The Faithful Church Opposed Colonial Abuses

King Leopold

The Lie:

Christians were responsible for colonialism, destroying cultures, and abusing the darker races around the world.

The Truth:

Evangelical missionaries opposed colonial abuses, believed in the equality of the races and tried to prove it.

Even though this quote is from an atheist, many college courses have presented an argument against missionary endeavors that goes something like this:

Missionaries have always held a heroic and romantic place within the Christian imagination. Even today churches regularly collect contributions for the mission field. The reality, of course, is very different. From its very beginnings, Christian missionaries have inflicted tremendous harm on the people they have ‘witnessed’ to. – from the website: Rejection of Pascal’s Wager: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christianity”[1]

This accusation has caused many Christians (myself included) to feel deflated, and to doubt their faith. How are Christians supposed to respond to accusations that make followers of their faith look like backward, cruel racists? And what if it’s true? How can a believer possibly defend these evil actions of their brothers and sisters in Christ? If they were being brutally honest with themselves, wouldn’t it just be better to acknowledge Christian failures and either try to create a more “loving” Christianity, or even give up their faith altogether?

This is exactly where many young people find themselves today. It’s my hope that this chapter will begin to show that the attacks against evangelical missionaries are false, and that Christians can confidently embrace this wonderful part of our heritage. (Perhaps, Christian historians can even add more evidence to support my thesis. For example, Robert D. Woodberry makes an interesting argument about the contribution of evangelical missionaries to the spread of democracy.)[2]

An evangelical is a person who believes the message of Jesus Christ is “good news” for humanity, that Jesus was the Lamb of God whose sacrifice paid the penalty for the sins of the world, and that any person who believes this message, will receive eternal life. After receiving this message of grace, they are imbued with new life and joy which inspires them to share it with others. This desire to share the good news with others is the missionary impulse.

The Second Great Awakening was based on this evangelical message. The good news was preached from town to town in America, and the new life in the hearts of those who were “born again” unleashed a wave of kindness and compassion that was similar to that of the early church.

Not only did the great revival have an influence on slavery, it also led the church to fight for a woman’s right to vote, educate children (through the Sunday School movement), promote temperance, care for abused industrial workers (many of whom were children!), demand a Sabbath day off, care for the mentally ill and handicapped, reform prisons, and fight against animal cruelty (William Wilberforce founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is still in existence today). As the gospel was preached, the hearts of people were changed, and it caused them to love both God and their neighbor.

Another fruit of the Second Great Awakening was the missionary movement. Christians realized that the rest of the world needed to hear the gospel and began to feel a “call” to travel to the uttermost parts of the earth, and wherever they went societies changed for the better. This may not be what you hear at your local university, but it’s true!

As a result of the missions movement hospitals, orphanages, schools, and universities were established around the world. Infanticide, which was widely practiced in China, India, Africa, and the Pacific Islands, was abolished. Murder of the elderly was stopped. Cannibalism ended. Widow-burning (“suttee”) was abandoned. Painful foot-binding was opposed. Human sacrifices (which were practiced in many areas of the world) no longer remained a common cultural custom. The worship of pagan deities declined, and their powerful priesthoods were dismantled. These were the wonderful fruits of the missionary movement, and yet, because much of this history isn’t taught in public schools and universities, the attempt to color missionaries as though they were abusive toward other cultures is able to succeed.

Missions weren’t always an important part of the Protestant church, but William Carey, the “father of modern missions,” reminded Christians (even before Finney’s revival) that Jesus gave the Great Commission (to go into all the world and make disciples) not only to the apostles, but to all the church at all times. He urged Christians to have pity on the heathen who were in darkness, while they enjoyed the light of the gospel. He questioned why it was that the followers of the Pope were willing to go out into the world with their message, while evangelical Protestants shied away from the responsibility and made excuses. He also pointed to traders and explorers who were willing to travel to distant lands for the sake of monetary gain while Christians seemed content to remain at ease. This argument from Carey reveals that there were many groups who went out into the world from the 17th to the 20th centuries.[3]

  1. The secular explorers and traders. They were usually documenting their discoveries and developing maps (for example, Captain Cook was a cartographer), or they were creating trade routes and stations (such as those of the Dutch East India Company).
  2. The Catholic conquistadors and explorers. Some were searching for gold (such as Pizzaro and Cortez), while others were establishing Catholic strongholds throughout the world.
  3. The evangelical missionaries who were sent out by voluntary associations (rather than state-supported missionaries) such as the London Missionary Society. Their goal was to obey the Great Commission that was given by Jesus and go to all nations to make Christian disciples. They opposed social Darwinism and abusive western colonialism, believing that the gospel created a true “brotherhood” of the races and that no person should be used for another’s gain.
  4. The liberal Christians who blended evolutionary science with Christianity. They accepted the case for biblical criticism (the belief that the latest science and archaeology should take precedence as a source of truth over that of the biblical record). Many were proponents of Social Darwinism and thought the mission of the church wasn’t one of converting souls, but of trying to civilize the darker races as a “white man’s burden.”

The fruit of each of these groups isn’t that difficult to assess once they are sifted out and separated.

The Secular Explorers and Traders

The earliest groups to venture out into the world were the explorers and traders. Marco Polo whetted European appetites with stories of silk, spices, jewels, gold, and perfume that he had acquired in India. These precious commodities were in great demand, consequently, explorers and traders wanted to find a way to the East without going overland through the Muslim world. Columbus was looking for this trade route when, instead, he came upon America. The British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company were also formed as an attempt to trade with the “East Indies” (south Asia).

