Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 17 Christian Missions

Christian Missions and their Impact

- there had long been a relative absence of missionary fervour and action in European Protestantism. This was especially true of much early Calvinism, although there was some enthusiasm in early New England. Earlier, Catholics had been very vigorous in the early phases of European expansion in the new world, in Africa, in India and Asia. However, this too had long since waned to very low levels. Another factor may have been that 18th C Deism was not aggressive or derogatory of other religions.

- there was very little real mission activity in Africa after the failure of the Kingdom of the Kongo; in fact in Africa, Catholic mission activity did not resume on a large scale until 2nd half of the 19th C.

- the Moravian Brethren were the first to send missionaries to South Africa in 1739. This first mission was short-lived, only 1739-43. Nevertheless, Georg Schmidt, the only member of the party who survived, had made converts before he left South Africa. When a new party of Moravian missionaries arrived in 1792 and founded a mission at Genadendal about 100 miles from Cape Town, a few of Schmidt’s converts were still around to join the mission.

- beginning in the 1790s, there was an enormous upsurge in support and enthusiasm for missions among Protestants in Europe and North America associated with the evangelical revival and postmillennialism. A host of new Protestant mission societies were created. The tide of missions spread out to various parts of the globe, but Africa was one of the foci for this tide.

- there is no denying that the impact of the missionaries on Africa has been (and continues to be) very large. However, there continues to be much debate about the nature of that impact, including the issue of how much missions and missionaries contributed to the conquest and partition of Africa in the late 19th C.

Christian Eschatologies

- Christianity has always harboured 2 very different eschatologies (visions of the future and the end of the world)—premillennialism and postmillennialism. The terms relate to the relationship between 2 events which would lead to the end of the world as we know it:

1 The Second Coming or Second Advent;
2 The millennium—1000 years of peace, Kingdom of God.

- there are other ideas also (time of troubles [the tribulation] as in the Book of Revelation in the Bible; the Final Judgment; a new Creation and a new world).

- however, the relationship between 1 and 2 has given rise to two separate traditions:

premillennialism and postmillennialism as illustrated in the diagram below.

- these traditions embody very different perceptions of the world and the trend of events. The expectations for the future are almost opposite; one tends to be pessimistic and the other much more optimistic.


- in this cosmology, the world is evil and getting worse (i.e., the trend is down); the world (i.e., existing societies and social order) is not redeemable. It is heading for destruction and damnation.

- premillennialists expect the Second Coming momentarily, at any minute. This expectation from time to time convinces individuals that they have noted all the signs and causes them to make a prediction of when this will take place. Just a few years ago, a fundamentalist preacher in Korea decided that 1992 was the year and many of his followers sold their property etc. in preparation. [A similar incident occurred in 1914; many of the people who had joined later concluded that the prediction was false. However, the leader maintained that he was correct and that the Second Coming had taken place; those who accepted this came to be known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.]

- immediately after the Second Coming there will be an extended period of troubles, including the 7 plagues foretold in the Book of Revelation and great loss of life; it will culminate in the great Battle of Armageddon. After this, all the existing political entities will all be destroyed and the Kingdom of God will be established throughout the entire world. This will inaugurate the Millennium.

- in this view then, achievement of the millennium requires a cataclysmic transition, involving destruction of the existing world, the deaths of enormous numbers of people and the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

- most (but not all) Christian fundamentalist preachers are premillennialist, including Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, etc. Most avoid politics because it is seen as being a waste of time (the world can’t be saved) and it distracts the fundamentalist Christian from doing what he/she should be doing—staying prepared and in a state of Grace for the Second Coming (being ‘saved’) and trying to save as many other people from damnation as they can. As a result, this tradition is to a considerable degree apolitical.


- people in this tradition believe that the world can and will be improved until it reaches a state where the Kingdom of God will be achieved (i.e., in an evolutionary, gradual fashion); this involves the idea of ‘progress’.

- this improvement and progress will be achieved in 2 ways:

  1. reform of individuals by conversion and evangelism; as this takes place on a large scale and large numbers of people change their behaviour, conditions in society will improve. Thus, attempts to evangelise and convert as many people as possible is just as strong as in premillennialism.
  2. reform of society to eliminate evils which tend to promote sin and evil (such as, drink, slavery, prostitution, etc.); this reform could, and often did, require political activism and produced a wide range of movements and actions in the 19th century. Thus, people in this tradition can be very active politically.

- postmillennialism had become the dominant view in Protestantism in the late 18th C and provided the impetus for the mission crusade. The millennial society was to include the entire world; therefore, before it could be achieved, the non-Christian parts of the world would have to be evangelised.

- as I am presenting it, the motivation and purpose of missionaries was to convert people to Christianity and in this way to assist in the Divine Plan to improve the world and bring about the millennium.

- materialist historians present a different interpretation. In their view, economic factors and influences determine everything; thus, an expanding capitalism in Europe was extending to other parts of the globe and the missionaries were primarily witting or unwitting agents of that expanding capitalism. This can and does lead to distortion and misunderstanding of what missionaries were doing. [Of course, the growing wealth of the industrialising, capitalist societies provided the economic resources for the missionary crusade without necessarily providing the motivation or determining that that was how it would be used.]

