Studies in World Christianity, Issue 22.1

Missionary Eyes and Indigenous Eyes

Studies in World ChristianityFrom the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, Catholic and Protestant missionaries were the eyes through which Europe viewed the religious and cultural systems of the non-European world. Merchants, soldiers and diplomats sometimes fulfilled the same function, but they were birds of passage who rarely had the necessity or inclination to observe the ritual practices of indigenous peoples at close hand. Missionaries, by contrast, were in for the long haul. The objective of conversion required careful and patient observation of local traditions, the slow learning of language, the gradual attuning of the mind to the finer points of ceremonial observance, totem or taboo. Missionaries compared and contrasted what they saw with what they had seen elsewhere, or with what was familiar to them in European Christendom. As they did so, they began to order the miscellany of phenomena they encountered into divisions, categories, even systems.

Over time, the conventional fourfold European categorisation of religion came into question: the vast majority of the peoples whom missionaries encountered in Asia, Africa and Latin America were clearly not any species of Christian. Neither were they Jews. Some, especially in parts of Asia, were clearly ‘Mahometans’, followers of the Prophet, but most were not. That left the fourth category – of ‘pagans’ or ‘heathens’ – but the applicability of that label, with its implication of the entire absence of anything worthy of the name of religion, was, at least in some cases, debatable.

The study of such dynamics of missionary seeing of indigenous societies forms one of the major themes of this issue of Studies in World Christianity. The four articles included in the issue were all originally read as papers presented to the twenty-fifth meeting of the Yale– Edinburgh Group on the History of Missions and World Christianity held at Yale Divinity School from 25 to 27 June 2015, under the theme: ‘Religion and Religions in the History of Missions and World Christianity’.

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