Traders and explorers were motivated to make a profit.  Because of this, they often made unjust deals with indigenous people. Even though they represented Christian Europe, their main motive was money. Unfortunately, as they traveled to the Americas, or isolated islands such as Tahiti and Hawaii, they exposed native populations to diseases such as small pox and respiratory viruses. While it’s difficult to know how many people died, some estimates run into the millions of people.

The Catholics

Spain was a Catholic nation. They sent out Spanish “conquistadors” who explored and conquered most of South America. (This is why Spanish is the native language of many South American nations.) Using horses and firearms, they defeated the local natives and established the joint rule of the Spanish monarchy and the Catholic religion. Unfortunately, instead of bringing the good news of the gospel, they used conquest as a means of conversion. Mexico’s Aztec Empire was conquered by Hernan Cortes and Peru’s Inca Empire was conquered by Francisco Pizzaro.

After this conquest, the people were enslaved, or served as indentured servants. Bartolome de las Casas, a Catholic priest who saw the abuse that was piled on the natives, waged a life-long campaign to stop them from being exploited. In a letter to the King of Spain he complained of the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be followers of Christ:

Your Majesty will also now perceive that here there are no Christians but only devils; no servants of God and the Crown but only traitors to His law and Yours. It is my considered opinion that the greatest obstacle that stands in the way of the pacification of the New World, and with it the conversion of the people to Christ, is the harshness and cruelty of the treatment meted out by Christians to those who surrender. This has been so harsh and so brutal that nothing is more odious nor more terrifying to the people than the name Christian, a word for which they use in their language the term “yares,” which means demons.[4]

While some Catholics (such as the Jesuits, in their “reductionnes”) tried to civilize the indigenous population by training them in practical skills and teaching them to read and write, they only had limited power in comparison to the colonizing powers that were using natives as workers to mine precious metals and tend sugar fields.

The impact of this abuse was a weakened population who was decimated by diseases carried to them by the Europeans. De las Casas recorded that in the Valley of Mexico the population was estimated to be 1.5 to 3 million people before the conquistadors arrived, but by 1600 (eighty years later), only 70,000 survived. Unfortunately, the Spanish conquistadores carried the cross into their battles and then harshly abused the natives under the banner of Christianity.

William Wilberforce lamented over the damage that had been done to the Christian faith by the Catholic “missionaries”:

Have not these doctrines been ever perverted to purposes the most disgraceful to the religion of Jesus? If you want an instance, look to the standard of the inquisition, and behold the pious Dominicans torturing their miserable victims for the love of Christ. Or would you rather see the effects of your principles on a larger scale, and by wholesale, if the phrase may be pardoned, cast your eyes across the Atlantic, and let your zeal be edified by the holy activity of Cortez and Pizarro, and their apostles of the western hemisphere? To what else have been owing the extensive ravages of national persecution, and religious wars and crusades, whereby rapacity, and pride, and cruelty, sheltering themselves under the mask of this specious principle, have so often afflicted the world?

The Prince of Peace has been made to assume the port of a ferocious conqueror, and, forgetting the message of good will to men, has issued forth, like a second Scourge of the Earth, to plague and desolate the human species. That the sacred name of Religion, has been too often prostituted to the most detestable of purposes; that furious bigots and bloody persecutors, and self-interested hypocrites, of all qualities and dimensions, from the rapacious leader of an army, to the canting oracle of a congregation, have falsely called themselves Christians, are melancholy and humiliating truths, which (as none can so deeply lament them) none will more readily admit than those who best understand the nature of Christianity, and are most concerned for her honor.[5]

I put this entire long quote in this book because I think it’s important to see that Wilberforce saw a difference between Catholic and evangelical missionaries. He realized that the Catholic conquistadores weren’t spreading the “message of good will” and said that it’s important for those who honor the Prince of Peace to admit that the existence of false Christians is a “humiliating” truth.

Evangelicals Oppose Colonial Abuses

It’s important to note that the traders and explorers who carried diseases and exploited the native peoples preceded evangelical missionaries, and unfortunately, the church/state unions that were supporting these trade expositions caused the name of Christ to be associated with such efforts.

In response, the evangelical Aborigines Protection Society spoke out against the abuses of colonization. Thomas Fowell Buxton, a member of the Clapham Sect and successor to William Wilberforce in the British Parliament, was informed by missionaries of many colonial abuses. He urged Parliament to form a select committee to . . .

 . . . consider what measures ought to be adopted with regard to the native inhabitants of countries where British settlements are made, and to the neighboring tribes, in order to secure them the due observance of justice and protection of their rights.[6]

This request was made in 1835, and two years later the report would be completed. It would expose the greed and abuse of traders:

The national honor has been tarnished; common honesty has been thrown aside; life itself has again and again been sacrificed for the mere convenience of trade . . . men calling themselves Christians, subjects of a Christian government, professors of the Christian faith, have stooped, for the attainment of selfish ends, to practice upon the confiding ignorance of these simple and untutored children of the desert. [7]

For this information the select committee report gave credit to the missionaries:

For the greater part of the information we now possess, we are indebted to the Christian missionaries sent out from this country. To the labours of these invaluable men the cause of humanity is unspeakably indebted. Amid persecution and scorn, obloquy, ridicule, and contempt, they have steadily persevered in their work of faith and labor of love, until to them, in an especial degree, belongs the honor of having first exposed the evil workings of our colonial policy.[8]

William Howitt was an evangelical (a Quaker) who was so astounded by the abuse he observed that he wrote a book called Colonisation and Christianity (1838).

