Did Missionaries Bring Colonialism?
The role of missionaries in colonization of many African nations, in most cases, is considered by many modern missionary archeologists unquestionable. Armed with a Bible and a personal journal, it is widely believed missionaries ingeniously disarmed local people with their tainted peacemaking and anti-vengeance gospel. Missionaries tracked the African continent preaching the life of Jesus Christ. Proselyting activities involved demonization of local culture, usurping it with Western ideologies. The artful pathfinder of European imperial regime, missionaries tamed the formerly aggressive local people.
Although the missionaries’ task was to make people accept the Bible and its teachings, Christianity was turned into an ideology which could be used to convince people not to resist white domination.
Hilde Arntsen, Missionaries and Colonization
A fitting illustration that highlights Christianity and colonialism follows. Consider you have never heard about bathing, and you have never taken a shower your whole life. Occasionally, you swim by the river and the lake, which is the closest to bathing you ever got. A couple from country A, visit your country B. The wife, from country A, shows you how to properly take a bath. She emphasizes the need for running water and recommends the river. Ecstatic, you take off to the river to explore your knew found source of refreshment. After bathing, you come back to find the husband has sold all your kids into slavery.
How will you view bathing after this incident?
Undoubtedly, you will loathe and distrust anyone from country A. However, besides the hatred and lack of trust, the action of the husband might cause you to do one of these two things regarding bathing. Firstly, you might hate bathing because losing your family might cause you to associate bathing with deceit. Secondly, develop a new bathing technique that could be an improvement to bathing in a river or a complete distortion to bathing. Invariably, your attitude toward the foreign couple will shape your view of bathing. In 1968, Emory Ross clearly summed this thought in an article entitled Impact of Christianity in Africa.
Christianity, handicapped by its Western human distortions from the original teachings Christ… may so discourage and embitter the African that he will in the end fanatically combat the West on all fronts. It may lead him to develop his own distortions of Christianity on the ground that if the West can warp that powerful religion to its own selfish national and cultural ends, so can Africa. Finally, it may leave him as defenseless prey to other outside philosophies and ideologies which at this stage are not yet established among Africans and thus are not required to produce anything at all in African society.
The absence of sound African theological scholarship in Christian libraries across Africa does little to alleviate the dangers highlighted by Emory Ross (Read Why Writing a Christian Book if You are an African is Worthless). However, this ‘absence’ should not be interpreted as meaning there are no worthy African theologians who have expounded on Christianity palatable to lay people and academia. The works of Joe Kapolyo, AC Chukwuocha, Prof Samuel Ngewa, and many others testify of the abundance of sound theological that highlight how Africans purified the ‘Western human distortions’ propagated by missionaries.
Regrettably, colonialism and the repressions associated with gave rise to a grave distortion of Christianity as early as 1920s. The rapid rise of African human distortions despising anything deemed European testify of the danger ‘Western human distortions’. For example, in Zimbabwe two Zionist sects began that where influential in despising the repressive laws that governed Africans during colonial rule (For my encounter with this sect, read Encountering God in Africa: A Memoir). These Zionists sects consider the Bible munya (left-over meal from the previous night). Such churches were in rebellion to missionaries who emphasized the importance of reading and writing in personal development.
Unfortunately, the African human distortions did not end with the end of colonialism, with deifying of Western materialistic practices. A wave of African modern churches has swept the continent that emphasizes material gain over spiritual transformation. It seems Emory Ross’ fears nearly five decades ago became (and are quickly becoming) real.
Although missionaries have been either justifiably or incorrectly considered “ideological shock troops for colonial invasion whose zealotry blinded them”, recent studies tend to disagree with that notion. For example, one of the most revered missionaries in Africa, David Livingston, only had one African convert in the entire time he spent in Africa. Many other missionaries were not successful at all. However, missionaries left a developmental footprint in most African nations. In Zimbabwe, the most reliable schools and hospitals were built by missionaries. Hence the conclusion by Robert D Woodberry in a paper entitled The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy published by American Political Science Review in 2010;
In particular, conversionary Protestants were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, most major colonial reforms, and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Robert D Woodberry