Conquest or conversion?

IN THE HOT, STEAMY AIR of a mid-September day in 1899, William Henry Sheppard walked into the center of a burned and deserted village in the Belgian Congo. He was drawn there by news of atrocities committed by local Congolese against their fellow Africans, urged on by Belgian imperial authorities.

Near the village’s stockade, the smell of decaying human flesh nearly knocked him over. Inside he discovered 81 severed human hands. The murderers had left them behind but had intended to deliver them to imperial officials as evidence that the natives had not complied with demands to produce rubber for sale in distant European and American markets.

Rubber profits

When he entered the Congo region in the 1880s as a missionary for the Presbyterian Church in the United States, Sheppard intended simply to bring the Gospel to those who had not yet heard of Christ’s love and saving grace. But he and his fellow missionaries soon grew concerned that European governments and corporations were oppressing and exploiting native populations.

On that September day in 1899, when Sheppard surveyed the ruins of the village of Chinyama with one of the perpetrators of the massacre, M’lumba N’kusa, the missionary was astonished to hear the murderer say that his instructions had come from white imperial authorities. His superiors had reportedly said, “The state has sent you and you have to go by your instructions.” If N’kusa had not complied, he might have been subject to the same fate.

Authorities in the Congo Free State had pledged, in a General Act signed in Berlin in 1885, to promote missionary efforts, suppress slavery, and do everything necessary to “educate the natives, and lead them to understand and appreciate the advantages of civilization.”

On the ground, the story was much different. Rubber was the era’s most profitable commodity, and King Leopold II of Belgium was a harsh ruler who ran the Congo as his own private source of income. His agents dispossessed native Congolese of their lands and imposed a harsh system of rubber production. When workers failed to meet their quotas, brutal imperial enforcers descended on villages and carried out whippings, mutilations, torture, and mass killings. Missionaries who raised objections were harassed and ultimately restricted or expelled. Sheppard himself became the target of a lawsuit.

Earlier in the 1800s, those who preceded Sheppard thought their calling to preach the Gospel to the nations could work in harmony with Western political, economic, and cultural institutions. They joined industrialists, corporate agents, diplomats, and soldiers in securing open markets for European and North American trade. Once these were established, they built medical clinics, schools, churches, and other modern facilities.

Charles Grant’s career shows how the church made easy allies with powerful political and commercial figures. Grant left Scotland to serve in the British army in India in the 1760s, then became a superintendent with the East India Company. Eventually he was appointed to the board of directors and served intermittently as chairman. Grant experienced an adult conversion and became a chief advocate for the Christianization of India. As a director he encouraged Christian behavior among British military and commercial agents in India, and in his private life he sponsored the building of churches and the translation of Scripture into native languages.

“Fine servants”

Converting the native population and using them for economic purposes had been long entwined. In 1492, reflecting on the moment of first Spanish contact with the Arawaks (an indigenous tribe), Columbus noted the ease with which native Caribbean people could be converted to Christianity, and in the next breath, observed that “they would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” Roman Catholic missionaries joined Spanish officials as Spain built its empire. Roman Catholic parishes overlaid the administrative districts of New Spain by the turn of the seventeenth century.

Some Christians objected. Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas thought Spain had betrayed the Gospel by introducing the evil of slavery to the New World, writing of the native population: “Once they begin to learn of the Christian faith they become so keen to know more, to receive the Sacraments, and to worship God. . . . It was upon these gentle lambs, imbued by the Creator with all the qualities we have mentioned, that from the very first day they clapped eyes on them the Spanish fell like ravening wolves upon the fold.”

Las Casas’s objections aside, church and state worked together to convert the local population while simultaneously securing the obedience of native people to white European rule. Viceroys of New Spain were obligated to protect missionaries and support the work of the church, and Roman Catholic bishops and priests fulfilled state functions in the conquered lands. The church received grants of land and access to power in exchange for providing education and social services.

