There has been an enduring belief that Christian missionaries, during the colonial era, often served as de facto operatives of the colonial powers. It is understandable why this belief would exist and persist. British missionaries, for example, would commonly serve in lands that were under the British flag. Commonly, but not always, being a British citizen in British colonial lands would be easier than being a British missionary serving in Spanish colonies, or regions that were not colonized. As such, missionaries may be rather pleased if their nation expands its colonial holdings since it provides potential new places to work.
But that is not the whole story. Often missionaries were seen as being a bit treasonous. That is, they were seen as undermining their home country. Again, this view is understandable. Missionaries were doing things for the benefit of the local people that, to the eyes of colonial powers could undermine their control over the people. Colonial nations and companies wanted the colonized to be compliant. That meant they sought to avoid education, or sociological stressors that could lead to angering traditionalists, or development revolutionaries.
Max Warren, in his book “Social History and Christian Mission” (SCM Press, 1967) speaks of some of this. He uses the example of the Serampore Trio (Careys, Wards, and Marshmans) in the Bengal region of India. For those familiar with the story. William Carey, a British citizen, was harassed by the East India Company during the early years of his stay. His desire to convert the natives to Christianity was seen as bad for business, and therefore bad for England. For a time he ministered in the Danish colony of Serampore to avoid arrest and deportation by his own country. Years later there was a change of heart and he was seen as an asset to British colonial leadership. Generally, however, this was a change in colonial leadership rather than change in Carey.
It wasn’t, however, just the colonial leaders who were concerned. Warren uses the case of Sydney Smith, the Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Smith who wrote considerably to the Edinburgh Review, an influential journal, in the early 19th century. The following is quotes from Warren’s book (Chapter 3, excerpts from pages 60-63), who in turn quotes several times Smith’s writings:
After a number of caustic references, he (Smith) dismissed as folly the idea of sending missions to India because of
‘the danger of insurrection from the prosection of the scheme, the utter unfitness of the persons employed in it, and the complete hopelessness of the attempt while pursued under such circumstances as now exist.’
It is interesting to note his concern with the ‘danger of insurrection.’ This concern, widely shared as we shall see throughout the century, needs for its full understanding an awareness of the almost romantic attachment of the nineteenth century Englishman to the idea of ‘our Indian Empire.’ …. The passionate anger engendered by the Indian Mutiny showed our jealous fear of losing that empire. The ethical idealism of the Indian Civil Service showed our responsibility at its best. At all times India was felt to be vital to British interests. …. Sydney Smith, in this respect at any rate, gave expression to a suspicion which led countless political officers in Asia and Africa to view the missionary with a slightly jaundiced eye, and when (as most frequently happened) the missionary had got there first, to view him as a potential security risk. …
At least we may be very certain that down until 1947 and the subsequent celebrations of Independence, virtually every such political officer would fervently have endorsed Sydney Smith’s statement that
‘If we wish to teach the natives a better religion, we must take care to do it in a manner which will not inspire them with a passion for political change.‘
But he dropped to a rather lower level when he went on to say that missionaries
“would deliberately, piously, and conscientiously expose our whole Eastern empire to destruction for the sake of converting half-a-dozen Brahmins, who after stuffing themselves with rum and rice, and borrowing money from the missionaries would run away and cover the Gospel and its professors with every species of impious ridicule and abuse.’
We see there a continuing preoccupation with the empire. …
There we may leave Sydney Smith simply observing that in two respects he did, albeit with some unnecessary malice, help to form an image of the missionary as being, somewhat paradoxically, a stupid and presumptuous person, and at the same time a threat to the security of the Empire. These elements in the stereotype endured. In passing it may be noticed how very closely they coincide with the portrait of Christians painted by Celsus and other antagonists in the early centuries.
Again, this is simply a case study of a broader view that missionaries undermined the colonial power’s hold on colonial lands.
… And in some ways they may have been correct. The Serampore Trio did, arguably, have a role in the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century. They did take seriously the education of the Bengali, both men and women, and the case could be made that this work did breed new ideas that ultimately led to revolution.
So suppose Sydney Smith and others were correct and that Christian missionaries did promote attitudes and beliefs that would lead to insurrection, does that mean they were doing wrong? I believe not. Their call is to serve God, not empire. As British citizens, in the case of the Serampore Trio, it would be quite inappropriate, legally speaking, to lead a revolution against the British Empire. It would, however, be equally inappropriate to instill a passive acquiescence to the status quo (much like some of the Christian education of slaves in the US in the early 19th century that sought to ensure and justifyu the maintaining of the economic system of Black slavery. Christianity was expressed in terms of maintaining the status quo.
This is the challenge. A Christian is a citizen of heaven and of one’s nation. A Christian missionary has those citizenships, but also is a guest of a different government.
It is very tempting to confuse roles. And the confusion is often in the extremes. A missionary may try to avoid all politics and focus on the word of God. But doing so, can in fact be teaching people to disconnect from the world they are in. It is not surprising that many missionary receiving countries have Evangelical populations that have little involvement with social ills and provide no common voice against corruption. On the other hand, it is also not the calling of a missionary to be a revolutionary leader seeking to overthrow. It is further not the role of missionary to push his or her own political agenda on the people he serves. (This last point I see a fair bit as the weird and curious politics of popular American Evangelicalism often gets brought with the missionary to the mission field where it doesn’t really belong. Of course, the answer is not necessarily to be politically neutral either.)
I would still say that if one has to be unfaithful, be unfaithful to one’s country. One’s country is one’s place of birth, but God’s work is one’s calling.