Christian Missions Research Paper

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The concept of a universal mission to the world is embedded in different ways in the monotheistic religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Judaism, though its scriptures contain strong elements of universalism, has in modern times ceased to be a missionary religion. Islam, by contrast, continues to win converts in large numbers, in part because of the appeal to peoples threatened by modernization of the Muslim concept of the immutability of the Shari’a or divine law. In this research paper ‘mission’ refers primarily to the activity of the churches in commending the doctrinal beliefs and moral values of Christianity as worthy of universal acceptance. ‘Proselytization’ (or proselytism) derives from the Greek proselytos—the term used by the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) to describe a non-Jew who adopted the Israelite faith in Yahweh—and has come to mean the recruitment of converts from other religious systems and communities. Proselytization traditionally has been regarded as central to Christian mission, but does not necessarily constitute its totality. Medical and relief work, Christian education, the promotion of agricultural development, and agitation for a just international economic order, are now seen by Christians as integral parts of the mission to bring the world into conformity with Christian values. This research paper surveys the history of the term ‘mission’ and the missionary activities of the churches since the eighteenth century, reviews recent scholarship on the missionary movement and conversion, and notes attempts by many theologians to dissociate the concept of mission from proselytization.

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1. The History of ‘Mission’ and ‘Missions’

1.1 The Terms ‘Mission’ and ‘Missions’

The use of the Latin term missio to describe the sending of Christians to propagate the faith among unbelievers was pioneered by Ignatius Loyola in the sixteenth century. Senior members of the Jesuit order vowed to go wherever the Pope might send them, to ‘missions’ among either the Catholic faithful or infidels, to promote the glory of God and the good of souls (Ross 1994). The widespread application of the singular vernacular term ‘mission’ to the overall activity of the church in the world is, however, more recent, dating only from the 1950s, when both political challenges and theological questioning compelled missionary theorists to re-evaluate precisely what it was that God had supposedly sent the church into the world to do. Until then, the plural term ‘missions’ was much more common, denoting the range of agencies deployed by both Catholic and Protestant churches to pursue the agreed aim of converting non-Christians. That usage remains widespread among American Christians and also among historians and social scientists concerned to investigate Christian missions simply as a human phenomenon.

1.2 The Modern Missionary Movement

Christian missions up to the mid-eighteenth century were conducted chiefly by the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches (the latter mainly in Siberia). The Roman Catholic missionary endeavor lost impetus following the suppression of the Jesuit order by the papacy in 1773, and the initiative passed to Protestants influenced by German pietism and the ensuing movements of evangelical revival which spread from central Europe to North America and Britain. The Protestant awakening culminated in the formation of numerous voluntary societies, beginning with the Baptist Missionary Society (1792) in Britain, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810) in America, and the Basel Mission (1815) in continental Europe. For much of the nineteenth century these societies experienced only limited success in terms of both domestic recruitment and conversions overseas. From the late 1870s this picture changed as missionary enthusiasm converged with forms of popular imperialism, and as indigenous peoples became increasingly attracted by the literacy and access to literature (both vernacular and English) which the missions offered. By this time, European Roman Catholic missions had also revived, stimulated by the recovery of the papacy and the formation of new religious orders, such as the White Fathers, founded by Cardinal Lavigerie in 1868. Competition between Protestant and Catholic missions was frequently intense, and often coincided with imperial rivalries. North America was regarded by the Catholic Church as technically a mission field until 1908, and the first American Catholic missionary order, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, was not founded until 1911.

By 1910 Protestant foreign missionaries working in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific numbered some 19,000, of whom 71 percent were male or female lay persons. Catholic missionary numbers were almost certainly larger. In both Protestant and Catholic missions, however, the bulk of the work of evangelization was performed by indigenous (and primarily lay) Christians. After the First World War, the Americans supplanted the British as the predominant force in Protestant missions, though the older denominational boards progressively were eclipsed by newer interdenominational missions of evangelical or fundamentalist inclination (Hutchison 1987). Since the 1960s, many western mission agencies have dwindled in size, but their place has been taken by new missions from the nonwestern world, notably from Korea. By 2000, the total Christian foreign missionary force had risen to an estimated 420,000.

