Literature of Missionaries in the Nineteenth Century Criticism: History And Development - Essay

Criticism: History And Development

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Christophers, Brett. “Redemption.” In Positioning the Missionary: John Booth Good and the Confluence of Cultures in Nineteenth-Century British Columbia, pp. 19-40. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Christophers argues that the work of missionaries often came into conflict with the work of secular imperialism. Tracing the scriptural origins of evangelism, Christophers distinguishes the universalist rhetoric of Christianity from the nationalist tendencies of a specifically national religion such as Anglicanism.]

For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.

—Romans 3:23

Most discussion of nineteenth-century colonial discourse has focused on its ‘codification of difference.’1 Scholars have charted the manifold ways in which Europeans distinguished themselves from non-Europeans, showing that such distinctions often buttressed and coloured colonial practice. Homi Bhabha offers a useful synopsis of these findings. ‘The objective of colonial discourse,’ he claims, ‘is to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction.’2 Although, clearly, colonial discourses were not all of a piece, most appealed to some form of racial hierarchy. Immutable and asymmetrical difference vindicated and explained imperial supremacy.3

Anglican missionary discourse does not correspond to this model. Although it turned (at one level) on the identification of differences between Christian Europeans and ‘heathen’ Natives, it did not, and could not, assume immutable difference.

Consider a picture that appeared in an SPG publication, the Gospel Missionary, in 1870 (see Figure 5). It purported to show Good at work in British Columbia. Usually, such an image would have delighted him. Like many of his colleagues, Good depended heavily on the munificence of the British reading public and therefore craved publication—for he knew that ‘to be out of print is to be out of mind.’4 But this picture troubled Good, and for the following reasons. A long day's ride to the northeast of Lytton was the town of Ashcroft, where Good had baptized a Nlha7kápmx chief henceforth known to the Anglicans as John Mahascut. Upon returning to Lytton Good wrote to the SPG with details of the conversion. His account of what followed, penned many years later, is revealing:

When the account of the reception of this dear old man into the Household of Faith by Baptism went home to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in London, and they were anxious to insert it in their little publication called the ‘Gospel Missionary,’ they were at a loss for an illustration of my act of initiation[. It] happened that they had by them a picture of some American missionary baptizing one of the Pawnee Indians which they thought would just, as we say in this country, ‘fill the bill.’ What stood for me, unless I unduly flatter myself, was a perfect caricature, whilst my friend John Mahascut was represented with sharp cut features, scalpknot, tomahawk hard by and altogether a most villainous individual, whereas John was the mildest mannered pleasing specimen of his whole tribe. When that periodical was sent out to me, I carefully kept it out of sight of our Indian congregation, for had they seen it we at home would have been looked upon as woefully destitute of knowledge.5

An eager metropolitan readership demanded illustrations, and a careless editor, bowing to public pressure, had substituted a member of one Native group for another. Good, aware that this switch violated Nlha7kápmx identity and not afraid to bite the hand that fed him, contacted his sponsors immediately. He suggested that in future more care was in order, adding that such unsuitable images were ‘calculated to do incalculable harm both here and at home—for it gives people an utterly wrong impression respecting the ancient inhabitants of this country.’6

It was not the picture itself that bothered Good but its inappropriate use. He was disturbed by the editor's assumption that any image of Native baptism could adequately represent this particular chief's conversion. The implication seemed to be that an Indian was an Indian; such stereotypes struck Good as distasteful. As Bhabha reminds us, stereotypes are, by their very nature, promiscuous, for their essential property is a ‘repeatability in changing historical and discursive conjunctures.’7 During the age of empire stereotypes were pervasive, with a few powerful images serving to caricature many different peoples. To Good's mind, this indiscrimination was injurious. He regarded the Nlha7kápmx as distinctive and was angry because the picture accompanying his report intimated that Mahascut was equivalent to other Native Americans. Feeling compelled to voice his concerns, Good criticized the SPG for fomenting popular misconceptions.