- a large proportion of the early missionaries were drawn from upper working class backgrounds (tradesmen— blacksmiths, printers etc.) and many had modest educations. That is, they were not capitalists. However, they did see themselves and their social stratum in Britain (i.e, lower middle and upper working class) as being the backbone of society and what was making that society successful; they were sober, serious, hard-working and devout. They were not downtrodden; they thought of themselves as the meek who would inherit the earth!

- in spreading the gospel, they were trying to convert Africans into people like themselves.

- they were also trying to transform indigenous societies, not into societies like those back home because they were aware of many short-comings (there was still lots of work to be done converting people there too). Conversion meant not just a question of few dogmas or beliefs, but involved an attempt to effect a big transformation in people’s behaviour. Thus, they hoped to see indigenous societies, not transformed into replicas of British society, but rather into what they thought Britain should be.

- in ideology, most missionaries and their supporters were increasingly accepting the ideas of laisser-faire except that the ‘invisible hand’ was not simply impersonal forces in the universe. It was God who created the universe and determined how it operated. Thus, in the ‘invisible hand’ they saw Divine Purpose and Action.

- moreover, a number of ideas of laisser-faire (e.g., improving standards of living, trade as a mutually beneficial activity, the ultimate disappearance of war—the notion of ‘progress’) fitted into the view of how the millennium would gradually evolve and unfold.

- the idea that Christianity and Commerce were compatible and mutually reinforcing elements and activities was widely held during the 1st 60-70 years of the 19th C; this idea is widely associated with David Livingstone because he made a special point of preaching this message (although he was forced to resign from the London Missionary Society when he practiced it as trading was against the rules of the society for missionaries).

- this has led many scholars to argue that missionaries were simply the servants and henchmen of the capitalists who controlled everything.

- thus, missionaries are frequently depicted (using a football analogy) as the linesmen and blockers sent in to disrupt and undermine African societies; this then allowed the traders and business interests to romp in to score the touchdowns.

- there are a number of problems with this materialist depiction:

  1. despite the assertions of some scholars, big business did not provide much support for missions; D. Livingstone made a big point of going to the Chambers of Commerce etc. in Britain to speak (even snubbing a number of churches), but the captains of industry, while cheering the claims of the benefits to trade that the promotion of Christianity would bring, gave little money to the missions. Most of the money for the missions to central and east Africa that Livingstone stimulated came from the churches and the traditional supporters of missions (there are certainly examples of successful businessmen contributing generously as individuals, but these were not the norm nor did they provide most of the funds). Most supporters of missions were from the lower middle and upper working classes, especially in the 1st half of the 19th C.

  2. African trade was never very large or important compared to other areas, yet Africa always received a disproportionate share of missionaries and mission resources.

    - on the other hand, Latin America, which was always much more important for trade purposes than Africa, received only minor amounts of attention from the mission societies. If capitalists were really jerking the puppet strings of the mission societies and missionaries, why didn’t they direct more attention to S. America?

    - even more, in places like India and China, business was lukewarm and frequently even hostile to mission activity; missionaries stirred up trouble and interfered with their activities.

The Christian Missionary Tide

- suddenly (the stimulus is usually identified as the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792), missions became a crusade which stirred tremendous enthusiasm and support. Old mission societies, which had been mostly very sleepy organisations, were galvanised into action and a whole raft of new societies were founded, first in Britain, but quickly spreading to the U.S. Early in the 19th C, the enthusiasm spread to Protestants in Germany, Switzerland, France and the Nordic countries as well.

- one of these new societies was the London Missionary Society (it was non-denominational but had a strong core of English Presbyterians and Congregationalists); in 1799, it sent out a party of 5 missionaries which included the Netherlander, Johannes van der Kamp. Initially, van der Kamp and his assistant went east to try to open a mission to the Xhosa with Ngqika; when this failed, he returned to the eastern frontier of white settlement and began to work with the Khoikhoi. He was given a large grant of land to provide a mission and refuge for the Khoikhoi whom the British were trying to lure back to the colony from their alliance with the Xhosa. The other LMS missionaries went north to open a mission among the people who became known as the Griqua.

- early in the 19th C, Wesleyan Methodists and Scottish Presbyterians of the Glasgow Missionary Society also began to arrive in South Africa, although the LMS continued to lead the way in numbers for many years. French missionaries of the Paris Evangelical Mission (although Swiss protestants were also involved) arrived first in 1833. Anglicans were a bit slow, but after 1850, they greatly expanded in numbers and influence. American Board Missions (American Congregationalists) began sending missionaries to Natal in the 1820s and a bit later, Norwegian missionaries also began to arrive. Other German missionaries also arrived by the second decade of the 19th C, but many of these went north into what is now Namibia.

- there was also early involvement of missionaries in the Sierra Leone project in the late 18th C. Soon missionaries were attempting to establish permanent missions in a number of places in West Africa as well. However, the mortality rates for missionaries in West Africa was so high until well into the second half of the century that the number of working missionaries rose only slowly as compared to South Africa where disease was not a serious problem. In the 1st half of 19th C, most missionary activity was restricted to South and West Africa.