2. Recent Scholarship on Christian Missions

2.1 The Historiography of Missions

Until the late 1960s most writing on Christian missions tended to be confessional, often hagiographical, rather than scholarly. This was despite the fact that missionaries had made substantial contributions to the development of secular disciplines such as linguistics, Sanskritic and oriental studies, and anthropology (Walls 1996). Since the 1960s historical and anthropological scholarship on the missionary movement has proliferated, prompted by heightened awareness of the importance of religion in colonial encounters and the shaping of indigenous nationalist movements. Some of the pioneering African historiography of the 1960s identified a growth in racist and colonialist attitudes among late Victorian missionaries as crucial in the origins of West African nationalism (e.g., Ajayi 1965). The anticolonial reaction of the 1960s and 1970s encouraged writing by historians, anthropologists, and theologians that interpreted the missionary movement as the ideological expression of western colonialism. Such interpretations were able to point to the close connections between missions and western imperial expansion in contexts such as China, and to the consistent use by missions of terminology which branded nonwestern peoples as benighted heathens who needed ‘civilizing’ by the supposedly Christian west.

Since the early 1980s a strengthening reaction to, or at least modification of this tradition has been evident. Scholars from a variety of disciplines (including, notably, literary studies) have become increasingly dissatisfied with models which erect a simple dichotomy between ‘colonialist’ missions and the ‘victims’ of colonialism. As the focus of imperial historiography has shifted from the materialist preoccupations of an earlier generation of Marxist-influenced historiography to a characteristically postmodern concern with the power of narrative and the construction of mentality and identity, scholarship has become less interested in the formal connections of missions to the apparatus of colonial rule and more concerned to elucidate the complex patterns of religious and cultural exchange created by missionary encounters (Peterson and Allman 1999). Rather than regarding indigenous converts simply as passive dupes of colonial pressure, scholars now are inclined to delineate a range of indigenous responses varying from outright rejection to transformative appropriations of the Christian message and the biblical text. This emphasis accords with the primacy of indigenous agents in transmitting the message, and with the fact that the rate of conversion to Christianity in the nonwestern world has accelerated, not slackened, since decolonization. Particular attention has been devoted to the cultural significance of vernacular translation, which committed missionaries, whether consciously or not, to a ‘radical pluralism’ wherein ‘all languages and cultures are, in principle, equal in expressing the word of God’ (Sanneh 1989, Walls 1996). The development of a vernacular literature, and especially a popular religious literature, to which mission Christianity contributed so fundamentally in nonwestern contexts, has been identified as the essential precondition for the transmutation of an ethnicity into a nation (Hastings 1997). The current academic trend does not, however, necessarily imply a more favorable estimation of the missionary impact. Perhaps its most influential exponents, the American anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, despite an emphasis on the complexity and two-sided nature of missionary encounters in nineteenth-century southern Africa, continue to depict missionaries as ‘colonial evangelists,’ for whom language was not a medium of cultural liberation but rather a field of discourse whose terms they dominated in order to achieve ‘the colonization of consciousness’ (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991, 1997).

2.2 Regional Studies

The shift in focus towards the dynamics of conversion has been most marked in African studies, perhaps because of the remarkable growth of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa (from some 60 million adherents in the 1960s to as many as 300 million by 2000). There are signs, however, of a similar trend in South Asian studies. The literary scholar, Gauri Viswanathan, though an adherent of Edward Said’s school of ‘Orientalism,’ has argued that in British India, conversion to mission Christianity was a profoundly destabilizing influence, disrupting the stable categories of religion and nationhood on which the Raj depended, and compelling a professedly secular colonial administration to grapple with fundamental issues of civil rights (Viswanathan 1998). Studies of conversion by tribal and untouchable (or Dalit) peoples in India have followed precedents set by Africanist scholarship in interpreting conversion to Christianity as a process, usually collective, which frequently offered those involved a more satisfactory framework of cosmological meaning and a more advantageous communal identity than the obvious alternative of adherence to Brahmanical versions of Hinduism. Frykenberg (in Hastings 1999) has observed that ‘no mass movement of conversions in India was ever led by a European.’ Scholarship on conversion to Christianity in China, where the material linkages between missions, converts, and the protection of the imperial powers were more blatant than anywhere else, has been relatively slow to follow the trend set by the Africanists and South Asianists. Interpretations of Christianity in China during the missionary era have tended until recently to concentrate either on mission ideologies and strategies or on hostile antiforeign reactions to missions, rather than on the motivations of those Chinese who did convert (but for a recent collection which pioneers a more indigenous perspective on the Christian history of China see Bays 1996). The substantial growth of popular Christianity in Communist China since the era of the Cultural Revolution (1966–79) necessarily remains largely uncharted territory for scholarship.

Scholarly analysis of the impact of Christian missions on Latin America for long concentrated on the close connections between the Catholic Church and Iberian expansion which followed Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America in 1492 and the papal bull of 1493 which in effect divided ecclesiastical control of the continent between the Spanish and Portuguese crowns. More recently, attention has been turned to the phenomenal growth of popular Protestantism (especially Pentecostalism) in Latin America since the 1950s. The primary question currently being debated is parallel to that posed by writing on African Christianity during the colonial period: to what extent can the current success of Protestant proselytism in this most traditionally Catholic of continents be interpreted satisfactorily as a function of North American cultural and political influence, or should greater emphasis in fact be placed on the ability of Pentecostalism to meet the felt needs of the Latin American poor? (Hastings 1999, Martin 1990).

