[Marxism] Christianity and African Imperialism Query

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 2 11:53:31 MDT 2005

"The Missionary Enterprise in the Nineteenth Century: An Overview"

Andrew Porter

Altruism and Imperialism:
The Western Religious and Cultural Missionary Enterprise in the Middle East
Middle East Institute
Conference: Bellagio Italy
August 2000

However altruistic missions or missionaries may have thought themselves, 
imperial, colonial, and indigenous governments often thought otherwise. One 
might say, certainly in the British case, that the natural condition of 
missions and governments was predominantly one of mutual suspicion and 
wariness. In the period of British missionary revival in the 1790s, most 
missionaries thought they were probably better off without the state and 
its aid, and the imperial government was deeply suspicious of the popular 
religious enthusiasm associated with missions for the threat it posed to 
social and political order, both at home or, for instance, in Britain's 
Indian provinces. However in the course of the next two centuries, at 
different times and in various places, these attitudes varied considerably 
from the mutually supportive to the deeply hostile. If this shifting, 
complex picture points to the impossibility of giving a straight answer to 
the common question 'was missionary enterprise a tool of imperialism?', it 
suggests the value of another, namely 'in what circumstances and why did 
missions and imperial authorities or indigenous governments come to rely on 
each other?' 15

In the British case, I would argue that it is possible to detect four 
over-lapping chronological phases in the relationship from the 1790s to the 
1950s. The first until c.1840 was marked by discomfort on both sides. The 
Revd. Sydney Smith spoke for many critics of overseas missions when he 
ridiculed missionary antics in 1808. Not only did the 'wise and rational 
part of the Christian ministry find they have enough to do at home', but 
the missionaries themselves were no more than 'little detachments of 
maniacs, benefiting us much more by their absence, than the [heathen] by 
their beliefs'. 16

 From the 1850s to the 1890s, the two sides moved closer together. In part 
this again reflected the facts of social life: missionaries were by now 
much more 'respectable', their societies well known, their supporters drawn 
far more widely from the middle and upper classes. However, local 
conditions — for example in Africa during the scramble for territory after 
1870 - contributed much to the improvement. Security was of critical 
importance, for instance to missionaries in Uganda and elsewhere faced with 
evident local resentment of Christianity and the expansion of Islam. 
Government officials with little local knowledge welcomed the influence and 
contacts the missions had already forged with local society. Reflecting on 
East and Central Africa, the first Commissioner of British Central Africa, 
Harry Johnston, wrote how missions 'strengthen our hold over the country, 
they spread the use of the English language, they induct the natives into 
the best kind of civilization, and in fact each each mission is an essay in 
colonization'. 17 Similarly, a Wesleyan minister on the Gold Coast during 
the Asante war of 1894-5 saw British forces as representing 'Justice and 
Humanity'; 'the British Army and Navy are today used by God for the 
accomplishment of His purposes'. 18

As partition ended, the relationship changed again, the two sides moving 
apart once more; tensions opened up as colonial administrations settled 
down. To some extent this resulted from the newly-intensified criticism by 
missionaries and others of the consequences of European penetration, with 
its excessive violence, immorality, trade in arms and alcohol, and its 
corrupting effects on African society. Renewed tensions also arose from the 
fact that some missionaries — such as members of the Universities' Mission 
to Central Africa — shared the new and more sympathetic view of African 
societies and their potential which began to gain ground at the end of the 
century. British missions also encountered growing hostility from German, 
French and Belgian colonial governments, who scarcely trusted their own 
missions let alone those of rival powers. In British territories, 
missionary schools were a source of conflict wherever colonial authorities 
supported the cost of education and therefore expected to have some 
influence over the curriculum. British officials above all in Islamic areas 
— notably the Sudan and Northern Nigeria - were fearful of missionaries 
offending local peoples, and preferred to exclude them rather than risk 

The final full colonial phase found both sides manoeuvring for advantage. 
Confronted with a common dispute over African marriages, one official 
defined his dilemma. 'On the one hand one desires to rule indirectly 
through the Native Administration and therefore to uphold the prestige of 
the chiefs, and on the other hand one must allow full scope for Christian 
missionaries who have no love for the Native Administration. The two aims 
are hard to reconcile.' 19 Against a background of changing patterns of 
philanthropic giving in the metropole, missions with their small resources 
became more dependent than ever on government aid to their ever more costly 
schools and missions. Yet, by 1950 they were also coming to see in these 
links a liability as the prospect of political independence and African 
nationalist governments loomed. Protecting the future of the churches or 
post-independence political and social influence while safe-guarding their 
existing work presented missions with a serious dilemma, and often obliged 
them to negotiate a new set of collaborative alliances.

The relationship of missions and governments could also vary not only over 
time but from territory to territory. In Sierra Leone, the population of 
freed slaves and the colonial government were happy to support them, 
relying on their schools, their teaching, and their administrative help, to 
restore a little of the coherence so obviously lacking in language, 
religion and ethics. The development of West African 'Creole' or 'Krio' 
society owed much to Christian missionary and evangelistic efforts. Cape 
Colony by contrast offers an instance of white settler society in which 
some missionaries pressed vigorously for better white treatment of the 
black population. Starting with Johannes Van der Kemp, members of the 
London Missionary Society established a tradition of criticism sustained 
over a century until the 1890s. They went so far as to call for imperial 
government intervention to protect African rights by curbing territorial 
expansion and local colonial abuse of power. It was a tradition refurbished 
by other denominations in the mid-twentieth century. 20

It is also notable that missionary attitudes to imperial and colonial 
authority varied with the reception they received from particular 
extra-European societies. Commercial societies, like the trading states of 
West Africa, frequently welcomed and often asked for missionaries, unlike 
slave-trading states such as Zanzibar and many pastoral societies 
throughout Africa, who saw them as essentially hostile or irrelevant. In 
places, missions could be an important factor in the local balance of 
power, as on the Gold Coast where they were welcomed by coastal peoples as 
offering a measure of portection against the Asante. Some states — the 
Ndebele, or Nguni — were not only extremely resistant to missionary 
approaches but were felt to threaten the safety of missions. In such cases, 
missionaries often came to favour forceful intervention to bring the rulers 
down, their temporary suspension of benevolence being justified in pursuit 
of a long-term altruism. In rural inland China, local evangelists were 
welcomed and local churches emerged as vitally important sources of 
protection against widespread disorder or natural disasters which Chinese 
authorities were unable or unwilling to control. 21

full: http://www.ciaonet.org/conf/mei01/poa01.html



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