Gospel and trade

All the major European powers followed Portugal and Spain into the business of overseas expansion, especially as the industrial era dawned: Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States. And as governments awakened to the commercial possibilities in foreign lands, so did mission agencies.

In Great Britain this happened quickly. By 1800 the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (the Church of England’s mission society) joined ranks with newer evangelically oriented agencies that carried the Gospel to Africa, Southeast Asia, China, and most importantly, India.

This was when Grant appeared on the scene. His military career and business leadership coincided with growing desires for reform among Anglican ministers and prominent lay leaders. Grant joined with William Wilberforce, Henry Thornton, and others of the so-called Clapham Sect to lobby the British Parliament to abolish the slave trade, aware that British commercial practices often undermined the Gospel message of love, peace, and justice in Christ. In 1807 their efforts were rewarded with an act of Parliament that abolished the market for slaves.


Grant’s thoughts on slavery were just the beginning of soul-searching among missionaries about the human costs of empire. In China Dr. William Lockhart, a medical missionary with the London Missionary Society in the 1840s, criticized the opium trade as an impediment to evangelization. Eventually missionaries built popular support at home on the issue; the Anglo-Oriental Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade was founded in 1874. Yet it could only issue ineffectual protests in the face of frenzied profit-taking by the East India Company and the British royal treasury well into the twentieth century.

For missionaries, the state’s protection turned out to be a two-edged sword. On one hand, as the World Missionary Conference commissioners reported in 1910, “any tolerable Government, maintaining order and doing something to elevate the people under it, is a help, and a safeguard.” In Indonesia the Dutch East India Company introduced missionaries from the Netherlands Missionary Society in 1812, and soon after the Kingdom of the Netherlands created a state church under royal authority, the Indische Kerk.

Arrangements like this gave Christianity legal, administrative, and financial support. European governments issued grants to missionary societies and to local churches to build hospitals, schools, and relief stations.

But there was a downside too. Indigenous people made negative associations between decadent European settlers and Christian faith. An American missionary lamented in 1889 that “falsehoods, deceptions, frauds, drunkenness, debauchery, and other great vices perpetrated among the heathen by those from Christian lands, do much to hinder the feeble efforts put forth to bring the world to a knowledge of the truth as it is in Christ.”

Missionaries also grumbled about imperial officials favoring other faiths in an effort to seem neutral to local native leaders. In the Middle East, Church Missionary Society staff in the 1880s remarked that “the British Government practically prohibits aggressive work from fear of arousing Mohammedan fanaticism” and that “in order to show their impartiality as between Protestants and Roman Catholics, [officials] go to the other extreme and favour Mohammedans.” Some missionary societies discovered that breaking away from state support improved their rate of success in converting new believers, recruiting native ministers, and expanding operations.

A growing distance

Missionaries became careful to distance themselves from imperial authorities and agents of corporations. Bishop W. M. Cameron of the Anglican Church of the Province of South Africa observed that his work was hampered by “the idea in the minds of many of the heathen natives that Christianity is a foreign religion, and that the missionaries are in some way or other officers of the British Government.”

These hostilities boiled over in 1899 in China. Chinese nationalists attacked missionaries and foreign diplomats in an event known as the Boxer Rebellion. In one district alone armed gangs killed 136 Protestant missionaries and 47 Roman Catholic clergy and nuns. Eventually 20,000 foreign troops marched into China, scattering Chinese imperial troops and Boxers.

Such grim news prompted missionaries to rethink their cooperation with economic and political leaders in the developing world. By World War I many missionaries realized that the Gospel was at cross-purposes with European and North American commercial and military activities. They came to lament, with the commissioners of the World Missionary Conference in 1910, that “certain Missions have been in past time stalking-horses for European Powers bent on aggression.” CH

By Jeffrey B. Webb

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #104 in 2013]

Jeffrey B. Webb is professor of history at Huntington University and the author of Christianity and Exploring God in the Complete Idiot’s Guide series.
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