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  • Nature and the Godly Empire: Cultural Science and Evangelical Mission in the Pacific, 1795-1850
  • Kerri A. Inglis
Nature and the Godly Empire: Cultural Science and Evangelical Mission in the Pacific, 1795-1850. By Sujit Sivasundaram (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005) 244 pp. $80.00

Sivasundaram considers the experiences of the missionaries from the London Missionary Service in the Pacific Islands to offer a new perspective on the relationship between nineteenth-century science and Christianity. Although science and religion may have been at odds in Europe during this same time period, this study asserts that they were not so "outside the West" (3). Indeed, the author's main argument is that the Pacific evangelical missionaries' "observation, collection and signification [End Page 325] of nature served as an important bridge between the two," largely because these missionaries "saw themselves as practitioners of science, while their knowledge was avidly consumed by a religious populace" (2–3). The author pays "serious attention to the symbolic and material functions of natural knowledge" but more specifically to how the evangelicals of this era related to nature in the Pacific (8). It is important to note that Sivasundaram characterizes the early nineteenth-century missionary in this study as "an individual who meditated on nature, educated children, translated scripture and preached on the Sabbath"; "such practices defined [the evangelical's] sense of self and the community to which he belonged" (10).

Sivasundaram covers the emergence of the London Missionary Society (lms), its attitudes toward learning, and the relationship between colonialism and missions in the nineteenth-century, as well as how nature and scientific method combined with reading, writing, preaching, and meditating to form the missionary identity. He also explores converts' adoption of this "theological language of nature," whether it be through "creative appropriation" or "defined resistance" (10). The second part of the book examines nature as a public arena—namely, the separation and ordering of space, the clothing of converts, and the transporting of artifacts. Sivasundaram asserts that artifacts transported between the Pacific and London "meant that the environment could serve as a common ground of knowledge between missionaries, their converts and their supporters" (11).

Sivasundaram employs a variety of sources throughout his work (an lms board game, missionary letters, and mission illustrations, periodicals, and maps, along with other traditional materials) to establish his argument. His creative case studies include the depiction of a sloth and a beaver for evangelical/educational purposes and the linking of the natural history of the environment with concepts of conversion, civilization, and death. But the absence of Pacific Islander voices throughout the work weakens many of his conclusions. The few Pacific Islander viewpoints that appear first pass through a European/American lens.

Nonetheless, this study of how European missionaries employed nature to instruct converts and interpret God's designs brings a new layer of analysis to encounters between Europeans and Pacific Islanders. Sivasundaram offers strong evidence that "nature was a public site of theology" for the European missionaries in the Pacific and that "the missionaries' science could justify a range of activities from control and civilisation to conversion" (176, 13). Challenging the often cited dichotomy between religion and science, Sivasundaram convincingly argues that, at least in the Pacific, "missionary natural history was a form of knowledge that cannot be strictly categorized as religion, science or colonialism" (213).

Kerri A. Inglis
University of Hawai'i, Hilo
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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9169
Print ISSN
0022-1953
Pages
pp. 325-326
Launched on MUSE
2007-08-16
Open Access
No
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