Yet if this image has some of the qualities of a colonial stereotype, it lacks others. Stereotypes generally seek to establish and authenticate an unchanging identity. As Bhabha describes it, the colonial stereotype is a representation of racial permanence: ‘it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order.’8 It was this fixity that the Gospel Missionary picture rejected. This may not be immediately apparent. After all, the chief's face is sunk in darkness while the missionary's is bathed in light; the differences seem as clear as night and day. In the active performance of the missionary, however, in his outstretched hands, lies the possibility of redemption, the enduring promise of change. The contrast between light and darkness is only temporary, for baptism will dissolve the divide between heathen and Christian.

As an ethnological portrayal, the baptism picture, as Good told his superiors, was fraudulent. But as an icon of Christianity's redemptive power, it was vivid propaganda. Anglican missionaries disputed the fixity inherent in most colonial stereotypes and instead preached conversion; in this respect they offered a distinctive discourse of empire.

The Anglican mission did not generate the essentialist rhetoric described by Edward Said and other theorists of colonial discourse. Analyzing nineteenth-century Western representations of ‘the Orient,’ Said contends that this imperial archive consists of ‘tested and unchanging knowledge, since “Orientals” for all practical purposes were a Platonic essence.’9 Such permanence contradicted basic theological principles. If identity was immutable and difference was abiding, the heathen were intractable—immune to what Good called ‘the transforming power of the Spirit of God turning them into other men.’10 The idea was absurd. The Anglican missionary agenda, as propagated by Good, could not be reconciled with more worldly discourses of empire; like the Methodist mission to the Solomon Islands discussed by Nicholas Thomas, it was concerned with transformation rather than subjugation. ‘The dominant movement of colonial history in [the missionary] imagination,’ Thomas writes, ‘is not the establishment of a fixed hierarchical relationship but a process of conversion.’11

The discourse of the Anglican mission coexisted uneasily, even duplicitously, with the strict racial hierarchies of secular colonialism. Anglican missionaries borrowed the standard lexicon of empire but altered its signification. The Reverend John West, whose mission to the Red River Colony had enthralled a young Good, provides a typical example of this Anglican perspective. West identified ‘human depravity and barbarism’ among Native peoples, but whereas other colonists saw this barbarity as a racial defect, West denounced it as ‘gross ignorance.’12 Good made much the same case. In the mission field his chief antagonist was not an inscrutable racial other but the (as yet) ‘ignorant savage.’13 Both West and Good tied savagery to a lack of knowledge, not to a fixed racial taxonomy. For many Europeans an innate racial trait, barbarism was for Anglican missionaries a moral expression of spiritual dearth.14

The essential assumption of mission work was that this heathen ignorance could be cured. As Lillooet missionary Lundin Brown put it, ‘wherever there is a human face, however disfigured by sin, is there not a human mind which can apprehend God's truth, and a human heart which is in need of it?’15 To the extent that missionaries anticipated and enacted change, their representations of the colonized were mutable. The rhetoric of savagery authorized mission work but was obsolete once Natives converted. Barbarians before they encountered Christ, Natives were civilized through faith. In referring to these converts missionaries disclaimed discourses they had previously propagated; savagery was now a redundant trope. ‘I really cannot sometimes attach the idea of “barbarian” and “savage,”’ Good reported from Nanaimo in 1862, ‘to the orderly, devout, and decently-attired assembly of Indians before me.’16 This disavowal marks the caesura of Anglican missionary discourse, the point at which heathens become Christians, others become the same. Secular discourses of empire did not share this break between old and new—they turned on binding racial hierarchies and, as such, could not codify Anglican imperial intent.


In 1867, the year that Good began his mission to the Nlha7kápmx, an anonymous contribution to The Mission Field detailed the broader demands upon colonial Christianity. The author stressed Anglican obligations to the ‘heathen’—‘those who, if they differ from us in religious belief, are of the same flesh and blood, with like affections, like fears and hopes, and like capacities of knowing and loving Him who has revealed Himself to us for our loving adoration.’17 My argument in this book is that such statements contributed to a discourse of empire but not of race. Peoples were distinguished from one another by religious belief, not by genus or skin colour. In the words of David Scott, ‘it was not race but religion (or more properly, the lack of one) that constituted the discursive frame within which the difference of the non-European was conceived and represented.’18 Europeans stood apart only to the degree that non-Europeans lacked Christianity; in all other respects, humankind was considered uniform. Of the same stock as their colonizers, the colonized were no more unworthy of God's grace and had an equal aptitude for worshipping Him.

