10 Historical Myths About World Christianity

In the first meeting of the postgraduate World Christianity course ‘Selected Themes in the Study of World Christianity’ held on 15 September 2014, Professor Brian Stanley presented what he perceives as the top ten historical myths about World Christianity.

1. Christianity is a western religion.
It neither began in western Europe, nor has it ever been entirely confined to western Europe. The period in which it appeared to be indissolubly linked to western European identity was a relatively short one, lasting from the early sixteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. The Church in China, India, Ethiopia, and Iraq is older than the Church in much of northern Europe.

2. Christian missions operated hand-in-glove with the colonial powers.
Sometimes they did, but frequently they didn’t. Missions were usually critical of the way in which empires operated, mainly because they conceived of empire as a divinely-bestowed trust. True, they didn’t oppose colonial rule on principle, but then who did before the late 20th century?

3. Christianity was imposed by force on non-western people.
If this were true, it would reduce non-western Christians – even today – to the status of passive recipients of western ideological domination. In fact western missions never possessed the power necessary to achieve such capitulation, even if they wanted it, which they did not.

4. Protestant missions began with William Carey in 1792.
John Eliot’s mission work among the Native Americans of New England began as early as 1646. The first Lutheran missionaries arrived at Tranquebar in South India in 1706. In his famous Enquiry (1792) Carey was insistent that he had many predecessors.

5. Missionaries destroyed indigenous cultures.
Indigenous cultures were not static entities: to suggest that they were is characteristic of western modernity. Missionaries often displayed what we would term cultural blindness, but their message, once translated into the vernacular, acquired indigenous cultural overtones. Missionary contributions to the inscription and study of indigenous languages have helped to preserve or enrich such cultures.

6. The nineteenth century was the great century of Christian missions.
It was the great age of western missionary expansion, but not the great age of indigenous conversion and agency: that was the twentieth century. K. S. Latourette’s ‘great century’ is a misleading phrase.

7. ‘Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization’ was an imperial creed.
It was essentially an anti-slavery humanitarian creed, associated especially with David Livingstone (though he didn’t invent it). For those reasons it often led to advocacy of imperial solutions. Anti-slavery was a great driver of imperial expansion in Africa.

8. We live in a post-missionary era.
No, we don’t. There are approximately 426,000 foreign missionaries in the world today. In 1900 there were about 62,000. The USA still sends something like 127,000 missionaries overseas.

9. We live in a post-colonial age.
We certainly don’t live in a post-imperial age. Formal colonial rule is usually a last resort adopted by powerful nations who run out of cheaper options of control. Decolonisation can be seen as a return to informal means of control. Definitions of what constitutes colonialism are contested: what about the subject status of First Nations people in Canada, aborigines in Australia, Tibetans, West Papuans … and even the Scots?!

10. To proclaim the unique saving value of the Christian gospel is to be intolerant of other religions.
This is to confuse a theological position with an attitudinal stance. Because of their understanding of the nature of truth, Christians can (should?) believe that others are fundamentally mistaken in their beliefs and still defend to the hilt their right to hold and practise such beliefs.

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About Brian Stanley

Brian Stanley read history at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and stayed on in Cambridge for his PhD on the place of missionary enthusiasm in Victorian religion. He has taught in theological colleges and universities in London, Bristol, and Cambridge, and from 1996 to 2001 was Director of the Currents in World Christianity Project in the University of Cambridge. He was a Fellow of St Edmund's Collge, Cambridge, from 1996 to 2008, and joined the University of Edinburgh in January 2009.

