By Barringer, Terry
International Bulletin of Missionary Research , Vol. 26, No. 4
Historians and anthropologists, Christian and otherwise, who are interested in the meeting of Western and non-Western cultures, the ways each have affected the self-understanding of the other, and the mental images each have held of the other have begun to dig deep into the rich deposits of missionary archives. (1) Rosemary Seton and others have done much to make these sources better known and accessible. The mining of missionary periodicals, however, has barely begun. Several times in the course of the Missionary Periodicals Database Project, we were the first to cut open the pages of a library copy of a missionary magazine.
Missionary periodicals have always had an image problem. Their editorials are full of complaints that even regular church and chapel goers are ill informed and indifferent to foreign missions and regard missionary magazines as uninteresting.. They are constantly exhorting their readers to sign up more subscribers. If the missionary magazines had a problem in their own era, it was a long time before scholars took them seriously as source material. Scholars tended to think of them, if they thought of them at all, as covered in a pietistic haze, of interest only to committed missionary antiquarians. Such attitudes are changing. In introducing their important collection Missionary Encounters: Sources and Issues, Robert Bickers and Rosemary Seton were able to report that "a broad cross-section of social scientists and humanities scholars are finding the missionary enterprise a fecund, if often frustrating source of material to work on, and use to work through to other issues." (2)
The story of missionary periodicals follows that of the modern missionary movement. The Baptist Missionary Society was founded in 1792, followed in quick succession by the (mainly Congregationalist) London Missionary Society in 1795, the (Anglican) Church Missionary Society in 1799, and then many other societies and organizations throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Beginning with the Annual Reports of LMS in 1795, Periodical Accounts by BMS in 1800, and Proceedings from CMS in 1800/01, all British mission societies published magazines and periodicals to inform their constituencies and to generate support in prayer, money, and recruits. Some periodicals were generalist, devoted to worldwide mission; others were focused on specific areas. They were denominational, interdenominational, or nondenominational. Some targeted women; others, children; still others, specific social classes or educational levels. Prices ranged from a halfpenny--with bulk discounts for distribution to Sunday school childre n and the working classes- to expensive annual volumes costing several guineas designed to appeal to the social and spiritual snob. Such was the Missionary Annual published in 1833 by the London commercial publishers Seeley and Sons, who advertised their product as a source of "information and pleasure not only to the general reader, but more especially to those who desire to blend piety with their highest gratifications and whose deepest interest is excited by whatever is connected with the advancement of true religion in the world.... The volume, it is hoped, will be generally approved, especially by the friends of Religion, as a beautiful and appropriate present, attractive in its decorations and permanently valuable in the interesting and important nature of its contents." (3)
Study of a run of missionary periodicals shows how ideas and images changed over time, making possible a more nuance understanding of the much-debated relationship between colonialism and Christianization. Missionary periodicals are valuable sources for the evolution of missionary self-understanding and self-representation. They sometimes make for uncomfortable reading, as there is no shortage of what appears now to be offensive, racist, or patronizing (e.g., Little Darkie's Budget or stories of Wopsy the Guardian Angel winging round the African jungle rescuing naughty black boys and confronting witch doctors in answer to the prayers of golden-curled Catholic children in England and Ireland). …