The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

11
Religion, Missionary Enthusiasm, and Empire

ANDREW PORTER

Christianity's expansion as part of British culture and activities overseas in the nineteenth century was unprecedented in scale. Emigrants and temporary expatriates, such as merchants and officials, frequently carried their faith abroad with them. Anglicans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and other denominations recreated their churches overseas and adapted them to new environments in the process. In a parallel movement, driven especially by voluntary Protestant missionary societies founded in the 1790s, evangelical Christians and the missionaries they supported overseas--some 10,000 by 1900--set out to convert the extraEuropean world. Imperial control and colonial societies were consequently influenced in a multitude of divergent and ambiguous ways.

Home and colonial governments supported ecclesiastical expansion wherever it was likely to buttress their authority and promote social order. However, religious dynamics proved unpredictable and often at odds with Imperial needs. In the white settlement colonies, a religious establishment at first seemed desirable. However, more even than in Britain, the growth of denominational conflict forced politicians and officials to conclude that only a policy of religious neutrality would serve their purpose. Finding such state support as they received inadequate and constricting, churchmen too distanced themselves from political authorities. By mid-century the formal separation of church and state was occurring, with the result that religious influences began to shape Imperial ties and colonial identities in less obvious ways.

By contrast, Imperial authorities with few exceptions initially distrusted missionary enterprise, and missions rejected all political involvement. Both sides, however, learned gradually that co-operation had its uses. Missions won extensive popular support at home and, inescapably dependent oil their hosts, often acquired considerable influence with non-European communities. They could therefore not be ignored, and might be turned to Imperial advantage. Missionaries came to regard secular authorities in a similarly utilitarian way. British missionary enterprise thus sometimes provided channels through which Imperial controls followed; at other times it delayed annexation and colonization, or even subverted

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