This mission discourse posited Christianity as a catholic religion and traced its catholicity to St. Paul. Raised a Jew, Paul's conversion was tied to his refutation of national covenance. He maintained that God's salvation was at the hands ‘not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles’ (Romans 9:24). Since Jesus had died for all, the Christian community in turn should be inclusive. This charge was echoed in other early Christian writings—by the end of the Gospel of Matthew, for example, a religion originally directed at the Israelites had shed ethnic bias in favour of a potentially universal membership19—but it was Paul who laid the theoretical groundwork for an ecumenical Christianity. The Apostle held that God's truths were available to, and could be apprehended by, all peoples, and that mission was therefore a viable Christian project. Paul was as good as his word. The breadth of his vision was rivalled by his appetite for souls, and to this day the Pauline Church is renowned for ‘the vigor of its missionary drive.’20

Paul has had a towering influence on successive generations of missionaries, and as we shall see in later chapters, his thought and practice inspired virtually every facet of Good's Nlha7kápmx mission. That Good's intellectual genealogy was Pauline is apparent in the bare facts of his career. His ordination took place in Newark Church in 1858 on 25 January—the Conversion of St. Paul—and his churches in Nanaimo and Lytton were both named in honour of the Apostle.

The foundation stone for the Lytton St. Paul's was laid in the fall of 1871. Bishop Hills organized his annual trip through the interior so that his arrival in town coincided with the date Good had chosen for the service: 18 October. Good had invited Hills to perform the ceremony, and both men would later recall the event with satisfaction, each dwelling on the symbolic implications of the consecration. Good thought it telling that the bishop had put aside a mallet and instead had used ‘an ancient stone instrument of rare interest, value, and construction’ for the purpose of planting the foundation block. This, Good claimed, was no ordinary stone: ‘It was proof amongst many of the common origin of the human family, similar instruments having been found not only amongst the Chympseans in the north and the Delawarres in the east, tribes of the great Indian family separated by thousands of miles and by different languages, but also among the New Zealanders.’21 Hills, too, recognized the symbolism of this implement, citing the same archaeological finds as ‘proofs of a wide spread unity … confirming so far the Scriptures which assert the derivation of man from one stock and that God made of one blood all nations upon earth.’ The bishop also invoked the man in whose honour they had gathered: St. Paul, ‘the great apostle who taught the catholicity of the Church breaking down the partition wall of prejudice.’22

The catholic basis of Christianity was a central theme of the Oxford Movement, which rejigged nineteenth-century Anglicanism. Starting with John Keble's assize sermon of 14 July 1833, this High Church revival, with protagonists dubbed Tractarians, had an explicitly Pauline agenda. Both Hills and Good subscribed to this position, although the strength of the bishop's views is unclear—one commentator said he was not High Church,23 and yet the faith he advocated was clearly the ‘golden mediocrity’ that, according to the men of the Oxford Movement, could accommodate puritans at one extreme and Roman Catholic sympathizers at the other.24 Most scholars would now accept that Hills was a Tractarian, if only a moderate one.25 He respected the patristic scholarship that fuelled the Oxford Movement, and when embattled sought inspiration in Chrysostom, not Calvin.26 From his perspective and that of other High Church Anglicans,27 catholicity entailed realignment with the ancient and undivided church—the tradition of Paul and the other Fathers—rather than surrender to papal authority. Paul had taught Christians that as members of a universal religion, they belonged to an invisible fold of redeemed souls. The Tractarians took this lesson to heart, insisting that the Church of England, as direct heir of the Early Church, could be a truly Catholic institution.