-early missionaries were relatively free of racism; however, they were not free of cultural bias as they believed their own religion was true and all others false; they also believed that many or most aspects of social and political life in Europe were better than what they believed existed in Africa.

- their view was that the ‘superiority’ of European institutions and customs were the result of Christianity. Therefore, the inferiority of those in Africa were the result of the lack of Christianity; once Christianity was accepted, the differences would disappear as would any inferiority. The inferiority was cultural and not innate—not genetic or ‘racial’.

- this changed as the 19th C developed.

Missionaries and their Role in the European Onslaught

Missionaries and political action

- as another indication of the postmillennial orientation, many of the early missionaries were prepared to take political action on behalf of indigenous people they believed to be treated unjustly. This became a matter of debate among missionaries even in the same mission society as some felt that certain missionaries became too involved politically. For example, Robert Moffat criticised other LMS missionaries van der Kamp, James Reid and later Dr. John Philip for being too political.

- nevertheless, missionaries were politically active:

  1. trying to change the treatment, legal status and rights of non-white people (Khoikhoi, free blacks and San) in the Cape Colony—emancipation of ‘Hottentots’ or Coloureds (see below).

  2. attempting to protect the indigenous communities outside the boundaries of the Cape Colony from intrusion, disruption and destruction by whites, especially pastoralist farmers—trekboers.

  3. attempting to bring the slave trades to an end.

- on the first, they tried to remonstrate with and affect policies of the colonial government in Cape Town. When that failed, they took their appeals and activities to Britain, enlisting the so-called ‘philanthropic’ pressure groups (anti-slavery groups, aborigines protection societies and mission societies) on their side.

- on the second, they tried to reduce conflict and disunity within indigenous society as mediators and advisors; also, they assisted African leaders in negotiations with gov’t in Cape Town (especially to get the latter to restrain and control the whites who were pressing in in search of new land).

- they would sometimes appeal to London to prevent encroachment; there they sometimes got a favourable response because the imperial gov’t was anxious to limit responsibilities and liabilities.

- later, after the Great Trek, missionaries began to switch in their goals. Threatened by trekboer pressures, missionaries felt that control by the imperial gov’t was the least evil option.

- supporters of mission societies were often prominent in the anti-slavery groups and in the Aborigines Protection Society; missionaries frequently supplied information about the slave trades to these groups in Britain. Many missionaries were also active in trying to find alternative commodities to replace slaves—i.e., to substitute ‘legitimate’ trade.

- missionaries tended to clash, often very strongly, with other whites in Africa:

Emancipation of ‘Hottentots’ or Coloureds

- almost from the establishment of the white settlement at Cape Town, slaves had been imported to supply the labour demands. Initially, some had been from the east (modern Indonesia), but increasingly most of the slaves came from elsewhere in Africa. Soon, some Khoikhoi began to lose cattle and became dependent on the white settlement. The Coloureds are an amalgam of whites, slaves and Khoikhoi. In the western areas of the Cape, slaves continued to provide a major portion of the labour supply. However, there were some Khoikhoi, some ex-slaves and even more people of mixed background; all of these were nominally ‘free’ and in areas where VOC (Dutch East India Company) control was firm, their status was not as seriously curtailed as further into the interior.

- beginning in the early 18th C, some white settlers had taken to pastoral farming and had begun to migrate eastward and northward from Cape Town. As they moved farther from Cape Town, VOC control became merely token. These pastoralist farmers, who became known as ‘Trekboers’, increasingly made their own rules. Increasingly, they wanted to restrict all rights to those who had white skins, although they almost always characterised the distinction as ‘Christians’ as opposed to ‘heathens’.

- few of the Trekboers had slaves as few had any money. As a result, they turned to the Khoikhoi to supply their labour. As only ‘Christians’ had rights, the Trekboers took no account of any claims of Khoikhoi who occupied land they wanted. They simply claimed it (as against other whites); Khoikhoi living there were either forced to leave or required to provide labour for the white family.

- various techniques were employed to dominate and to control those who were excluded from ‘Christian’ or white status.

  1. Vagrancy laws—all non-whites were presumed to have some master and those who didn’t were ‘vagrants’.

    - all ‘servants’ were required to have a note or a ‘pass’ from their master stating that they had permission to be absent; anyone without a pass was liable to be ‘arrested’ as a vagrant by any white person who would take them to the local veld cornet (a white farmer who served as magistrate and local official for the Company).

    - the apprehended person could then be charged, convicted as a vagrant and sentenced to a term of punishment; the term would then be served in the custody of the person making the arrest!

    - this precluded any freedom of movement for anyone not enjoying ‘white’ status.

  2. Debt bondage—employees would be given goods (food or alcohol) and when the period of service came to an end, the employer would declare that the employee owed money and would have to enter another contract of service. ‘Contracts’ were verbal, but in any dispute, only the testimony of the ‘Christian’ had much weight.

  3. Apprenticeship of children—the rationale was that this was compensation to the farmer for the expense of feeding and rearing the children of his servants. This ‘apprenticeship’ might be extended until about age 25. This tied down the parents too as they would be reluctant to leave their children.

legal status

- the official company policy was that anyone who was not a slave was ‘free’ and, therefore, had the same legal rights. However, in the interior, company control was practically non-existent. Trekboers did not recognise equal rights before the law; indeed, they tended to make their own law.

