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The study of Christian mission is important to understand a colonial past and a postcolonial present

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

The study of Christian mission is a well-established field within theology commonly referred to as missiology, studying Christian mission—taking an interest both in its theological motivations and its practical aspects. However, the extent to which the study of Christianity and Christian mission can be used to understand broader societal issues and contemporary society is debated. This article gives an overview of the debate on the usefulness of the study of Christianity and Christian mission to understand modern society and modern European colonialism. It relies on examples from an ongoing research project titled The past as the present to demonstrate why Christian mission archives are useful for an inquiry into both a colonial past and a postcolonial present.

Religion was a prominent topic among many of the early sociologists (e.g., Durkheim 2005, Weber 1993). In his well-known essay, The ethics of Protestantism and the spirit of capitalism Max Weber argues that the historical shift to high capitalism was underpinned by contemporary Christian values that separated the accumulation of resources from both immediate human needs and a desire to display status. According to Weber, this led business owners to work hard and to re-invest their wealth in their enterprises rather than spending it or using it to display their wealth (in contrast with the proto-capitalism of 16th century Venice where wealth from shipping was used for public spectacles, Boholm 1993).

By availing a historically significant and empirically rich analysis to an international audience – relevant in a Congolese as well as a Swedish and Global legal context – our project is placed at the research frontier in terms of colonial and global legal history and ‘the turn to history’ in legal studies.

However, the role of Christianity in the development of society is debated. In his book, Eurocentrism Samir Amin (1999) criticizes Weber claiming that these “millennial sects” rather were a fringe medieval phenomenon with little influence on the development of modern capitalist society. Both Marx and Engels wrote on religion and on Christianity (e.g., 2019) and its role in society—but their basic understanding was that religion was a superstructure of society with the function of masking the true driving forces of societal development which were material and economic. This means that Christianity was not relevant to study in any detail to understand society.

Given the strong influence of Marxism on critical social science inquiry, Christianity has been understood as quite fringe in parts of social science inquiry (Claesson 2001), i.e., Christianity is not understood to be a relevant area of inquiry to understand modern society. The drastic secularization of society in the Global North is probably also an important motivation as to why the study of Christianity is marginalized in the inquiry into contemporary modern society. The technological and technocratic development of contemporary society is also understood to be secular in nature (although also this secular understanding of scientific development has been questioned, e.g. Noble 1999). Although this can be understood as a trend some prominent scholars have made analyses relying on Christianity to understand modern society.

In the work on European colonialism studies of Christian missionaries are not so fringe (we will return to this later on). Some work on mission and colonialism is written in a Marxist tradition with an understanding of Christianity as the cultural logic of capitalism with little attention to actual Christian beliefs and ambitions (e.g., Biedelman 1982; Comaroff 1991; 1997). While this work shows a lack of nuance at times – it is an important contribution to the scholarly debate showing that colonialism was not only an affair of the colonial state but that the ‘civilization’ through education and the need for proper governance was a widely accepted idea in contemporary Europe. This work shows how values of everyday life, family relations and work, and individualization feeds into ideals for a capitalist economy (e.g., Comaroff & Comaroff 1991; 1997) and ideals for a modern state (e.g., Larsson 2016). Other accounts are more nuanced showing how missionaries both cooperated and agreed with colonial administrations (e.g., Robert 2008).

The research project The past as the present relies primarily on mission archives from the Covenant Mission Church of Sweden and their activity in colonial Congo. While the social and anthropological history of these Swedish missionaries in the lower Congo has been brought to scholarly attention (Axelsson 1971; Lagergren 1971; Larsson 2016; Lundqvist 2018), the legal character and implications of the missionary activities remain unexplored. The extensive Swedish mission archives (exceeding one kilometer of documents) are a relevant source not only in order to understand the Swedes’ missionary work but it is considered the most comprehensive existing archive offering documentation of precolonial Bakongo society.

In particular, the files stored in the Swedish National Archives (RA) include letters, administrative diaries, ethnographic scientific studies on pre-colonial practices, journal articles, and other forms of documentation authored by the Swedish missionaries. The Swedes meticulously described their own and the colonial state’s administration, and the execution of justice in everyday life as well as through organized forms of the implementation of the Rule of Law. Documents describing the pre-colonial society in regard to the administration of justice as well as documents describing the missionaries as rule of law actors will be of interest to this study. The Swedish archives are unique, and their exploration and availing to an English language audience are acutely relevant (Ekholm-Friedman 1991; MacGaffey 1986). Being able to work with one of the best documentations of the early colonial phase in Congo (Janzen 1972), our project moves the research frontier by merely basing our findings on hitherto unexplored sources for contemporary and historical legal analysis.

By availing a historically significant and empirically rich analysis to an international audience – relevant in a Congolese as well as a Swedish and Global legal context – our project is placed at the research frontier in terms of colonial and global legal history and ‘the turn to history’ in legal studies. Turning to a key archive that few lawyers would even find (a missionary archive) or consider relevant in terms of past and present law and order, and by placing nominally ‘minor actors’ (the Swedish missionaries) in the center of analysis, the project combines a ‘turn to history’ in legal studies with the scholarship on law and state-building in the contemporary DRC and beyond.

As shown above, in this article studies of colonialism sources of Christian missionaries are somewhat more prominent (e.g., Beidelman 1982, Peels, Kaene, Comaroff & Comaroff 1991; 1997). These works have shown how useful mission archives can be in further understanding colonialism as a historical and social phenomenon. There are several reasons for this - firstly there are limited source materials colonial administration often with minimal documentation of their work, while missionaries were generally very active in writing home to the congregations and others who financially supported the mission work. It can also be used to highlight the complexity of the colonial rule and the various competing actors (Larsson 2016).

Another approach to studying the connection between contemporary post-colonial states and mission past is to study those churches originating with European missionaries - the role they play in contemporary society and how they have changed since missionaries. While contemporary mission might also be worth studying it is a much more diversified phenomenon generally with much more humble ambitions than the mission in colonial states before the decolonization of the mid-19th century. It is thus not as evident how this can be used to conceptualize current global relations.

Mission archives are thus an excellent place to study the history of colonialism - they can provide increased knowledge of the unfolding of colonization and events within the colonial administration and provide knowledge about the actual consequences on the ground. The archives contain both accounts from both missionaries and proselytes and sometimes also from chiefs and other people giving their views on colonialism to the missionaries. Biased and need a sensitivity to the intentions of the specific texts and the genre of the text studied (diaries, letters to the congregations, and published books all have their specific style that influences how they are written and what they include). This however is the case with all archival studies.


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