As we saw with Paul, it is a short step from the belief that all people can apprehend Christ to the conviction that a Christian's duty is to help the ‘heathen’ turn. In her discussion of evangelism in the nineteenth-century Solomon Islands, Sara H. Sohmer ties the Anglican missionary impulse directly to this tenet of catholicity. Indeed, she claims that for those involved in the propagation of the gospel, mission represents tangible ‘proof’ of Christianity's universal substance.28 Through the nineteenth century and beyond, many were the Anglican missionaries who believed that because their religion was universally relevant, the unification of humanity under Christ was a legitimate objective; they located the origins of this desire for unity in the Early Church, and in Paul in particular. ‘The whole thunder of the Pauline message echoes around Christians corporately as well as individually,’ maintains one apologist in a book on the Catholic theology of Anglican mission work.29

Underlying this modern rationalization of mission was the concept of human unity, which contradicted the thrust of contemporary racial theory. Such theory, to be sure, was relatively recent. Robert Young has usefully reconstructed European anthropological controversies over human speciation, demonstrating that for much of the age of empire, it was agreed that humanity reduced to a single species. ‘The Enlightenment humanitarian ideals of universality, sameness and equality,’ observes Young, ‘reigned supreme.’ In the mid-nineteenth century, however, this view was displaced by a racial doctrine of polygenesis (multiple species). ‘From the 1840s,’ Young reports, ‘the new racial theories based in comparative anatomy and craniometry in the United States, Britain and France endorsed the polygenetic alternative.’30

Good dismissed this new scientific consensus. He insisted on the inclusive theory of monogenesis and even corresponded with the Anthropology Department at Berkeley in an attempt to intervene in prevailing debates.31 He was, of course, only one among many Anglican missionaries, not all of whom shared his views. As an SPG man who largely ignored white settlers, Good dodged his sponsors' guidelines; other SPG missionaries, Alexander Pringle among them, were less disposed towards Native work, adamant that ‘they came out to preach & elevate, first of all and foremost a white race.’ Based in Yale in the early 1860s, Pringle was troubled by the small number of white ‘agriculturalists and settlers,’ and recommended the summary confinement of Natives on reserves.32 For Pringle, the notion of a distinct racial hierarchy was perhaps not unpalatable.

Yet among the Anglicans such views were atypical. Most clergymen accepted a fundamental human unity. ‘In the sight of God,’ said John Garrett, brother of SPG missionary Alexander and commissary of Bishop Hills, ‘the white man and the coloured man are of equal value.’33 Hills, for his part, was keen to ensure that this gracious rhetoric was translated into a practical equality that (as much as possible) transcended prejudice. His sympathies surfaced in a dispute that divided white Victoria in the fall of 1860. The city's population included a number of African Americans who had looked to the British colony as a refuge from the bigotry they suffered in California.34 Initially, their hopes of fair treatment seemed dashed. In the summer of 1859, a year after the first blacks arrived in Victoria, a disillusioned migrant wrote to the editor of The British Colonist. ‘Have the colored people realized their fond anticipations in coming to Vancouver's Island?,’ he wondered. ‘I answer no.35 Even religious institutions proved illiberal. Under Father Demers, the Roman Catholics yielded to whites who threatened to withdraw their children from Catholic schools unless they were segregated.36 The Congregationalists also segregated, albeit only after bitter infighting had split their ranks; the Reverend William Clarke, a Canadian, spoke out against slavery and welcomed blacks as equals in his church, but the Reverend Matthew Macfie, a racist Briton, ultimately won the day.37

Bishop Hills, on the other hand, decided that St. John's, his new church, would not be segregated, a contentious decision in a settler colony in which prejudice was a fact of life. The bishop often mused that this climate of intolerance was a product of an immigrant American mining society, but his fellow British colonists were not blameless.38 Even for some of those who opposed segregation, ‘race’ was a de facto biological distinction. Hills spoke of one Briton who, while outwardly sympathetic to his new policy towards African Americans, ‘evidently believes the race is a different species of man & spoke of them rather patronizingly with pity rather than honour & respect as of fellow immortals & equal in the sight of God.’39 These attitudes worried Hills greatly, for racial hierarchies flew in the face of Catholicism. Yet the bishop stood firm. Supported by fellow Anglicans Edward Cridge and the Reverend Robert J. Dundas, Hills found strength and direction in Paul and resisted public pressure; he would not segregate church services, for ‘there should be no difference in the house of God.’40


In step with his bishop's example, Good also tried to be open-minded and therefore evenhanded. He claimed that his instruction of Natives and whites was identical.41 Similarly, he chose not to discriminate within and between different Native groups. Even when his Nlha7kápmx mission began to produce results, he insisted that prospective converts would not be separated from the ‘heathen’ majority. I analyze this policy in some detail in Chapter 5; it suffices to note here that Good treated the Nlha7kápmx as a single social body. If the ‘heathen’ mixed freely with enlightened peers, they might learn by example—such was the crux of Good's mission philosophy.