- lessor judicial matters were handled by local veld coronets who were themselves white farmers; in their handling of matters, it is clear that the standing of whites and non-whites were very different.

- more serious matters were supposed to be referred to Cape Town or the nearest Company administrative centre. However, crimes by whites against non-whites were rarely prosecuted and crimes by non-whites against whites were treated summarily—simply killing them without formal proceedings in serious cases or savage beatings.

-in the 1790s, Landrost Maynier on behalf of the VOC was attempting to extend control into the interior and over the trekboers. Maynier’s attempts to restrict maltreatment of Khoikhoi and to deliver a more equitable brand of justice were met with bitter resentment. The white settlers in the Graaf-Reinet district rebelled in 1795 complaining that Maynier “preferred the Heathens before the Christians.”

- other white settlers in Swellendam revolted as well and made demands to be allowed to do what they had been doing previously:

“ ... all Bushmen captured by commandos or by private individuals might be retained in perpetual slavery by the Boers—they and their children after them; that the custom ... [of keeping Khoikhoi children until 25 years] be restored; and that no Hottentot who left his employment should in future be allowed to take refuge in any ‘colony’, i.e., village, but that after his complaints had been noted down he should be forthwith returned to his ‘lord and master’.” Marais, The Cape Coloured People, p.113.

- this was the situation when the British occupied the Cape in the same year. That is, although Khoikhoi and people of mixed background were nominally free, in practice in the interior especially, they were no better off and not infrequently were worse off than slaves.

- British officials (mostly military officers) in the occupation were anxious to avoid trouble; this tended to make them reluctant to do too much that might unduly anger the white settlers. Also, in the midst of the French revolutionary wars, leadership in Britain became more ‘conservative’ and authoritarian. Early governors were from the same mould.

- therefore, while attempting to ameliorate some aspects of the treatment of Coloured people by whites, they also ended up legalising the practices. They had not been legal under the VOC.

- missionaries often had only limited influence on the military men who headed the gov’t in Cape Town. They did have contacts with the missionary and philanthropic pressure groups in London; as the struggle to end the slave trade and slavery itself mounted, the influence of these groups also increased.

- as a result, the main procedure for getting change and reform in the Cape was to get their supporters and allies in London to pressure the imperial gov’t who would in turn pressure or order changes in the laws and policies in the Cape.

- the missionary pressures and agitations over the first 3 decades of the 19th C eventually led to Ordinance 50 of 1828.

Two areas:

1. Boer techniques for controlling the movement of labour

- authorities took a number of steps to ameliorate these practices.

2 Administration of justice

- while there was a separate legal code for slaves, Khoikhoi had no separate standing at law. As nominally free persons, they were considered to have the same standing as whites before the law.

- a key issue was that of accessibility—whites controlled access.

- the big change was the inauguration of a legal circuit court to bring law and justice to remote areas and to open access to non-whites.

- the first circuit (which became known among whites as the ‘Black Circuit’) took place in 1812. With help from missionaries, non-white servants brought a large number of charges against their employers. For the first time, white employers had to answer to a court for their treatment of servants. Moreover, the testimony of non-whites was given the same nominal weighting as that of the white employers.

- it is true that a large number of prosecutions failed, but whites were outraged that they had to answer the charges in the first place. It was also a grievance that ‘heathens’ had been placed on a level of equality with ‘Christians’.

Controlling movement

- although 2 or 3 laws were introduced to further ameliorate the labour practices, the missionaries were not satisfied and continued to find many abuses; they pressed for an end. Dr. John Philip, an LMS missionary, took the lead, collecting stories of abuse and maintaining active correspondence with pressure groups in Britain.

- eventually, 2 changes were introduced: first, the Masters and Servants law of England was introduced. By our standards, this system gave employers much more power than we would be comfortable with; i.e., employment was a contract with many rights to the employer to prosecute. While employees could also prosecute for failures of the employer, the balance of advantage was more for the employer. Nevertheless, it was less one-sided than the previous system had been.

- secondly, Ordinance 50 of 1828 was promulgated—this was sometimes called ‘the Magna Carta of the Cape Coloured People’.

- this political activism led to 2 of the 3 major views of missionaries:

  1. Knights in shining armour

    - not only were they bringing the gospel and ‘civilisation’, but they were also defenders of the weak and the oppressed.

    - missionaries strove to improve the economic well-being of Africans; thus, they introduced plows and other equipment as well as crops as means to provide greater income and standards of living.

    - they introduced literacy and African languages were reduced to written form for the 1st time.

    - they introduced western education and made science and technology, as well as political ideas, available to Africans.

    - this view frequently has had a hagiographical dimension; i.e., the missionaries as super saints, completely selfless and with few flaws.

  2. Do-gooder and meddler

    - often in this view, they are seen as at least naive (“They do not realise that Africans are savages and need to be treated and controlled with a firm hand.”)

    - however, in S. Africa, the white settlers (especially the Dutch or Afrikaans-speaking) viewed them as malicious and evil; these last argued that God had intended that blacks should be servants of the whites and that it was impious and wicked to interfere with the divinely decreed order; even worse was any talk or attempt to implement equality.

