[First posted May 2010, Updated 30 October 2011]
I shall content myself with showing to you that even when promoted under the most favourable circumstances, missionary enterprise is a wretched bubble, and that British Christianity can never flourish on savage soil.
So says W. Winword Reade, Esq (F.R.G.S., F.A.S.L.), in a paper entitled ‘Efforts of Missionaries among Savages’, that he delivered to members of the Royal Anthropological Society, London, in 1865, and which appears in their Journal. Mr. Reade, based his work in West Africa, goes on to say:
Now there can be no doubt that we live in an air which is purer than that which permeates a savage people. This incontestable fact has induced some thousands of our enthusiastic, but ignorant, fellow-countrymen to adopt a wild scheme for the remedy of this evil. They endeavour to change the religious climate of whole continents by bottling up our moral atmosphere in missionaries, and in exporting it at a very great expense…
…He [the African] sees the French Catholics and the American Protestants competing for converts like two rival joint-stock companies, and , being puzzled to know which sells the right article, asks advice of a free-thinking trader, who tells him not to bother his head about either the one of\r the other…
He goes on to point out that the failure of Christian missions in Africa contrasts sharply with the experience of Islam (in west Africa):
I have found Christian missions not only inferior to Mohammedan missions, as a means of civilising negroes, but absolutely useless.
And furthermore, he emphasizes the important social and economic role that polygamy plays in African societies – a feature of African life that missions were totally unable to accept, thus loosing many converts. As Mr. Walker (of Gaboon) remarked after the paper:
…They (the missions) made polygamy the grand object of their attack before attempting to convert the negroes. They insisted that they must abandon their many wives before they could become Christians. The natives revolted at such a demand, and refused to become converted to a faith that required such a sacrifice in the first instance…
The author remarks:
When you subscribe your guinea to a foreign mission you defraud some starving Englishman of that money.
Quite a heavy attack on the growing missionizing movements in England and elsewhere in the mid-19th Century!
While framed very much in 19th Century colonial notions of ethnicity and Progress – and accompanying ideology of the ‘White Man’s Burden‘, the paper and the follow-on discussion by Society members sheds a fascinating perspective on politics and thought at the time.
For example, not yet fully realized or analyzed is the manner in which religion – any religion – is part of a particular place and time, and cannot be (as the author suggests of English christianity) simply ‘bottled up and exported’.
Here, I suggest, the West has often continued this same kind of error in agriculture and other development programs by assuming technologies can be ‘transferred’ whole-piece into particular african societies. This is an approach that I have constantly taken to task. What may make sense to you or me – whether a new crop, a new method of making charcoal stoves, or etc – will simply not be adopted unless it fits very well within preexisting perceived needs and capabilities.
But back to the impact of missions: Over the 150 years after the above paper was delivered, various forms of Christianity have been adopted throughout sub-Saharan Africa, albeit in manners that are conducive to local social and cultural world views, and that have gone through a process of adaptation to local agronomic, sociopolitical and-or cultural conditions – or in some cases, outright refusal to adopt other features…
For example, there is currently a heated debate regarding the acceptance of gay persons as clerics – as has been the case in several of the churches in America. Throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, unions that are not between a man and a woman are completely abhorred and some of the denominations (in Nigeria, Uganda and elsewhere) are threatening (or have) left global Anglican (and other) memberships because of this difference.
Another issue that has been more recently raised – has missionary activity simply been the handmaiden of imperialism or capitalism? The question is far more complicated that it may seem. However, back in 1865 Mr Reade seems to have anticipated this link, suggesting:
…The only manner in which we could elevate the negro would be by establishing a commercial mission, of which the churches should be workshops, and master artisans the priests…
Current missionizing has indeed moved in this direction, by means of faith-based NGOs (non-government organisations) that are actively involved both in relief and development work – but that are not directly involved in missionizing. Many are quite good; there are several for which I have consulted here in Burundi, in their programs of agriculture, livestock, or rural development – and others (elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East) that I have been called upon to evaluate by donors.
Here is the kind of problem that can come out of a program that has not been properly researched and, if needed, tested by means of trials: A few years ago a local faith-based NGO decided they would introduce soybeans to Burundi, wanting to increase protein intake of local folks. One of the farmers who is participating in our Contract Farming project with the Hotel Club du Lac Tanganyika took seeds and planted them. Big problem: soybeans take longer to mature than the beans locally used, meaning that only one crop a year could be grown rather than two, on a plot of land. Thus, even though soja beans have higher protein, their cultivation makes no sense to local smallholders.
The same kinds of problems can be found across the spectrum of technical assistance – certainly they are not limited to faith-based organizations – except, perhaps, in those instances where Belief and enthusiasm are substituted for technical know-how.
- Missionaries in 19th Century Africa & How to cook with banana leaves (dianabuja.wordpress.com)
- Historiography and Missions (missionmusings.wordpress.com)
- The Cross and the Sword? Part II (missionmusings.wordpress.com)
- Plantains and Bananas: “The Staff of Savage Life” (dianabuja.wordpress.com)
- Livingstone, I Presume? (lexloiz.wordpress.com)