History, Christian Scholarship, and Learning to Re-embrace Our Missionary Past

Many young Christians probably have some mixed feelings about our missionary past. For those of us growing up in the Church, the big heroes are the brave families who head out to spread the Gospel, risking comfort and danger for the sake of the call. In some settings, the 19th-century mission movement is still held up as a halcyon high-mark of the Gospel’s progress in the world, shrouded in mythic glory. Of course, then you go to school, read modern critical accounts, and find accusations (some substantiated and quite damning) of the colonialism, cultural imperialism, and destruction associated with the movement, and the glow fades, leaving a hazy, uncomfortable shadow in its place. Awash in the realization that the history of Christian missions has included atrocities and wide-spread practices deeply at odds with the Gospel, it’s easy for younger, sensitive Christians to become ashamed at any mention of our missionary heritage.

Recently though, there’s been a bright ray of light slowly piercing its way through the gloom. According the latest research, 19th-century Protestant missionaries were not the source of everything wrong with the modern third world. Witness the story of John Mackenzie:

For some reason, no one has written a best-selling book about the real-life 19th-century missionary John Mackenzie. When white settlers in South Africa threatened to take over the natives’ land, Mackenzie helped his friend and political ally Khama III travel to Britain. There, Mackenzie and his colleagues held petition drives, translated for Khama and two other chiefs at political rallies, and even arranged a meeting with Queen Victoria. Ultimately their efforts convinced Britain to enact a land protection agreement. Without it, the nation of Botswana would likely not exist today.

Over at Christ and Pop Culture, I analyze some of the implications of MacKenzie’s research, both for what it tells about how to do Christian scholarship, and what it can teach us about approaching our own Christian past. You can read it HERE.

Soli Deo Gloria

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