16 thoughts on “10 Historical Myths About World Christianity

  1. Brian, pease allow me nuance your thought provoking list a little bit.
    1. When people say that Christianity is a western religion what they are really referring to is to dominant western influence in theology, publications, and missiology. Western Christianity influences other regions way more than all non-western Christianity does. The underlying connotation is that it is proper if Western Christianity stays in its own sphere of influence and should not hope or endeavor to influence, let’s say Asia, with an outside religion.
    2. Missionaries during the colonial era went to the colonies with the permission of the colonial powers. They were not invited by the local kings, maharajas or tribal chiefs. Hence the perception is the hand-in-glove operation, which did get enhanced by the overarching idealism of that age to educate and civilize the heathens.
    3. There was actually some kind of force present, especially through Roman Catholics. Another kind of force however is existing when colonial rulers permit their country missionaries to roam freely without local invitation. Missionaries did not have to come on good terms and develop good relationships with local rulers. Where they had to, like in Thailand, they did a much better job and gained a good reputation; and they got invited by local kings.
    10. “Fundamentally mistaken in their beliefs” might need a bit of a qualifier. We are not send to point out wrong beliefs. We are send to people who ca not have access to the living God. Simply because they do not know Jesus and (for the most part) can not even have a messiah/ savior concept. It is not a mistaken belief that they (without Christ) are doomed to appease gods/ spirits, or that without access to God can fathom a relationship to a God-head who is perfectly pure and at the same time personal. This is what we are called to proclaim. But if we do this “proclamation” in a confrontational way or attitude in order or with the goal to “correct” their beliefs, we are communicating on the level of religion (which they understand and immediately pick up on) and not on the level of a relationship with a pure, personal God-head. Then, with the right intention, we unfortunately communicate something that is close to the opposite of the good news.
    Intolerant might be a bit harsh, but willfully keeping ourselves in ignorance and rendering us incapable of sympathizing with people of other religions is still the underlying attitude. And that attitude is the direct result of a religious theology which is in opposition to the Good News.

    • Thanks for good comments, Chris. When it comes to religious discourse today, popular perceptions about the past carry more weight than historians’ judgements about what the past was actually like. Historians have the job of seeking to challenge and correct perceptions, but the myths retain their inherent power of persuasion, so cannot simply be dismissed. On missionaries and the powers, the scenarios were very varied. Colonial powers sometimes welcomed missionaries with open arms; perhaps more often they grudgingly accepted their presence; sometimes they tried to keep them out. Indigenous rulers actually displayed much the same spectrum of attitudes. On your point 10, I was not advocating religious confrontation as a mission strategy; that has invariably been disastrous. My point was to question the confusion between a theological position on salvation and an attitudinal stance on religious freedom. “Toleration” is in any case an unsatisfactory concept, since it implies that the one doing the tolerating is in a position of power over the tolerated; Christians are called, not to “tolerate” other religions, but to something infinitely more demanding, namely to love and respect all human beings as those made in the image of God, whatever their framework of belief.

  2. Some of these are ‘obvious’ ones but others not so much, especially the “William Carey” one. I guess one could still say he was the father of the modern Protestant missions movement if not the first

  3. Pingback: 10 Historical Myths about World Christianity | Christian Reflection from a growing global perspective

  4. Hello Brian from San Diego, CA, where we now reside, long into retirement.
    This post came to us by Facebook from Andrew Kaiser, our dear friend, whom you have mentored with great care. We are very pleased that he was able to work with you and be thus inspired. All good wishes with appreciation for your fine continuing work in mission-related research and lecturing. Tom

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  8. This is a good article for those who have an idea of the tragedies of colonialism and such, but for those who have little grounding in history it might be overly optimistic.

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  10. Pingback: 10 myths about Christian missions in history | thereformedmind

  11. Jomo Kenyatta, first president of Kenya, once said: “When the Missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the Missionaries had the Bible. They taught how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”
    Mr Stanley, do you think that this is a lie?

    • This is a widely repeated aphorism: I am not sure that Kenyatta was the person who coined it. It is neat and makes a telling point, but historical reality is always more complex than pungent aphorisms can capture. The Kenya historian John Lonsdale sets alongside this aphorism another one, by the Zimbabwean nationalist Ndabaningi Sithole: “When Europeans took our country we fought them with our spears, but they defeated us because they had better weapons … But lo! the missionary came in time and laid explosives under colonialism. The Bible is doing what we could not do with our spears.’ Lonsdale comments that the aphorism widely attributed to Kenyatta is thus more double edged than it appears. Even if one takes the view that missionaries were uniformly supportive of settler designs on African land (which in fact they were not), one still has to reckon with the fact that the vernacular Bible became probably the most potent anti-colonial weapon placed in African hands.

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