Volume 4.1 / The Bible and the Flag: Protestant Missions & British Imperialism in the Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries

Book Review

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The Bible and the Flag: Protestant Missions & British Imperialism in the Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries

Mark Kernan, Washington, USA

The Bible and the Flag by Dr. Brian Stanley (Professor of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh and Director of its Centre for the Study of World Christianity) is a penetrating and thorough historical examination of the polarizing accusation that “the trader and the settler followed the missionary, who was the agent of European imperialism, working hand in hand with the colonial powers for the subjugation of the black people and the territorial extension of the imperialist powers” (11). One of the reasons this narrative is so embedded in even the Christian community today is that the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi in 1975 unabashedly proclaimed that “missionaries came to Africa with ‘the Bible in one hand and the gun in the other’” (11). Stanley is careful to indicate that this book is not an attempt “to exonerate Christian missionaries from all of the charges that have been leveled against them . . . or exercise moral judgment . . . [but] to convey an informed historical understanding of the issues involved” (12). After establishing the broader historical background in the opening chapter, Stanley limits his examination to British Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and “the role [they] played within the pattern of British imperialism” (12).

In chapter 1 Stanley traces the genesis and development of the modern arguments against missions in the imperial age. First, he demonstrates that most discussions of missions and imperialism before decolonization in Africa (roughly the 1960s) centered on China and India and that in both cases the accusation of “missionary imperialism” was driven by nationalistic responses to British imperial control. Second, Stanley exhibits that missionaries to Africa should not be wholly condemned as intentional agents of indigenous subjugation and cultural destruction on behalf of European imperialism because the early leaders of the nationalistic revolutions in Africa (beginning in 1957) were generally sympathetic to Christianity and grateful for missionaries’ work in Africa. Rather, he shows that this indictment flowed from the ever-increasing influence of Socialist and Marxist economic models in sub-Saharan Africa after 1966.

Chapter 2 challenges the modern assumptions that imperialism is inherently exploitative in intention and effect. Imperialism was not a monolithic practice or policy. From the sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, European imperialism was driven by the desire to colonize or establish white settler communities in the non-European world (e.g., Americas and Australasia). The second form, colonialism, is distinguished from the former in that the imperial power “imposes governmental control on a territory without resort to large-scale human settlement” (34). Colonization often morphed into colonialism as the British empire expanded. The third form of imperialism that Stanley identifies is informal imperial control “in which the imperial wields predominant influence in a territory without resort to either human settlement or formal political rule” (35). This variant of imperialism is a central but often overlooked manifestation of imperialism during the history of British expansion. Stanley contends that an accurate assessment of the relationship between missions and imperialism “demands greater precision in terminology than current popular usage will admit” (35).

Stanley proposes a provisional model of British imperialism built on the “Robinson and Gallagher thesis (1961)” that explains the aims of British expansion in terms of economics:

As “the first industrial nation” and “the workshop of the world,” Britain needed secure access to sources of raw materials (especially cotton) and guaranteed markets for her products. For the first seventy-years of the nineteenth-century, in which Britain’s economic pre-eminence was unchallenged, these objectives were secured with relative ease; in the late Victorian period Britain discovered that her position of global commercial supremacy was harder to defend than to acquire, and could be maintained only by increasing resort to methods of rule instead of methods of mere influence (42).

British imperialism can be summarized as a system of local influence and informal control—where England did not resort to either large-scale settlement or formal political rule—so that she could simply manage and protect her trade rights. This practice usually transitioned into official governmental rule and increasing foreign occupation in an attempt to stabilize local crises that overwhelmed informal authorities and threatened British commercial activity. For example, India’s importance to Britain ballooned as its importance to Asian trade became apparent. In addition to this the British empire relied heavily on the Indian army as an “imperial fire service” for problems in the Far East and East Africa. Therefore, India became an important objective in its own right far beyond initial estimations (42). But, this expansion of the empire was only embraced if it could be maintained “on the cheap.” British parliament required that colonial governments raise funding from the local populace. Tensions arose in their various colonies. British imperialism contained the seeds of its own destruction. Western education, democratic values, and Christian idealism provided the means and the ethics for nationalistic leaders to demand their freedom from British rule.

Chapter 3 explores the motivating force of Protestant missions. The first wave of British missions (1780–1820s) was motivated by an evangelical revival in Britain that weakened the prevalent tendency toward hyper-Calvinism rather than developments in British colonial policy or overseas investments. This theological development applied the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards to the question of evangelism, which led to the increasing conviction that God uses the means of preaching to achieve his sovereign purposes. This conviction produced an overwhelming sense of obligation to proclaim the gospel amongst idol-worshiping “heathen” in order to restore their relationship with God. Even though missionaries believed the gospel must come first, they also believed that Christian faith would eventually civilize the natives and advance their civilizations so that they might have a better life. Missionaries believed this development would promote healthy commercial activity for the native population and Britain as well.

