Transnational Christianity and Ethnic Identity: The International Missionary Council Encounters Indigenous Christians in Central America, China, and Africa

AHA Session 229
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Columbia 12 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Dana L. Robert, Boston University
Andrew E. Barnes, Arizona State University
Stephen Dove, Centre College
Paul Grant, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Amy O'Keefe, University of California, San Diego
Dana L. Robert, Boston University

Session Abstract

Emerging out of the Continuation Committee of the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910 and seeking to build on the spirit of ecumenism and cooperation articulated there, the International Missionary Council (IMC), founded in 1921, developed into a progressive organization that sought to put ethnic and racial equality, women’s leadership, and indigenous Christian evangelism into action. Under the leadership of J. H. Oldham, who served as its general secretary for most of the 1920’s, the IMC initiated an ambitious multi-dimensional effort to pass on the torch of Christian civilization from the Protestant churches of Europe and North America, the “older churches,” to the fledgling Protestant churches in Africa, Central and South America and Asia, the “younger” churches.

The effort to incorporate native peoples and their cultures into an evolving vision of world Christianity was a protracted process for the IMC and its affiliates, and the path forward was shaped – and sometimes obstructed – on the ground by cultural practices, religious beliefs and social changes already in place. Many of the initiatives launched at the start of the 1920s were by the end of that decade being rethought, if not abandoned, in the face of indigenous and missionary reactions. In the 1920s and 1930s, the transnational religious sensibilities maintained by IMC officers in New York, London and Paris were impacted by the ways indigenous Christians in Africa, America and Asia understood the gospel and its message. The IMC grew stronger for the ways it listened and learned from the local responses many of its initial programs engendered, and by the end of the 1920’s could boast that were more representatives of “younger” than “older” churches in attendance at its international missionary conferences.

This roundtable brings together four papers that showcase the complexity of the ecumenical missionary endeavor to globalize Protestant Christianity. Stephen Dove explores missionary and convert responses to IMC ecumenism in Guatemala, where disagreement caused fresh divisions within the Protestant community and propelled the growth of both rural Pentecostalism and nationalist fundamentalist Christianity. Andrew Barnes narrates how the IMC responded to previous failed efforts to train men to become the patriarchs of Christian homes by focusing instead on the training of women for Christian matriarchy. Paul Grant’s paper examines the negotiations undergone in colonial Ghana, where Ghanaian Christians sought, in the face of IMC opposition, to reconcile Christianity with ancestor worship. Similar reconciliation was attempted in China, as discussed by Amy O’Keefe in her analysis of early twentieth-century renewal of old debates among Christians over ancestral worship and the impact of these debates on the agenda of the IMC.

Together, these papers reveal the variety of issues addressed by indigenous Christians and missionaries as they sought to interweave local ethnic and cultural identities into a global Christian faith. By highlighting the values promoted by the IMC and its responses to local concerns, this roundtable discussion will provide scholars of religion, world Christianity, and twentieth-century globalization perspectives on the intellectual and theological processes involved in building transnational faith communities.

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