Missions, Government, and Motives

Historically speaking, Missions has often been thought of as being linked to the government. Some look back at the “Great Century” of missions as missionaries serving as pawns, or partners, of colonizers. But it goes back further. St. Boniface served as a missionary with an authorizing letter from the king of the Franks.  But the relationship can vary considerably. A couple of generations later, some priests blessed the Christian ‘baptism’ of Saxon soldiers, forced to walk through a river at the point of the sword and arrow by Charlemagne, partnering with the Emperor’s “missionary effort.” Others on the other hand, such as Bartolome de Casas, a Dominican Friar, spent much of his career opposing and challenging the government, both at the local and national levels– seeing God’s mission and the mission of the state as being in opposition..

For most missionaries, their relationship

by Unknown photographer, bromide print, 1918-1929

Charles Brent, First Bishop of the Episcopal Church to the Philippines

with government could best be described as “It’s Complicated.” William Carey utilized the benefits and conveniences a British colony affords a British citizen serving in India, while at the same time being persecuted by the same governing body for his missionary activity. For awhile he worked in a Danish colony where his activities were more appreciated, until the time the British colonial powers decided that his value outweighed his liabilities. But even then, Carey continued to challenge some of the policies of his government host.

Missions in China was complicated too as missionaries could at times side with abusive colonial powers… while at the same time often challenging their own governments. For more on this, consider reading a post, “Gospel and Gunboat: Strange Bedfellows.”

In the Philippines, the relationship between the American government and American Missionaries was also complicated. Part of this has to do with motives.Let’s consider the issue of Private Motives.

Dale Carnegie has noted that everyone has two types of motives: Public Motives and Private Motives. When one is  trying to convince someone to do something– one should appeal to the public motives, while, more subtly, make it clear that the Private Motives will also be satisfied. So if you as an employer are trying to hire Fred, a man who wants to “change the world” (public motive) but also wants to earn a lot of money (private motive), you should make it generally clear that the job pays well, but focus on how the job is important and can help him to fulfill his public ambitions. Focus on the public motive and Fred can answer the private motive for himself.

In the Philippine situation we see this issue of public and private motives. Consider the well-known quote of President McKinley regarding the reason for annexation:

“When I next realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps I confess I did not know what to do with them. I sought counsel from all sides—Democrats as well as Republicans—but got little help. I thought first we would take only Manila; then Luzon; then other islands perhaps also. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States (pointing to a large map on the wall of his office), and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!”         –James Rusling, “Interview with President William McKinley,” The Christian Advocate 22 January 1903, 17.

In this quote McKinley states that the US has an obligation to, education, uplift, civilize, and Christianize Filipinos. While the somewhat racist and ethnocentric tone may undermine the text to today’s reader, the arguments here don’t sound all that horrible. However, these were McKinley’s public motives. We get a hint of his private motives when he worries that allowing the Philippines to slip out of his nation’s grasp and into the hands of rival imperialistic powers would be “bad business.” This suggests private motivations of economic utilization and imperialism. McKinley had a very close relationship with the heads of a number of monopolies (less cordially described at times as the great “robber barons.”). His thinking seemed in line with (later) President Calvin Coolidge, that “The business of America is business.” It seems likely that the Philippines was seen as a valuable resource for US business interests. Likewise, imperialistic expansion was likely of interest. Around this time, over 40% of the land area of the earth was controlled in some manner or other by the British and Russian Empires. Other European powers were gaining interest in expanding their boundaries, especially as Spain and the Ottoman Empire were in decline. Belgium had joined the club of colonizers, and France and Germany (and later Italy) also were seeking to expand their borders as colonizers. The reference to France and Germany could lead one to suspect that McKinley saw the US as having similar aspirations.

But what about American missionaries and mission agencies considering entering the Philippines with the American Army, educators, and administrators? I am drawing heavily from an article by Joseph T. Raymond entitled “Colonial Apostles: A Discourse in Syncretism  and American Protestant Missions in the Philippines.” It can be read .HERE.