            Chapters 4–6 are a detailed “on the ground” analysis of the variegated relationships between Christian missionaries and British imperialism in various geographical locations. Each of these chapters is based on a thorough examination of original letters, reports, and documents. Stanley’s four case studies in chapter 4 (West Indies, The Cape of Good Hope, India, and China) cover the period of 1790–1860 and reveal two important motifs. First, the primary focus of evangelical missionaries and their domestic supporters was gospel proclamation. Second, missionaries during this period were compelled to defend “native interests” against exploitation by European commercial and political forces because of their commitment to Christian values, compassion for the people, and pursuit of effective evangelism. Yet, Stanley does not attempt to whitewash this period. He is careful to highlight missionary missteps in India and significant cultural failures in China—most notably, the manner in which missionaries to China not only rationalized the results of the Opium Wars (wars they had openly criticized) but also leveraged the unequal treaty between China and Britain to demand access to new locations within the country instead of patiently building relational bridges into new territory.

Chapter 5 is dedicated to the period from 1860–1895, which saw British imperialism transition from a system of informal control to national annexation. Stanley demonstrates in four historical accounts (Fiji, Bechuanaland, Malawi, and Uganda) that, for the most part, missionaries during this time period remained committed to their conviction that the gospel was the only hope for mankind’s salvation. However, by the 1890s their admirable fight against native slavery and commitment to social justice became almost indistinguishable from a commitment to the imposition of British law. This well-intended crusade inevitably left Christian missionaries, at the dawn of the twentieth century, precariously open to attack by nationalist politicians who demanded freedom from Western imperial control.

Stanley devotes chapter 6 to the manner in which foreign missions’ efforts were compromised by Enlightenment attitudes that saw Christian missions as a vehicle to transmit the treasures of civilization and technology to the “younger races.” Stanley contends that this transition contributed greatly to the nationalist revolutions in China (1895) and Kenya (1960). First, the conflict in China was exacerbated by the fact that most missionaries not only rationalized China’s forcible opening by European powers but also utilized provisions in the treaties to force their way into new territories and demand reparations after the Boxer Rebellion. Second, missionary schools provided indigenous leaders with a clearer sense of national (not merely tribal) self-consciousness and the ability to convincingly articulate their national grievances against Western rulers (e.g., Kenya). Third, World War II not only reduced Britain’s privileged position in the world but also opened the way for competing socio-economic ideologies like Communism. Stanley even suggests that nationalistic leaders chose Communism not because it offered the best political and economic solution but because it offered the most effective vehicle to express their anti-colonial sentiment, win their freedom, and provide an alternate path to the economic and educational development they desired without converting to “mission Christianity.”

            In Chapter 7, Stanley engages the common accusation that missionaries foisted their cultural values on their converts and new churches, which in turn undermined existing indigenous social systems. First, he begins by explaining the four assumptions of British imperial missionaries: (1) Pagan cultures were not religiously neutral but were under the control of Satan; (2) nineteenth-century Britain was a pragmatic model of Christian culture and society; (3) human progress is desirable and honorable pursuit; and (4) Christian efforts to “civilize the heathen” had proved successful. Second, he presses into an often-overlooked relationship between religion and culture; namely, it is impossible for people to convert from one set of religious beliefs to another without profound cultural implications. That is because “there has never been a great culture which did not have deep roots in religion” (170). He contends that if the Christian missionary is called to “induce people to renounce their existing religious (or irreligious) allegiance in favor of Christianity, then there can be no question that the missionary is in principle committed to the promotion of cultural change” (170). He concludes by offering two important proposals regarding Christian missions and culture: First, the appropriate basis for evaluating missionary impact “cannot be whether missionaries promoted cultural change or not, but whether the direction of that change was generally beneficial or not” (171). Second, Christian missions should focus on developing a Christian counter-cultural society that exemplifies the absolute values of God’s kingdom within a particular cultural context (173).

The final chapter is devoted to a number of questions that arise from the argument of the book. First, Stanley contends that empires must be measured by the degree to which they hold fast to justice, righteousness, and compassion because these characteristics flow from the character of the one true king. Second, he critiques the nineteenth-century concept of providence that fueled many missionary efforts, noting how they were too quick to pragmatically interpret any event as a work of God without adequate suspicion of the human agency involved. Third, he upholds the gospel-centered motives of imperial missionaries but highlights their general failure to trust non-Europeans with ecclesiastical leadership. Finally, he concludes by asserting that “Christianity is an inherently imperial religion in the sense that it claims that the revealed truth of God was incarnated uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ, that all men and women are called to respond in repentance and faith to that revelation, and that the kingdom of God inaugurated in the coming of Christ makes absolute demands upon all people and all cultures” (184).

I highly recommend this book to anyone pursuing cross-cultural ministry, especially Westerners working in the global south. Stanley’s deep interaction with primary sources, socio-economic theories, British history, and culture is a welcome supplement and correction to broad-brush characterizations about colonialism. His even-handed depiction of motive, success, and failure within Christian missions throughout Britain’s imperial age is exemplary. For Western readers, the book should yield a better understanding of what the memory of colonialism evokes in many parts of the world. Stanley’s concluding chapters cut to the heart of the perennial question of Christianity’s relationship to culture. Conversion will require cultural change. However, that change must “exemplify the absolute values of God’s kingdom within a particular context” (173). Yes, the past is a foreign country. But, Stanley helps us see the success and failures of those who have gone before so that we might learn from their sacrificial service for the kingdom of God and understand better the motives that led to their mistakes. 

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