The barbarities and outrages of the so-called Christian race throughout every region of the world, and upon every people that they have been able to subdue, are as to be paralleled by those of any other race, however fierce, however untaught, and however reckless of mercy and of shame, in any age of the earth. Is it fit that this horrible blending of the names of Christianity and outrage should continue?  . . . If foul deeds are to be done, let them be done in their own name; and let robbery of lands, seizure of cattle, violence committed on the liberties or the lives of men be branded as the deeds of devils and not of Christians.[9]

The great missions leader, Helen Montgomery-Barrett, pointed out the sins of those traders who abused native populations:

The indictment against so-called Christian nations becomes heavy indeed. Their lands stolen, their fisheries depleted, their freedom taken away, their men sold into virtual slavery as contract laborers in distant lands, their strength enfeebled by the importation of foul diseases, the islanders of the Pacific might well question the blessing brought them by contact with the whites.[10]

But she realized that the traders and the missionaries weren’t the same group of people, and recommended that missionaries be sent in order to make up for the sins of the traders.

To withdraw the missionaries would not stop a single trader, nor a gallon of rum, nor one cruel exploitation; it would simply leave to run riot the forces of evil. The strongest reason why the conscience of Europe and America ought to continue and immensely to strengthen its missionary forces in the island world is to make the largest, most costly and statesmanlike reparation for the ills inflicted on them by unwourthy representatives of our race, and by our still unchristianized governments.[11]

Mark Twain also took notice of the efforts of missionaries when he wrote in the satirical “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” (The picture above this story shows a father whose little girl’s hands were cut off by the Belgian tyrants.):

Blister the meddlesome missionaries! They write tons of these things. They seem to be always around, always spying, always eye-witnessing the happenings; and everything they see they commit to paper. They seem to be always prowling from place to place; the natives consider them their only friends; they go to them with their sorrows; they show them their scars and their wounds, inflicted by my soldier police; they hold up the stumps of their arms and lament because their hand have been chopped off, as punishment for not bringing in enough rubber, and as proof to be laid before my officers that the required punishment was well and truly carried out. One of these missionaries saw eighty-one of these hands drying over a fire for transmission to my officials—and of course he must go and set it down and print it. They travel and travel, they spy and spy! And nothing is too trivial for them to print.[12]

Evangelicals, who were leading the charge against slavery, also led the charge against the abuses of colonization. They fought against scientific racism (polygenism) in the case of slavery, but in the future they would fight against “social Darwinism” and the justification of the abuse of darker races because they were less evolved than the white races. It’s a little-known fact, but missionaries made it one of their goals to disprove social Darwinism! Their legacy is still seen today in the monuments and honors given to evangelical missionaries who served all around the world.

Social Darwinism

As explained in the previous chapter on slavery, scientific racism was the belief that each of the races had different parents (polygenism). Because this view was based on the latest “science,” the Enlightenment philosophers embraced it as truth—even though it conflicted with the biblical belief that all people had a common ancestor in Adam and Eve (monogenism). In scientific racism, the darker races were considered to be sub-human. This allowed the white race to subjugate them without being hypocritical for writing “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence. After all, they weren’t fully “men.”

When Darwinism came along, scientists argued that all life evolved from a common ancestor, so all the scientists flocked back to monogenism, but now, instead of the degradation of the darker races being justified because they were sub-human, they could be abused merely because they were less evolved.

One example of the prevalence of this Victorian ideology could be found at the Columbian Exposition, the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Along the midway, a type of human zoo was set up, which allowed those who attended the fair to walk through the evolutionary history of man.

Beginning with the African race and moving forward through the red and yellow races, villages were set up and people of color were put on display. The exhibit ended with the European villages and culminated with the glorious “White City” of marble buildings which was the final goal that mankind was moving toward. This endeavor is recorded in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, which is published by the Chicago Historical Society:

To lend anthropological legitimacy to their enterprise, Chicago’s exposition directors placed the Midway under the nominal direction of Harvard’s Frederic Ward Putnam, who had already been chosen to organize an Anthropology Building at the fair. Putnam envisioned the Midway as a living outdoor museum of “primitive” human beings that would afford visitors the opportunity to measure the progress of humanity toward the ideal of civilization presented in the White City.[13]

This wasn’t a sideshow. It was a scientific endeavor! The best minds were put to the task, since the goal of the Columbian Exposition was to showcase humanity’s progress.

Today, racism is a great sin, and those who practice or believe in racial inequality are considered to be ignorant, but in the nineteenth century, you weren’t intelligent unless you held racist views. For example, the Atlantic Monthly claimed that Herbert Spencer (who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and was the founder of social Darwinism) represented “the scientific spirit of the age.”  His popularity was immeasurable. He was the first philosopher to ever sell over a million copies of his writings.

The impact of social Darwinism, though rarely even heard of today (perhaps due to the embarrassment of the intellectual and scientific community for supporting it), was widespread. Its supporters would read like a “Who’s Who?” of money, power, and intellect. Virtually every major thinker of the late nineteenth century would be influenced by Spencer’s social Darwinism.

