Colonialism and Christian Mission

A critical look

Boubakar Sanou
Colonialism and Christian Mission
Photo by Kevin Olson on Unsplash

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries most of the world was greatly impacted by colonialism. Although it was carried out not only by European nations, this article focuses on Western colonialism but applies to other contexts as well. What is often not commonly known is that Christian missionaries were sometimes a partner in the colonial effort. Both colonialism and missionaries have been credited with advancing societies. Some of the ways the two worked together, however, are concerning.

Differing Perspectives on Colonialism

During colonialism Western nations took land, artifacts, and resources from other regions and forced their languages and cultures on them. Europeans brought their culture to the Americas, Australia, and parts of Africa and Asia. This started from the beginning of the sixteenth century.1 European colonialism has been both defended and criticized. As Western nations began their expansion conquests, they offered arguments to make their actions seem reasonable.

The most popular argument was that of the “White man’s burden.” This stated that it was the duty of the “superior” White race to civilize and elevate the “inferior” races. Colonialism was seen as one of the best ways to bring civilization and social, economic, and political progress to backward peoples. Even today, some say we should focus on and appreciate what colonialism brought to the colonized countries. They insist these supposed benefits of colonial rule far outweigh its harmful legacies.

The critics of colonialism argue that the contributions of colonial rule should not be used to underestimate the negative impact on colonized peoples. It was a morally wrong and oppressive system that hurt colonized peoples and their societies. Colonizers suppressed cultures and languages, took land, exploited economies, oppressed politically, and created systems of racial and social inequalities.

In order to gain and maintain power, some colonizers took a “divide-and-conquer” strategy. Colonial powers broke colonized groups into smaller tribes and ethnic groups. They also worked to keep these smaller groups from uniting against the colonizers. The “divide-and-conquer” method was nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century colonialism’s single most successful tactic of domination. But it was also a disaster. There are echoes still “in civil wars and regional tensions across the globe.”2 Countless studies on colonialism agree that while colonial rule brought some improvements, many of the world’s most serious difficulties are directly related to colonialism.3

Tensions Between Colonialism and Missionary Outreach

What is hard to believe is that some missionaries were in partnership with colonizers. They saw their work as not only to bring Christianity to people, but also Western culture. When the people were not interested in converting to Christianity, some missionaries pressured colonial powers to get involved. They saw that the presence of soldiers acted like “providential nutcrackers for the preaching of the gospel.”4

Blinded by such prejudiced doctrines as the White man’s burden and encouraged by the colonial framework, these missionaries saw their job as elevating their converts and their societies from a state of barbarism to one of refinement. These early perspectives have been significantly revised through time. The distorted stereotypes of other races they helped develop are still to some extent perpetuated today. The Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda are an example of this.5

Some Adventist missionaries remained silent in the face of colonial atrocities. They did little to stop them, cooperated with colonial powers, or silently operated in a colonial system. Seeking to avoid confrontation, some Adventist missionaries encouraged their converts to be law-abiding citizens.6 William H. Anderson, an early American Seventh-day Adventist missionary to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was directed to open his mission work in a district in which the colonialists wanted to subdue a rebellion. “Missionaries,” he was told by Cecil Rhodes, the prime minister of Cape Colony in South Africa, are “much better for keeping the natives quiet than soldiers, and certainly a good deal cheaper.”7 In this way, it is well documented that some missionaries were used by colonial authorities as junior partners.

There are examples of Adventist missionaries that obediently lived by the values promoted by colonial authorities rather than using their prophetic voices to take biblical and moral stands.8 During the Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings held in South Africa between 1995 and 1998, following the end of apartheid, it was confirmed that many South African faith communities, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, were either active or silent supporters of apartheid.            

I. F. du Preez and Roy H. du Pre remarked that “the Adventist Church was always far ahead of the government of the day in applying racial segregation in the church, and far behind when it comes to scrapping racially discriminatory measures. By the time apartheid was introduced in law after 1948, Adventists had been practicing it for twenty or more years.”9

Moving Forward

While many may feel disillusioned or even betrayed by the past actions and inactions of the Adventist Church or its representatives, the Adventist movement of today must remain focused on our spiritual growth and our God-given mission to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Here are some suggestions for how to move forward.

