Review of Christian Missionary Activity History Essay

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"Modernisation implies change: often understood as coming to conform to new ideas or ways, a form of conversion." (Study Guide 2, p. 14). For the white European missionaries it was the confrontation with the 'other', the very nature of the spiritual religion of the natives that presented them with the challenge of Christianising without patronising and denigrating the culture of the other.

In the context of 19th missionary activity in West Africa, modernisation for African simply meant: 'equipment to solve the problems and meet the challenges of modern times, with a view to ensure all-round progress in future'.

Shri Dattopant Thengadi, on

In this essay I will try to show that the contribution to modernisation from Christian missionary activity to Africa's economic, politic and social life in the 19th century fluctuated mostly according to the interests of the former rather than the latter and that the 'double vision' of the missionaries coined by Anna Johnston which she understands as being "the simultaneous denigration of non-Christian cultures and defence of their capacity for improvement" resulted in often controversial actions and ultimate betrayal of their ideology. (Anna Johston, on

I will try first to elaborate on what the 'missionary double vision' means in the context I have chosen which is the Slave Coast and Niger region of West Africa in the 19th century. I will also concentrate on Education mainly and endeavour to express what all the main agents involved in the missionary activity understood and desired from western modernisation.

According to Comaroff, the industrial revolution had forged the particular sociological context from which arose the clerical army of Nonconformist missionaries to the colonies. Their position as the "dominated fraction of a dominant class" within British society was to have a profound effect on the role of these men in the imperial scheme of things. But more pervasively, the fact that they came from this context, from a social niche wrought by the process of class formation and by an ethos of upward mobility , was also to affect their everyday dealings with "the Other". (Comaroff, 1991, p19).

With its roots firmly in the lower to middle social orders the crusade to save the heathen and work for the revival of the true church of God was to pave the way for the kingdom of God.

Evangelical movements were causes and consequences of European modernity answering the call for the establishment of the Empire of God and the regeneration of Africa through the Christianisation and elevation of its people to western standards.

The main goal for those non conformists who fought to repair the sin committed by European against the continent of Africa and its people was the regeneration of Africa and the salvation of its people through bringing to them the Gospel of God and accordingly civilisation.

Henry Venn born into a leading evangelical Anglican family was one of the most influential statemens of the 19th century and an ardent advocate of the 'indigenous church' arguing for a church that would self propagate, self finance and self govern itself and believer in 'racial equality'(Olsen, 2003, p3)

Yet, the general consensus amongst the missionaries was a profound disdain and incomprehension towards the natives' religions and it would take until the end of the 19th century to recognise the importance for missionaries to have some ideas of the beliefs and customs of the natives they were to convert.

The problem of relatively poor education of the aspirant missionaries had been of some concern to Venn but they all had an unremitting commitment to rational self-improvement and "what they wished to see was a neat fusion of three idealised worlds: the scientific, capitalist age in its most ideologically roseate form, wherein individuals were free to better themselves and to aspire to ever greater heights; an idyllic countryside in which, alongside agrarian estates, hardworking peasants, equipped with suitable tools, might produce gainfully for the market; and a sovereign Empire of God, whose temporal affairs would remain securely under the eye, if not the daily management, of divine authority". (Comaroff, 1991, p 59).

Missions abroad were expensive and lobbying for the evangelisation of the natives of Africa demanded a constant flux of information from the terrain to feed the growing appetite of the British Population for these poor enslaved and wretched creatures.

Rev. T. B. Freeman on one of his tours back in England addressed the church assembly in those terms: "the triumphs of the Cross amongst the works of paganism", a speech that describes the attitude and feelings of Evangelists at the time: "His mind had often been pained and disheartened when he attempted to draw a comparison between the state of those to whom the blessed word of the Saviour had been made known and the awful state of those to whom it had not. Nothing could be more painful to a Christian mind that scenes of this kind. And what could be more appalling to see in the midst of these fair regions, men who are incapable of forming any idea of the beauties of nature around them, ignorant of the God who made them, and instead of adoring the Saviour and offering up the incense of prayer amidst these bright and beautiful scenes, their souls cleave to the dust and they bow down to idols, the work of men's hands". Scenes depicting blood thirsty and despotic native chiefs, greedy and satanic customs followed and were the epitome of the evangelical discourse on Africans". (unknown author, at

The concept of modernisation and regeneration of Africa which was at the base of the evangelical movement inspired the creation of the black colonies of Sierra Leone and Liberia and their Christian population have played, under the guidance of the white missionaries, an essential role in the propagation of Christianity and the dissemination of western values in West Africa.

