Yale-Edinburgh Group
on the History of the Missionary Movement
and Non-Western Christianity

Consultations sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World at the University of Edinburgh, Yale Divinity School, and the Overseas Ministries Study Center

Theme for the 2004 Yale-Edinburgh Group Meeting:

"Missions, Money, and Privilege"

Andrew F. Walls and Lamin Sanneh

"The ships of Tarshish were trading vessels, which made voyages for traffic to various parts; this much therefore must be meant by it, that navigation, especially that which is commercial, shall be one great means of carrying on the work of God; and perhaps it may imply that there shall be a very considerable appropriation of wealth to it".

The young Baptist minister William Carey is here reflecting on the meaning of the prophecy in Isaiah 60:9. That is, someone who was prepared to recognize a collection of thirteen pounds, two shillings and sixpence in pledged gifts as the foundation for a mission to India could still see missionary activity in a macroeconomic context. It suggests that a conference theme that links missions and money can offer a cascade of topics for exploration, and illustrate them from every quarter of the world.

The financing of missions is itself a topic strangely under-investigated, considering the labour and heart-searching over finances often evident among those responsible for missions; so often conscious of over-extension and even of crisis. Nor has there been a superfluity of studies of how general economic conditions, the processes of boom and recession, affected missions; the effects even of the critical period of economic turbulence in the 1920s and 1930s have not attracted the attention one might have expected. Mission fund-raising is another fertile area for study, both in its theory and its practice, the decision-makers, the donors, the local activists. Unlike many others seeking funds, mission agencies were frequently equally concerned to recruit those who would pray for their work, a consideration giving a new dimension to appeals. Issues of theological principle arose. There were those for whom the financial needs of missions were worthy of the ultimate in pulpit rhetoric; there were others for whom public appeals suggested a lack of faith in the divine Provider. Similarly contrasting models of the missionary produced different ideas of missionary support. In some portrayals, the missionary is a potential martyr, whose life is poured out in sacrifice; in others a valuable and rather expensive resource, to be carefully conserved and efficiently employed.

There is also the recurring question that was exercising Carey in the passage quoted. Time and again the missionary and the trader together represented the face of the West. Like each other or loathe each other, there was no way in which the representatives of God and of Mammon could avoid association. Mission history reflects many carefully enunciated theories of the relation of Christianity and commerce, and many examples of moral dilemmas arising from the practice.. The issues could be sharpened when the commodity traded - slaves, arms, gin, opium - forced missions to choose between challenge, connivance, or silence. There are further questions when missions directly engaged in economic activity, from the Jesuit reductions to Moravian self-support, and from the "profit for the Lord" of the Basel Mission trading company through to Traidcraft and the campaigns for fair-traded coffee.

If our theme this year yields plenty of topics relating to missions from the West, the history of the churches of the non-Western world promises to be equally fertile. From the early days of Western missions issues of salary of workers, support of the local church, financial dependence or independence were constantly arising. In later times a Dalit movement towards Christianity could be the matrix for a whole theology of Christian giving, its principles being given concrete form in the building of Dornakal cathedral...And there is the huge financial interface between Western missions and the non-Western churches arising from or related to their activity. We find ourselves studying different images of a self-supporting church; some that imply the capacity to maintain and staff high quality educational and medical institutions from which much of the local reputation of Christianity derives, others based on the principle that ten people tithing can support a full-time pastor or missionary at their own standard of living.

Our theme also refers to privilege. Some contributors to our meeting may legitimately see this as a co-ordinate or even a subset of money. Others may equally legitimately want to consider other ways in which privilege has operated in missions and churches; the privilege, for instance, attaching to ecclesiastical, priestly or ministerial status, to education, ethnic origin, royal lineage, or social class.

These are but a few of the many possibilities suggested by the theme, whereby members of the group may apply their specialist knowledge for our common profit. If the experience of former meetings is a guide, we can look for material from at least five centuries and six continents, and much to enlarge and enrich our understanding.