Converting Colonialism: Visions and Realities in Mission History, 1706-1914

Converting Colonialism: Visions and Realities in Mission History, 1706-1914

Converting Colonialism: Visions and Realities in Mission History, 1706-1914

Converting Colonialism: Visions and Realities in Mission History, 1706-1914


In this volume, leading historians of Christianity in the non-Western world examine the relationship between missionaries and nineteenth-century European colonialism, and between indigenous converts and the colonial contexts in which they lived. Forced to operate within a political framework of European expansionism that lay outside their power to control, missionaries and early converts variously attempted to co-opt certain aspects of colonialism and to change what seemed prejudicial to gospel values.These contributors are the leading historians in their fields, and the concrete historical situations that they explore show the real complexity of missionary efforts to "convert" colonialism. Contributors: J. F. Ade Ajayi
Roy Bridges
Richard Elphick
Eleanor Jackson
Daniel Jeyaraj
Andrew Porter
Dan L. Robert
R. G. Tiedemann
C. Peter Williams


Dana L. Robert

Missionaries were the visionaries of modern history — and they frequently left written records of their thoughts and actions that continue to attract historians who live vicariously through archival research. Yet since the 1960s, public opinion has been severely divided over the meaning of missionary visions. On the one hand, those who share the values of the missionaries have tended to portray them as heroic figures who risked their lives for what they believed. On the other hand, to many historians of the late twentieth century, the missionary was not so much an idealist as an ideologue, someone who pursued single-minded goals in collusion with such forces as colonialism, imperialism, modernisation, or globalisation. in other words, because of missionaries’ strongly held and articulated beliefs in the universal relevance of the Christian gospel, it has been tempting to judge them by their ideas, based on whether the researcher agrees with ‘missionary ideals’ or disagrees with ‘missionary ideologies’. What tends to be overlooked in the history of missions is how the real experiences of missionaries in specific locations, and the concrete needs and interests of early converts, both challenged and shaped the missionary visions themselves.

The most devastating critiques of missionary visions have focused on the missionary role in the construction of European colonialism. Historians like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and William R. Hutchison identified missionaries and their ideas as vehicles of ‘cultural imperialism’. in Hutchison’s words, missions provided the ‘moral equivalent for imperialism’ during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the height of European colonialism.

1. William R. Hutchison, ‘A Moral Equivalent for Imperialism: Americans and the Pro-

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