Nation-States and Missions in Paraguay, Colombia, and Africa in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

American Society of Church History 15
Conference on Latin American History 23
Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Promenade Ballroom C (Westin Chicago River North)
Sharika D. Crawford, United States Naval Academy
Joel Carpenter, Calvin College

Session Abstract

This is the second session from the workshop “Christian Missionaries and non-Western Populations in Colonial and Post-Colonial Societies”. Christian missions have been pivotal in several processes of international integration. They were an essential component of European imperial expansion for over five centuries, and also have played a significant role in the post-colonial world, sometimes becoming central figures on processes of neocolonialism and globalization. Missionaries were also important in national-level integration. For example, in post-Independence Latin America they became instrumental in the republics’ efforts to gain control over the extensive frontier areas that had remained beyond their reach, and that were inhabited mostly by indigenous or Afro-descendant populations. Paradoxically, missionary activities were sometimes also instrumental in the development of movements such as anti-colonial nationalism and indigenous autonomy.

This session explores the following questions: Did the missionaries’ activities turn local communities into more docile subjects/citizens, as the imperial and national states hoped? Or did they sometimes provide the locals with new skills that, on the contrary, enabled these populations to better resist the states’ encroachment?

Did becoming a Christian mean replacing one monolithic set of beliefs and practices with another? Or was conversion a process with an unpredictable outcome, where both locals and missionaries could creatively adapt, elaborate and transform their religious ideas and activities, hence producing new “versions of Christianity”?

This session’s papers examines a wide range of cases: from struggles over the significance of Independence for Mexican California’s missions, to efforts by various missionary groups to “civilize” the Paraguayan Chaco, to the missionaries’ attempts to “colombianize” the islands of Providence and San Andrés, to the negotiation of indigenous beliefs and practices in Colombia. Together they suggest, first that international religious organizations and ideas of religious conversion played a central role in nation-building processes; second, that relations between states, missionaries and local populations were not unidirectional but crisscrossed by political and religious bargaining from all sides.