The Politics of Evangelization

Ayse Topaloglu

The history writing on politics of evangelization seems to have started at the beginning of the twentieth century under the monopoly of missionary historians which were commissioned by their own societies. These massive works tended to glofiry the evangelizing efforts of European missionaries in the colonies and presented a teleological world view in which Christianity was bound to spread in distant territories. However, these detailed studies generally offered an insider’s point of view and are worthy of study on their own terms. In later decades of the century, specialists took a more nuanced approach with respect to fundamental questions of the field. One particular subject that received particular attention was the motivations that lied behind the evangelization movement. The answers historians gave to this question varied according to contemporary ideologies. Marxist historians approached the issue from the point of view of economic gain and profit whereas; later historians emphasized the political connections of the missionaries to the European Empires and their genuine religious motivations.

Furthermore, under the influence of cultural history and gender studies, specialists investigated how gender categories in the local cultures were transformed by the impact of missionary communities and how important were gendering notions in determining the relationship between the local populations and the European missionaries. In the same vein, some historians perceived the overall missionary endeavor along the paradigm of dominated versus dominator, drawing a clear line between the European and native cultures. Others, however, reacted to this approach and tried to examine the European missionaries as part of the society they have worked in. The below bibliography contains works that represent this historiographical diversity.

Misson and British Empire:

Charles Frederick Pascoe, Two Hundred Years of the S. P. G.: An Historical Account of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1701-1900 (London: Published at the Society’s Office, 1901)  – 2 volumes

This book can again be considered a chronicle of the Society’s activities at home and overseas. But this book (2 volumes combined) is over 1400 pages. There is an incredible amount of detail and it is very rich in terms of primary sources. This book would especially be useful as a book of reference. It glorifies the missions and discusses how important they had been for the modernization of the world.  

Henry P. Thompson, Into All Lands: The History of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts 1701-1950 (London: S.P.C.K., 1951)

Into All Lands is a general survey of the history of the SPG and very often referred to as a chronicle and not an interpretive work of history. Thompson presents this history of expansion and propaganda as a success story and the historical characters as good-natured people who were mainly interested in the well-being of the people they tried to convert to Christianity. They are presented as carriers of civilization and fighters of justice against imperialism, partly because the author was the former editorial secretary of SPG. Therefore, he is able to provide insight information into the organization and administration of the society.

Brian Stanley, The History of the Baptist Missionary Society, 1792-1992 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1992)

This book can be considered almost a chronicle of the society and does not engage with greater historiographical questions so as to make a proper assessment of BMS’s overall impact to evangalization movement. The book was officially commisioned by the Baptist Missionary Society and therefore, the author managed to access to all BMS archives, including the ones  that were not open to other researchers. In addition, Stanley conducted a series of interviews with ex-missionaries. Its richness in new source material seems to be one of its biggest contributions to the field.

Travis Glasson, Mastering Christianity: Missionary Anglicanism and Slavery in the Atlantic World (Oxford, 2012)

The general topic of the book is the encounters between the Anglican missionaries of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) and black people in America, Caribbean and West Africa in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Glasson approaches to the Society like a ‘circum-Atlantic network’ which facilitated the circulation of ideas and people and as a historian, he benefits from this inter-regionality to show a cross-section of the complicated networks of the Atlantic world. He touches upon the subjects of ideological/intellectual background of the society, complex relationship between missionaries and the agents of slavery, and political connections between the Society and the British Crown.

Louis B.  Wright, Religion  and Empire: The Alliance  between Piety and  Commerce in English Expansion,  1558-1625 (Chapel Hill: University  of  North  Carolina  Press,  1943)

This book is a series of lectures delivered in the University of Washington in 1942. And it claims to stand somewhere in between the Marxist economic determinism and the essentialist idea that glory and religion were the only motivations behind discovery and conquest. Wright goes against this overemphsis on the economic foundations of the British Empire. He suggests that in the mind of the Renaissance English man, God’s favor was proportionate with the economic comfort one enjoyed in this world. And overall, he suggests that fifteenth and sixteenth century English colonizers wished equally to spread Christianity in order to save souls and expand their economic and commercial gain simply because in their mind these two aspects of life did not exclude each other.

Andrew Porter, Religion Versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700-1914 (Manchester University Press, 2004)

Porter explores the evangelical revival of the early eighteenth century and its theological contribution to the development and reorganization at a greater scale of the voluntary missionary societies of the 1790s and 1800s. He develops on how these new missionary societies defined their strategies according to the contemporary political developments both in their policies of oversees expansion and at the local level in their encounters with different social groups. Porter does not completely reject the idea that the missionaries were agents of imperialism, precisely because they were associated with the institutions and ideas of imperial institutions by the local people. He argues that their first hand contact with the locals made them aware of the many kinds of local resentments and their own restrictions in transforming the local societies culturally and religiously.

