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Religion Library: Anglican/Episcopalian

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Russell P. Dawn

It may be asked, "Did Anglican mission bring the British Empire, or did the British Empire bring Anglican mission?"  The answer is, "both."  The clearest picture of empire bringing mission occurs early in post-Reformation English imperial history.   Late 16th - and early 17th-century expansions of the British Empire appear to have been commercially, rather than religiously, motivated.  In that sense, mission was not the impetus for empire.  Anglican missionaries followed the Empire into the Atlantic colonies.  The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), formed around the turn of the 18th century, supplied both ministers to Anglican colonists and missionaries for reaching the unchurched.  Although their work was not limited to colonists, they did not work outside the colonies.

As the British Empire expanded around the globe, missionary societies came to view the Empire in providential terms.  As went British expansion, so went missionary opportunities.  Clearly, Anglicans believed, the divine hand of providence was opening the way for the spread of the Gospel among heathen peoples.  Thus, this model of empire bringing mission, whether or not involving SPCK or SPG, occurred throughout Britain's imperial expansions.

There are also ways in which Anglican mission can be seen to have brought empire.  For instance, views of empire in providential terms were not only reactive, but inspirational.  Thus as scholars point out, the desire to spread Anglicanism emerged in 18th-century England as a contributory factor in the British drive for empire.  The notion of England as specially favored by God was clearly an impetus for empire, and Anglican identity was enmeshed with that notion.

Another example of mission bringing empire is that Anglican missionaries, particularly Church Mission Society (CMS) missionaries, were often sent to areas where British imperialist intentions were not yet aimed.  Once there, however, there were occasions when the missionaries encouraged British expansion in the area.  Sometimes this was for the protection of the missionaries in hostile territory, other times it was in order to prevent competing Christian groups (such as Catholics) from gaining hegemonic power through the colonizing efforts of their sponsoring nations.  Another reason was that they sought not only to convert people doctrinally, but to see the fruit of conversion morally, as conceived in British terms.  British culture was viewed as the good fruit, the natural effect, of Christianity, whereas indigenous social customs were often the wicked fruit of idolatrous religions.  Colonization was seen as a way of promoting moral transformation.


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