A Missiologist Laments

My bias has to be confessed from the outset – in favour of missionaries. We are all human and as such imperfect. So mistakes have been made and these call for public apology. But at the same time, when missionary work is tarred with the same brush as colonialism, expansionism and exploitation – that is not always fair and it is at times irrational.

In Canada, in 2021, over 50 churches have been burned down. Probably by arsonists, although forest fires may have caused some of these losses. I agree with Lord Conrad Black writing in the National Post, who argued that it is still too early to lay the blame for the recently discovered mass grave sites of First Nations children. Near the residential schools that came to be despised for trying to “civilize” native people. Not enough forensic analysis has been done, and in the past there were epidemics not unlike Covid-19 that have swept across North America. So is it really fair to blame the missionaries or the church for their deaths? Or is that premature and presumptuous?

I have grown up to esteem and admire places like the Grenfell Mission in Labrador and the mission hospital at Bella Bella on the BC coast. These were both founded by Methodist missionaries in the late nineteenth century. My personal admiration for such institutions has caused me to doubt that the “woke” analysis of missions is entirely correct. There may be some truth to it? Time will tell. But I suspect that any blame may be greatly exaggerated. For political convenience.

Speaking of the nineteenth century, practitioners base their work on policy and that stems from philosophy. Probably the three most influential books of the nineteenth century were written by Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and Henry George – in that sequence. However, Henry George’s book Progress and Poverty out-sold both Das Kapital by Marx and the Origin of Species by Darwin. The publication dates are of interest – 1859 for Darwin’s book, 1867 for Marx’s first volume and 1879 for Henry George’s blockbuster. The only book that out-sold Progress and Poverty in the nineteenth century was the Bible.

The Origin of Species led to “social Darwinism” which brought us the Nazi idea of a super-race.  Science certainly caused a great deal of harm in this respect, for all that it is touted today as the best answer to the world’s problems. Marxism has not added any value to history, on balance. One Marxist state after another has collapsed into economic chaos and Marxist despots like Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot have killed more people by policy than by guns. Whereas Henry George inspired the likes of Leo Tolstoy, Tommy Douglas and Franklin Roosevelt. Personally I regard Henry George – an American teacher and pastor – as the most influential writer of the three. Centre-left parties have become a dominant force. Extremism on either Left or Right has been divisive, by comparison.

But these books came into play too late in history to influence the alleged role of missionaries in undermining local culture and indigenous people. So where are the philosophical underpinnings of alleged cultural hegemony as opposed to cultural relativism? Who said that there was a white man’s burden, a manifest destiny, or worse yet a white supremacy?

As a career missionary working in Africa (where I was born and raised, and now reside), I have read a lot about pioneer missionaries there. David Livingstone is perhaps best known, but he was something of a late bloomer. By his time, the “modern missionary movement” was already going full blast. My knowledge of missionary work in Africa is on a different timeline from outreach into the Americas. Let’s be honest that missionary work in the Americas started much earlier, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The colonies there were an earlier wave, but followed much the same trajectory. In fact, after the American Civil War, black Americans started coming (returning?) to Africa as missionaries. Because the churches in America had matured for over a century before outreach to Africa, Asia and the Pacific really got going.

Now I make an observation that many may also contest. That is that before the Atlantic Slave Trade started, black people were not generally regarded as sub-human, as they came to be. There were Roman Emperors and popes from Africa. Even after Islam conquered North Africa, wealthy West Africans traveled to Mecca. I will even dare to say that black Africans enslaved other Africans, and going back to biblical times, the Egyptians enslaved the Jews. But Moses liberated his people and established a new nation, right next door to Egypt. But a change came about during the Atlantic Slave Trade, an emerging sense of white hegemony. The first ship-load of slaves sailed in 1518.  It would take 300 years for the Anti-Slavery Bill to pass in British parliament, and another 50 years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the USA.

I am pointing to the two motivating forces behind Colonialism – power and wealth. These are not religious or altruistic. There were few controls on these vested interests when the conquistadores arrived in Central America. It was rape and pillage. To be honest, the East India Company would not even allow missionaries into India in the early days. They could only settle in Goa, a Portuguese enclave. Why? Because missionaries came to “save” local people and were frequently opposed to colonial practices. And to a large extent, colonialism operated by European powers giving “concessions” to corporate entities, who did not want missionaries there, stirring things up.

