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

12-14 July 2001 meeting theme:

Missions and Human Rights

A Conference Prospectus
Andrew F. Walls & Lamin Sanneh

In a famous and controversial work published in 1972, the French anthropologist, Robert Jaulin, accused Christian missions working among native populations of “ethnocide”. He had emerged fresh from the jungles of the Amazon to proclaim to a receptive world audience that the native rights of the Amazon Indians were being harmed by mission agencies determined to ‘civilize’ them and to deliver them into the hands of a Western-style bureaucratic state. At the Congress of Americanists in 1968 Jaulin called for a convention on ethnocide in the Americas, and in February, 1970, the French Society of Americanists convened for that purpose.

On the other side of the Atlantic in Mexico similar disquiet was being expressed by a new, younger school of anthropological scholars keen to rid the science of its neo-colonialist collusion with the establishment and of its tendency to suppress indigenous culture. The movement was led by Guillermo Bonfil who was able to move the World Council of Churches to join in the controversy. And so, the WCC turned to Georg Grüneberg, a scholar at the University of Berne specializing in issues of genocide and ethnocide in Brazil. The resulting conference which was convened in Bridgetown, Barbados, from 25 to 30 January 1971, took up the special case of the non-Andean Indians of South America. In its deliberations the conference issued a series of declarations denouncing national governments, international agencies, indigenous organs and religious missions in stringent language, accusing them of willfully participating in campaigns of ethnocide and genocide.

The Bridgetown conference, with the moral prestige of the WCC behind it, promulgated the Declaration of Barbados, a document that declared open season on the work of Christian missions. The long-held view of critics that missions were instruments of cultural imperialism was revived by the Declaration with particular force. It called for the suspension of all missionary activity for the good of native peoples and for the integrity of the church because the conference believed that human rights have been imperiled by missions, and so suspending missions would advance the cause of human rights. Thus criticism of missions and support for human rights allowed an unlikely coalition of religious leaders and social scientists to converge in a united front.

This solid phalanx began to break up not from any theological qualms about the hasty issuing of blanket condemnations of missions but from the necessary revisions and adjustments in anthropological thought that followed Barbados. For one thing Bonfil himself had significantly recovered from a pessimistic to a confident view of indigenous cultures whose resilience and vitality he now defended. He took the next step of taking a less jaundiced view of missions, saying ethnic identity remained the durable thread of unity through historical developments. Progressive Mexican nationalists, for example, could be strengthened in their cause by the evidence of the continuity of Mesoamerican civilization in the acute indigenization and self-determination missions had initiated. For another, that open-minded evaluation of the work of missions among indigenous populations was enshrined into the anthropological vocabulary as ethnic “recomposition” by the French sociologist, Jean- Pierre Bastián in 1997, suggesting a major shift in social scientific thought and attitude. It would be fitting if there was a comparable shift in religious thought, too.

Our meeting at Yale in July, 2001, in the Yale-Edinburgh series of meetings on the history of the missionary movement and world Christianity will consider this general theme of Missions and Human Rights. With the use of historical and cross-cultural approaches, we plan to examine the role of missions in the field of human rights more broadly conceived and against the background of recent debates. We expect individual papers to explore specific aspects of the subject, including the personal and social. Several considerations converge on the theme, and it would be helpful to explore these considerations from a variety of perspectives, what human rights issues were involved in missionary language policy and engagement with pre-modern indigenous cultures? To what extent did the issue of human rights figure in the task of missions? Were missions influenced by prevailing ideas of natural and human rights? How were human rights understood in the midst of prevailing religious views and scientific notions? How did the idea of the national state jurisdiction affect notions of human rights, and freedom of religion in particular, for citizens? Were missions affected by issues of settler rights vis-ŕ-vis native rights? What effects, if any, did missions have on movements for native rights? How much were social service agencies under missions involved in the amelioration of conditions for native advancement? What links might there have been between missions and movements for abolition, for women and minority rights and social improvement and advancement? How did missions view human rights in the context of evangelization and church planting? How consistent is proselytism with religious tolerance? What was the relationship, say, between women’s work and human rights, or between schools/education and individual rights? Was there a development or evolution in missionary ideas of human rights?

A host of these and other questions may occur to any of us, and we urge you to work from your own interest and background and explore the subject with us. We have traditionally operated on an open plan at our meetings, with a spread of topics reflecting the work and interests of the participants, and we intend to follow that practice again this time. The only constraints are the time allotted to each paper, but even that fact is designed to maximize participation, not reduce it. We look forward with great enthusiasm to your joining us at Yale.