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  • Heavenly Fatherland: German Missionary Culture and Globalization in the Age of Empire by Jeremy Best
  • Justin Reynolds
Heavenly Fatherland: German Missionary Culture and Globalization in the Age of Empire. By jeremy best. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2021. 338 pp. ISBN 1487505639. $75.00 (hardcover).

Recently, many scholars have looked to the short-lived colonial empire of the Kaiserreich (1884–1914) to explain far-reaching twentieth-century histories, from the development of the social [End Page 363] sciences to the global advent of free-labor capitalism, and from modern advertising to the genocidal politics of Nazism. Jeremy Best’s book attempts to place Protestant missionaries in this transnational field, tracking their impact on the German experience of empire and globalization from the late nineteenth century until World War I. In Best’s account, Protestant missionaries trouble dominant takes on Germany’s colonial culture, often presented as a hothouse of nationalist zealotry and testing ground for new kinds of racist brutality. From the 1870s up until 1914, he argues, they pursued a form of colonialism that was internationalist and cosmopolitan, eschewing national aggrandizement in pursuit of a “heavenly fatherland” that Christian nations would build together and where all races would be equal before God. Spotlighting Protestants’ clashes with rival colonial advocates and state authorities, Best illuminates important contests among Europeans over the ends of empire—even if his attempt to redeem Christian universalism from “secular” forms of violence frustrates the stated aim of incorporating missionaries into a wider colonial history.

Drawing extensively on missionary periodicals and archives in Germany and Poland, Best’s account traces the work of Protestant missionaries across three spaces: the mission fields (especially German East Africa), the German metropole (especially Prussia), and the international associations where Germans plotted the evangelization of the globe with Protestant counterparts from other countries. While focusing on one society, the Berlin Mission, the book is a helpful guide—probably now the best in English—to the evolving and layered architecture of the German Protestant missionary movement as a whole. His first chapter finds its origins in the scholarly practice of Missionswissenschaft, whose chief architect, the pastor and eventually Halle Professor Gustav Warneck, saw missions as the locus of a new science vindicating Protestant truth during the Kulturkampf of the 1870s. (Anti-Catholicism remained determinative, as shown in later discussions of Protestants’ hysteria over the expansion of Catholic missions in German East Africa.) Subsequent chapters show how German Protestants’ missionary ideology led them to scrap with colonial authorities and various political and economic interest groups, particularly over policies pertaining to colonial education. Against heady nationalists of the German Colonial Society, who sought to impose German-language instruction on subject populations, missionaries valorized linguistic diversity as sign and instrument of God’s design. They resisted the efforts of concessionary companies and the Kolonial-Wirtschaftliches Komitee to orient indigenous education toward [End Page 364] forming a pool of African wage-laborers, rather than pillars of economically self-sufficient church communities. In a sparkling fourth chapter, Best turns to the Heimat, chronicling how circles of missionary “friends” transmitted the vision of a global Christian commonwealth deep into rural Prussia. A final chapter considers the impact of the German’s missionary thought on the twentieth-century Protestant ecumenical movement, whose founding vision of a methodologically rigorous and globally coordinated missionary movement drew inspiration from the ideas of Warneck and his epigones (even as they rued Anglo-American dominance in the international Protestant milieux).

The polemical thrust of this work comes from Best’s view that religious and secular colonialism were parallel projects, symmetrical in the ambition to remake selves and societies, but different as heaven and earth in the content of their objectives. The position builds on the findings of scholars of missions since the 1990s, who have picked away at the image of missionaries as “shock troops” of European empires. But where many exponents of this school (Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls among others) have focused on recovering the forms of colonized agency that Christianity’s missionary spread enabled, Best keeps his sights on struggles between colonizers. The missionaries “set aside the German fatherland” (p. 13), “rejected” nationalism (p. 213), and insisted their work...


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pp. 363-366
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