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 2007 Yale-Edinburgh Group Meeting
Yale University Divinity School, June 28-30, 2007


"Where the Spirit of the Lord is," writes the Apostle Paul, "there is liberty." The same authority, writing against the background of a society in which slavery was deeply rooted, asserted that neither slave nor free status existed within the Christian body. All this suggests a significant place for the themes of liberation and slavery in Christian discourse. So how far, and in what ways, have these themes emerged in the history of the missionary movement from the West and its interaction with the world of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific Islands? How have the themes shown themselves in the life of the churches outside the West?

The Yale-Edinburgh Group meeting in 2007 will address the topic of Liberty, Slavery and Christian Missions. Inevitably the issue of slavery is likely to be prominent; the bicentenary of the legislation that made the slave trade illegal for Britain, the trade's chief carrier, will ensure that the topic is very much current. Among the questions ripe for investigation are: what were the impact and consequences of the involvement of New World Africans in the campaign for abolition on the course of the missionary movement; what role did freed slaves and freed captives play in the drive against domestic slavery and related institutions; how did slavery affect relationships between missionaries and governments? Yet the theme of liberty and slavery also has relevance well beyond the slave trade that became illegal in 1807. Our theme also provides room for investigation of the intertwined themes of liberty and liberation that have given rise to missionary involvement across the world in issues of social justice, the defense of indigenous rights, the advancement of women, and so forth.

Slavery emerged as a major factor in the early contacts between Christian Europe and the world beyond it, whether in New Spain or the Kongo Kingdom. It brought forward such major figures as Las Casas and the Black Brazilian Lourenço da Silva de Mendouça. Among Protestants, the Moravians gained their missionary reputation in a slave society. The British missionary movement grew up alongside the abolition movement, identifying with it in the Sierra Leone experiment and in the Buxtonian doctrine that Christianity, commerce and civilization would between them snuff out slavery's attractions for participating African chiefs. A major reorientation of Catholic missionary policy was undertaken by the White Fathers with the support of Pope Gregory XVI, and it led to moves to establish new forms of community among freed slaves. Called "Liberty Villages," these communities turned out to be failed experiments in evangelization as they became sources of forced labor. They were dubbed "the district's captives," and were noted for the rate at which freed slaves absconded from them. The African diaspora, meanwhile, produced its own mode of Christian diffusion in the Caribbean and West Africa, one closely identified with liberation from slavery. The story of the American missionary movement is complex, with the slavery issue inducing occasional side effects far distant from the USA.

As the Atlantic slave trade faded, the Arab slave trade in East and Central Africa assumed greater importance for missions. And all the time, quite apart from these huge regional and inter-continental complexes, local indigenous versions of slavery and affected chieftaincy/emirate structures raised constant concern and frequent controversy when it came to mission policy. In its various forms slavery was a pervasive institution that dogged missionaries at almost every turn, and was complicated by government ambivalence towards so-called "domestic institutions." A by-product was the intimate involvement of mission personnel with government officials.

Slavery, however, was only one area where the theme of liberation played out for missions and the churches that arose from it. There were countless others. Caste in India was another, as were Indian land holding patterns, the movement - or otherwise - of Dalit groups to the Christian faith, scandals over rubber collection in Congo or labor recruitment in the Pacific for Australian plantations, the corvée in colonial Africa, indentured workers everywhere. Liberation from subtler forms of oppression - opium in China, for example - offers another field for investigation, as does that recurrent theme of mission endeavor, the liberation of women.

William Carey saw the growth of "civil and religious liberty" as a sign of Gospel activity. Our meeting offers a chance to examine this concept from many angles, with studies of missions and churches facing, or giving rise to, questions of national, political, and ecclesiastical liberty. There will be scope to consider matters of liberty of worship, preaching, and conversion, and to examine the theme of resistance and the construction of dreams and realities of liberation, from Melanesian millennial movements to the creation of the Republic of Liberia. There could be a place too for historical treatment of theological issues related to the concept of liberty.

There is, in fact, room for members of the Group, old and new, to produce from their own specialist knowledge and research studies that will illuminate for all of us the topic of Liberty, Slavery and Christian Missions across the centuries and the continents.

We look forward to our meeting at Yale, June 28-30, 2007.