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 2006 Yale-Edinburgh Group Meeting
University of Edinburgh, 29 June - 1 July 2006
"Sight, Sound, and Touch: Visual, Musical, and Material Aspects of Christian Mission"
Next year's Yale-Edinburgh Group addresses the material culture of missions and their artistic and musical expression.
In their capacity as cultural brokers - indeed by their very presence - missions from the West brought new elements of material culture to the areas in which they operated. Missionary clothing was usually distinctive, sometimes grotesquely so. Missionaries put up buildings contrasting in style and scale with those around them, with functions for which there was no indigenous precedent. Missions brought books and writing materials; and even where such things were not in themselves a novelty, the making of the books and the methods employed in the writing often were. Missionaries introduced new technology - the flourmill and the sawmill often followed in the wake of missions - and busied themselves with agricultural production. Mission anxiety to keep the West African state of Abeokuta brought cotton growing, and cotton growing brought cotton processing, and cotton processing brought industrial machinery.
Missionaries brought exotic artefacts, from hand mirrors to telescopes and microscopes; they brought other artefacts - axes, for instance, and fishhooks - directly useful for furthering traditional activities. Artefacts sometimes determined perceptions of missions; Maori in New Zealand recognized missionaries as purveyors of metal goods before they saw them as bearers of a divine message. What do we know of these artifacts, and of the social, political, economic and religious effects of these aspects of the missionary presence? In David Livingstone's well-known specimen dialogue between a medical missionary and a Tswana rainmaker, the African traditionalist mentions irrigation trenches and rainmaking side by side as alternative forms of technology, each divinely ordained for its own cultural sphere. What other interpretations of material culture occur in the history of the missionary movement and in non-Western Christianity?
In many of the instances so far mentioned, missionaries were simply the primary transmitters of cultural phenomena belonging to the Western societies of their day, phenomena that might equally have come from commercial or other forms of Western presence. But in some departments of life, missionaries held a place occupied by few other Westerners. Christian worship, Christian proclamation, Christian teaching, brought new forms of architecture, music, pictures and other forms of representation. At first it was natural to employ the building styles, music (with translation of the accompanying words in versions of varying intelligibility) and pictures that were already in use in the West. Over time, theological principle and increasing cultural awareness combined to lead some missionaries to attempt liturgical translation into local forms. Still more importantly, deepening appropriation of the Christian faith led to bolder departures from Western musical and pictorial models in the newer churches. There were liturgical rebellions, controversies, counter-revolutions; artists are theologians who do not have the luxury of adding verbal qualifying phrases. The end result was that Christian communities went through religious, aesthetic and cultural processes analogous to the Columbian exchange.
Not that purely material culture was exempt from similar processes. Non-Western societies both adopted and adapted materials first introduced by missionaries; and missions increasingly had to work out nuanced attitudes to the material culture of their host societies. The Pauline principle of identification, becoming "all things to all people in order that I may gain some" was often espoused by missionaries. But how should it be applied, for instance, to dress? To Catholics in one century and Protestants in another it suggested the need to adopt Chinese dress. The question then arose, as to which form of Chinese dress was appropriate to the missionary identity? Nothing more clearly indicated one's place in society than dress. Identification on the basis of material culture often points, not simply to a specific society, but to a specific place within that society.
All this suggests that, as in former years, the combined funds of research and specialist knowledge of members of the Yale-Edinburgh Group can hugely enrich our common knowledge and understanding of the history of the missionary movement and of non-Western Christianity.
We look forward to our meeting in the University of Edinburgh, 29 June - 1 July 2006