This strategy drew on time-honoured mission principles that crystallized during the first few centuries of the church. Good's work can only be understood in the light of this patristic theology, particularly the thought of St. Paul and St. Augustine. More generally, Good appears to have favoured those Fathers who rejected the hermetism associated with certain forms of asceticism. On the grounds that exposure to the world was contaminating, some ascetics sought absolute isolation from everyday life. While this picture of lonely hermits is something of a stereotype—it admits neither the transformation of asceticism into monasticism, nor the ascetic bent of worldly men such as Ambrose of Milan and Augustine himself—it was the one familiar to Good. His chief nemesis was the Donatist movement of the fourth and fifth centuries. It was against Donatist thinking that Good propounded mission endeavour, so the shadow cast by Donatism serves to illuminate (by way of contrast) the mechanics of his colonialism. In the sense that they urged Christians to resist contact with pagans, the Donatists reinforced difference and discounted unity under Christ. Good knew that Donatism was introspective and, as such, anything but colonizing; he had no time for this stagnant Christianity. Good's taste was for Augustine, the Donatists' antagonist.42

But yet again Paul was lurking in the background. Indeed, Augustine was himself strongly influenced by the Apostle.43 Besides its missionary drive, Pauline Christianity was perhaps most notable for its urbanity. It was, according to Wayne Meeks, ‘entirely urban.’44 This geography distinguished Paul's mission from Christian traditions that shunned the world, as did Anthony and the other Desert Fathers. Why this spatial contrast? One reason is that Paul rejected ascetic views on intercourse between Christians and pagans. In the cities of the Roman Empire, desert ascetics located a profanity that threatened to pollute Christian purity. Paul argued that this ascetic fear of the world was misplaced; morality could only be violated from within, he maintained, not by contact with pagans.45 Thus, Paul saw the city not as a source of contamination but as an aggregation of nonbelievers in need of Christianity. His vast urban mission embodied his belief, somewhat unconventional in its day, that Christians should convert the Gentiles rather than repel their otherness.

Paul always saw in the outsider a potential insider. He was convinced that religious difference would yield to Christian unity and relied on proselytism to achieve this goal. In effect, Paul's mission mediated between sameness and otherness—the basic categories of nineteenth-century imperialism. As Elizabeth Castelli has argued, the Apostle indicted difference of any kind. ‘Christians are Christians,’ she writes of Paul's message to the Gentiles, ‘insofar as they strive for the privileged goal of sameness.’ Castelli's most profound insight is her identification of the ‘colonizing potential’ harboured by this Pauline Christianity.46 Paul delimited otherness as that which was not Christian, but vowed to absorb that difference into the sameness of God's fold. This desire for mutual identity was a thoroughly colonialist gesture and has provided an enduring theological benchmark for the Christian mission. The vision of a newly united humanity was evoked with graphic intensity in the Pauline Letter to the Colossians, which envisioned a future in which ‘there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all’ (Colossians 3:11). Paul's quarry was paganism, and the dissolution of this otherness was the objective of the Catholic mission he commenced.

‘Augustine's mystique of the Catholic Church,’ described excellently by Peter Brown, appealed directly to this Pauline tradition.47 Like Paul before him, Augustine envisaged a universal Christianity. But his contemporaries did not all endorse this prospect. Awarded the bishopric of Hippo in 395, Augustine entered a North African church riven with conflict. The chief dissenters were the Donatists, whom Augustine battled tirelessly in the early fifth century. This movement of protest preceded Augustine by almost a century, born in 312 of the nonconformist views of Donatus, bishop of Carthage. In some respects Donatism was a local phenomenon, and its extraordinary persistence in Southern Numidia (to 596) was, by all accounts, a function of regional Berber history. Yet the dispute with Augustine reflected more fundamental tensions within the church at large, and it was these key debates that animated Good's interest in Donatism.