Sierra Leone was the first West African place to nurture a black Christian community who kept growing from a constant influx through the 19th century of slaves from ships intercepted by the British Squadron Patrol and the French fleet operating in the west coast and other freed slaves from Brazil and the new world. "Although it was typical in many respects of the West African states, it was atypical in that it exerted a great influence on the others. It illustrates well both the limitations and successes of missionary work in the region". (Lindenfeld, 2005, p 352). Their particular situation that set them apart from their native brethren made them the perfect candidates for the realisation of the theory of the 'indigene church' which was generally predominant amongst the non conformist during the first part of the 19th century. Their participation in preaching and spreading Christianity amongst their brethren was invaluable. In condemning and fighting slavery Christianity "appealed initially to the people who were marginalized in one way or another, as Chinua Achebe's fictional account, Things Fall Apart, portrays. this meant an appeal to women that increased over time; among the Yoruba, for example, three-quarters of those who came to one mission apparently to escape persecution were women.108 The very prominence of the recaptured ex-slaves (or "Saros," as they were called when they returned) as missionaries indicates the importance that victimization could play in the process of becoming a Christian. One of the most prominent and devout African Christians of the nineteenth century, James "Holy" Johnson, was born a twin son of two receptive slave". (lindenfeld, 2005, p 360)

But the ultimate goal was to go where no white man or western government had gone before and they wanted their crusade for evangelisation to go further inland carrying the gospel of God to the heathen, like the apostles had done before them.

The first part of the 19th century saw a generation of missionaries unprepared, uneducated and full of the responsibility for Christianity to free the Africans through religion, moral and the adoption in all to become Western African Christians.

Pity and complete denigration of the culture of the native societies they met along, they, for the majority could not comprehend the particularity of the heathen's 'religion'.

"Spirit possession was an almost universal phenomenon of African religion, an ongoing revelatory experience. There was nothing seen as evil about it, it was simply as such a primary way (though there were important other ways too, mostly manual) for communication between the visible and invisible worlds, … Religion was … much less a matter of theology than of ritual, rituals intended to control the present and safeguard the future in both the social and physical orders: rituals of initiation and kinship, of fertility and rain, of sickness and death." (Study guide 3, p 19).

Yet evil is what they were seeing and according to a long tradition in the Christian tradition of crusading they set to destroy and annihilate those 'insidious forces of satanic evil' operating within the heathen.

In challenging the very core of African society, especially on aspects like circumcision and polygamy, they could not but create tension and the breakage of traditional society ties.

They set to change the individual, his values, beliefs, customs and domestic life. Christian rules and morals were harsh:

In the case of Congregationalists which I will take as a common basis for morality and conduct for all other non conformist denominations at work in West Africa the bottom line was:

"The submission to the congregational order was equated with obedience to God: Christian life de facto boiled down to the observance of rules that, ideally, were internalised. Membership in the Christian congregation was confined to a person "who is baptized on the name of the Trinity, who lives according to the Gospel, and who obeys the order valid in the congregation". (Study Guide 3, p95).

Total negation of the African native population culture and beliefs were advocated as well as cutting social ties with their non Christian family ("although rupture with family and lineage customs might be sustainable for a while under the first flush of conversion, but prove much more difficult to uphold at critical times such as at marriage or death in the family". (Lindenfeld, 2005, p363). nocturnal dances, or any other associated activities were forbidden because their practitioners were intervening with the supernatural.

Insistence on the vernacular was not destined to enrich the corresponding native language and promote culture and unity but rather: "grew out of the missionary desire to train a group of catechists who could communicate with the local people in the vernacular and would not exhibit pretensions to European culture which would alienate them from the illiterate masses" (Berman, Dec., 1974, p 530)

As first contact with the European world and Christianity, they came to be associated with modernisation, education and technology.

"Elements and aspects of western civilisation were greatly desired, whether in the form of acquisition of western warfare technology for the many warring tribes involved in disputes, conquests and slave trade or in the form of education and technology, the acquisition of English, the medium of the ruling European elite which was the language of power". (Berman, 1974, p 531).

Education had become a 'laissez-passer' for the missionaries to work their way inland. Their position between the growing influence of the British governments' influence and interests in the region, the representatives of traditional African society, interests in trade (including their own as missions often needed to be self financed) and their own evangelical interest could not be done by anything but political intrigues and alliances and the use of a population that was drawn more and more into submission to the mighty British Empire.

The work on the creation of the union IBO is equally an example of the importance attached to the production of vernacular Bible translations and catechisms. Another, moralistic, reason for this interest in linguistics in line with what Johnston call: "defence of their capacity for improvement" was that "African grammars and literature would demonstrate the essential humanity of African languages and African peoples. African linguistics would thus serve in the humanitarian campaign against the slave trade which was being waged in Britain".