This happened time and again, and on all continents. Anyone who has seen the movie The Mission can picture it. Those whose motives were altruistic and compassionate were one group of foreigners. Those who wanted to rape and pillage were another distinct group. Then there were the indigenous people – caught in the crossfire, confused and bewildered.

In my timeline, I should point out that a narrative like The Mission happened when Catholic outreach was predominant. This was during the Age of Discovery and the church in Europe had split. While the Counter-Reformation was busy sending out Catholic missionaries, it took the emergent Protestant church a century or so to consolidate its predominance in northern Europe. So the wave of missionaries from Germany, Britain, Sweden and Holland came later. And its first focus was on North America. Only about the same time that the Abolitionists got going against the Slave Trade, did Protestants also start institutions like the London Missionary Society. By this time, the Americas were largely evangelized so the next wave was to Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

One of the pioneer missionaries of the LMS was a Dutch doctor called Johannes Vanderkemp. He arrived in Capetown in 1799 and immediately started scolding clergy there for owning slaves! LMS missionaries were a kind of “Slavery Observatory”. They sent their findings to the Cape governor (variously Dutch or British) and also to William Wilberforce, the MP in London at the forefront of the Anti-Slavery Movement. His struggle was a story in itself, because of the vested interests in both government and business circles.

One of the great heroes of the Protestant Reformation was Martin Luther, in Germany. He was influenced and inspired by a Dutch scholar – Erasmus. This man was amazing, a Roman Catholic who declined Last Rites on his deathbed. He never converted to Protestantism either. For he was one of the early Humanists, and with more prudence than most, he seemed to see where that was going. He was a key figure in the Renaissance which ran parallel to the Protestant Reformation. But out of the Renaissance came Humanism, and out of that came the Enlightenment. Contrasting Erasmus and Luther, or the Enlightenment and the Reformation, is sort of like the distinction between “wokeism” today and the baseline of traditional Christian convictions and values.

Certainly Canada was populated by the First Nations when Europeans arrived. First came the explorers, then the missionaries, then the settlers. If the colonial governments or business concessions thought that they had “tamed” the missionaries, I think that they were mistaken.

Capetown changed from Dutch to British hands for the last time, soon after the battle of Trafalgar. Soon slaving was outlawed because that movement was rising. The first British governor in the Cape colony after that was Sir John Craddock. He listened to the missionary accounts of atrocities and set up an inquiry called “the Black Circuit” in what today is called Nelson Mandela Bay. Thousands of testimonies were heard – in the early nineteenth century. This resulted in the incarceration of dozens of settlers.  This had been unheard of under the Dutch. Within twenty years, the Boers were recruiting for the “Great Trek” – to leave the British colony and set up their own republics in the interior of Africa. They had a twenty-point manifesto, and one point was to get away from the missionaries and their crazy notions of egalitarianism.

In Canada, you not only had the confusion between European and First Nations world-views, you had the contrast between Catholic (France, Quebec) and Protestant (Britain, anglophone provinces). Then you also had an emerging contrast of new philosophies. Humanists and Christians saw things differently. The Anti-Slavery Movement was hugely Christian. Then came social Darwinism, brought to you by “Science” – which seemed to validate the idea of a super-race. And then scientific socialism, brought to you by Marx, Engels and Lenin. So since when were missionaries or their motives and practices any different in Canada from elsewhere in this explosion of world-wide Christian outreach?

I for one am not buying it. I say to the arsonists, you are burning down the churches of those who built mission schools and hospitals from Grenfell all the way to Bella Bella. They did us proud. At times they may have become “entangled” with colonialism but what about Louis Riel? Was he not religious, a charismatic Protestant, who prophesied and preached, and who tried to challenge the status quo?

The “woke” critique of missionaries does not fit well with either missiology or hagiography. Canada was always on a par with world-wide standards in this respect. So the arsonists got it wrong.

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About the author

Chuck Stephens is Executive Director at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership in South Africa.