  3. Arrogant, insensitive, culture-bound disrupter of traditional society

    - an early version of this was put forward in the 19th C, especially by white settlers; these latter often expressed a preference for the ‘raw native’ as opposed to the ‘school native’.

    - the latter was uppity and had ideas above his station; also, he knew the laws and could defend his rights better than an uneducated, traditional African.

    - this was really just a variant of the missionary as meddler.

    - however, in the 20th C, this view has been developed by social scientists.

    - missionaries, it is argued, attacked many social customs as well as religious beliefs; the result was a good deal of disruption.

    - often too, the replacements for traditional customs and social relations were not as effective and did not relate to other aspects of African culture and society.

    - the encouragement of a market economy and trade with Europeans (clothes and manufactured goods) exposed Africans to the fluctuations and vagaries of international commodity markets and increased vulnerability [this implicitly assumes that the old subsistence economy was more ‘secure’; however, the old subsistence economy had serious drawbacks too].

    - also, this involvement in trade and international markets created dependencies and thus weakened the ability to resist; [On the other hand, some Africans used trade to acquire guns which could be used to strengthen resistance].

    - frequently, mission activity brought splits and divisions in traditional society; this may often have weakened African societies both politically and militarily and thus indirectly have assisted the conquest.

    - in short, the missionaries have been charged with assisting conquest, at the very least indirectly and unintentionally, but some have argued even intentionally and consciously. This last was argued strongly in The Role of the Missionaries in Conquest from a Marxist view by some Coloured students in Cape Town just after 1945.

    [Different ‘schools’ of historical interpretation have evolved in depicting and understanding South African history. The evaluations of missionaries have been starkly different.]

Livingstone and the new wave

- David Livingstone’s journeys into central Africa in the 1850s and 60s stimulated a great renewal of interest in and enthusiasm for missions in Africa; missionaries pushed rapidly into the remaining forest coastal areas of west Africa and increasingly into central and east Africa.

- Catholic, especially French, mission efforts also reemerged in the 2nd half of the 19th C; in fact Catholics and Protestants increasingly felt in competition; to a considerable extent, this competition also got caught up in nationalism and played a significant role in the scramble for Africa:

What role(s) did the missionaries play in the conquest and scramble for Africa?

- as can be seen from the sharply contrasting views of the missionaries, there is a good deal of debate about this topic. Achieving a balanced assessment requires some effort.

General comments

- missionaries were nota uniform group, especially in regard to ideas and opinions; thus, making generalisations is difficult because there are usually lots of exceptions and contrary examples. It is far too common for scholars to adopt a rather simplistic stereotype and caricature of the missionary.

- in our increasingly secular age, religious people and especially missionaries are not understood or empathised with. Moreover, as anthropology and sociology have developed and brought better knowledge and better perspectives of other societies and peoples, we increasingly find the missionary attitude and enterprise objectionable.

- only recently have more rigorous scholarly and social science methods begun to be applied to the study of missionaries themselves. Thus, much of the stereotype is ignorance.

- on the other hand, there has also been a hagiographical literature and approach which tended to make the missionaries heroic, saint-like characters; some of the negative stereotype is just a reaction against excessively fulsome adulation of the missionaries.

- evaluating the role of the missionaries requires that exaggerated images, whether positive or negative, be set aside. Especially, we should avoid minimising their diversity by the reductionism of stereotypes and caricatures.

1 Divisiveness (Christianity as a Fifth Column)

- without question it is true that the missionaries (and Christianity) tended to be divisive in traditional society (although the Basotho example shows that this need not have been so disruptive and could have been contained within manageable levels, just as Europeans eventually found ways to transcend religious differences).

- most missionaries for a long time pursued the idea of separation of converts from traditional society and encouraged their converts not to participate in many national customs and rites. As noted earlier, this led to the ‘red’/’school’ split in Xhosa society.

- in S. Africa this problem was exacerbated when the missionaries urged their converts to remain neutral in the wars.

- How far was this an expression of nationalism? The majority of missionaries were British (but not all—French and Swiss in Lesotho, but Germans, Americans and Scandinavians); some were unable and unwilling to put aside their nationalism and national loyalties.

- however, many others urged their converts not participate in wars because they felt certain that Africans would lose; they often refused—even in face of taunts by white settlers—to condemn those who did join the African military resistance by pointing out that everyone expected citizens in Europe to support their governments and to fight for their country (white settlers usually wanted to treat them as traitors—at least to confiscate all their land and cattle, but often even harsher punishments).

- some missionaries did have a role in sharpening the Xhosa-Mfengu split; it was a missionary who described the clientship of the Mfengu as ‘slavery’. The subsequent ‘emancipation’ by the British governor resulted in a large proportion of the Mfengu becoming allies of the British, the seizure by the Mfengu of large amounts of Xhosa cattle, and the settling of Mfengu on land that had been seized from the Xhosa. Most of this was done by British officials, but the missionary certainly gave the rationale. Other missionaries continued to support the split in acting as Mfengu advisors and encouraging them to maintain the alliance with the British. Not all missionaries agreed with this policy.