Andrew Carnegie (industrialist)

Teddy Roosevelt (politician)

William James (psychologist)

Woodrow Wilson (politician)

Josiah Royce (philosopher)

John Dewey (educator)

Winston Churchill (politician)

Borden Browne (theologian)

Sigmund Freud (psychologist)

John D. Rockefeller (industrialist)

Albion Small (sociologist)

Paul Harris (lawyer)

George Howison (philosopher)

Franklin Giddings (sociologis)

Lester Ward (sociologist)

Charles Cooley (sociologist)

James McCosh (theologian)

William Graham Sumner (sociologist)

Calvin Coolidge (politician)

This is just a small list of those who were influenced by Spencer. Many intellectuals leaped on the Darwinian bandwagon because they wanted to apply this latest scientific breakthrough to their field of interest. In the same way that Enlightenment philosophers applied Newtonian physics to philosophy, theology (deism), and political ideology, evolutionary theory was now applied to all areas of study: history, theology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, education, politics, and even architecture, were all influenced by the idea of “progressivism.” Woodrow Wilson captured this paradigm shift in his speech “What Is Progress?”:

. . . government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.[14]

In this statement from Wilson, we see how the eighteenth-century Enlightenment view (that the universe was merely a machine that was wound up like a clock and let go), changed to the nineteenth-century evolutionary view (that the universe was progressing upward). This Darwinian view is where the idea that the U.S. Constitution was a “living, breathing document” which needed to be open to change originated.

When applied to race and social engineering, the social Darwinist view was that the Anglo-Saxon race was the ultimate expression of natural selection–but with that high position came the responsibility (the white man’s burden) of civilizing and bringing order to the less evolved darker races. Imperialism, they argued, was necessary to lift them out of their despair and savagery.

Many Christians would also adopt social Darwinism. The Episcopal clergyman and professor, William Graham Sumner, of Yale University was a proponent of social Darwinism. Josiah Strong, the Congregationalist minister, wrote a very popular book entitled Our Country, in which he argued that the Anglo-Saxon was commissioned by God to be his brother’s keeper and civilize the weaker races. He promoted W.A.S.P. (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) imperialism and promoted colonial expansion in the name of God:

Then will the world enter upon a new stage of its history—the final competition of races for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled . . . Then this race of unequaled energy, with all the wealth of numbers and the might of wealth behind it—the representative, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization—having . . . aggressive traits . . . will spread itself over the earth. If I do not read amiss, this powerful race will move down upon Mexico, down into Central and South America, out upon the islands of the sea, over upon Africa and beyond. And anyone doubt the result of this competition of races will be the “survival of the fittest?”[15]

To those who blended Christianity with Darwinism, civilizing the weaker races merely meant dressing them in European clothing, housing them, and putting them to work in menial tasks since their minds were supposedly less evolved.

Senator A.J. Beveridge also expressed the social Darwinist imperialistic view in a speech to Congress:

It is elemental. It is racial. God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all of our race he has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man. We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace.[16]

Because many tribes and nations had never heard the gospel or learned how to read the Bible, they had no light of Christ, and they remained in their dark, cruel ways. Those who held racial views (polygenists and social Darwinists) thought this meant that the darker races were sub-human or less evolved, but evangelical missionaries set out to prove the truthfulness of the Word of God, which said that all races came from “one blood.” They not only shared the gospel, but they also set out to prove that all races were equal in intelligence and their ability to learn.

Evangelical Missionaries

In response to this overwhelming rush of scientific “intellect” the Bible-believing church stood alone. Holding on to the Word of God as the truth, even when every reason appeared to exist to doubt it, the largest group of persons who went out into the world to bless and serve the darker races, rather than take from them, dominate them, and abuse them were evangelical missionaries.

Benjamin Harrison, the former president of the United States, was the Honorary Chairman to a missions conference held at Carnegie Hall in 1901. In his opening address he expressed the missionary mindset:

The highest conception that has ever entered the mind of man is that of God as the father of all men—the one blood—the universal brotherhood. It was not evolved, but revealed [meaning it came from God’s Word]. The natural man lives to be ministered unto—he lays his imposts on others. He buys slaves that they may fan him to sleep, bring him the jeweled cup, dance before him, and die in the arena for his sport. Into such a world there came a King, not to be ministered unto, but to minister.[17]

This was a direct counter to the prevailing scientific and racial ideologies of the day.  While the scientifically leaning Christians who went the way of Enlightenment rationalism, scientific racism, biblical criticism, and social Darwinism, believed that it was necessary to impose civilization on native populations, Bible-believing Christians thought it was best to serve and love the native populations in an attempt to win their hearts and minds for Christ. The evangelical missionary believed that civilization would proceed from knowing Christ, not that knowing Christ would proceed from civilization. Helen Montgomery-Barrett described the hearts of the missionaries and how they were in opposition to social Darwinism:

To take away the missionary would be to take away the one man who is in the islands, not for what he can get of them, but for what he can give to them; the one man who gives the natives books in their own tongue, schools, hospitals, churches; nurses their sick, teaches their children, resents their wrongs, protects them against imposition and fraud, teaches them new arts of practical life—in short, who is their brother. [18]

The missionary movement was a conscious attempt to counter scientific racism/social Darwinism. One example of a missionary who heroically battled against the science of his day was William Knibb. He begged for black equality for the African slaves of Jamaica, crying out:

All I ask is, that my African brother may stand in the same family of man; that my African sister shall, while she clasps her tender infant to her breast, be allowed to call it her own; that they both shall be allowed to bow their knees in prayer to that God who has made of one blood all nations as one flesh.[19]

Knibb was hated by traders, planters, and merchants who relied on slavery for a living, and would even end up in jail under false accusations, but he didn’t care. His heart was broken by the brutality he saw:

I call upon children, by the cries of the infant slave who I saw flogged on the Macclesfield Estate, in Westmoreland . . . I call upon parents, by the blood streaming back of Catherine Williams, who, with a heroism England has seldom known, preferred a dungeon to the surrender of her honour. I call upon Christians by the lacerated back of William Black of King’s Valley, whose back, a month after flogging, was not healed. I call upon you all, by the sympathies of Jesus.[20]

William Knibb would start schools, train teachers, start a newspaper to give blacks a voice, found a seminary, buy land for emancipated slaves with his own money, and baptize 3000 blacks who were “each spiritually readied for the event—he would not baptize anybody merely to swell the numbers.”[21]

In 1988, on the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire (which was accomplished mainly through the efforts of the evangelical William Wilberforce), Knibb was granted Jamaica’s highest civil honor: The Order of Merit. Only one other non-Jamaican and no white man shared this honor at that time. His award reads:

For Knibb’s work as Liberator of the slaves;

For his work in laying the foundation of Nationhood;

For his support of black people and things indigenous;

For his display of great courage against tremendous odds;

For being an inspiration then and now.[22]

Knibb is a hero. He trusted in Jesus and stood on his Word, rather than believing in the latest science. He had compassion on his fellow brothers as a result.

The evangelical missionaries were committed to the belief that all races were equal, and just needed to hear the gospel in order for their societies to advance. Because of this, they didn’t force natives into menial labor, but instead made education the priority.

A great example of an evangelical missionary opposing the abuse of a social Darwinist was found in John Mackenzie, of the London Missionary Society. He was appointed to the Tswana territory where he found himself in a clash with the British diamond magnate and social Darwinist, Cecil Rhodes.  According to the University of Botswana history department:

On the one hand there was the Reverend John Mackenzie, one of the most articulate spokesmen among Christian missionaries of the later 19th century and prime exponent of ideas of protection of “native” interests. On the other hand there was Cecil John Rhodes, the diamond magnate whose name has become synonymous with monopoly capitalism and territorial expansion in the later 19th century Africa, who stood for colonization, development, and exploitation of African lands by European settlers.[23]

Mackenzie went back to London in 1882 to campaign for British protection of the Tswana territory. He became the leading voice in the appeal to Parliament to protect Africans from the abuse of Cecil Rhodes, whose dream was to spread the British Empire, led by the Anglo-Saxon race, around the world. He thought there could only be world peace if the white man was in power. In his last will and testament he said of the British:

I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.[24]

Rhodes used the wrong plumb line for measuring goodness. The standard isn’t race; it’s the Word of God.

Another example of an evangelical missionary opposing colonial abuses was John Philip, the director of the London Missionary Society. He was sent to supervise the work of their mission in South Africa and saw the British colonial injustices against the Khoikhoi (Hottentot) people. In 1826 he traveled back to England to lobby the Anti-Slavery Society, arguing in his preface to Researches in South Africa that . . .

. . . The Hottentot has a right to a fair price for his labour; to an exemption from cruelty and oppression; to choose the place of his abode, and to enjoy the society of his children; and no one can deprive him of those rights without violating the laws of nature and nations.[25]

In response to Philips’ efforts, on July 15, 1828, the British House of Commons passed a resolution demanding that the colonial government “secure to all the natives of South Africa, the same freedom and protection as are enjoyed by other free people of that Colony whether English or Dutch.”[26] Political freedom didn’t lead to economic freedom because the British colonists owned most of the land, but evangelical missionaries shared the gospel with the Hottentots and set up mission stations where natives were taught to read and trained in skills to help them succeed.

The main motive for educating the darker races was to give them the ability to read the Bible, but it was also an attempt to counter social Darwinism. It was a grand experiment based on the premise in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. One of the main evidences of this experiment was the fact that most of the world’s greatest universities were started by missionaries. Most Christians realize that the Ivy League colleges of the United States were all (with the exception of Cornell University) founded by believers (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth), and the list of colleges, universities, and seminaries in the United States that were started by Christians is too numerous to list here, but how many Chrisitians realize that most of China’s universities were started by Christians? According to the official website on Chinese culture, put out by the People’s Republic of China:

In 1901, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South set up Soochow University, which was the first Western-style university—in China. Then Christian universities were set up in succession, including St. John’s University in Shanghai, Hangzhou Christian College, West China Union University in Chengdu, Huazhong University in Wuchang, Nanjing Ginling University, Huanan College of Arts and Science in Fuzhou, Xiangya University of Medicine in Changsha, Ginling College of Arts and Science for Girls, Shanhai Hujiang University, Canton Christian University in Guangzhou, Yanjing University in Beijing, Shandong Qilu University, Fujian Christian University, and some small colleges. These Western-styled colleges and universities contributed much to the training of modern personnel.[27]

In China, it was obvious that missionaries weren’t only interested in converting the Chinese and giving them the scriptures. They were also fighting against the social Darwinist belief that the darker races couldn’t learn.

One of the most important jobs, necessary to prove that God’s Word was true when it said all of humanity came from one blood, was the work of the translators. John Fryer played a pivotal role, not only in translating the Bible into the Chinese language, but “in 28 years he translated more than 170 titles, from textbooks in mathematics, physics, and chemistry, to popular books on history, political institutions, and other aspects of Western Civilization.”[28]  Fryer would also translate textbooks on hydraulics, electricity, gases, heat, and thermodynamics. Chinese libraries would also be democratized. In the past, they were reserved for the higher classes, but missionaries would push for them to be more accessible to the general population.

