RELIGION LIBRARY

Anglican/Episcopalian

History

Exploration and Conquest

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.

A slightly different manifestation of this impulse was found back in Britain in the anti-slavery movement.  In 1840, anti-slavery activist T. F. Buxton advocated ventures in Africa involving both missionaries and capitalists, seeking both religious conversion and economic advancement so as to cut off the impetus for the slave trade in Africa.

The machinery of British expansion was not the only way in which "cultural imperialism" (as many scholars call it) took form.  Missionaries required that converts show moral transformation in order to be baptized--again, morality being conceived according to British sensibilities.  Thus, missionaries viewed many matters, whether as frivolous as scant clothing in equatorial Africa or as serious as a widow's casting of herself onto her deceased husband's funeral pyre in India, as problems requiring the transforming hand of British culture.  But some customs that missionaries rejected, polygamy in Africa being one example, were so ingrained in the culture that to abandon them would have meant to abandon the local community and the traditional way of life.  This posed great problems in missionary efforts, and caused enormous strain to some converts.  It should be noted, however, that "cultural imperialism" is a loaded term, and its use in this context is not without problems.  Due to the imprecision of the term, it is difficult to know where legitimate cross-cultural evangelistic efforts end and cultural imperialism begins.  That place is often in the critical eye of the beholding historian.

Henry Venn, the great mid-19th-century Secretary of the CMS, was one who tended toward minimizing the connection between mission and empire.  His vision was for an indigenous Church, self-reliant and therefore free from outside control.  In line with that vision he secured the consecration of the African Samuel Crowther as Bishop of Niger in 1864.  Crowther's ministry suffered some problems, brought on to a degree by his rather indulgent style of oversight.  But his demise is more illustrative of the racism that plagued the late 19th-century British mind.  A new breed of imperialistically minded missionaries had come to power in the CMS, and they questioned not only Crowther's competence to lead the Church, but that of Africans generally.  They effectively undermined his ministry, he resigned, and the indigenous Church approach was all but dismissed.  European control of colonial churches remained the standard in Anglicanism well into the 20th century.

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