Simply stated, the issue at hand concerned the position of the church in the world. The Donatist position was that the church comprised a union of the righteous, and that this elect body should be separated from the corrupt because sin was contagious. A religion of joyous praise, Donatist Christianity proclaimed the virtue of spiritual life. Martyrdom was encouraged and devotion to the Scriptures enforced. Contact with outsiders was avoided for it jeopardized the Christian's exclusive relationship with God. The Donatists, then, would separate good and bad before the Day of Judgment. The church was considered a place of refuge, a holy retreat from the worldly Roman Empire. This was an ‘other’ space reserved for the pious. And if some Donatists tempered the claim that their church had no sinners, they, unlike Augustine, would strive to purge their ranks of infidels.48

This division between the church and the world precluded precisely the growth that Augustine championed. It was impossible for the church to expand if, as the Donatists had it, paganism infected Christian purity. Concerned above all to police its borders, Donatism was at best a stagnant religion, at worst a regressive one. It was certainly not aggressive. It was constrained by neurosis or, in Brown's words, ‘immobilized by anxiety to preserve its identity.’ The same cannot be said of Augustine's church. Whereas Donatism held paganism at arm's length, Augustine vowed to swallow that other world whole. In the Old Testament God had promised a global faith, and in the New Testament Jesus had told His disciples to speak His name to the ends of the earth. Augustine's mission was to realize this covenant; he would reunite humanity under Christ. Instead of fleeing from the world, the church should consume its being and permeate its every pore. In the North Africa of his day, Augustine's vision challenged introspective Donatists. In the nineteenth century it gave European Christians an estimable rationale for empire, for the Catholic mandate was to seize the ‘heathen’ and reduce their otherness to sameness. ‘This church,’ says Brown, ‘was hungry for souls: let it eat, indiscriminately if needs be. It is a group no longer committed to defend itself against society; but rather, poised, ready to fulfill what it considered its historic mission, to dominate, to absorb, to lead a whole Empire.’49

These Augustinian prescriptions were of lasting significance. Until the late fourth century, Christians had been deeply suspicious of the Imperial Government, which, to the Donatists as to their predecessors, represented the world that endangered steady faith. By the mid-fifth century, however, the church was fully allied with the Roman Empire, which now served as a conduit for the dissemination of Christianity. The conversion of Emperor Constantine had paved the way for this union, and Augustine hastened its consummation. Imperialism no longer represented mere Roman expansion; empire was now invested with Christian destiny. Ernest Barker suggests that the bond between imperialism and religion remained firm until the early nineteenth century—and even then it was only partly unsettled—and traces this symbiosis to Augustine. The debate with Donatism was a pivotal moment, for henceforth imperialism was Christian and Christianity was missionary. In Augustine's wake, Barker tells us, empire was ‘charged with a deeper and far more sovereign content. Empire had never been mere power. It had always been a vessel carrying, and existing to carry, some great cargo or freight. From AD 400 we may say that it carries, and exists to carry, the freight of the Christian faith.’50

The salience of Augustine's teaching was evident to many agents of the nineteenth-century Anglican mission. In contrast to the Donatists, for whom caution and isolation ensured holiness, these modern English missionaries revived Augustine's conviction that expansion and confrontation were the true means of preserving moral fibre. ‘Progression,’ argued a review article in the Church Missionary Intelligencer of 1851, ‘is the law of Christianity. Not to advance is to retreat: and the only hope of preserving the light for ourselves, is to let it shine, brighter, wider, more intensely, than any past era has witnessed.’51 This rhetoric was positively imperial, and its roots were in the Early Church.

We can now return to our original question and ask why it was that Good refused to separate Nlha7kápmx converts from Natives still regarded as ‘savages.’ The answer is that Donatist-style division was inimical to the logic of catholicity. Segregation would entail inertia and partial conversion, which were not in Good's interest. Rather than accept lingering heathenism as inevitable, and best sequestered, Good maintained that Christianity could absorb otherness in toto by giving the lie to it. He insisted, moreover, that the most appropriate means of demystification was the new convert. Augustine argued that a good Christian does not hide from the heathen, but instead ‘must coexist with sinners in the same community,’ and ‘must also be prepared, actively, to rebuke and correct them.’52 Good envisaged exactly this role for his most successful Nlha7kápmx students:

I am more and more convinced that it is the true apostolic and primitive system for those who come...

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