Converting Colonialism: Visions and Realities in Mission History, 1706–1914

by Dana L. Robert, ed.

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2140 Oak Industrial Drive NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49505, 2008, 320 pages, $40.00.

Reviewed by James Bertsche, former missionary to Congo (DRC) and executive secretary of Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission.

The Christian mission has, along the way, encountered energetic criticism. In some cases, the dissent sees Christian missionaries meddling in the lives, beliefs, and cultures of other people who should be left undisturbed. For others, the critique is that naïve people, under the flag of Christian mission, wittingly or unwittingly allowed themselves to become agents of local tribal leaders in conflict with neighboring ethnic groups or of occupying colonial regimes. Still others characterize missionary personnel as highly motivated people who were ill-equipped to be agents of change. Untrained in the disciplines of cross-cultural relations and communication, they plunged rough shod among people strange to them, slipping easily into the mindset that their “Christian” mission was a “civilizing” mission. It was an easy step to the assumption that all things appearing “strange or crude” to them were “pagan” and thus needed to be combated. Finally, there are those who say that even if work by a missionary team respected local language and culture, the envisioned church needed to reflect that of their homeland so closely that a controlling missionary hand was necessary for an indefinite period of time. Put another way, missionaries built little “kingdoms” in which they were indispensable.

Amidst this barrage of critique, Converting Colonialism takes its place. It brings together nine scholarly essays, all of which focus on missionary endeavor during the time 1706 to 1914. One cannot but be impressed by the massive documentation this book provides. Written by eminently qualified scholar/historians, footnoting is copious. There are twenty-five pages of bibliographies. Some of the papers focus on the early endeavors of Christian mission in specific geographic areas, including the Bengal and southern areas of India, China, and West, East, and South Africa. Others are thematic and look at such issues as: the Christian home as a key component of missionary witness and strategy; evangelicalism’s early encounters with Islam; how the approaches were conditioned by pre-millennial or post-millennial views of missionary boards; and a study of the rise and fall of the famed Venn “three self” principles in the work of the Church Missionary Society.

Significant events, organizations, and people are underscored, including the London Missionary Conference of 1888 and the World Missionary Conference of Edinburgh of 1910. The evolution of historic missionary boards and organizations such as the Tranquebar Mission of southern India, the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS), the China Inland Mission (CIM), the London Missionary Society (LMS), the Church Missionary Society (CMS), the Paris Evangelical Mission Society (PEMS), the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and the International Christian Student Movement are examined. Finally, there is a roster of legendary individuals whose names belong in the annals of pioneering Protestant mission endeavor. These include trailblazers such as: Mary Slessor, Count Zinzendorf, David Livingstone, William Carey, Henry Venn, and Rufus Anderson.

As established scholars, the authors approach their research and writing in a dispassionate, objective manner. Consequently, missionary activities, both Catholic and Protestant, are not always recorded as enlightened and exemplary endeavors. It is also clearly demonstrated, however, that missionary endeavor often impacted local governments or colonial regimes under which they served. It is further shown that indigenous cultures, believers, and churches shaped missionary views and programs much more than is commonly understood.

Editor Dana Robert writes, “Regardless of ambiguous missionary relationships with colonial powers, indigenous converts in India, China, and West Africa remade missionary Christianity into their own images. Did modern colonialism ‘convert’ the missionaries or did the missionaries ’convert’ colonialism? As these essays have shown, historical experiences were far more diverse than the theories about them.” It is hoped that another collection of studies of this caliber will one day appear with a focus on the twentieth century which witnessed, among other things, the collapse of colonial empires and the vibrancy and growth of the Church of Christ amidst the rubble.

Copyright © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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