Christianity Going Native? Missionary Encounters in Guatemala, Mexico, Central America, and Nigeria in the Twentieth Century

American Society of Church History 16
Conference on Latin American History 35
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Jackson Park Room (Westin Chicago River North)
Alejandra Boza, University of Pittsburgh
Bridget M. Chesterton, Buffalo State College (State University of New York)

Session Abstract

This is the third 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: Were Christian missionaries always sent by imperial or national states to represent the states’ interest? Or were there circumstances in which missionaries arrived either following their own interests or summoned by local populations who valued the missionaries’ activities?

Did successful missionary encounters inevitably lead to cultural and religious homogenization (thus destroying non-Western cultures)? Or were there contexts in which local cultures and indigenous religions could benefit from incorporating and re-elaborating the missionaries’ notions?

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 examine a wide range of cases: from transformations in the meaning of primitive Christianity among the Maya in Guatemala, to competing conceptualizations of tradition and ritual among Mixtecs and Zapotecs in Mexico, to the creation of mutually-beneficial networks between marginalized Western religious groups and marginalized African populations in Nigeria, to the complicated relation that unfolded between radicalized American missionaries in Central America and their conservative sending communities. Together they suggest that the missionary encounter was a two-way road, where on the one hand Christianity was creatively transformed and appropriated by local populations, and on the other the missionaries’ home countries could also be transformed.