Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Missions and Empire

A common complaint of Christian mission is that it has often been a compliant agent of European imperialism. Although there is some truth in that at times, it is by no means a defining characterization of Christian mission. According to David Bebbington argues that the overriding result of global Christian missions was not the growth of empire but the implanting of Christian faith in fresh lands, often not through the missionaries themselves but local indigenous Christians. He argues:
"One of the misrepresentations of Livingstone in later legend was that he was an advocate of the type of empire that emerged in the last third of the nineteenth century. The belief is part of a broader association of the missionary enterprise with the spread of the British Empire that has become a commonplace. It is held that missions were the ideological arm of territorial expansion in the period. Certainly evangelicals saw imperial advance as an opportunity for the gospel. British Wesleyans, for instance, applauded their Australian co-religionists [sic] in 1860 for 'laying foundations of a great Protestant empire'. Furthermore, the protection of indigenous peoples from the slave trade and other forms of oppression could seem a worthy humanitarian motive for annexation. Yet there was no simple correlation between missions and empire. Sometimes, as in Nigeria at the end of the century, the British authorities discouraged evangelistic effort since it might cause public disorder. Missionaries themselves were often wary of the colonial authorities because they might do as much to corrupt the peoples under their care as to protect them. Within British territory, the advance of evangelical usually owed little or nothing to government patronage, which in a forml sense had all but disappeared by the middle of the [19th] century. There are instances, conversley, where British Christians established flourishing missions outside British territory and even outside British sphere of influence. The Baptist mission in the Congo, which became the personal apanage of the King of the Belgians, is a case in point. There was a marked difference between Anglicans, who rarely saw drawbacks to the expanison of empire, and Nonconformists, who leant to a pacific policy abroad and so commonly opposed imperial wars. Thus slaughter on the north-west frontier of India was denounced by the Nonconformist newspaper the Christian World in 1897 as 'A National Crime'. Although the distinction between the two parties within evangelicalism was eroded in the last few years of the century, when many Nonconformists were caught up in the popular imperialism of the times, here remained among them vestiges of resistance to the growth of empire. Consequently, the relationship between missions and empire is much more ambigous than it is usually supposed to be. Evangelicals were by no means consisten apologists for painting the map red." - David Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism, 2005, pp. 106-107.

1 comment:

Mike Bull said...

Very interesting.

It reminded me of this animated map: