Missionaries Opposed White Supremacy

President Benjamin Harrison

In response to the rush of scientific “intellect” concerning race, 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, many evangelical missionaries went out into the world to serve and bless the darker races, rather than to take from them, dominate them, use them, and abuse them. Benjamin Harrison, the former president of the United States, was the Honorary Chairman of a missionary conference held at Carnegie Hall in 1901. In his opening statement 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. (1)

This was a direct counter to the prevailing scientific racial ideologies of the day. While the scientifically-leaning “Christians” who went the way of Enlightenment rationalism, scientific racism, and/or social Darwinism believed it was necessary to impose civilization on native populations, Bible-believing Christians thought it was best to serve and love indigenous peoples in an attempt to win their hearts and minds for Jesus.

Cecil Rhodes (whose estate provides scholarships at Oxford University for “Rhodes Scholars”) was a social Darwinist who believed it was the destiny of the British Empire, led by the Anglo-Saxon race, to spread around the world. In his will he wrote about the British: “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” (4) But did you know that Rhodes had an opponent? According to the web site of 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. (5)

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 abuses of Cecil Rhodes. Today, there is a school in Francistown, Botswana which is named in honor of Mackenzie.

There are countless stories of missionaries who opposed social Darwinism and believed that civilization would proceed from knowing Christ, not that knowing Christ would proceed from civilization. All around the world there are monuments to heroic Christians who opposed racial science and its faulty theology. In America, we have streets and schools named after the likes of Christians such as Frederick Douglass and John Rankin. In England, they honor William Wilberforce, who was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey with these words inscribed on a nearby statue:

His name will ever be specially identified with those exertions which, by the blessing of God, removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade, and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony of the Empire: in the prosecution of these objects he relied, not in vain, on God; but in the progress he was called to endure great obloquy and great opposition. (6)

David Trumbull, a missionary to Chile whose efforts helped to pass an 1894 law (at the height of the Victorian era-which was characterized by social Darwinism) guaranteeing the right to wed bi-racial couples, has a still-thriving school named after him. He saw how the prohibition against mixed marriages had led to “untold measures of shame, sorrow, and pain.” When he died in 1889, the newspapers 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. (7)

In 1988, on the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, missionary William 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 the 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. (8)

All over the world, colonialists, traders, and Catholic conquistadors (9) have left behind an abusive trail of self-interest, abuse, and cruelty, but these other groups should not be confused with evangelical missionaries who, while standing on the Word of God alone, were ministering to, defending, and loving the darker races. The SBC may have failed, but Christianity didn’t fail. There was a faithful remnant.

Notes:

  1. 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).
  2. John Howard Hinton, William Knibb: Missionary to Jamaica (London: Houlston and Stoneman, 1847), 148.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Alan Jackson, “William Knibb, 1803-1845, Jamaican Missionary and Slaves’ Friend.” Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/history/knibb/knibb.html.
  5. Neil Parsons, “Colonial Administration Page 2: Charles Rey and Previous Commissioners of the Bechuanaland Protectorate.” University of Botswana History Department. http://www.thuto.org/ubh/bw/colad/colad2.htm.
  6. “William Wilberforce and Family: Priest/Minister, Statesman, and Abolitionist” Westminster Abbey. https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/commemorations/william-wilberforce-family?fbclid=IwAR0yB7dXcP2ZtEXWMLyGlTzF6bqvRoHcnqrAhUKwWkhs90F16qm3OhjlpGs.
  7. Annie Bacher, “David Trumbull: A Yankee Reformer in Chile.” May 27, 2015, The Argentina Independent. http://www.argentinaindependent.com/life-style/expat-life-style/david-trumbull-a-yankee-reformer-in-chile/.
  8. Alan Jackson, “William Knibb.”

*For more information on the ways the faithful church opposed colonial abuses, see Diana Lesperance, “The Faithful Church Opposed Colonial Abuses,” Nov. 29, 2017, The Faithful Church.  https://thefaithfulchurch.com/2017/11/29/the-faithful-church-opposed-colonial-abuses/.

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