Missionaries as Cultural Anthropologists

Although there were many travelers in history who regaled people back home with tales of distant lands, often it was missionaries who were the first to record document other cultures to bring clarity and understanding. That is not to say that they went in without biases or agendas. They certainly did, but often they did so better than other professions (diplomats, military personal, merchants) who had to interact with outsiders. Some early “ethnographer” missionaries include Bernardino de Sahugan in 16th century Mexico, and Abraham Rogerius in 17th century India.

Cultural anthropology as a “science” really took off in the 1870s. However, in some ways, 20th century cultural anthropology had more similarity to the early missionary ethnographers than to the anthropologists of the previous generations.19th century anthropologists tended to be “armchair” researchers analyzing data from libraries, unlike missionaries who studied the people in their own setting. 19th century anthropologists also tended to be more interested in learning about present cultures to understand the past. They wanted to explore cultural diffusion (change due to external influence) and cultural evolution (change due to internal influences) more than present cultures. A great example, in my view is the book “The Golden Bough”– an immense book (regardless of the abridged or unabridged version) by James G. Frazer in 1890. The book is a collection of bits and pieces of cultural data around the world. with the primary purpose of justifying his theory behind a novel practice in a Roman cult two millennia ago.

20th century anthropologists were interested in analysis, taxonomies, and theories like their 19th century counterparts. However, like missionaries, they believe in learning with the people (participant-observer), with the goal of understanding the present more than the past.

Research LocationUse of DataInterest
Ethnographer missionariesCulture of InterestPractical ministryPresent
19th century anthropologistsLibrariesAnalysis and Theory developmentMostly Past
20th century anthropologistsCulture of InterestAnalysis and Theory developmentMostly Present

I don’t believe that missionaries need to apologize for being more focused on practical ministry than on theory Missionaries have a primary calling to service, not to science. Some missionaries were chastised by boards and superiors for being focused on understanding and documenting local cultures rather than their “real work.” But service to God cannot be separated from service to the people. Service to the people involves trying to understand them. Missionaries can research, analyze, and still seek to learn how to serve better.They can serve God, serve the people, and serve academia as well.

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