William Carey, the great missionary to India, also tried to encourage learning. He was involved in printing an Indian dictionary and an Indian Bible (translated into dozens of Indian dialects), both of which are to be expected as part of the missions ministry, but he also honored the Indian people by printing Indian literature with his precious printing press.

This work of translation went on around the world. In the early church, the Tower of Babel might have been reversed through the speaking of tongues, but now it was being reversed through the efforts of an army of translators. The missionaries would carry on the Pentecostal miracle, under very difficult conditions, to bridge the gap between religion, race, class, and tongue—in the name of Jesus.

Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, explained how he benefited from the work of missionaries. He attended the University College of Fort Hare, a Methodist missionary school, and said it was . . . :

 . . . the only residential center of higher education for blacks in South Africa. Fort Hare was more than that: it was a beacon for African scholars from all over Southern Central and Eastern Africa. For a young black South African like myself, it was Oxford and Cambridge and Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one.[29]

Mandela describes the accusations against the colleges for being “colonialist,” yet explains how this was an unfair accusation:

Fort Hare, like Clarkebury and Healdtown, was a missionary college. We were exhorted to obey God, respect the political authorities, and be grateful for the educational opportunities afforded to us by the church and the government. These schools have often been criticized for being colonialist in their attitudes and practices. Yet even with such attitudes, I believe their benefits outweighed their disadvantages. The missionaries built and ran schools when the government was unwilling or unable to do so. The learning environment of the missionary schools, while often morally rigid, was far more open than the racist principles underlying government schools.[30]

Mandela said that, “Fort Hare was both home and incubator of some of the greatest African scholars that continent has ever known.”[31] This was possible because of the work of evangelical missionaries and their commitment to the belief in the brotherhood of the races.

Another evangelical who stands out as a hero in history is David Trumbull, a missionary to Chile who worked to defend mixed marriages. He said the prohibition against being able to wed people of two different races led to “untold measures of shame, sorrow, and pain.” [32] The law guaranteeing the state to grant bi-racial marriages was passed in 1884. When Trumbull died in 1889, the Valparaiso newspaper, El Heraldo, reported:

It was a complete revolution that which he forged in our country; he himself was a proper revolutionary, and even before his life ended he couldn’t walk through our streets without being greeted by everyone with shows of respect, love, and appreciation by all for being a good man, in all sense of the word. [33]

In Valparaiso, the church and school he started are still thriving. His tomb reads:

This country has a gifted and faithful minister and friend. He was honoured and loved by foreign residents on this coast. In his public life he was the counselor and statesman, the supporter of the poor and the consoler of the afflicted. In memory of his permanent services, fidelity, charity, and sympathy. [34]

Trumbull was another evangelical missionary who fought against racism. He was ahead of his time. But he didn’t gain his view on the brotherhood of humanity from philosophy, science, or reason. He got his views from the Bible, which he loved so much that he was willing to sacrifice his own comfort and safety and reputation in order to go far away to another land and prove that it was true.

Were Missionaries Destroyers of Cultures?

The other argument against missionaries is that they are guilty of destroying the cultures and religions of the native peoples. David Frawley, writing on the website made this point:

Missionary activity always holds an implicit psychological violence, however discreetly it is conducted. It is aimed at turning the minds and hearts of people away from their native religion to one that is generally unsympathetic and hostile to it . . . missionary activity and conversion, therefore, is not about freedom of religion.[35]

Implicit in this argument is that the indigenous religion and culture were good, and that the savage was “noble” (as the Enlightenment philosopher Rousseau argued), but this was far from the reality. As the great church historian William Bainton explains:

Unquestionably, the missionaries have sought to introduce whatever they deemed to be good in their own culture; medicine, sanitation, education, transportation, and technology, especially in agriculture. As for native customs, of course missionaries have opposed suttee, the burning of widows, in India. This the British government suppressed [with pressure from Wilberforce]. They have opposed child murder, prostitution, polygamy, cannibalism, and headhunting, but native literature, native drama, native music, native architecture, they have sought to learn, conserve, and revive.[36]

Efforts to support this assertion are prolific in missionary testimonies. The missionaries tried to stop those things that were horrible and victimized people. For example, at a debate between Dinesh D’souza and Christopher Hitchens, a man from Tonga stood up to say that he would have had Hitchens for supper if had visited the island 100 years ago, but missionaries brought the gospel and cannibalism stopped. [37]

In 1830, the first European missionary, John Williams, of the London Missionary Society, arrived on the Samoan Islands. He was able to make converts and, as a result, the practice of polygamy and widow strangling stopped. These new converts spread the Good News to the other islands, including Anaiteum. In 1848, missionaries were able to settle there and build on the work started on Samoa. The London Missionary Society reported the great results of their work on Samoa and hoped for the same kinds of results on Anaiteum. This is their report:

In 1856, out of a population of 4,000 Samoans, only 200 or 300 remained heathens. Schools were established all over the island, under the management of native teachers; large chapels were erected at the two principal stations; and boarding houses were attached to the dwellings of the missionaries. The rapid improvement of the character of the people, their goodwill, their quickness in learning to read and write, and willingness to adopt the social habits of their instructors, are so many facts which call for thankfulness in themselves, and give pledges of hope for the future of other islands . . .  [38]

The Samoans now recognize the work of John Williams, saying on the website of the American Samoa Historic Preservation Office that “he and his followers had a profound impact on the Samoans and their culture.”[39] Unfortunately, Williams would travel to another island (Erromango) to share the gospel, but that island would not be as friendly . . . and he would be eaten by cannibals.

