Pragmatic Anti-Imperialists? Episcopal Missionaries in the Philippines, 1933-1935

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

X he question about the relationship between western Christian missions and western imperial projects remains vexed, largely because nothing about it is straightforward, and because historians often have strong opinions about missionaries.1 In an essay that examines the difficulty of the topic, Dana Robert describes a number of different attitudes held by scholars who study missionaries during the imperial era of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.2 Some have shared the values of the missionaries and portrayed them as heroic figures who risked their lives for what they believed. Others, especially since the 1960s, write darkly of "missionary ideologies" and portray the missionary as "someone who pursued single-minded goals in collusion with such forces as colonialism, imperialism, modernization, or globalization."3 The most trenchant and cogent criticism is that missionaries in the imperial era willfully participated in the construction of European and American colonialism: "in religious studies, history, and cultural theory, scholars in the late twentieth century roundly condemned missionaries for playing essential roles in the construction of colonial mentalities and exploitative structures among nonwestern peoples."

A rather momentous phenomenon, unforeseen by either missionary supporters or detractors, changed the terms of the debate in the 1990s, although pioneering works in the 1980s already signaled that fresh approaches were on the way. As a result of decolonization after the Second World War, Christianity had rapidly become a nonwestern religion. In this light, how was the scholar to assess the work of missionaries? Of course, most new Christians in Asia, Africa, and Latin America came to the faith through the labors of indigenous evangelists, not foreign missionaries. Nonetheless, the changes called for different ways of understanding former "missionary fields." Robert lists various kinds of studies that have demonstrated over the past three decades the complexity and unpredictability of relationships between imperial governments, subject populations and missionaries. It has become much clearer that "the missionary movement should be analyzed in relation to the concrete contexts in which missionaries worked, and new Christians lived."6 Such an analysis shows that missionaries often attempted to "convert" imperial power for their own purposes, as they tried to "co-opt aspects of colonialism deemed compatible with missionary goals, and to change what seemed prejudicial to gospel values." This attempt was laden with ambiguity, both for the missionaries and for the new Christians who used missionary vision for their own purposes; and die missionaries had to adapt. They had to figure out new strategies of "accommodation to powerful commercial and governmental interests" or they had to resist those interests.

This essay looks at one case of opposition to commercial interests in the Philippines during the American colonial regime: missionaries of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the mountains of northern Luzon in the Philippines protested against the establishment of gold mines in the early 1930s, because the mines threatened the livelihood and social stability of the Filipinos among whom they worked. This opposition to the mining industry, however, reflected more than a simple clash between the interests of missionaries and of commercial and imperial forces. Rather, it emerged from a longer history of tensions between American Protestant evangelical culture and the high church Anglican tradition in the United States.8 The clash did not arise simply from changes in the international mission field; it was one more instance of conflict that reached back to the American Revolution. It did not come simply from new circumstances encountered abroad. Rather, the origins of the conflict lay in the métropole in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and played themselves out in the Philippines in the twentieth. …

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