- Nature and the Godly Empire: Science and Evangelical Mission in the Pacific, 1795–1850
Nature and the Godly Empire is an ambitious, ingenious, erudite, and well-written attempt to explain the scientific role of Christian missions featuring the work of the London Missionary Society (LMS) in the southeast Pacific. Sujit Sivasundaram takes as his starting point Richard Drayton's suggestion "that Christian ideologies of man's place in nature lay at the taproot of imperial expansion" (p. 8). The thesis unfolds in six substantial chapters, four devoted to the way in which missionaries "engaged in nature" or used popular science and natural history in their educational and civilizing role, and two in which the promoters of mission "ordered and displayed nature to promote missionary rhetoric." The basic argument is spelled out in a thirteen-page introduction that is essential reading in order to know where Sivasundaram is coming from.
The work is highly derivative, drawing on a vast range of secondary sources and critical literature, which has both advantages and disadvantages. Most of his original research relates to the correspondence between Sir Joseph Banks and the Reverend Thomas Haweis, LMS files relating mostly to the Reverend John Williams, and early nineteenth-century [End Page 532] publications such as the Evangelical Magazine, missionary sermons, and reports.
The advantage of drawing on the modern critical literature is that Sivasundaram is able to engage in discourse with those writing in related fields. The major disadvantage is that he has absorbed errors and misconceptions perpetrated by other scholars, particularly in the fields of religious history and representational studies. He acknowledges a debt to those Cambridge church historians who see the modern missionary movement as deriving in part from the Enlightenment, a position that is difficult to sustain without forcing or straining the argument.1 Most of Sivasundaram's terms take on esoteric meanings. Science is redefined in the missionary context primarily as natural historical practices, and we are told that "science was indistinguishable from religion or empire" (p. 11). Empire, of course was not the British Empire or the French Empire but, in some respects, the colonialism of the mind, the taming of the Other.
Much attention is given to the "theology of nature" as if it was peculiar to the evangelical way of thinking. May I suggest that what is presented as a "theology of nature" is in reality a scriptural way of thinking, and similar examples could be found in Catholic and non-Evangelical Anglican writings. Indeed the Anglican divines William Paley, J. G. Wood, and the founders of the Oxford movement expressed even stronger theologies of nature.
Sivasundaram has been persuaded by denominational historians to adopt erroneous views of Evangelical church history. Although his coverage of the origins of the LMS is mostly correct, he fails to recognize that the Society was founded primarily by Calvinistic Methodists and that the "fundamental principle" (deemed to be an ecumenical provision) was necessary because "Whitefield's Methodists" were serving as clergy or pastors within the episcopal, presbyterian, and independent churches. To refer to Thomas Haweis as "an Anglican minister with Methodist sympathies" (p. 101) is like calling John Wesley "an Anglican minister with Methodist sympathies." Many Methodists, both Wesleyan and Calvinist, remained in the Church of England until the 1820s.
Sivasundaram treats all those he labels "evangelicals" as if they shared the same views; he seems to suppose that they all read the Evangelical Magazine, that they were all "moderate Calvinists," and that [End Page 533] they all strove for "sanctification." The Evangelical Magazine was the main magazine of the Calvinistic Methodists, but only one of a number of Evangelical periodicals. Many "evangelicals" were hyper-Calvinists and others were Arminians. "Sanctification" was a theological term associated with Wesleyans rather than Calvinists. References to the "Revd William Wilberforce" (pp. 150–151) are surprising in view of that distinguished layman's reputation.
Much of the book's novelty draws on the methodology of representation. Because the author is not...