On missionary misunderstandings

Robert Woodberry says we may have the wrong idea about missionaries’ relationship to culture and to colonisers.



Robert Woodberry says we may have the wrong idea about missionaries’ relationship to culture and to colonisers.


Well there’s lots of things that people think about missionaries that are mostly incorrect or only partially true.

So one of them is they tend to think that missionaries were closely linked with colonisers and just were sort of like the handmaiden of colonialism. It depends which type of missionaries, but certainly Protestant missionaries that were not funded by the state were often very critical of colonialism, and had to force their way in. So originally the British, for example, banned missionaries – they wouldn’t allow them in their colonies. And it took years of political pressure to open the door where missionaries were allowed in British colonies.

Even in … Catholic colonisers, they tended to have a closer relationship between missions and the state. But even in those contexts, missionaries, particularly in the first 150 years or so, were very critical of abuses that happened at times. So it wasn’t … the idea that missionaries and colonisers just were on the same team is a huge over-simplification.

The same thing in terms of insensitivity. Missionaries are often thought of as being very insensitive to the cultures where they went – and there’s some of that, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th century, but all along. They were people their age, and absorbed the ideas that they learned in their society and in their schools. However, they were often also quite sensitive to cultures and they certainly were, on average, much more sensitive to the cultures that they went to than other Europeans and North Americans and Australians and New Zealanders at the time.

So in the late 19th century and early 20th century, there were increasing racialised theories of difference between whites and non-whites. And although educated missionaries sometimes picked up some of those ideas from their schooling, missionaries were resistant to those ideas. And although they still believed in sort of hierarchies, theirs was a cultural hierarchy more than a racial hierarchy. So it was something that they talked about, like we used to be barbarians and then we became Christians and that’s how we developed. And so even if other people are barbarians now, you know, through education and time, they can become just like us. So there’s a paternalism in that but it’s not a fixed one.