God's Empire: Religion and Colonialism in the British World, C. 1801-1908

By Roddy, Sarah; Carey, Hilary M. | Church History, June 2012 | Go to article overview

God's Empire: Religion and Colonialism in the British World, C. 1801-1908


Roddy, Sarah, Carey, Hilary M., Church History


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Hilary Carey's wide-ranging study of colonial religion makes her something of a scholarly pioneer. As she rightly notes, the "colonial" missions of British Christian churches to fellow countrymen who settled abroad have long been neglected by historians preoccupied with the quite distinct movement of "foreign" missions to non-Christians and the racial oppression associated with them. Yet, as this book meticulously documents, missions to emigrants comprised a large movement, in which all churches, established and non-conformist, catholic and evangelical, took part. In so doing, as Carey argues, "they played an important role in shaping the cultural and religious identity of greater Britain" (83).

The case for this book's existence is therefore well made, and the author's approach to her subject is a more or less sound one. So vast and varied a movement could only, perhaps, be examined in the round on a denomination by denomination basis, as here. The reader is therefore presented with two central narrative sections on colonial mission societies and colonial clerical training, each chaptered according to church. These are bookended by two sections of a more discursive nature, the first providing an historiographical and definitional grounding for what follows, the last bringing fresh perspectives to the idea of "Christian colonization" as it played out in both the Antipodes and North America.

The relative lack of prior scholarly studies of the colonial missionary movement--although the field is awash with hagiographical "histories" produced by the individual societies themselves--meant that a considerable feat of research was required from the author. As well as archival sources, Carey has made excellent use of what is clearly an enormous body of printed primary material, with her analysis of missionary memoirs in the concluding chapter being particularly fine; indeed it might usefully have been expanded upon earlier in the text.

It is a pity, however, that having exploited this printed material, the bibliography fails adequately to record and highlight the fact. Given its importance, a separation of printed primary and printed secondary sources was surely warranted in this instance. Meanwhile, a referral to a website hosting a general list of missionary periodicals is all very well, but considering the pathbreaking nature of the book, it would surely serve future researchers better to have provided a list of the specific titles consulted. One suspects, however, that publishing constraints are to blame for these lapses.

It seems churlish to criticize so source-rich an endeavour for its few lacunae, but they are worth pointing out. …

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