Elizabeth Elbourne,  Blood ground : colonialism, missions, and the contest for Christianity in the Cape Colony and Britain, 1799-1853 (Montreal and Kingston:  McGill-Queens University, 2002)

Elbourne’s book is a general examination of the activities of London Missionary Society in South Africa. She argues that the encounter between the missionaries of the society and the Natives of South Africa was not a “clash of civilization” like some anthropologists argued and she also refuses the idea that British missionaries deliberately acted upon the principles of British imperialism in order to impose British culture on the indigenous population. She argues that LMS missionaries were as distant and alienated from their own society. LMS’s attacks on white-imperialist practices of labor made them an unwanted marginalized group in Cape area.


Laura M. Stevens, The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004)

Stevens probes the rhetoric of pity which dominated the extensive collection of Protestant missionary writing produced before the American Revolution. He argues that the missionaries gathered support by representing Native Americans as people in need and pitiful and that this British pity served to reflect and glorify the superiority and the benevolence of the British missionaries and colonizers vis-a-vis indigenous people.

Linford D. Fisher, “‘I Believe They Are Papists!’: Natives, Moravians, and the Politics of Conversion in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut,” The New England Quarterly 81, no. 3 (September 2008): 410–437

This article by Fisher is an exploration of the agency of the religious beliefs in the complex political environment of the 18th century New England. The politics at that time is complicated by an Great Awakening of the mid 1700s and the imperial warfare. Through a case study of a legal charge pressed on Moravian missionaries by the Deputy Drinkwater, Fisher explores how international imperial politics effected the internal power politics among lay British colonizers, missionaries and Native Americans.

R. Todd Romero, Making War and Minting Christians: Masculinity, Religion, and Colonialism in Early New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011)

Romero illustrates how interconnected were colonialism and masculanity in terms of ‘civilized dominator’ and ‘uncivilized dominated’ paradigm. In both cultures, native and Anglo-American, manliness was expressed through religious perspective. It is through the study of these religious perceptions that we can understand the relationship of gender and colonialism. He argues that missionaries and colonizers of New England developed a gender discourse where the Native Americans of the area were considered to be “effeminate”. Missionaries had the task of making them masculin before converting them into Christianity.

Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2008)

Makdisi situates the ideological background of the American Board of Commissions for Foreign Missions in the previous relationship of American missionaries to Native Americans. The author argues that by19th century, this relationship was characterized by paradoxes for the Puritan missionaries – like the idea that faith must not be compelled and the obvious English dominance and expansion in the Americas-. According to Makdisi, the mission was a failure and King Philip’s War in 1675 sealed the missionary defeat. This failure led them to explore new missionary grounds where the story of American missions could be rewritten.

James A. Sandos, Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004)

Sandos examines the Franciscan missions of California of the eighteenth century. He argues that both Indians and Franciscans contributed to the formation of a ‘mission culture’ through their cultural transactions and that it would be wrong to either condemn or eulogize missionaries, as it has been done previously in the historiography of the California missions. He emphasizes the role of music and choir in diffusing Spanish language among Indians  and argues that it was the diffusion of the Spanish language which made a common resistance of Indians against the missionaries possible, providing them with a tool to express themselves.

Catholic Missions and Spain:

Luis N. Rivera. A Violent Evangelism:  The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas (Louisville: Westminster/John  Knox, 1992)

This work investigates the motivational ideas behind the Spanish conquest of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Rivera suggests that the contemporary polemicists who dealt with the justification of Spanish enslavement of the Native Americans centered on the concept of the Spanish national identity was justified on theological ground. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Especially after the Protestant Reformation, Spanish Kingdom emerged as the primary defender of Catholicim. The “imperial theology” that resulted from this legitimized conquest and enslavement of Native Americans. The extension of Christian faith became the essential point of legitimization for Spanish territorial  expansion.

Daniel Castro, Another Face of Empire: Bartolomé de Las Casas, Indigenous Rights, and Ecclesiastical Imperialism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007)

Similar to Rivera, Castro argues that the violent conquest of America was legitimized through Christianity. He focuses on the writings of Las Casas, and argues that in all of his major enterprises in favor of the enforcement of a peaceful conversion of the Natives, his actions were motivated by a desire to gain a political advantage and characterizes him as a “benevolent ecclesiastic imperialist”.

Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006)

This work argues that Iberian and British ideologies of empire were not only comparable but also in dialogue with one another. British Protestants and Spanish Catholics deployed similar religious discourses to justify conquest and colonization: A biblically sanctioned interpretation of expansion and a longstanding Christian tradition of holy violence aimed at demonic enemies within and without.  A remnant of this tradition was fabricated in the New World by Spanish settlers, the portrayal of the “heathen” Natives as Satanic characters, who had to be saved by the Christian heroes, the conquistadors. Puritan missionaries and settlers also appropriated this Spanish-Catholic discourse of demonizing the Native Americans.

Nicholas P. Cushner, Why Have You Come Here? The Jesuits and the First Evangelization of Native Amerìca (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Cushner explores how the Jesuit missions attempted to reconstruct the essential identity of the evangelized cultures, in every aspect of life, property, economy, morality, food etc. He argues that Jesuit evangelizaiton is not only about religion, but about implementing a social structure that is deemed civilized and the only acceptable one. Cushner shows that Jesuists failed to see Natives on their own terms and considered their autonomous social identity as a source of evil. He formulizes his argument within the paradigm of dominated and dominator in which Christianity ultimately replaces the indigenous religion and culture.

Kristen Block, Ordinary lives in the early Caribbean: religion, colonial competition, and the politics of profit (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012)

This book by Block contains a series of microhistories which prove how influential were the imperial politics for people from every level of the society. She operates on the assumption that the shifting political and economic circumstances had an effect on the morality of the Caribbean people, both colonizer and colonized. She argues that the important issues such as national loyalties, religious identities, dichotomy between the moral integrity and economic gain are all expressed on religious grounds.

 Evangelization and the Era of Imperialism

Brian Stanley, The Bible and the flag: Protestant missions and British imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Towbridge: Apoolos Publications, 1990)

In this book, Stanley refutes the idea that missionaries were necessarily agents of imperialism. Despite the fact that they identifed Christianity with Britishness  which might make them look like imperialists, their main motivation was saving souls. They saw the growing commerce and fortunes of the empire as part of God’s plan. However, the fact that they were able to recognize the inhumane policies of colonialism and imperialism as obstacles against spreading God’s word proves that they were not simple agents of imperialism. Although some missionaries certainly had nationalist or imperialist agendas, Stanley argues that it is not enough for historians to term them collectively as “agents of imperialism”.

Susan Thorne, Congregational missions and the making of an imperial culture in nineteenth-century England (Stanford,1999)

Differently from others, this book is not really about the colonies, but about England. What is unique about this book is Thorne’s general approach to the study of missions. She argues that cultural influences not always flowed from metropole to peripheries and that the missionary propaganda served to change not only the culture in the colonies but also in England. Thorne uses the Congregational churches as her case study. The fundraising campaigns and philanthropic propaganda of the missionary societies addressed to sensibilities of class and gender in the British society.

Anna Johnston, Missionary Writing and Empire, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Johnston’s main subject is the genre of missionary writing and the discourses of gender, class and race. She mainly focuses on India, Polynesia and Australia. She argues that there was no single- universal evangelical project, but the nature of evangelization differed from place to place. One interesting point is the way Christian missionary writing in Polynesia was concerned about the clothing of local people and how chistian missionaries wanted to construct Polynesian sexuality in their writing by manipulating contemporary fashion. She focuses on how clothing was a visual demonstration of the Christian “right and wrong” in terms of sexuality.

Daughton, J. P,  An empire divided : religion, republicanism, and the making of French colonialism, 1880-1914 (2006)

Daughton argues that the “civilizing mission” of French colonial ideology did not simply follow a secular program of civilizing the colonies as it was previously believed. Through several case studies, he shows how intertwined were colonizing and evangelizing. He talks about how after 1880s the critics of French republican secular parties on the “uncivilized” Christian missions served to change the overall discourse of the missionaries from an emphasis on faith to French patriotism and to the civilizing mission. He also focuses on the relationship between the colonial secular and religious authorities. There can be no “civilizing” without conversion to Catholicism as well as to French culture.

Owen White and J.P Daughton eds., In God’s empire: French missionaries in the modern world (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

The uneasy relationship of France with religion, especially under the secularizing policies of the Third Republic became almost a culture war between the secular republicans who followed the ideals of Enlightenment and Catholic believers. French scholars carried this anticlerical attitude to their work until recently, by including the missionaries merely in a few pages in the histories of French colonial empire. This book tries to breach the gap between the separatist approaches of the secular historians of French colonization and the exclusively religion oriented histories of Catholic missions.