Miscegenation and Missions, Part I

Henry NottHenry Nott. Image via Wikipedia
Henry Nott. Image via Wikipedia

<I am part of a mixed race marriage, and our children are (not surprisingly) mixed race and mixed culture. As such, I have a particular interest in mission’s attitude to racially mixed marriage and the role of race in missions in general.>

For those who don’t know the term, miscegenation refers to marriage or sexual relations between a man and woman of different races.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 2nd College Edition)

Christian Missions has had a difficult relationship with race. While it is stylish today to talk about missionaries in the 19th century and early 20th century as racists or cultural imperialists, the truth is much more complicated. It is true that Missionaries tended to be monoculturalists. That is, they tended to see and judge the world around them through the lens of their home culture. They had difficulty (as most of us, frankly, do) in separating between “our culture” and “Christian culture.” It also seems to be true that they tended to view themselves as superior to the people in the cultures they worked in. Historically, people often relate technological superiority with cultural or even genetic superiority.

However, missionaries of this time also accepted other peoples as God’s creation and, therefore, brothers and sisters, rejecting the so called racial science theories of the time. Quoting from Ruth Tucker’s book “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya” (Zondervan, 1983) pg 140,

It was the nineteenth-century intellectuals of high society who viewed black Africans (and other races as well) “as inherently inferior—many rungs below Caucasians on the ethnologists’ evolutionary ladder. Missionaries, on the other hand, were ridiculed in scholarly journals for their shallow thinking in regard to race, and most educated Englishmen would have agreed with Mary Kingsley (whose Africa travelogue was widely circulated) when she criticized missionaries for their ‘difficulty in regarding the Africans as anything but a Man and a Brother’ and their belief in ‘the spiritual equality of all colors of Christians.’

Stephen Jay Gould’s book “The Mismeasurement of Man” gives a great deal of information on these 19th century ‘scholars’ who worked very hard to prove the inherent superiority (intellectually, physically, and morally) of Caucasians over other groups. Much of the work focused on utilizing the then new theory by Charles Darwin of Species Evolution. The theory appeared to give scientific basis for the concept of race. From there it was just a matter of trying to show one’s own race was higher up the evolutionary ladder. Missionaries, although certainly influenced by the culture and views of their upbringing, often fought these attitudes, and did much to protect local peoples from abuse from other Europeans and Americans.

However, missionaries showed much of their racism when it came to miscegenation. One of the biggest concerns was missionaries “going native”. While “going native” could demonstrate itself in many different forms, one of the most evident ways was through sexual relations. While this has often been an issue in many places, it was often seen in the South Pacific where the local cultures made marrying into the local tribe relatively easy. Many singles (particularly single men) had problems in missions due to sexual temptation. In some cases this included a rejection of the mission calling. The term “going native” would, in this case, not be very accurate. Rather, their behavior was more in line with European and American traders and sailors (rather than the behavior of natives)— living a hedonistic lifestyle on some islands, violating both home and local cultural norms.

Many, however, did not seek to leave their missionary calling, but sought to serve God while married into the people group of which they ministered. One story often mentioned was of Henry Nott. Nott served in Tahiti in the 1800s under the London Missionary Society (LMS). While in Tahiti, Nott, took a Tahitian woman as his wife. However, because of objections from European Christians, he and other missionaries with the LMS agreed to “annul” their local marriages to marry “Christian” women sent by the mission society for them. Henry Nott’s new wife did not prove to be a sound missionary and died a few months later of excessive drinking. (Reference: “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya”, pgs. 201-202)

Times have changed… but some problems linger. I have known missionaries who have been cut off by supporters for “marrying a foreigner.” Some mission agencies still believe that missionaries cannot serve in their home culture. One can see the challenge of working in a culture and marrying someone within that culture if doing so causes policy problems within the agency (as well as supporters). Part 2 looks at some questions regarding interracial or intercultural marriage within the context of missions.

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