Second Opium War and their invasion of Indochina illustrates, the need to protect missionaries from indigenous peoples could also lead to additional colonial expansion. Once the late nineteenth century scrambles for territory began, missionaries not only cheered on Europe’s acquisitions in the belief they would facilitate evangelical work by providing political stability, some also actively facilitated colonial expansion by serving as translators during negotiations with interior peoples. The most notorious and controversial example concerns efforts by Cecil Rhodes ’s British South Africa Company to secure mineral rights from Lobengula, king of the Ndbele in what is now Zimbabwe. Although Charles Helm, a member of the London Missionary Society, attested to having fully translated and explained the details of the negotiations leading up to the October 1888 Rudd Concession, Lobengula’s subsequent repudiation of the agreement on the grounds that it was inaccurate gave rise to allegations that Helm deliberately mistranslated the document to facilitate a British takeover of Lobengula’s lands.
   Regardless of their location, missionaries played an active role in shaping and carrying out the New Imperialism’s so-called “civilizing mission.” Christian missions used the pulpit, schools, and hospitals to spread their religious message and teach the indigenous peoples about Western civilization and cultural norms. For example, missions argued against polygamy, polytheism, initiation rites, and secret societies, while simultaneously extolling the virtues of literacy, science, Christian morality, and Western notions of child rearing. Missionary societies also paid their own way by creating trading companies, workshops, and school gardens that were designed to generate working capital and teach Western notions of discipline and a European work ethic. Although Protestant missionaries were more likely than their Catholic counterparts to make regular use of local languages in churches and schools, all missions played a role in aiding the spread of European languages through colonized areas by offering at least some foreign language classes in their schools.
   In addition to aiding the importation of European languages to colonized areas, missionaries also helped spread European gender norms as part of the civilizing mission. As products of their times, the governing boards of most missionary societies found it difficult to overcome Victorian notions about the frailty of women, their suitability for work outside the home, and the dangers of exposing them to unsupervised attention from natives and male missionaries alike. Nevertheless, most mission societies concluded that some female missionaries were a necessity if they were to successfully reach native women whose own societies and cultures often placed them out of reach of male missionaries. This was especially important given the prevailing wisdom that converting native women ensured future generations of converts as mothers passed on their beliefs to their children. As a result, missions recruited men and married couples most heavily, but they also turned to single women when necessary to reach as many potential converts as possible. Regardless of their marital status, female missionaries serving in colonies found themselves in an ambiguous position. Although they were often given more freedom to travel and work outside the home than if they had stayed in the metropole, female missionaries also faced strict limits on acceptable behavior, were expected to be obedient to heavily patriarchal mission hierarchies, and were usually confined to tasks like nursing, teaching school, and running Bible study classes.
   Western women were not the only ones affected by mission work. Efforts to reach out to native women often upset the balance of indigenous societies in many different and often conflicting ways. Missionaries often held up polygamy, payment of bride price, and women’s involvement in agricultural labor as examples of native backwardness. Consequently missions worked hard to abolish all three. Unfortunately, the campaign against polygamy often forced converts to abandon all but their first wives. Similarly, the combination of missionary emphasis on the notion that a woman’s primary role was to be a wife and mother plus ongoing campaigns against the custom of men paying a bride price when marrying, a concept seen in the West as a form of slavery, and the fight to end the use of women as agricultural laborers undermined the value of women in many native societies, as their participation in remunerative work raising crops was no longer being acknowledged. Missions also found that their efforts to provide native women with an education, both academic and practical, often aroused protest from traditionalists in native society who openly complained that educated women upset the natural social order by becoming independent and less obedient to their husbands and fathers.
   Missionary relations with European merchants, settlers, and government offi-cials were ambivalent. In some areas, such as German Cameroon, Catholic missionaries were not only welcomed by merchants and government authorities, they were given active support in the form of land grants, transportation, cheap supplies, and advice. In French and Belgian colonies, however, Catholics fared less well. Leopold II banned them entirely from the Congo, a prohibition that lasted until 1908. The eruption of turn-of-the-century anticlerical sentiment in France led to a steady decline in relations between Catholic missionaries and colonial officials throughout the French Empire. Personality clashes and fierce interdenominational rivalries also played an intermittent role in souring official views of missionaries as the different societies engaged in a war of rhetoric, accusations and counter accusations against one another in the struggle to win the hearts and minds of indigenous peoples.
   As if that were not enough, missionaries often created new problems that tarnished their reputations in the eyes of settlers, traders, and administrators alike. Not only were missionaries tainted by the whiff of having “gone native” as a product of their living in close proximity to colonized peoples, the expansion of their mission fields and their many reform campaigns sometimes provoked violent uprisings from native peoples that not only had to be put down with force but also adversely affected commerce. The Indian Mutiny, for example, was triggered in part by allegations that the British were actively seeking to convert Indian soldiers to Christianity. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, missionaries anxious to regain the trust of native peoples and expand the pace of their conversion efforts began championing native rights and argued against the sale of alcohol, the use of forced labor, and the expropriation of native lands. These activities often led to charges of unpatriotic behavior and earned the missionary community the enmity of the white colonial population.
   Native reactions to missionaries were similarly ambivalent. Missionaries were successful in gaining real converts among colonized peoples, but many chose to take advantage of mission schools and hospitals simply in an effort to better their own circumstances and were quite astute at exploiting interdenominational rivalries to get what they wanted. In Cameroon, for example, pupils of mission schools frequently threatened to defect to rival denominations unless their demands for more academic subjects in mission school curricula were met. By the second generation of contact with missionaries, colonized peoples often chafed under restrictions placed on them by white missionaries. Disputes over leadership roles within local churches led some African congregations to split and develop into the so-called Ethiopian churches of West and South Africa. In other areas, indigenous peoples fused elements of Christianity with traditional culture and religious practices to create their own distinct religious movements. Examples include China’s Taiping Rebellion and the proliferation of African Independent Churches .
   Although missionaries continued to play an active role in colonial life through the twentieth century, their activities were seriously curtailed by the onset of the two World Wars. The export of hostilities to colonies combined with chronic shortages of manpower, supplies, and funds forced missions throughout the European colonial empires to curtail their activities. The post-1945 rise of colonial nationalism and the granting of independence to former colonies in the 1960s further complicated missionary work, as former colonies sought to shake off symbols of colonial domination.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Beidelman, T. O. Colonial Evangelism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982;
    Bickers, Robert, and Rosemary Seton, eds. Missionary Encounters: Sources and Issues. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 1996;
    Christensen, Torben, and William R. Hutchinson, eds. Missionary Ideologies in the Imperialist Era 1880–1920. Copenhagen: Aros, 1982;
    Etherington, Norman . Missions and Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005;
    Hastings, Adrian. The Church in Africa: 1450–1950. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994;
    Holtrop, Pieter, and Hugh McLeod, eds. Missions and Missionaries. Rochester: Boydell Press, 2000;
    Porter, A. N. Religion versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700–1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004;
    Sundkler, Bengt, and Christopher Steed. A History of the Church in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
   KENNETH J. OROSZ

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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