- Converting Colonialism: Visions and Realities in Mission History, 1706–1914
In a political and rhetorical climate in which colonialism is thought to be both oppressive and illegitimate, Dana Robert and her contributors aim to untangle the study of Christian missions from the study of colonial governmentality. They refuse, writes Robert in her introduction, to accept the “timeworn generalizations about the destructive impact of missionaries as carriers of Western ideas into Africa and Asia” (p. 6). Instead, Robert and her colleagues show, through a series of case studies, that missionaries aimed to “convert” colonialism, co-opting aspects of imperial government while also challenging that which was prejudicial to “gospel values” (p. 4). The book’s singular focus on missionary agencies allows the contributors to illuminate the creative work in which evangelists were engaged, but also obscures the intellectual and political labors of African and Asian converts.
There are at least three areas in which Robert’s book usefully advances our understanding of Christianity and imperialism. First, Robert and her contributors show that mission organizations were forums of knowledge production, not bastions of conformity. Missionaries performed anthropological research, learned vernacular languages, and published their work. Among nineteenth-century British missionaries the impulse toward political and ethnographic analysis was fed, as Andrew Porter’s chapter shows, by missionaries’ conviction that the new millennium was close at hand. Evangelicals [End Page 581] kept an eye on the events of world, especially on the upheavals of the Ottoman Empire, looking for evidence heralding Christ’s return. They also argued over the politics of missiology. Peter Williams’s essay shows how during the late-nineteenth century Anglicans promoting a racially integrated church challenged the missiological theory of Henry Venn, who had in an earlier time hoped for autonomous African and Asian churches. Mission agencies were not simply vehicles of religious indoctrination but were platforms from which Europeans and their converts generated novel forms of theological and political reasoning.
Roberts and her colleagues make a second contribution by showing mission organizations to be networks of exchange, binding Christians in Europe together with co-travelers in South Asia, Africa, and other fields. Daniel Jeyaraj’s excellent chapter shows how Protestant missionaries in southern India shaped the intellectual milieu of eighteenth-century central Europe. Agents of the mission in Tranquebar regularly published reports on their work, which were circulated widely among the German-speaking intelligentsia in Europe. Their linguistic and ethnographic work informed European scholars’ developing view of oriental cultures. For German Protestants, missionary work constituted a circuit of exchanges through which novel ideas about language and religion flowed.
These essays make a third contribution by highlighting the role that Indian, African, and Chinese agents played in the propagation of the Christian faith. It may not be controversial to think, with R.G. Tiedemann, that China or any other part of the world was “not evangelized by missionaries, but largely by the Chinese themselves” (p. 240). But it is good that this book presents some evidence that challenges missionary-centered interpretations of Christianity in Africa and Asia. Eleanor Jackson offers a series of pithy biographies for the Bengali Christians who worked to advance the faith in their homeland during the nineteenth century; Jacob Ajayi highlights Christian converts’ efforts to influence government institutions in nineteenth-century western Africa; and Tiedemann shows how long-established Christian communities in nineteenth-century China vied with a new wave of European missionaries for ecclesiastical and practical authority.
This book can profitably be read as a contribution to the growing historiography that expands the boundaries of European and American history. Robert and her colleagues show that missionaries were not simply extending an already existing culture to colonized territories. Their scholarly and religious work was collaborative in nature, drawing Africans and Asians into a transcontinental discourse about language and religion. However, these historians work mostly with documents produced in European languages by missionary organizations and rarely cite material...