Confronting Colonialism: The Political Activity of Protestant Missionaries in Cameroon, Korea, and South Africa

AHA Session 131
Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Joel A. Carpenter, Calvin College
Richard Elphick, Wesleyan University

Session Abstract

In the late nineteenth century a renewed interest in foreign missions swept through American Protestant denominations and churches. Thousands of zealous Americans left the United States to spread the Christian gospel throughout the world. Inevitably, many ended up in places under colonial rule. Whether missionaries intended it or not, their activities had political consequences.

This panel brings together three papers that address the scale of American foreign missions from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Missionary agencies themselves transcended fixed geographical boundaries, and the activity of missionaries often had consequences that reached far beyond the local. All of the papers in this panel examine the broader regional, national, and international political consequences of local missionary activity. The papers address questions such as how missionaries influenced the United States’ relations with other nations; what effect they had on discussions of race in their home denominations; and what role they played in anti-colonial movements. Our panel hopes to encourage a dialogue regarding the value of adding missionaries to histories of U.S. foreign and race relations, as well as the history of anti-colonial movements in Africa.

Each of the papers in this panel offers a unique perspective on how missionaries’ religious activities frequently had wider national and international implications. The geographical scope of our panel is broad, spanning missions from Japanese-controlled Korea, to French-controlled Cameroun, to British-controlled South Africa. Sejoo Kim reminds us that European nations were not always the de facto imperial powers in the areas where missionaries were stationed. Kim examines how the Japanese government’s demand that mission schools participate in Shinto shrine rituals in the mid-1930s formed the catalyst for a closer relationship between American missionaries and U.S. diplomats—a relationship that continued into the postwar U.S. occupation of Japan. Luke Schleif discusses how missions influenced race relations in both the United States and Africa in the 1930s and 1940s. Schleif focuses on the career of Irvin W. Underhill, the first African American missionary in the Presbyterians’ Cameroun mission where challenged the racism embedded in the mission and the colonial government. Finally, Jay Case analyzes the contribution of missionaries to anti-colonial movements in late nineteenth-century South Africa. Case demonstrates how the seemingly non-political activities of American evangelical missionaries had unintended political consequences. Overall, this panel analyzes how missionary activity in localized colonial environments had far-reaching implications for American race relations, anti-colonial movements, and U.S. foreign relations.

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