First, it is essential to acknowledge that the church’s primary motive behind sending out missionaries was to promote Christianity, not to be helping hands to colonial governments. It is therefore necessary to separate the actions of individuals who misrepresented the gospel from the core teachings of the Bible. We should recognize that there were many missionaries who stood up to or challenged the status quo of colonial governments.10

Second, it is helpful to evaluate the church’s response to the past. The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists on June 27, 1985,11 and September 15, 2020,12 released two official statements condemning various forms of racial discrimination. Three years after the formal end of apartheid, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South Africa also acknowledged their wrongful participation.13 It is encouraging to know that the church recognizes the hurt and trauma caused by the actions of some of its members during colonialism, apartheid, and racial genocides.

Third, it is necessary to stay focused on why we are Seventh-day Adventists. We must commit ourselves to being change agents and allies to those who are still experiencing various forms of discrimination. One of the best ways to advocate for deep and lasting change is not to become part of the problem. As we fight against discrimination, we must be careful not to discriminate ourselves. Extreme reactions should be avoided.

Fourth, sharing official church statements on social issues is crucial. It might also be well to include specific advocacy components and frameworks for action in these statements. In light of our official positions, we must do the work of assessing all our institutions and procedures to ensure they align with our mission values. We must strive to remain biblically faithful to avoid repeating past mistakes and failures. Our goal should be to translate our fundamental doctrines and official statements not only into different languages, but into biblically informed decisions for all aspects of life.

1 Margaret Kohn and Kavita Reddy, “Colonialism,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta and Uri Nodelman (Spring 2023), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2023/entries/colonialism/.

2 Conn Hallinan, “Divide and Conquer as Imperial Rules,” Foreign Policy in Focus(2005), https://fpif.org/divide_and_conquer_as_imperial_rules/, accessed Apr. 15, 2023.

3 Brandon Kendhammer, “A Controversial Article Praises Colonialism. But Colonialism’s Real Legacy Was Ugly,”Washington Post, Sept. 19, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/09/19/colonialism-left-behind-a-long-legacy-most-of-it-bad/, accessed Apr. 23, 2023.

4 Beauty Maenzanise, “The Church and Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle,” Methodist History46, no. 2 (January 2008): 70, 71.

5 See Jay J. Carney, “Beyond Tribalism: The Hutu-Tutsi Question and Catholic Rhetoric in Colonial Rwanda,” Journal of Religion in Africa42 (2012): 173.

6 Godfrey K. Sang and Peter Omari Nyangwencha, “Colonialism and the Seventh-day Adventists in Kenya,” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=EE2E, accessed May 1, 2023.

7 Willian H. Anderson, On the Trail of Livingstone(Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2012), p. 81.

8 The constitution and bylaws of the Southern African Division of Seventh-day Adventists is an example of this. See Southern African Division Working Policy(1931), p. 139.

9 I. F. du Preez and Roy H. du Pre, A Century of Good Hope: A History of the Good Hope Conference, Its Educational Institutions and Early Workers, 1893-1993 (London: Western Research Group/Southern History Association, 1994), p. 116.

10 See, for example, Robert Woodberry, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” American Political Science Review 106, no. 2 (May 2012): 244-274.

11 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, “Racism,” June 27, 1985, https://www.adventist.org/articles/racism/.

12 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, “One Humanity: A Human Relations Statement Addressing Racism, Casteism, Tribalism, and Ethnocentrism,” Sept. 15, 2020, https://www.adventist.org/articles/one-humanity-a-human-relations-statement-addressing-racism-casteism-tribalism-and-ethnocentrism/.

13 Antonio Pantalone, “The Afrikaanse Konferensie (1968-1974) and Its Significance for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in South Africa” (Th.D. diss., University of Durban-Westville, 1999), p. 309.

Boubakar Sanou