Missionaries (Anthropology)

Strictly speaking, missionaries are people sent to other countries to extend religious teaching and institutions, although the term can also refer to proselytizers at home, and to those who work on behalf of humanitarian as well as religious causes. Christianity, Buddhism and Islam have all been missionary religions, but in social and cultural anthropology, the term ‘missionary’ is most closely associated with Christianity. This is because Christian missionaries and anthropologists have long crossed the same borders to work side by side in what both groups call ‘the field’.

Since the age of Western expansion, Christian missionaries have been important parties in the encounter between the West and people throughout the rest of the world. Through missionary efforts Christianity has become a global religion, and mission schools, clinics, transportation, and economic development projects have helped transform life in places far away. Missionaries typically engage the people to whom they minister in a moral critique of local culture and society, encouraging far-reaching change in belief and practice, and they have sometimes played consequential roles in the politics of empires, colonies, and postcolonial states. Historically, many of the world’s people have learned about Western culture through encounters with missionaries, while many Westerners at home have learned about these same people through missionaries’ eyes.

At times collaborative and at times competitive, anthropologists’ relations with missionaries have been deeply ambivalent. Early ethnologists depended on missionaries for information about indigenous people. Missionaries also contributed to linguistic surveys and museum collections, sponsored and published ethnographic research, and a few, like Maurice Leenhardt, were noted ethnologists themselves (Clifford 1982). Still, the professional identity of academic anthropology was negotiated in part against missionaries, who were generally considered by many anthropologists to be biased and amateur observers, and in some cases irresponsible meddlers in native life.

Although Christian missionaries have long appeared in the anthropological record as agents of social and cultural change, it has only been since the 1970s, when anthropology took a more reflexive and historical turn, that missionaries have become subject to sustained ethnographic attention. Perhaps reflecting the critical stance anthropologists have adopted towards missionaries historically, many studies of missionaries are cast in an ironic mode. The distinguishing features of this literature are a focus on the contradictions and ambiguities that have so often attended missionary work in colonial and post-colonial societies, and attention to the unintended consequences of missionary practice (Beidelman 1982; Huber 1988: Comaroff and Comaroff 1991). The significance of missionary studies, for many anthropologists, is the light they shed on some of the historical processes colonialism entails.

Missionaries have been a highly varied lot. They have been men and women from different social classes and different countries, working in quite distinct historical circumstances in disparate parts of the world. They have been Protestants from a dizzying array of denominations, and Catholics from a wide variety of religious orders and societies. Although social anthropologists like K.O.L. Burridge (1991) argue that Christianity has provided a common logic to missionary work, others like T.O. Beidelman (1974) suggest that some of the more interesting sociological questions concern the ways in which ideologies like Christianity, which are framed in universal terms, have taken on particular historical forms. Indeed, mission projects have varied considerably depending not only on ecclesiastical and theological differences among denominations, but also on the social and cultural backgrounds from which particular groups of missionaries have come (Langmore 1989).

Mission projects do, however, share distinctive social and temporal horizons which give the cultural life of missionaries a common cast. Missionaries of most denominations stand somewhat outside ordinary church authorities, and the mission churches they first establish also stand apart from the ‘mature’ form of the church as it is found at home. Missionaries usually draw a close connection between time and the organization of a church, so that movements in time are marked by changes in the position of the missionaries and by change in ecclesiastical form. The story missionary historians usually tell is one of progress, in which the temporal flow is inflected, if not precisely defined, by the promotion of a mission through varying stages of maturity until it achieves the status of a church. The hope expressed is that eventually missionaries from other countries will no longer be necessary, that personnel will be locally recruited, and that the new church will be able to support missions of its own.

Missionaries’ experience can be profoundly shaped both by the ideals of the church that they are trying to reproduce, and by the detours they often must take for their work to be effective in local conditions. For example, nineteenth-century missionaries who embraced ‘anti-materialism’ faced special problems when organizing hundreds of carriers for a caravan across East Africa (Beidelman 1982), while in nineteenth-century South Africa missionaries who believed in separating religion from politics were nonetheless drawn into the contentious secular sphere (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991). Familiar categories can be displaced in unfamiliar circumstances, and missionaries in their practical activities have frequently exposed to relatively severe risk such basic cultural categories as spiritual and material labour, hierarchy and community, ministry and authority, family and gender.

The consequences of mission work can be disruptive for the local people, as well, making familiar ways of life untenable, and putting into question the certainties by which they live. But that is not the whole story, for the encounter can also be creative. One theme, for example, concerns the ways in which people come to objectify and critique their own societies, and the cultural resources that enable individuals to transcend their social milieux. From this perspective, Christian missionaries may play a privileged role in the origination and dissemination of a culture of reform. But missionaries have also helped create conditions which have encouraged the growth of millenarianism and other experiments in community sometimes at odds with the missionaries’ own project (Burridge 1978; 1991). And, although the work of missionaries has often supported other colonial efforts, Christianity has also provided local people with tools for resistance to oppression of many kinds (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991).

Next post:

Previous post: