On A Mission

3D front cover of Old Highways in China by Isabelle WilliamsonA notable bicentenary in 2013 is that of the birth of David Livingstone. I wrote about Livingstone almost exactly two years ago (without noticing at the time that his birthday was on 16 March). Since then, we have published more books by Livingstone himself, and considerably more titles by and about missionaries and their activities around the world.

The stereotype or cliché of a missionary is a nineteenth-century male Briton (probably a Scot) with low-church views, a devoted (or gloomily resigned) wife, and a completely absent sense of humour. But even in the nineteenth century, this was an unfair and limited view.  Inevitably, missionaries exhibited a huge variety of beliefs, motives, convictions, level of education, sectarianism, and empathy with the peoples with whom they came into contact. What is difficult for many people in the twenty-first century (by which of course I mean me) is to understand the profound conviction which drove these people: not only that their beliefs were the only true ones, but that it was their right as well as their duty to impose them, by persuasion, example, and – on some regrettable occasions – coercion, on others.

The fact that the work of missionaries followed closely the path of imperial expansion (or that imperial expansion followed the trails originally hacked out by the missionaries) has led to their being accused of complicity in the horrors which imperialism or colonialism produced. But as with the case of Sir William Jones, discussed last week, many instances can be given where the missionaries attempted to learn from the cultures and civilisations they encountered. Their work in learning and recording languages (even if the driving motive was to translate the Bible), producing grammars and dictionaries and encouraging literacy, and especially their stand against slavery and discrimination (opposing foot-binding in China, for example), was by and large a Good Thing: and so of course was the introduction of Western medicine and simple hygiene routines which helped reduce mortality in general and the deaths of children in particular.

We have reissued a great many ‘lives and works’ of missionaries, as well as the books they themselves published. Among the most interesting is the 1837 account by John Williams of his experiences: he was an ironmonger by trade, and sailed to the South Seas both to spread the gospel and to bring technology to the native inhabitants. Sadly, he was killed in the New Hebrides in 1839, and it appears that he really was subsequently eaten by cannibals – one of the very few instances where this actually happened to a missionary.

The East India Company actively refused to allow missionaries to proselytise in its territory, so the most famous British missionaries to India, Carey, Marshman and Ward, based their activities in the Danish trading enclave of Serampore, north of Calcutta. They preached, studied the native languages, and translated all or part of the gospels into Bengali, Oriya, Sanskrit, Telugu, Punjabi, Hindustani, Marathi, Hindi, and Chinese. They also set up elementary schools where children were taught in their own vernacular, and founded the Serampore Press,  which among many other works published Carey’s Grammar of the Sungskrit Language, Dictionary and Grammar of the Mahratta Language, and Dictionary of the Bengalee Language, and the first edition of Ward’s four-volume View of the History, Literature, and Religion of the Hindoos.

They also produced the first newspaper ever printed in an Eastern language, and the first works in Chinese using movable type,  which included Marshman’s Elements of Chinese Grammar. Marshman’s son later wrote a History of India from the Earliest Period to the Close of the East India Company’s Government – the latter event leading to the opening of the entire subcontinent to missionary endeavour.

Missionaries had been travelling to China since Francis Xavier first felt the call to go east in the sixteenth century, and one of the accounts in the Hakluyt Society First Series is of the Flemish Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest, who survived opposition and intrigue to become Head of the Mathematical Board and Director of the Beijing Observatory. Nineteenth-century Protestant workers included James Hudson Taylor, and Isabelle Williamson, who published a fascinating account of the lives of ordinary Chinese women. The Littles, though not themselves missionaries, related many encounters with workers in the field all over China.

And of course the legendary Isabella Bird, who had first travelled for fun, but trained as a medical missionary after her husband’s death, subsequently worked in India, Turkey and Kurdistan. She also wrote the introduction to Hannah Davies’ Among Hills and Valleys in Western China, another remarkable account by a lone woman missionary. Missionary work in Japan was not as well publicised back in Britain, but H.B. Tristram, the missionary, traveller and ornithologist, wrote an account of the Christian communities there after a visit to his daughter, the headmistress of a girls’ school in Osaka.

Another aspect of missionary endeavour which may have been overlooked is the work of British and French missionaries in North America. In the eighteenth century, David Brainerd dedicated much of his short life to preaching the gospel to Native American peoples, and his zeal, enthusiasm, and constant examination of his own shortcomings, revealed in his journal and diary, make for often painful reading.

So – missionaries: Friend or Foe, Good or Bad? The terrifying self-conviction and self-righteousness with which Charlotte Brontë endows St John Rivers – ‘I am the servant of an infallible Master.  I am not going out under human guidance, subject to the defective laws and erring control of my feeble fellow-worms: my king, my lawgiver, my captain, is the All-perfect.  It seems strange to me that all round me do not burn to enlist under the same banner,—to join in the same enterprise’ – makes him repulsive as a human being to Jane Eyre, and yet the last words of the novel are in praise of him: an ambivalence which is reflected in a continuing debate about the colonial past.


This entry was posted in Biography, History, Language and Linguistics, Religious Studies, Slavery and Abolition, Travel and Exploration, Women's Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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