- early in the 20th C, Isaac Wauchope (a Xhosa Congregational minister) asserted that some missionaries had also encouraged the split at a social level by being reluctant to perform weddings between Xhosa and Mfengu.

- however, the Xhosa-Mfengu hostility was disruptive in the churches, especially after the missionaries began to employ African teachers and to ordain Africans to the ministry; in fact most missionaries were engaged in trying to diminish rather than enlarge that conflict.

- on the question of whether Christianity created a ‘Fifth Column’, it is important to note that few if any missionaries urged their converts to fight against their chiefs; mostly, they urged that they stay neutral. The latter certainly has some of the same effect, it is true. However, most conversions took place after conquest; therefore conversion was largely an effect of conquest, not a cause.

2 Economic change

- without question, missionaries were an important factor in promoting economic change. They introduced and encouraged the use of foreign products (clothing, tea, etc.) which undermined the former self-sufficiency of the subsistence economy. This brought Africans more and more into a market economy. To pay for these goods, Africans would have to produce surpluses of agricultural products to sell or find other ways to get money; for many this meant going to work for wages— what some call ‘proletarianization’.

- many missionaries accepted the theory that commerce and Christianity reinforced each other, that participation in one predisposed people to become involved with the other. As a result, they could advocate trade as a means of furthering the spread and success of the gospel and vice versa.

- this has led some scholars, especially Marxists, to argue that this was the crux and purpose of missionary activity, another evidence of how crafty capitalism really is:

1. either the missionaries were eager, willing and conscious henchmen for the capitalist classes,


2. the missionaries were manipulated and made use of. Religion as ‘the opiate of the masses’ sucks the masses into allowing themselves to be used and exploited. The missionaries were perhaps more gullible than ordinary as they were manipulated into going abroad to preach the gospel and thus suck the ‘native’ people into the same net (i.e., a kind of Judas goat).

- by no means did all missionaries agree that commerce and Christianity were mutually reinforcing (as we noted,Livingstone was fired by the LMS for engaging in trade, contrary to its rules). As John Smith Moffat (he was 3rd generation in the famous missionary family) stated it in 1903: “I do not believe in missionaries or societies putting themselves under obligation to the rich men in South Africa. The time is coming when there will be a life-and-death struggle on the native question. The capitalists are worse than the Boers, and we who stand by the native will have to fight to the death over the question.”

- also, it is clear that businessmen were not the main contributors to mission work; the main contributors (i.e., the suppliers of most of the funds) were the middle and upper working classes, especially in the non-conformist churches. Thus, this theory owes as much or more to the imaginations of scholars steeped in Marxist conspiracy theory as to reality. It is in fact a complex issue.

Was economic change an effect or cause of the conquest?

- while there was a certain amount of trade (and therefore economic change) before conquest, most of the change and economic impact came after the conquest.

- also, economic change and innovation was by no means all induced by the missionaries. Some non-Christian Africans saw the potential and began to innovate; the wealthy in traditional society were often in the best position to take advantage. Thus, economic change was coming and being induced by other factors than missionary actions.

Annexation (Were missionaries strong ‘imperialists’?)

- this is an often made charge, and indeed some missionaries were. However, this issue also shows much complexity and it is difficult to make categorical generalisations as there were wide divergences in missionary opinion; attitudes tended to change over time or had to adapt to changing realities.

- some missionaries hoped to convert and Christianise entire societies or ‘tribes’ together with political the leaders. They would work with the support of the chief and thought of their role as being advisors to the chiefs.

- this is the tack taken by the missionaries to the Griqua and by the Moffats in their work with the Tswana. It was also dictated by the fact that in going to these people, the missionaries were dealing with peoples who were independent.

- in this approach, the missionaries often wanted to preserve their chosen society and that meant trying to keep white settlers out and trying to limit contacts. It also involved helping the chief and his council with negotiations and relations with the gov’t at the Cape.

- most missionaries opposed annexations in South Africa up to the 1840s; one of the best examples of this was the missionary opposition to the annexation of Queen Adelaide Land in 1836-37. In the event (although it was certainly not entirely or even primarily due to opposition of the missionaries), Queen Adelaide Land was disannexed.

Change after the 1840s

- an analogous change occurred in New Zealand in the 1840s. There, the missionaries were increasingly disturbed that whites (whalers, criminals, etc.) were disrupting Maori society (introducing guns, alcohol, prostitution, etc.).

- similar concerns were emerging in South Africa: white traders were going farther afield introducing alcohol; as well, the invasion of the high veld and Natal by the Voortrekkers was causing concern about the impact and destruction of African societies there.

- frustration was also clearly another factor:

  1. lack of converts: Xhosa converts had been relatively few; some missionaries worked for years and had only a handful of converts to show for it.

    - Africans had often shown a great deal of initial interest as they were always interested in new religious ideas; they would attend services and debate theological issues extensively. Africans were often very good at that as some missionaries acknowledged.

    - however, as they got more information on what the missionaries were demanding, especially the abandonment of so many customs and culture (including lobola, polygyny, and circumcision) as well as urging them to stay neutral (and thus abandon their chiefs and ‘nation’) in the wars, most Xhosa rejected it, saying as one missionary reported, “We are well as we are.”

