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Religion Library: Protestantism

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Ted Vial

In the early years of the Protestant movement, most European nations were aligned, either formally or informally, with a particular church tradition. States were either Roman Catholic (e.g., France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire) or Anglican (England), Presbyterian (Scotland), Lutheran (Sweden), etc. Thus as nations began to explore and develop commercial markets around the world, particularly in the 17th-19th centuries, and subsequently stake political turf through colonizing, the churches travelled with them.

Protestant churches participated fully in the exploration, expansion, and imperial conquests of the European and American nations where they were rooted. They played a role, as did the Roman Catholic Church, in both the positive and negative aspects of colonialism, building schools and hospitals but also opposing indigenous cultures and extracting resources for the benefit of the West. Religion sometimes sometimes served, albeit unwittingly in most cases, as a thin and self-righteous veneer on the colonial and imperialistic drives of nations. Wanting to conquer regions of the world in order to access cheap natural resources and labor, and to gain international prestige, colonies were often justified in terms of Jesus' "Great Commission" to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:16-20).

The Anglican presence in India dates to 1600, and Anglican chaplains and missionaries accompanied British soldiers, administrators, and merchants throughout the sub-continent. Often their moral convictions collided violently with the sensibilities of the Indians—Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh—and the British military power supported the imposition of Anglican/British values.

David Livingstone (1813-1873) is a good example of the Protestant explorer-missionary. A Scottish Congregationalist doctor, Livingstone took his medical skills to Africa, believing that the proper kind of Western presence and influence could contribute to the abolition of the slave trade. His time as a resident missionary doctor in southern Africa gave way eventually to years of exploration, and Livingstone was the first European to see what he named Victoria Falls. He believed that Western civilization could benefit both the Africans and the Europeans, and thus the motto attributed to him is "Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization."

Protestants began to arrive in China in the early 19th century, and though they were confined for many years to coastal cities, by the end of the century they had penetrated the interior. They established schools and hospitals, fought against the opium trade, condemned perceived barbaric practices (like foot-binding), and spread the gospel. Many Chinese, however, believed that the presence of the Christians was contributing to the gradual corruption and demise of the Chinese culture and empire. Their frustration and resentment with their own government's failures and the missionaries' message—so contrary to traditional Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian ways—boiled over in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, when tens of thousands of Chinese Christians and nearly 200 European and American Protestant missionaries were massacred.


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