Literature of Missionaries in the Nineteenth Century Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Literature of Missionaries in the Nineteenth Century

The writings produced by Christian missionaries of the nineteenth century are a vast and diverse body of texts made up of tracts, letters, journals, memoirs, and anthropological descriptions. Missionaries worked around the world, reaching out to those they saw as potential converts to their faith, primarily non-whites of Africa and South and East Asia. The Church of England founded its first missionary organization, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, in the early eighteenth century. The London Missionary Society, a joint effort of the Anglican, Presbyterian, and Independent Churches, formed in 1795 as the Missionary Society, adding London to its name in 1818. Methodists, Congregationalists, and Baptists all formed their own missionary societies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. To some extent the history of English missionaries follows the history of colonialism, with activity peaking in the late nineteenth century and subsiding by the Second World War, when many European colonies gained independence. Like some English missionaries, many missionaries in America were inspired by the abolitionist movement. The American Missionary Association was formed in 1846 as an outgrowth of the defenders of the mutinous Africans aboard the slave ship La Amistad. Other American missionary organizations active in the nineteenth century include the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American Home Missionary Society, and the American Bible Society.

In addition to evangelizing, missionaries performed important cultural work at home and abroad. As some of the first whites to visit the remote areas of other continents, missionaries were often considered heroes at home, and their accounts of adventures in strange lands were widely read. Missionaries' depictions of the people they encountered were generally accepted as authoritative and provided the basis for Western understandings of racial and cultural difference. Opinions varied widely on the reasons for the apparent superiority of whites to darker people, although that superiority was almost always assumed. Missionaries who acted as the earliest ethnographers—a science just emerging in the nineteenth century—offered descriptions of native behavior and intelligence that at times supported and at other times contradicted the assumption that non-whites were biologically inferior. In some cases, the sympathy of the missionaries, mixed with a desire to maintain a sense of difference, created an attitude of paternalism, or the obligation of the civilized Christian to raise up his heathen brethren from their current infantile state. Civilization, or “culture,” was thought to develop along a single, continuous path: Africans, Indians, and Native Americans had not progressed as far as Europeans along this continuum, but with the assistance of Christianity they could fulfill their human potential. Many scholars suggest that although missionaries sometimes argued for the eventual assimilation of non-whites into Western society, the ethnographies they produced often drew clear distinctions between white Christians and the “Others” they described. Considerable critical attention has been given to the missionaries conception of the “Other,” meaning virtually any non-white outside the Euro-American cultural network, and how the resulting dichotomy between those within and outside the cultural paradigm reflects on both groups. As another aspect of spreading civilization, missionaries paved the way for greater trade and other forms of economic relations. Among the proponents of “Christianity and commerce” was David Livingstone, perhaps the best known of nineteenth-century missionaries. The promotion of an ideological confluence between economics and religion was short-lived, but the movement has proven to be useful to critics studying the intersection of imperialistic, religious, and economic impulses in colonial cultures.

Missionary work offered special opportunities to women who were otherwise quite restricted. Such an opportunity was offered to the title character in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre: St. John Rivers offers to marry her and take her to work in India where several missionary wives had worked to advance the cause of women's education. Married women who accompanied their missionary husbands found that they had easier access to native women than their male counterparts, especially when cultural taboos or traditions limited social interaction between women and men outside their families. Women in China, for example, were strictly forbidden to discuss Christianity with men. Single women were eventually considered for missionary work as well. Early colleges for women, such as Mount Holyoke Seminary, sent young women to Turkey, India, China, South Africa, Hawaii, and Persia, though they were considered assistant missionaries by formal organizations until 1900. The accounts of female missionaries reveal a variety of perspectives on their role in bringing Christianity to other cultures. For some women, modeling a Christian family life and fulfilling the traditional roles of a wife and mother were an important part of their work. Many, however, suggested openly that the path of the missionary would allow them to advance the status of women not only in the countries they visited but also in their homelands. Letters from such missionaries often depict native women in the most degrading circumstances, reduced to prostitution as a result of their forced ignorance or slavery. While the authors of these letters thank God for their freedoms in Western civilization, they also acknowledge that some of these freedoms are available only through missionary life.