I often gave courses on Christian history and on global/world Christianity. There is one resource that I found extremely useful, and it has the virtue of being a quick read. I offer it here in the hope that it might be of practical use. In a short time, this is perhaps the clearest explanation of why European and American Christians started missionary ventures, why men and women risked their lives to go on missions, and how missions overlap inextricably with empires. It is, in a sense, a grand project of digging into the intellectual and spiritual archeology of a bygone religious era.
The text is “Le Missionnaire” by Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), most famous for writing Jane Eyre (1847). This novel contains a scathing image of St. John Rivers, whose life ambition is to be a missionary, and he must find a wife to share his dream. But he is a cold-hearted Christian, even reptilian. Charlotte Brontë was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman (and would later be married to another), and she obviously thought a lot about missions and missionaries. In 1846 she published the poem I am now describing, which offers a very different picture from that of St. John Rivers.
“The Missionary” tells the story of a man who embarks on a business that involves breaking all his English roots:
PLOUGH, ship, plow the British hand,
Seek the wider plain of the free ocean;
Leave English scenes and English skies,
Untie, dissever English ties.
He lost everything and lost everything, including the love of his life. As he knows from the Bible, he cannot give in to the temptation to turn around: did Christ do it in the Garden of Gethsemane? The mission will probably cost him his life, through illness or even martyrdom. We must always remember that before modern times, many missions were literally suicides, especially in Africa. Hmm, suicide missions – it would be an excellent title for a book on the missionary experience at that time.
So why is he going? Why, storm the gates of Hell: nothing less.
This is for me the reason why the poem is so useful in teaching. A typical American college class today has a favorable, even idealized, view of non-Christian religions. So why bother with Christian missions? It might be nice to carry the Christian message and work for social betterment, but there is little sense of urgency. These religions are not bad in themselves – a point too obvious to be worth emphasizing.
But look now at the 1840s, and the attitudes that Charlotte Brontë represents, very faithfully, in her poem. Why am I going, asks the missionary? Because these pagan or pagan religions are literally of the devil. Beyond their raw spiritual evil, they are also associated with the worst forms of social and political exploitation that were at the center of liberal activism in Europe at that time. They were brutal tyrants and exploiters in this world and the next. England, on the other hand, is a Christian society, destined to save and uplift these people.
It’s an extraordinarily difficult idea to convey today, but in the 1840s there was an unquestioned and wholly unironic belief that some states and societies were simply more advanced and superior to others. Moreover, they had a moral and religious obligation to share cultural and spiritual wealth – to spread education, literacy and human liberation, to uplift and empower the weak, especially women. It’s a few years later, but the Great Exhibition of 1851 proclaimed the absolute superiority of British technology, culture and civilization. At each step, religion and culture intersected.
In one package, Christianity brought salvation, modernity and liberation. Or so we firmly believed at the time.
Again, it’s a paternalistic, benevolent view of empire that will be totally alien to modern students, and this poem explains that concept very well. Note the language of tyrants and slaves, and how perfectly it fits with the abolitionist spirit of the 1840s. It may be a difficult concept to overcome today, but very similar impulses drove abolitionism anti-slavery and those global missions, which were so intertwined with empire and imperialism.
Incidentally, this view of the Christian empire was very new to the English scene at this time. Before about 1820, the British in India had no interest in converting, and instead were themselves tempted to follow the Hindu and Muslim ways. After this point, a new evangelical Christian approach became increasingly dominant.
The different regional accents of the missions are also important. According to the stereotype, Africans were simply primitive, but Asians – especially Indians – were subject to evil kings and emperors, working closely with equally evil priests. If you’ve ever seen anything like the 1939 movie Gunga Din, we get an excellent idea of these stereotypes of “Oriental” religious fanaticism. In real history, these images were greatly augmented after the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Naturally, such stereotypes offered wonderful opportunities for framing anti-imperial rebels and anti-colonial resisters in general.
A critical theme here may seem counterintuitive. Where does our imaginary missionary get his very hostile ideas about Eastern religion, and mainly Hinduism, from? In fact, Charlotte Brontë draws heavily from anti-Catholicism, which at this point had centuries of experience in denouncing “priests, whose belief is wrong, extortion, lust and cruelty”. . As any American historian knows, anti-Catholicism was rampant in American cities in the 1840s and 1850s, when quite spectacular intercommunal riots were commonplace: Philadelphia in 1844 provided a nightmarish example. In England it was the time of the Tractarians and the Oxford movement, which seemed to be a papal Trojan horse for the subversion of English society and faith. Fears reached a new height with the conversion of John Henry Newman in 1845, less than a year before “The Missionary” was published. Almost every word of criticism in the poem could be applied as it stands to the Protestant views of Ireland or Italy. This radical anticlericalism, with its flowery mythologies, was easily transferred to the East.
Another key idea to explain here is that of redemption, or salvation. Many Western Christians today have little time for the idea that there is no salvation outside the church, let alone that Hell is any reality. For an evangelical in the 1840s, they had been saved by the blood of Christ, and that placed an absolute obligation on them to share in that blessing, even (again) at the cost of their lives.
Certainly use the entire poem in teaching. It’s not long. But allow me here to quote a few illustrative passages. Here the missionary contemplates his (Indian) destination and his spiritual horrors:
And even when, with the bitterest tear
I always poured, my eyes were weak,
Yet with the vision of the clear mind,
I saw the empire of Hell, vast and sinister,
Spread on the bank of every Indian river,
Every kingdom in Asia covering o’er.
There the weak, trampled by the strong,
live but suffer–die without hope;
There are pagan priests, whose belief is false,
Extortion, lust and cruelty,
Crush our lost race–and overflowing with filling
The bitter cup of human evil;
And me–who have the creed of healing,
The benign faith of the Son of Mary;
Do I see my brother’s need
And, selfishly, to help him escape?
Dark, in the realm and shadows of Death,
Nations and tribes and empires lie,
But even for them the light of Faith
Breaks on their dark sky:
And it’s up to me to raise them
Their heads bowed to the scene of the little wood,
And know and hail the sunrise fire
Who announces the Nazarene Christ.
I know how hell the veil will spread
Above their eyebrows and misty eyes,
And crash down to the ground with your head up
It would look up and seek the heavens;
I know what war the demon will wage
Against this soldier of the cross,
Who comes to dare his demonic rage,
And works his realm of shame and loss.
Yes, hard and terrible the work
Of him who walks on foreign soil,
Determined to plant the gospel vine,
Where tyrants reign and slaves complain;
Eager to raise the light of religion
Where the thickest shades of mental night
Screen the false god and the diabolical rite
Throwing the strongest ramparts of hell down,
Even when the last pain makes my chest tingle,
When Death bestows the martyr’s crown,
And calls me into the rest of Jesus.
So for my ultimate reward–
So for the word of world rejoicing–
The father’s voice–Spirit–Son:
“Servant of God, you have done well!
Believe me, “The Missionary” sparks great conversations in class.