"The notion of the one shared Igbo language was later taken up by others who began to promote the appreciation and use of Igbo language and culture".

It has to be said that the furtherance of vernacular languages to propagate the message of the gospel and reading and writing was also to have a profound impact on the consciousness of Africans and their societies.

"In creating the first written versions of many languages, missionaries exerted a tremendous influence that went well beyond conversion. As in all written languages, the act of transliteration elevated particular dialects to cultural primacy, and contributed in the long run to a sense of national identities". (Lindenfeld, 2005, p 354)

But "The desire of the emerging African educated class to enter the elite ranks of the bureaucracy and participate in central political institutions and the establishment of European-style "self-governing" was fundamental in the nineteenth century". Nwowa, 1999, p 108).

When "missionaries proved reluctant to heed the desires of their parishioners (and potential converts), Africans seized the initiative and organized their own schools. Such was the case at Cape Coast (Ghana) in 1876 when a secondary school under the nominal sponsorship of the Wesleyan Methodist mission opened its doors".

On the whole, higher education was denied to Africans and "as quinine became effective as an antidote against malaria, and as colonial subjugation later became inevitable, colonial officials began to feel that there was no need for the continued expansion of the educated class. The educated class of Africans was soon to be seen as undesirable". (Nwauwa, 1999, p113).

African Christian missionaries as well as their colleagues Western Indians also found for themselves that instead of being seen in the spread of western civilisation and Christianity both mission and colonial administrators had began to relegate them more and more to junior positions in the colonial order and experience inequality of pay and rights. (Seraile, 1972, p2).

Johnston also a clergy man and Yoruba graduate of the Fourah bay college wrote soon after Crowther's death: "In the work of elevating Africans, foreign teachers have always proceeded with their work on the assumption that the Negro or African is in every one of his normal susceptibilities an inferior race, and that it is needful in everything to give him a foreign model to copy". They were standing between two radical cultures and different worlds According to him, racism in the mission churches had clouded and hindered the building of the kingdom of God. It must be said that missionaries have been accuse of spreading


In the frustration experienced by the educated class in their efforts to establish universities in West Africa, it is clear that: "European missionaries and Africans often had differing goals. The former tended to assume that Africans would benefit most from technical and practical subjects such as agriculture or crafts, while the latter often desired European humanistic and literary education".

Inland, African traditional society had no less well-defined ideas concerning the economic usefulness of missionaries and missionary education.

"King Eyo Honesty II, the Efik ruler of Creek Town in the Niger Delta during the 1840s, sought missionaries to help him secure control over a rival town whose wealth and lucrative trading posts he had long coveted. In 1848 the chiefs of Bonny, another important trading town in the Delta, wrote to Liverpool asking for missionaries. These rulers were very specific in their expectations of the missionaries, who should "be capable of instructing our young people in the English language. And so enthusiastic were the Delta leaders to have missionaries, who they felt would provide skills which would improve their commercial positions, that they even agreed to the payment of one-half of the initial cost of mission establishments". (Berman, 1974, p 529).

In 1874 the Yoruba Bishop Samuel Crowther minutes to London Church Missionary Society (CMS) headquarters that the trading chiefs of the Niger Delta, who had solicited missionaries, did not want them to impart religious instruction; rather, they wanted missionaries to teach their children "how to gauge palm oil and other mercantile business as soon as possible " (Berman, 1974, p 528).

In West Africa, before the Great Scramble and the start of the colonisation, the non conformist protestant denominations had managed to keep a relative independence from the British Government (which in any case corresponded with their emphasis on separation of church and state) as well as benefiting from their support and strength on the terrain as a bargaining power to gain influence and access to the various and diverse type of African societies existing inland and on the coast. In their commitment to help raise the African to western standards of civilisation and provide him with an economy that would slowly render slavery unnecessary they brought on Africans extraordinary changes to their economy, benefiting a minority and plunging a majority in drastic socio economic changes.

Imbued of the superiority of their religion and civilisation, equally full of pity and contempt for the 'other', they strove to make converts whatever the cost. Of course, it must be acknowledged that styles of diffusing Christianity and approaches to native culture varied greatly from one individual to the other. Indeed some missionaries, men and women have dedicated their lives to Africa and have succeeded in establishing a true and equal relationship with the people they came to convert.

"Reflecting on the way Christianity was changed doctrinally and denomination-ally in various countries of Europe, Lord Birkenhead once said that it is not religion that changes a people's character but a people that change the character of the religion they adopt. In Anglophone Africa he might have well reflected on the paradox that Christianity changed the educated African elite while the less educated Africans changed Christianity". (Subramaniam, 1979, p131)

Cw: 2005