    - also, many missionaries were disappointed in the quality (as well as the quantity) of many converts. Where missionaries had been given substantial amounts of land for their stations, the missionary had the powers of a headman in allocating land. In the increasingly over-crowded situation in the eastern Cape, it was clear that some Africans coming to the mission station were attracted by the land, not necessarily by Christianity. As well, outcasts from Xhosa society tended to gravitate to the stations. Some were people who got into trouble (including people who were ‘odd’ or different and who might have been accused of witchcraft); others were people with severe physical problems and without family to look after them.

  2. disruption and destruction of their work by the recurrent wars: not only were buildings destroyed (a military measure because white troops tended to use them as fortifications) but converts were killed or scattered; sometimes, the wars caused converts to renounce Christianity:

  3. a feeling that chiefs and the political systems needed to be destroyed before conversion and change could take place. J. C. Warner, a Methodist missionary who later became a government agent, expressed it this way in the 1850s:

    “And above all, as they have so resolutely and so perseveringly refused to give to the Gospel even an attentive hearing; it seems to me that the way on which they themselves are so obstinately bent is the one which God will make use of to bring about this desirable object; and that the sword must first—not exterminate [sic] them, but—break them up as tribes, and destroy their political existence; after which, when thus set free from the shackles by which they are bound, civilisation and Christianity will no doubt make rapid progress among them.”

    - nor can this feeling be attributed to nationalist feelings. American and Norwegian missionaries in Natal came to advocate a similar position regarding the annexation and dismantling of the Zulu Kingdom after the 1840s.

    - missionary efforts to get African lands annexed could also be protective; French missionaries in Basotholand assisted Moshoeshoe in his attempts to get annexed by Britain to protect them from the Boers. Later, in the 1880s, missionaries in Bechuanaland were doing the same thing.

    - moreover, missionaries were active in trying to resist confiscations of land from Africans and in turn granting or selling that land to whites. Without missionaries and their direct and indirect influence, Africans would have ended with even less land than they did.

- nevertheless, there can be no doubt that missionaries were a significant element in the white intrusion. The divisive effects were, for the most part, an unintended contribution to ‘divide and conquer’, but that is different from arguing that the missionaries and Christianity were part of a deliberate strategy to do this.

Sources of Information (‘spies’) and Agents of Government

- many missionaries did act as informants by supplying information to government officials. It is not clear that this was always a negative thing; sometimes, missionaries were able to correct misinformation about Africans and their society being spread in the white community. They could also sometimes have some effect on policy.

- as a result of their connections and the trust that they had built, missionaries could be useful as government agents and several (including Warner above) did resign as missionaries and become agents. There were even a couple of cases where the transition went the other way. Even more numerous are the examples of the sons of missionaries who became government agents; they often could speak an African language and were presumed to have a greater knowledge of African societies (however, they often knew and understood a lot less than they thought and pretended).

- again, I’m not sure how to evaluate this. Africans were quite aware that the missionaries communicated with the authorities and in fact frequently relied on the missionaries to handle their communications with government. There are a few cases where missionaries did help to deceive Africans in these dealings, but the evidence is overwhelming in showing that missionaries mostly used their role as intermediaries to help and to benefit Africans. Thus, if one asks the question, “Would Africans have been better or worse off without the missionaries?”, the answer is clearly worse off.


- missionaries did see themselves in the role of integrating Africans into the social, economic and even political aspects of the colonial society evolving in the Cape Colony and South Africa.

- some degree of assimilation is implicit in any missionary endeavour; however, the degree of assimilation could vary. Some missionaries wanted and expected to see complete assimilation—i.e., ‘turning Africans into Black Englishmen’.

- however, this was not practicable nor entirely desirable. For example, on standards of living: as missions began to provide education and to ordain Africans, they became aware that complete assimilation would require much higher incomes and therefore salaries. But having to pay more would reduce the number of preachers and teachers they could hire. Also, higher standards of living would separate the few, the elite, from the masses. Would this not ruin much of their effectiveness?

- also, there were limits on what Africans were prepared to give up, and in a number of areas, it was the missionaries who had to make concessions.

- in the Cape Colony in the 1850s, Sir George Grey as governor introduced a policy of assimilation of the Xhosa. A major component of Grey’s assimilation policy was education, to be provided by the mission organisations; as a result, the missionaries became full partners with government. However, the relationship was never free of friction. People in government tended to visualise Africans as occupying only the lowest social, economic and political position in colonial society while most missionaries were not so restrictive and were much more responsive to African aspirations.

- of course, this is a different aspect—i.e., the role of the missionary in assisting Africans to adapt to white conquest and colonialism. Even more, it takes us into the question, “What role did missionaries have in the evolution of African nationalism and the struggle for independence from white domination?” That is a question we shall examine in History 317.

Missionaries in the era of the ‘new imperialism’—1870-1900

- once the ‘scramble was in progress (by the early 1880s), European governments, when looking for grounds to make a claim to an area, used the presence and involvement of its nationals; missionaries could be and were used for this purpose. In this sense, missionaries were unwitting, passive participants in imperialism.