The official website of the country of Fiji ( said this about the influence of missionaries:

Cannibalism practiced in Fiji at that time quickly disappeared as missionaries gained influence. When Ratu Seru Cakobau [a tribal war lord and cannibal] accepted Christianity in 1854, the rest of the country soon followed and tribal warfare came to an end.[40]

Isaac Taylor Headland, a missionary who spent 20 years in China, explained in his book, By-products of Missions, that advances in science and medicine were a result of the ministry of missionaries. He said that in the non-Christian world there were no dentists or tooth fillings, and that clean water, especially, was a by-product of the gospel. The introduction of wells was especially exciting to island peoples who always had to collect rain water in the past.

Not only did missionaries set people free from practices that were harmful to the people, and bless them with healthy practices, they set them free from the bondage of dark and false religions. Bishop Selwyn, of the London Missionary Society, who went to the Melanesians in 1842, described their horrible spiritual condition:

They have a vague dread of the powers of nature, and a defined one of the priests, who have such power over them that if they curse them, the victims will sometimes at once go home and die of terror. In some islands sharks, crocodiles, and serpents—fierce and destroying creatures—receive a species of worship; and a vague dread of ghosts seems to be the only idea in many islands bearing any resemblance to the belief in the immortality of the soul.[41]

The precious missionaries went out into the world with the Good News of Jesus and set people such as the Melanesians free from their fears and finally brought them peace and rest.

Missionaries Were Lights in the Darkness

I don’t want to close this chapter without sharing the stories of some of my favorite missionaries. Their stories should be movies!

On the Pacific Island of Vanuatu (once known as New Hebrides), Scottish missionary John G. Paton and his wife entered into very difficult circumstances. Surrounded by cannibals, the fear was overwhelming. Shortly after reaching the island, Paton’s wife gave birth and then died several days later due to fever. Shortly after that, the baby died. He had to bury her and the baby with his own hands. The grief and loneliness caused by her loss was almost too much for him to bear. His missionary partner also died of fear and stress shortly after reaching the island, so he was alone.

The island natives warred amongst themselves, and the victors would eat the losers and their families. Yet for some reason, the cannibals were unable to kill the lone missionary. Many times they would threaten him, throw spears and axes at him, point muskets at him, or chase him through the jungle, to no avail. Paton described how he survived:

Life in such circumstances led me to cling very near to the Lord Jesus. With my trembling hand clasped in the hand once nailed on Calvary, and now swaying the scepter of the universe, calmness and peace abode in my soul. Trials and hairbreadth escapes strengthened my faith and seemed only to nerve me for more to follow.

Without that abiding consciousness of the presence and power of my dear Lord and Saviour, nothing else in all the world could have preserved me from losing my reason and perishing miserably. His words, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,” became very real to me and I felt His supporting power. [Those words are inscribed on his tombstone.] I had my nearest and dearest glimpses of the face and smile of my blessed Lord in those dread moments when musket, club, or spear was being leveled at my life.[42]

Paton also fought against the practice of “blackbirding.” Blackbirding ships would travel through the Pacific and coerce, trick, or even kidnap island natives to go Fiji or Queensland, Australia to work on sugar cane plantations that were in need of laborers. He’s just another example of an evangelical Christian who fought for the rights of indigenous peoples.

Finally, I’d like to share the amazing story of another Scottish missionary as it was shared in the wonderful book by the late Dr. James Kennedy, What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?:

The work of William Carey is well known, as is that of David Livingstone and Hudson Taylor. But for every one of these famous missionaries of the last two centuries there are thousands of lesser-known lights who carried the Gospel to those who previously lived in darkness . . . I will tell you of only one, Mary Slessor of Calabar (1848-1915), who was from Scotland.

She was converted in her teens, and after doing mission work in the slums of Dundee, she felt the call of God to serve as a missionary to Africa. In 1876 she left for Nigeria.

She learned that beyond Okoyong, deeper in the heart of Africa, around Calabar, was an area in which lived 4 million savages so ferocious, so fierce, that even the government soldiers feared to penetrate the land. These 4 million cannibals were so degraded, their customs so vile, that it stretches the imagination to consider the types of things they did.

Witchcraft and drunkenness were rampant. The savages worshiped fetishes; they murdered twins; they turned the mother of twins out into the jungle to be devoured by beasts, because they believed twins were brought about by a conjunction with a demon. Almost half the population was slaves. When a man died, they would eat fifty slaves; twenty-five more would have their hands tied behind them and their heads would be cut off. Unmarried women were chattel. They could be raped, tortured, or murdered at will. It was an incredible degradation, especially for women. Children were considered to be no better than animals, often simply left to die.

Mary’s heart was touched by the plight of twins always left to die or ground to pieces in a pot. She would snatch them up and take them in. At first the people were astonished, because they believed that anybody who touched a twin would die, but Mary didn’t die. So she gathered around her over the years many of these young “bairns” as she called them, to nurture them.

In incredible ways, by her faith in God, in her prayer, her winning countenance, the love she demonstrated, she was accepted. People milled around her. They had never seen a white person before. They touched her skin.

She began to teach them about the Son of God who had loved them enough to die for their sins. Astonishingly, God opened up their hearts. They became very willing to hear. One after another, the chiefs of the various villages yielded their lives to Christ. One after another the tremendously horrible customs plaguing these people for years were abolished; the murder of twins, infanticide, the slaughter of wives and slaves, the trial by poisoning and boiling oil, and all other terrible customs.