2.3 Sociological and Gender Studies

Within the social sciences, interest in missions has been for obvious reasons more pronounced among anthropologists than among sociologists. Very few sociologists have devoted attention to the unusual nature of mission organizations as typically voluntary bodies which have needed to maintain control at a formidable distance over highly motivated and frequently eccentric individuals, and at the same time satisfy the expectations of their supporting domestic constituencies. One such study of how religious zeal was both exploited and contained through institutional mechanisms examines the Basel Mission on the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in the nineteenth century (Miller 1994).

Much of the recent writing on missions within the social sciences examines the significance of the missionary movement from a feminist perspective. For most of the nineteenth century, Protestant missions were overwhelmingly male institutions. Most societies did not accept single women candidates, and missionary wives were not counted as missionaries in their own right, despite making in many cases major contributions to the work of the mission. The first Protestant missionary society specifically for women (the Female Education Society) dates from 1834. The first such societies were often inspired by the needs of the high-caste women of the Indian zenanas, who, being secluded from public contact with men, could be reached and educated only by women. From the late 1860s, female or zenana missionary societies became common on both sides of the Atlantic, either as autonomous institutions, or as female auxiliaries to existing denominational societies. These bodies enabled women to fulfil public roles both in their homelands and overseas which had few parallels in other contexts. From the 1870s, the denominational societies themselves began to accept single women candidates. They did so to varying extents, but the trend was accentuated by the readiness of many of the new nondenominational ‘faith missions’ to recruit single women (Robert 1996). By 1910 the missionary movement had become a predominantly female enterprise still controlled by men. Whilst still influenced by male assumptions about the proper restriction of women to the domestic sphere, it modeled a different reality. In that year, single women made up nearly 28 percent of the entire Protestant missionary force, and married women a further 28 percent. It seems likely that a similar gender distribution obtained for most of the twentieth century. The proliferation of missionary sisterhoods, first in France in the late nineteenth century, and then more widely, produced an even greater predominance of women in the Catholic missionary movement. Missionary women have thus become a major concern of scholars investigating what has been termed ‘imperial feminism,’ which is held to have combined ‘colonial’ views of racial difference with stances that were in practice subversive of traditional concepts of gender difference (Chaudhuri and Strobel 1992).

3. Mission and Proselytism in Theological Discourse

Whilst secular scholarship on missions has tended to move away from approaches which interpreted the proselytizing imperative as inescapably connected with the colonial system of material domination towards indigenous perspectives which emphasize the volitional agency of the convert or convert community, much Christian theology since the 1960s ironically has continued to regard coercion as intrinsic to the concept of proselytization, and has therefore been anxious to divorce ‘mission’ entirely from proselytism. One animating impulse of this concern has been the experience of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and other ancient eastern churches in finding their faithful to be the objects of often aggressive and wellfunded evangelism by Protestant groups, particularly from the USA. A report jointly produced by the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches in 1970 sought to distinguish Christian witness from proselytism, defining the latter as ‘improper’ attitudes or behavior which employed coercion and thus violated the rights of the human person. Such a distinction has proved an unstable one, since almost any act of religious witness can be interpreted by the recipient as being coercive or invasive. Since the collapse of Communist regimes in eastern Europe in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, opposition to proselytism from the west has motivated legislation designed to curb the missionary work of those regarded by the Orthodox churches as ‘sects.’ More broadly, from the perspective of a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jew, all Christian missionary activity is proselytizing in intention and effect, leading inevitably to the severance of the convert from community and even nation. Some Christian theologians accordingly have taken their opposition to proselytism towards its logical conclusion by denying that the conversion of adherents of other religions is a valid missionary objective for Christians. It then becomes difficult to resist the application of the same principle to the conversion of humanists or adherents of any belief system whatever, and the universalism intrinsic to the Christian theological tradition becomes unsustainable. Religious pluralism is no new phenomenon, but all religious believers in the western world now face unprecedented social and cultural pressures to accept the permanence and ideological absoluteness of pluralism. In the younger churches of the nonwestern world, whose role in world Christianity is becoming increasingly dominant, insistence on the inescapable connection between mission and proselytization remains strong. It may therefore be predicted that the twenty-first century is likely to see an even more heated debate within the churches about the validity and meaning of mission, proselytization, and conversion.


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