- the ‘new imperialism’ was largely an expression of rising nationalism which was affecting most European and North American societies. The period also coincided in the same countries with the rise of virulent, ‘scientific’ racism. In fact, the two streams tended to feed each other.

- missionaries were products of their societies and not surprisingly, they were not immune from the forces and ideas which were shaping those societies. As the century wore on, many missionaries to Africa were more racist; they were still paternalistic and wanted to do good, but they increasingly viewed Africans as inherently inferior.

- in addition to the growing racism with which missionaries were reared, this negative evaluation sometimes arose from their lack of success; it must be the people themselves. That people could have the gospel preached to them and reject it or perhaps try it for a while and abandon it suggested moral and intellectual inferiority to some missionaries.

- however, other missionaries acknowledged that Africans were adept at spotting weaknesses in the arguments and presentation of Christianity; Africans asked hard questions!

- in any case, many (perhaps most) missionaries began to believe that Africans would be better off under the control of a European government. Then the blessings of Christianity and ‘civilisation’ could begin to have their influence in improving Africans and their way of life.

- of course, in some cases, this attitude had little or nothing to do with racism or nationalism. For missionaries in central and east Africa witnessing the horror and effects of the thriving slave raiding and trading, only European governments had the necessary power to suppress the slaving activities quickly. As a result, their influence with their supporters back home was used to get annexation by European governments.

- missionaries usually had a decided preference for rule by their own governments; thus, during the scramble, some missionaries began to work consciously to have their territories taken over by their gov’ts rather than a foreign gov’t and became active participants in imperialism.

- however, we should recall the point made earlier: missionaries came in many varieties, not only in religious denominations and organisations but also in a great diversity in intelligence, social background and education.

- e..g., Bishop Colenso, Anglican Bishop of Natal, was a leading mathematician and a ‘liberal’ theologically (he was tried for heresy!). In Natal, he was very controversial; he argued that polygyny should be accepted to some extent (i.e., that existing polygynous marriages should not be dissolved; most missionaries insisted that no one who was in a polygynous relationship should be allowed to become a member of the church); Colenso also tended to defend the Zulu and their right to continued independence (he was virtually alone among missionaries and was excoriated by white settlers in Natal).

- moreover, many missionaries saw themselves as defenders of the weak and oppressed; therefore, they were frequently antagonists of gov’ts and of gov’t and military officials; this continued. It was missionaries who blew the whistle on the atrocities of Leopold and his henchmen in the Congo Free State.

- however, other missionaries, affected by the jingoism and nationalism of their European societies, excused or rationalised the increasing brutality of the conquest (unfortunate and regrettable, but necessary).

- the German missionaries in South West Africa (Namibia) provide a good example. Their missions had been there a long time and provided much of the justification for German annexation in 1884.

- in the repression that developed in the 1890s, the German missionaries mostly kept silent, just recording their sadness and opposition in their journals; a few wrote home to their mission societies, but these did little and certainly did not launch campaigns of exposure and opposition.

- some missionaries, when ordered, even acted as interpreters in kangaroo military courts that were sometimes held to give a veneer of legality to the actions of the military authorities.


- Christian missionaries were unquestionably a part of the European and western assault on peoples in other parts of the world.

- also, regardless of intention, some of the economic , social and ideological changes promoted by the missionaries had negative effects upon African societies and affected the ability to resist conquest by western forces and governments.

- on the other hand, it was the missionaries who were most willing and indeed anxious to provide Africans with the tools (education and ideology) to adjust to and to do well in the new economic and political order which was imposed by colonialism; they helped Africans to acquire the skills required to challenge that colonialism and drive it out in about 3 generations.

- many missionaries saw themselves as defenders of the weak and that often put them in opposition to and conflict with fellow citizens from their home countries—traders, settlers and even military and gov’t officials.

- that led them sometimes into opposing annexations by their gov’ts, although that lessened and virtually disappeared later in the 19th C.

- more often it led them into campaigns and activism in trying to ameliorate the conquest and subsequent treatment of Africans.

Were missionaries a factor in stimulating the desire for acquiring empires in Africa?

1. undoubtedly, missionary literature stimulated interest in Africa; the condemnation of African customs and political systems helped to promote the conclusion that conquest would be beneficial and contributed greatly to the negative stereotypes and image of Africans. Thus, it contributed to the racism which tended to put Africans at or near the bottom in the racist hierarchy that was adopted in the late 19th C; much of this was unintended, but the results were significant.

2. missionaries were used by governments and politicians, sometimes in spite of themselves and without their active cooperation.

- however, there were other, more important factors behind the drive for empire:

- it is likely that the scramble would have taken place without missionary involvement; the missionary role was secondary. Missionary influence was used to try to ameliorate the impact, but it is hard to determine how effective they were. The conquest was bad, but it might very well have been worse.

- of course, great brutality showed that it was costly and eventually self-defeating so missionaries do not deserve all the credit; revolts in South West Africa and German East Africa brought new policies without missionaries doing much.

- a key issue is: Would Africans have been better off without missionary involvement? I find it difficult to be categorical.

- the best approach is perhaps still the balance sheet—i.e., assessing the pluses and minuses.

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