Empires, Migration, Faith, and Biscuits

Empires, Migration, Faith, and Biscuits February 14, 2022

Migration is a principal force driving religious change and growth, and I have posted on this theme on several occasions at this site. The basic point about migration is totally uncontroversial, but I want to stress the role of empires in driving and directing that migration.

How Imperial Subjects Came Home

For Americans, the role of migration in making religion is obvious. All Christian churches on the continent owe their origins to migration, from the fifteenth century onward, and the great migration waves between 1840 and 1924 each had their impact. Migration ensured that the US has the world’s largest Jewish population, that Lutherans abound in the Midwest, and that around a quarter of the total population claims Catholic loyalties. Surely, we may think, empires had nothing to do with this process, except in giving people a grim reality from which to seek escape? Irish migrants clearly fell into that category, and so did the Jews fleeing repressive Russia. However hard the British tried to direct their emigrants to preferred destinations in Canada and Australia, a great many of them opted enthusiastically to seek their fortunes on US shores.

But the fact of empire has had a potent influence on migration, and religion. After the Second World War, many people in Africa and the Caribbean decided to migrate to Europe. Initially making that process easy at the time was the imperial connection. Afro-Caribbean people who lived in British-ruled territories like Jamaica were aware of Britain through the educational system, and many had served in British imperial forces during the war. As imperial subjects, entry visas or documents were no issue. Critically too, those migrants spoke English. Britain developed a sizable Afro-Caribbean population, as did that other former British imperial territory of Canada.

It was just as natural for citizens of the former Indian Empire to make the same movement to Britain from the 1950s onward. Britain remained just as attractive a destination even after the passport and citizenship requirements were tightened dramatically in the 1970s.

Similar imperial connections directed the residents of former possessions and colonies to their particular “homelands,” and again, the question of language was vital. French-speaking Moroccans and Algerians found their way to France just as naturally as Jamaicans and Trinidadians – and later Nigerians and Ghanaians – went to Britain. Other Francophone Africans went to Belgium. Still other former imperial subjects went to the Netherlands or Portugal. As I say, the country that became their destination was not a matter of random choice: it was largely determined by questions of language and ease of entry, which were consequences of empire.

I am of course over-simplifying. Immigrant peoples often moved on beyond those first countries of settlement, so that Moroccans for instance found their way to the Netherlands or Sweden. Lacking imperial ties, at least in recent times, Germany and Scandinavia found workers in Turkey, and thereby acquired the bases of what would later become major immigrant settlements.

Transforming Religion in the Homeland

Those multiple migrations have had a long-term impact in terms of race and ethnicity, and have totally transformed the food scene of their new countries, but my concern here is with religion. Most visible was the acquisition of significant communities from non-Judaeo-Christian traditions, and if that was true across most of Western Europe, the particular kinds of religious innovation were based on those imperial foundations. It was Britain, rather than any other nation, that acquired major Hindu and Sikh settlements. And if most nations found themselves with Islamic populations, the particular kind of Islam that now appeared differed enormously according to the national origins of those immigrant communities.

Islam in Britain still looks mainly to foundations in the Indian subcontinent, to Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Actually, it is even more localized than that. An impressive 70 percent of Britain’s Pakistanis (who are overwhelmingly Muslim) come from just one tiny and remote area, namely Mirpur, and we even speak of the Mirpuri Diaspora. That fact goes far toward explaining the (highly conservative) religious, political, and social outlook of that very large component of British Islam. The customs and outlook of British Muslims differ greatly from those of, say, French Algerian communities, and still more from the Sufi-dominated faith of French West Africa. Contrary to Western stereotypes, those different national and regional forms of Islam differ greatly from each other.

The heavy concentration of migrants from a few areas – usually very poor ones – is actually quite commonplace in the history of immigration. Among the earliest generations of Chinese migrants to the US, for instance, the vast majority came from just a few counties in Guangdong Province. We find many parallels to such hyper-localism in modern migration from Africa and Asia to the Global North.

Immigrant Churches

Such differences caused by migration patterns are especially obvious within Christianity. The importance of immigrant Christians in Europe grew enormously from the 1960s onward as levels of belief and practice plummeted among old-stock populations. In Britain, the most successful and visible new churches belong to African or Afro-Caribbean traditions, usually of a Pentecostal or charismatic kind. Francophone variants of these traditions are strong in France or Belgium, where immigrant-based megachurches flourish. British megachurches tend to look to Nigerians or Ghanaians; Francophone counterparts turn to Congolese or Madagascarians. In each case, those immigrant-derived communities maintain close ties with the countries of origin, so that London, for instance, plays a pivotal role in the organization of many transnational churches, not to mention the global gospel music industry. Paris and Brussels retain their role as capitals of religious empires.

That immigrant role is not just true of the Protestant or Pentecostal worlds. As vocations to the Catholic priesthood dried up so sharply in the late twentieth century, the church had to turn to foreign-born priests, from the appropriate ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. In Britain, that commonly meant Nigerians, or Southern Indians. In France, it meant Francophone Africans – especially Congolese – as well as Vietnamese. Language really matters.

Food and Faith

I offer a useful ethnographic tip. If you map the foods on offer at local markets and grocery stores in European cities, you get an excellent idea of the religious denominations and services active in the area, and (commonly) from which particular corners of the Global South the congregations derive. That in turn tells you a lot about the religious geography of that area. Yams, plantains and cassava are a great indication of African areas. If the locals are eating jollof rice, then you won’t have to look too hard to find West African Pentecostal churches and AIC’s. Expect very long and energetic services with a strong focus on healing. Some scholar should do an actual map of London, Paris, or Amsterdam, correlating such opportunities in food and faith. Now THAT’s a book waiting to be written. Goat meat would be a chapter in its own right.

Here is one odd aspect of that relationship between food, faith, and empire. During the time of the British Empire, British firms exported characteristic foods very widely across Africa and Asia, where locals acquired a strong taste for them. Still today, when you are in a US city with a strong African presence, like Houston, then these nostalgia foods are very popular in the African ethnic stores. Often (not always) this is where you find McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, Cadbury’s chocolate, even (oh Lord) Marmite, and lots of other examples. If the food sounds like it’s from the world of Harry Potter, then it was probably a big hit in Africa or South Asia: those biscuits too are relics of empire. For me, going into such an African store today is like being dropped back into my childhood in the UK. And as I say, wherever you find such African stores, you know that African churches are not far away.

Two generations after the collapse of those colonial empires, we still see their legacy in Europe’s religious patterns. As old stock Christianity continues to contract, so those newer communities will become ever more important in the continent’s Christians spectrum.


Some highly relevant books include Elizabeth Buettner, Europe After Empire: Decolonization, Society, And Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2016); and Martin Thomas and Andrew Thompson, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire (Oxford University Press, 2019).

In Migration and the Making of Global Christianity (Eerdmans 2021), Jehu Hanciles focuses on the role of migration in earlier eras of church life. I was honored to write the foreword!

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