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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 370-372
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Christian Missions and the Enlightenment
Christian Missions and the Enlightenment. Edited by Brian Stanley. [Studies in the History of Christian Missions.] (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2001. Pp. xi, 246. $45.00.)
Christian Missions and the Enlightenment addresses an issue of central importance in missionary history. Brian Stanley has assembled a team of essayists [End Page 370] who all have pertinent yet distinct things to say. They offer not just geographical range, but also contrasting yet complementary approaches, and for once it appears that the contributors have both read and attempted to engage with each others' articles.
Stanley's introduction not only highlights the importance of the theme, but also cautions against too readily attributing the distinguishing characteristics of late eighteenth-century Protestant missions to Enlightenment influences. Stanley suggests that the two most significant Enlightenment legacies to these missions were a concentration on the individual as the object of missionary endeavor, and a confidence in the regenerative capacity of rational knowledge for the whole of humanity which accompanied—sometimes, but not always, uneasily—the characteristic evangelical emphasis on the redemptive power of faith.
The essays that follow can be divided into four rough groups. Two pieces discuss important themes across the whole range of Protestant missionary activity. Andrew Wall's study of the missions in a European context underlines the need to see the Protestant missionary awakening, sometimes located in the efforts of late eighteenth-century English figures such as William Carey, as a process with roots much further back in the century and in continental Europe. While the forms of voluntary association developed in Hanoverian Britain contributed something distinctive to the missionary enterprise, so did the continental tradition: not only in terms of personnel, on whom the British societies depended well into the nineteenth century, but also in terms of scholarship and associative traditions that gave Enlightenment individualism communal expression. Bruce Hindmarsh's nicely executed essay explores how the evangelical understanding of conversion, which he argues was dependent on a rich vein of cultural traditions both in terms of Christian doctrine and developing conceptions of the self, translated to a variety of missionary contexts in which these were absent or present only in a mediated form.
Ian Maxwell and Brian Stanley explore how the Scottish Enlightenment impacted on missionary strategies as debated among Scottish and English mission supporters. Maxwell shows how Scottish Moderates applied enlightenment understandings of the civilizing process to missionary work. For them effective evangelism was dependent on the prior existence of a sufficient level of civilization to ensure that the gospel message would be rationally comprehended. Evangelicals were more prepared to trust in the power of the Christian message to win souls in even the most unpromising circumstances. Despite the rise to dominance of the evangelical tradition within the Church of Scotland, Maxwell argues that it was a strategy derived from the Moderate position that proved most enduring. Stanley shows that in England the evangelical understanding remained more influential, but in a carefully nuanced discussion also demonstrates that in practice few missionaries did not seek to foster both faith and civilization in tandem, not least as experience increasingly informed theological and philosophical imperatives. [End Page 371]
The same careful reading of the evidence apparent in Stanley's essay also characterizes Natasha Erlank's more focused study of Scottish missions to the Xhosa. Her piece demonstrates how the evangelical and Moderate approaches were played out on the ground, while emphasizing that a stress on education was virtually all that was left of the once dominant Moderate strategy by the time it was applied to the missions of Southern Africa. Jane Samson's study of the interplay of ethnographic and theological ideas in the writings of South Pacific missionaries emphasizes the tensions inherent between the evangelical belief in the universal redeemability of mankind and the ethnographer's need to differentiate and discriminate. Like Erlank's piece, it provides timely caution against generalizing too bluntly about missionary attitudes, not least in so far as they...