Exploration and Conquest

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.

Rudyard Kipling's 1899 poem, "The White Man's Burden," depicted the tension between the self-imposed imperialist "obligation" to bring Western civilization to perceived inferior cultures and the racism and exploitation that often accompanied this endeavor. Though the poem is not overtly Christian, it captures the vision of many Protestant Christians, particularly during the 19th century.

Even when undertaken with the best of intentions, missionary work can be controversial. The work of medical and educational missionaries, for example, can be seen as displacing indigenous cultures, spreading a globalized western set of values and leaving indigenous people vulnerable to the vicissitudes of world markets and national rivalries. Awareness of some of the negative aspects of mission and expansion has shifted the emphasis in recent years, from a predominant self-understanding that the goal is to win people away from damnation and for Christ, to a self-understanding that the goal is to minister to developing parts of the world. To take just one example, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) currently has 452 full time missionaries around the world (in South America, Asia, Africa, India, and other places). Of these, the vast majority sees their role as development, education, and peace and justice; only 88 have as their primary job description "evangelism."

The website of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) states that "national churches now have competent ministers of their own who are far more adept than outsiders at evangelizing and witnessing among their own people. Instead of issuing calls to outsiders to do what they themselves can do best, they call mission personnel to assist in developing leadership skills for pastors, medical workers, and educators, to affirm the role of women, to support ministries of reconciliation, and to respond to international disasters." The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) states, "The role of World Mission staff and mission workers who offer support to mission networks is not to set the agenda for networks but to help PCUSA members serve our global partners more faithfully and effectively." Most mainline denominations have some similar language to describe their missions. In other words, the stated goal now is less to make other people more like "us," than it is to help them in achieving their own goals.

Study Questions:
1.     What are some examples of Protestant influence in empire-building?
2.     In what ways were Protestant missionaries and merchants beneficial to foreign cultures? In what ways were they harmful to those same cultures?
3.     How has missionary work changed over time?

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