Colonialism Imperialism And Protestant Missions

There has been a surge of interest in the history of Protestant missions in recent years on account of its multiple facets. The study of these missions possesses the capacity to illuminate a wide variety of issues—such as the history of specific Protestant denominations, the relation of mission to the practically simultaneous global expansion of capitalism and imperialism (summed up for many in David Livingstone's slogan "Christianity, commerce, and civilization"), and the place of Christianity in the development of the religious and cultural histories of indigenous peoples.30 Each of these areas of research proves to be more complex and nuanced than previous generations of scholars had appreciated.

Until recently, it was common to argue that Protestant missions created a "state of colonialism" that was the precursor to the advent of a colonial state.31 On this view, the colonization of a region began with the assertion of the superiority of the values and ideas of the missionaries, which created a state of cultural subservience that was amenable to colonialist exploitation. The missionaries prepared the way for Western imperial rule by undermining native confidence in their own ideas, values, and civilizations. Such studies tend to be based on local situations—often in Africa—that are detached from the astonishingly broad range of Protestant missionary enterprises of the nineteenth century.

Yet this traditional view has now been challenged by detailed scholarship that has exposed its many flaws. Many missionaries attempted to subvert the "colonial mentality" that depersonalized indigenous Africans and often viewed them as little more than economic commodities. Perhaps the most interesting example of this is provided by Franz Michael Zahn (1833-1900) of the Bremen Mission in the German west African colony of Togo in the closing years of the nineteenth century. An aristocratic Pietist colleague of Gustav Warneck's, Zahn energetically defended the right of the indigenous population to use their own language, against the opposing views of the colonial authorities, and sought, on the basis of his theological convictions, to reaffirm the basic humanity of the colonized.32

A study of the work of the London Mission Society among the Khoi people of southern Africa has proved particularly important in undermining the simplistic set of binary oppositions set up by the now-discredited "mission as colonialism" approach.33 Far from propounding colonialism, they provided the Khoi with an ideology of resistance against their Afrikaner masters. Furthermore, Protestant missionaries were active in many parts of the world that never came under imperial rule—indeed, in some of these cases missionaries worked to subvert any such possibility.34 It is impossible to present any one case as "typical," as if there were a single controlling narrative.

There is now abundant evidence to suggest that Protestant missionary undertakings were far from the imperialist adventures that older research suggested they were, whether by accident or design. The thesis that Protestant missionaries colluded with or collaborated in the enterprise of empire has a certain superficial plausibility, yet ultimately it rests on a series of problematic assumptions about cause and effects, actions and identity, and above all on a failure to engage with the many agents in such a narrative. It was inevitable that British, German, Dutch, and Danish missionary enterprises would become entangled with the dynamics of empire. And while the clarification of the origins, mechanisms, and outcomes of such interconnections is historically important, it has not shown Protestant missionaries as half-witted collud-ers with the imperium, far less as its willing accomplices.

The nineteenth-century Protestant missionary encounter with other cultures had a significant impact on Protestant identity, and it is important to reflect on how this took place. The interaction of missionaries with culture is typically presented as one-way: the missionary, through an act of intellectual and culture imperialism, imposes his or her views on a native culture. This stereotype of the missionary still lingers in the darker recesses of cultural anthropology, some of whose practitioners persist in portraying them as rigidly ethnocentric.35

The reality is otherwise. While exceptions can easily be identified— and presented as the norm by those with vested interests—it is clear that missionaries were "far from being rampant cultural imperialists" and instead were usually "extremely diffident about imposing their own views."36 The essential point is that the missionary enterprise has always been dialogical and interactive—that is, the missionary physically and mentally inhabits the world of the group to which he or she feels called. The seeds of the notion of cross-cultural mission were laid in this great era of missionary expansion, even if the lessons learned were implicitly absorbed by individual missionaries rather than explicitly stated and analyzed by their successors.37

Moreover, the alleged universality of the Enlightenment, which had been assumed by many Protestant missionaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, began to lose its plausibility.38 Increased understanding of non-Western cultures began to expose the wide variety of cultural and intellectual norms that existed across the world. Eighteenth-century advances in physical geography had not been accompanied by a mapping of the world's rationalities and moralities, which proved to be far from universal. Cultural geography thus proved to be at least as important as its physical counterpart. Indeed, the reports of missionaries in such regions did much to advance the discipline of cultural anthropology, which insisted that each ethnic group had its own essential characteristics that could not be shoehorned into preconceived molds.

The high point of this era of Protestant missions was the World Missionary Conference, held at Edinburgh in 1910. This conference represented a serious attempt to reflect on what had been learned to date and to consider how these lessons might be applied to the future. Enormous effort had been directed into preparation for the conference. There was a sense of urgency and excitement as insights and visions were shared and networks were shaped and expanded.39 Yet with the benefit of hindsight, the conference can be seen to have reinforced existing Protestant paradigms of mission at a time when redirection and review were increasingly necessary.

The missionary movement's best analysts and thinkers worked on the assumption that there was a reasonably homogeneous Christian world, primarily in Europe and North America, that was fully evangelized; beyond it lay at best a partially evangelized world, with many regions that had yet to be evangelized at all, such as Latin America.

While the movement recognized the emergence of a "Native Church" in parts of the world, it saw that church as a tender plant in need of supervision from the West as much as Western resources. Evangelism would remain the business of the "Home Church"—in other words, the spiritually and numerically robust churches of the West. The paradigm of a church-shaped mission remained unaltered, even though increased interdenominational collaboration had broadened the base of the "church" in question. The tasks of mission produced a remarkable consensus among those who attended the conference, which is often regarded, for good reason, as the seed of the subsequent ecumenical movement.

But other, perhaps wiser, voices were not heard. Gustav Warneck did not attend the conference, partly in protest against the preponderance of American and British delegates and theological viewpoints. Warneck and other German thinkers and practitioners regarded the Anglo-American approach as culturally simplistic, being linked as it was to the conversion of individual souls rather than committed to the creation of indigenous churches grounded in the cultural and social realities of the region.40 The church could not be based on Western models, still less embody or proclaim Western norms; instead, the gospel had to be related to and expressed through indigenous social and cultural institutions.

But little came of these ideas. Other, more pressing matters intruded to force them to the margins of Protestant reflections. The great era of Protestant missions came to an end in 1914 with the outbreak of the Great War, as it was then known (now referred to as the First World War). Many of the tentative patterns of collaboration between missionaries across national and denominational boundaries were overwhelmed by a tidal wave of nationalism unleashed by the war and the economic and political uncertainties that ensued.41

It is entirely fitting to regard the outbreak of the First World War as bringing down the curtain on the classic era of Protestantism, when a set of seemingly secure and settled beliefs and assumptions prevailed. As events proved, the twentieth century would see greater change in the movement than ever before—a matter to which we return in the third part of this study. It is now appropriate, however, to probe the inner identity of Protestantism in far greater detail, and so we turn to consider its ideas and attitudes in some depth.

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