Wednesday, December 9, 2009

On the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910

If history can be caricatured as the pursuit of unintended consequences, the Edinburgh Missionary Conference can be counted as a turning point of Christian faith indeed. A mixture of causes and effects was already present in the very nature of the meeting. The president of the conference read greetings from Imperial German Colonial Office, the American president, and England’s King George V.

One must have gotten the sense that certain eyes and ears were watching – but whether or not they were watching for the advent of the Kingdom of God as the councilmen were is an answer best left for the ages.

What is a pertinent question is whether or not the councilmen were themselves to any degree watching for the same thing that the heads of state sought out: namely, the expansion of Western colonial power throughout the world. The year cannot have been inconsequential, and the talk of contesting civilizations and the immediate conquest of the world was about to be reiterated in the form of two world wars.

While the eight topics of gospel, mission, education, non-Christians, missionaries, their bases, and Christian unity did not address colonial aims directly, surely they might have together carried it. The missionary expansion of the century leading up to it, after all, had been decidedly colonial in flavor.

And the conference continued the persistent Christian trend of talking about people groups rather than talking to or with them: European Protestants comprised all but 18 of the 1,200 delegates. Small wonder than the conferees were divided amongst themselves as to whether Christianity was the last revelation of God or simply the best one: this was its triumphant ecumenical flavor.

The movement toward worldwide Christianity had begun, though one wonders if the delegates saw how very much the global churches were about to adapt rather than accommodate its European developments to non-white contexts. They ought to have. Missionary developments have always required indigenization and localization in order to bear fruit.

That Christianity was ready for such diffusion seems in retrospect apparent. The Enlightenment was ending the overt state interference that had plagued churches for some centuries – there were no kings or presidents actually in the room at this point – and replacing it with a rather more benign tolerance. More, the intermittent warfare that had plagued Europe for centuries was settling down as the nation-states grew in secular power and directed their own energies outward; it was precisely this outward-facing energy that would later pull missionaries along with it.

But for now the revivals were revitalizing Protestantism even as Napoleon’s humiliations of the Pope had eventually worked out a Catholic spiritual purification, manifest in the White Fathers and White Sisters. But the pietistic Moravian Lutherans had taken the onus of Protestant missionary zeal in the preceding century, and promoted the same focus on self- sufficiency for new converts that would serve Christianity so well in the countries of what would become known as the developing and Third World.

So by 1910 the churches were ready to think globally, and the preceding century had seen their more benevolent interests manifest in missional work such as David Livingstone’s antislavery in Africa and the energetic work of Protestant women, some of whom were even single. Such a diffuse expansion of Christianity had not happened since the persecutions, and the century leading up to Edinburgh had seen those persecutions in some ways renewed, as indigenous interests arrayed themselves against the zeal of many new converts. The numbers of these dead were and are staggering, and the casualties assured that, whatever the precise motives of the missionaries, the converts were certainly willing to separate themselves from worldly interests.

They were not, however, willing to sever entirely their ties with incumbent cultures and traditions, as the developments in Africa after Edinburg soon showed. Christianity was appropriated, not adopted outright. Consequently, the faith of the Two-Thirds world churches differs in no small and no few ways from the faith brought by the European missionaries, even as the numbers of their members continued and continue to soar. The Zionist movement combines confessional Protestantism with holiness teaching and Pentecostal healing to produce a Christianity compatible with the prophetic, exorcistic, ecstatic and ritually-oriented culture of much of Africa. Similarly, William Harris would preach destruction of fetishes, mass baptism, and healing to such effect and with such power that Africans came to note the premature deaths of those who opposed him. Such similarity is not to suggest that Africa is a unified culture, but is to suggest that a unity of law, observance, scripture, baptism, symbol and worshipping church may be developing on the continent.

That this is occurring also on the South American continent and Asia only means that Edinburg led not just to one translation of Christianity, but effectively to several. This diversity and diffusion the colonial-minded conferees could not have foreseen, and must perhaps be listed as its best salient unintended consequence.

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