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 2005 Yale-Edinburgh Group Meeting:

"Identity, Ethnic and Christian, in the History of Christian Missions"

Andrew F. Walls and Lamin Sanneh

Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity either in location or in speech or in customs. They live in the cities of the Greeks and the barbarians, as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and all other arrangements of life; yet the custom of their citizenship contradicts expectation….Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.

This is the account of the anonymous second century writer of the Epistle to Diognetus, as he tries to explain Christianity to a well-placed person outside the Church. The nature of Christian identity and ethnicity had arisen even earlier, as an emergent church defined its relationship to the Jewish community and Jewish religion. In its early decades Christianity had to accommodate within itself two different ethnic communities, one with good claims to seniority, which had sharply contrasting lifestyles. Over the succeeding centuries it developed syntheses, more or less successful, with various cultural traditions to produce new forms of Christian identity. These ranged from the metropolitan Roman Empire in both Greek and Latin forms, to the Syriac-Arab East, the Coptic-speaking Nile Valley, Nubia, Ethiopia, south India, and peoples from the Atlantic to the Urals and the Central Asian steppes. Christians accommodated to, or identified with, different political entities, without Christianity itself becoming a political entity as occurred in early Islam.

There has been an inbuilt tension in Christian history between the claims of locality and the claims of universality; between forces that work for Christian indigenization and forces that work for a "catholic" church and consciously stress an identity beyond the local. There have been movements that have asserted the indigenizing principle, stressing local difference, and movements that, by stressing the universal claims of Christianity, have tended to remodel the local community on the basis of others far away. And there have been other, counter-cultural movements that, as the Epistle to Diognetus illustrates, simply oppose Christians to "the world", the way society usually works.

All of these currents can be traced within the missionary movement from the West, and in the churches and Christian movements that arose from or in association with the movement. Missionaries had their own ethnic identities, and the built-in tension between the indigenizing and the universalizing principles can be copiously illustrated within the missionary movement itself. The presence of different confessions or denominations raised fresh dimensions of identity; and one of the unintended consequences of the comity agreements devised between missions to avert competition was sometimes the intensification of denominationalism as it became a factor sharpening local or ethnic identities. The linguistic policies of missions with regard to preaching, translation, literacy and education often had far-reaching results; the choice of local vernacular (and which dialect of it), a regional lingua franca, a metropolitan or colonial language, could be momentous. And as new Christian communities came into being, the process of christianization sometimes asserted local identity, sometimes challenged it. Sometimes new communities arose out of broken or uprooted ones, reconstituting their identity by means of the Christian faith or some particular expression of it. Sometimes long-existing communities became divided between those who followed traditional ways and those who followed a Christian "law".

There is therefore abundant material on which historians can work and share, and we trust that at this year's meeting of the Group historians whose specializations lie in different regions, continents, centuries and subject matter will once more bring their insights for our mutual enrichment.