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 2009 Yale-Edinburgh Group Meeting
Yale Divinity School, 2-4 July 2009

Missions, Law, and Custom

This theme permits us to range widely - from the theology of missionaries to the political history of missions to the anthropology of missionary encounters with traditional societies.

Christian missionaries have gone about their work with various theological frameworks, some of which have been decisively shaped by their understanding of divine law. In western Christianity, notions of God as a divine law-giver, of sin as an infringement of divine law, and of the atonement as a legal transaction effecting redemption of the soul, have been particularly strong. Western legal systems have also reflected more or less of Christian morality. Protestant approaches to missionary motivation have tended to focus on the binding force of Christ's command: William Carey's famous Enquiry of 1792 set out to prove that the commission of Christ to go into all the world and preach the gospel was not to be regarded as analogous to the ceremonial Jewish law, of merely limited temporal application.

Whatever their theological perspective, missionaries have had to operate within the constraints imposed by human systems of law and custom. They have frequently sought to reproduce the imagined security of the legal structures with which they were familiar from their domestic environments. Sometimes, as in Tahiti after 1815, even dissenters from religious establishments at home could find themselves constructing legal codes for societies newly orientated towards Christianity. During the high imperial period, missions often looked to the colonial state to provide the framework of 'law and order' which they deemed essential for the freedom of their work and the progress of 'civilization'. Questions of the legal status of Christian converts, and what legal recourse was available when their freedom to worship or propagate their faith was in jeopardy, surfaced repeatedly in India and China, and remain problematic in a number of contexts today where Christianity as a minority faith challenges the assumed equation between national identity and adherence to the majority faith.

Our theme also encompasses the diverse interpretations which missionaries placed on the patterns of custom and authority which they observed in the societies to which they went. Those patterns were more often than not shifting, sometimes even disintegrating, not least in response to the strains produced by colonialism and the hardening of ethnic identities which it tended to promote. Missionaries, however, were rarely aware of elements of fluidity within structures of non-western tradition, and in Africa especially played their part in reifying indigenous traditions and constructing the notion of 'customary law', thus painting a picture of an unchanging primordial Africa clashing with the modernizing and reforming forces of the supposedly Christian West. Such conflicts proved especially sharp in relation to traditional norms of marriage and sexuality. For their part, indigenous peoples faced difficult choices between maintaining the wisdom of the ancestors and placing themselves under the shelter of new religious norms or political authorities in response to the unprecedented challenges and rates of change of the colonial era. Another dimension which could be pursued is a study of those exceptional missionaries who became experts on non-western legal systems, and advised colonial or newly independent governments on how they might be reformed rather than destroyed: the British authority on Islamic law, J. N. D. Anderson, is an excellent example.

We trust that Yale-Edinburgh Group members, whose specializations lie in different regions, continents, centuries, and subject matter, will once more bring their insights for our mutual enrichment at the 2009 meeting.