Perpetual warfare among the different tribes had continued for innumerable centuries, but when she would hear of a tribe of warriors going out to attack another tribe, Mary would run barefoot through the jungle, where there were poisonous snakes and plants. She would head them off, standing in front of a whole host of armed cannibals with outstretched arms to demand that they stop. They did. Through her ministry, thousands from the Ibo tribe became Christians and abandoned their degrading ways. Without Jesus Christ, there would have never been a Mary Slessor of Calabar.[43]

This is just one of the amazing stories of courage and sacrifice that evangelical, Bible-believing Christians have as their heritage. These stories reveal the power to overcome evil—a power that only accompanies the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So, if an atheist makes the claim that missionaries were abusive to indigenous peoples, remember that evangelical missionaries were just one of many groups who went out into the world, but of these groups, only Bible-believing Christians were true friends to the native peoples.


[1] Paul N. Tobin, “Christian Missionaries,” The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christianity. (Accessed 02/07/2009).

[2] Robert D. Woodberry, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” American Political Science Review, May 2012, Vol. 106, No. 2, 244-274.

[3] William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, etc., Leicester, 1792. (Accessed 11/17/2017).

[4] Bartolome de las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, trans. and ed. Nigel Griffin (London: Penguin, 1992), 82.

[5] William Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians: In the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity (New York: Leavitt, Lord, and Co., 1835), 64.

[6] Report on the Parliamentary Select Committee, on Aboriginal Tribes, (British Settlements) (London: William Ball, Aldine Chambers, Paternoster Row, and Hatchard and Son, Picadilly, 1837), xii.

[7] Ibid, vii.

[8] Ibid, viii.

[9] William Howitt, Christianity and Colonization: A Popular History of the Treatment of the Natives by the Europeans in All their Colonies, 1838 (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishers, 2004), 9-10.

[10] Dana Lee Robert, American Women in Missions: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997), 265.

[11] Ibid, 265-266.

[12] Mark Twain, King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule, 2nd ed. (Boston, MA: The P.R. Warren Co., 1905), 14-15.

[13] Robert W. Rydell, “World’s Columbian Exposition,” Encyclopedia of Chicago (Chicago Historical Society, 2006), (Accessed 08/11/2008).

[14] Woodrow Wilson, “What Is Progress?” Campaign Speech found in The New Freedom (New York and Garden City: Doubleday, Page, and Company, 1913) Project Gutenberg, (Accessed 11/30/2017).

[15] Josiah Strong, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (New York: The American Home Missionary Society, 1885), 174-175.

[16] Senator A.J. Beveridge, speech given before the U.S. Senate, Jan. 9, 1900, (accessed 02/09/2009).

[17] Benjamin Harrison, “Speech Given at the Ecumenical Conference on Foreign Missions Held in Carnegie Hall and Neighboring Churches, April 21-May 1, 1900” (New York: American Tract Society, 1900).

[18] Roberts, American Women in Missions, 266.

[19][19] John Howard Hinton, William Knibb: Missionary in Jamaica (London: Houlston and Stoneman, 1847), 148.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Alan Jackson, “William Knibb, 1803-1845, Jamaican Missionary and Slaves’ Friend,” (Accessed 02/10/2009).

[23] Neil Parsons, “Colonial Administration Page 2: Charles Rey and Previous Commissioners of the Bechuanaland Protectorate,” University of Botswana History Department, (Accessed 08/07/2008).

[24] Cecil Rhodes, The Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes: With Elucidatory Notes to which are Added Some Chapters Describing the Political and Religious Ideas of the Testator By Cecil Rhodes, comp. William Thomas Stead (London: “Review of Reviews” Office, 1902).

[25] John Philip, Researches in South Africa, 2 vols. (London: 1828; reprint, New York, 1969), I: xxv,xxvi.

[26] Andrew C. Ross, “Philip, John,” Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 109.

[27] “Christian Universities in China,” (Accessed 02/03/2009).

[28] Jing Liao, “The Contributions of Nineteenth Century Christian Missionaries to Chinese Library Reform.” Project MUSE, University of Texas Press “Libraries and Culture” (Accessed 02/08/2009).

[29] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 1995), 43.

[30] Ibid., 44.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Annie Bacher, “David Trumbull: A Yankee Reformer in Chile,” The Argentina Independent, May 27, 2015. (Accessed 09/24/2017).

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] David Frawley, “Bush Sponsored Evangelism of India—II,” News Today, Feb. 7, 2007, (Accessed 02/04/2009).

[36] Roland H. Bainton, Christendom: A Short History of Christianity and Its Impact on Western Civilization (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1966), 140.

[37] Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza, “Is Christianity the Problem?” Debate, The King’s College, Oct. 27, 2007, (Accessed 02/07/2009).

[38] “The Island Mission: Being a History of the Melanesian Mission from Its Commencement” Project Canterbury, (Accessed 02/08/2009).

[39] “History,” American Samoan Historic Preservation Office, (Accessed 02/08/2009).

[40] “About Fiji: History,” Fiji High Commission to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, (Accessed 02/08/2009).

[41] “The Island Mission,” Project Canterbury.

[42] “John G. Paton: Apostle of Christ to the Cannibals,” Wholesome Words, (Accessed 02/08/2009).

[43] James D. Kennedy, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?: The Positive Impacts of Christianity in History (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 167-169.



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