Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Christian Missions and the Enlightenment

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Christian Missions and the Enlightenment

Article excerpt

BRIAN STANLEY, ED. Christian Missions and the Enlightenment. Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans, 2001. Pp. xi +245, bibliography of printed sources, index. $45.00.

According to the editor, the aim of this collection of essays is to show that Protestant missionary history cannot be understood apart from the intellectual milieu that shaped evangelicalism and that this milieu was "essentially one formed by the intellectual contours of the Enlightenment." The views of "isolated dissenting voices" claiming that "nineteenth century evangelicalism should be viewed as a counter-Enlightenment Romantic ideology" are decisively rejected. Stanley and his fellow contributors make their case with skill and learning and their work deserves the attention of wider range of readers than those specifically interested in the history of Christian mission.

Evangelicals did not share the Enlightenment belief in the noble savage, but, as Jane Samson points out in a discussion of the use of ethnology by nineteenth-century missionaries in the South Pacific, they did follow the Enlightenment passion for classifying and ranking human societies. In her discussion of evangelical missionaries in India, Penny Carson draws attention to the way in which they stressed the ability of European and Christian civilization to bestow the benefits of rationality, progress, liberty, and happiness. Missionary apologetic placed great weight on the importance of reason, but the use of rational argument was intended to lead converts eventually to saving faith. In a fascinating account of debates in nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterianism, Ian Douglas Maxwell describes how Alexander Duff, a moderate who was far from being a "rational Calvinist," praised education as a necessary preliminary to conversion.

Evangelicals followed the Enlightenment stress on the individual in their teaching on the need for conversion and personal commitment. Anglican evangelicals, however, could not get away from the idea of an established church, and Penny Carson records the attempt of the evangelical lobby in England to bring pressure to bear on the East India Company to give a favored status to the Christian religion. Many of the politicians and evangelical leaders involved in this campaign were also active in the struggle to end slavery in the British Empire.

Although all the contributors are keen to emphasize the link between evangelicalism and the Enlightenment, they also agree that it is possible to trace many of the values and ideas preached in the eighteenth and nineteenth century back into Christian history. Brian Stanley describes missionary apologists as translating gospel values into an Enlightenment key, but argues that many of these values, such as belief in the unity of the human family, were present in Christianity before the Enlightenment. …

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