Positively, the US government opened doors for missionaries, especially American Protestant missionaries that had been closed to non-Catholic missions previously. Negatively, the acquisition  (against Philippine public will) of distant territories smacked too much of the European colonial expansion that the US public generally found distasteful. Protestant groups mulled options fairly similar to McKinley: return the Philippines to Spain, place it in a joint protectorate with another nation, give it self-government, or assume control over it. Eventually, Protestant groups warmed to the idea of the Philippines as a US territory and as a new mission field. Nationalism and Missionary fervor came together to drive many Protestants to embrace American acquiring new territory.

To a large extent, missionary groups embraced McKinley’s stated motives– educate, uplift, civilize, and Christianize. Of course, educate, uplift, and civilize were primarily driven by American interpretations of these terms, while Christianize generally meant to convert Filipinos from the predominant religion of syncretized “folk’ Catholicism to one of the Protestant groups. Missionaries often worked together with the American government in the form of educational and medical institutions. Missionaries worked under the legal protection of the American government.

One might assume then that these missionaries were hated by those who were seeking freedom from the US government. Again… it’s complicated. Some, such as General Emilio Aquinaldo (1st Filipino President in the break from Spain) viewed Protestantism positively. He viewed the Catholic church as working to maintain the status quo of the Spanish administration. For him, the Aglipayan movement (an independence movement of Catholics out from the control of the Vatican) as a good “first step” with Protestantism as a good next step in the Philippines.

Regardless, by 1918 (16 years after the end of the Philippine-American War, 18 years after the first Protestant mission work in the Philippines) about 1.3% of the total population of the Philippines described themselves as Protestants. That is actually pretty impressive since the number of Protestants there before that time was close to zero— limited to a few underground churches tied to secret societies.  Although the US government worked with Protestant missionaries, the relationship was not nearly as cozy as between the Catholic church and the Spanish-run colonial government.

Characteristic of early Protestant missions in the Philippines was surprising cooperation across denominational lines, including a policy of comity regarding mission regions, and focused on developing indigenized churches, led by local pastors. Quoting from Raymond,

“…by 1914, the Presbyterian mission became an autonomous church under a Philippine moderator, in the person of Pastor Jose Moleta of the Ilo-Ilo City; by 1920 the Evangelical Union had a predominant Filipino membership, three years later it elected its first Filipino president; by 1929, the Presbyterian, Congregational and United Brethren united to form the United Evangelical Church led by a Filipino, Enrique Sobrepena. In Batangas, Bohol, Dumaguete, and Leyte stations, Filipino pastors have proven their ability of self-propagation in the absence of American missionaries. This was made possible by the ordination of more Filipino pastors in order to develop a sense of responsibility for the church.”

This indigenization contrasts the dominant church in the Philippines where the Aglipayan Independent Church split off because the Catholic church, even after 300 years, discriminated against Filipino priests in favor of Spaniards. The Catholics were not alone in this. Roland Allen published his book, Missionary Methods, complaining about Protestant missionaries in many parts of the world who fail to develop localized, self-governing, self-sufficient, self-propagating churches.

So in the Philippines, the relationship between the American government and the American Protestant missionaries was cordial, but not completely in agreement. In addition to the protection that the government gave to the missionaries, the missionaries appeared to support America’s public motives for the Philippines. However, it is less clear that they supported the imperialistic and economic motives of the McKinley administration. It seems to me that the actions of the missions were both supportive of American goals, as well as subversive. While the Thomasite educators were seeking to Americanize the Philippines, missionaries were both Americanizing in some ways and Indigenizing in others.


Enter a caption

“… within reasonable limits, we should give the Asiatic churches freedom to develop their own forms and adapt themselves to their peculiar environment.”  -Arthur Judson Brown, 1903.

Working with the government can always be a challenge for missionaries. The pressure to align with government motives (whether publicly acknowledged or private)  can easily lead to compromise. Missionaries need to be motivated by the Great Commandment (love and obedience to God, and concern for the welfare of those to whom they serve). Since no government is perfect, missionaries will at times have to assume a more subversive role, even supporting in some form or another elements seeking change or liberation.


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