Missionaries and the ruptures of empires

Comparative perspectives on Latin America, Africa, and Asia in the modern era

Date: 1 September 2017, 09:00–12:00

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 336



Through the framework of transnational and global history scholars of missionary history have significantly advanced their understanding of the specific agency globalising missionary networks have developed in changing global political settings. In the modern era Christian missionaries maintained a wide range of relationships with but also against political regimes. Some preceded colonial expansion and established transnational networks long before colonial settlements or remained largely independent from them; others cooperated closely with worldly powers or followed them suit. Some mapped their world against political institutions and their protagonist. In all these forms of agency missionaries were not simply vassals but developed, adapted, and implemented their own ideas of religion as well as social, cultural and economic order.
This panel analyses in how far missionaries as individuals and/or institutionalised networks have themselves co-determined ruptures during imperial rise and decline and thereby re-shaped social order, economic relations, culture and knowledge. The panel contributors cover disparate case studies from early modern to contemporary Latin America, Africa, and Asia and discuss them in a comparative perspective. A special interest thereby is the experience of these missionaries by locals, their resistance, as well as cooperation as cultural brokers.

Convenor / Chair

Clemens Six (University of Groningen)


Rebekka Habermas (University of Göttingen)


Anjana Singh (University of Groningen)
Monika Baar (Leiden University)
Clemens Six (University of Groningen)
Hubertus Büschel (University of Groningen)
Ulrich Brandenburg (University of Zurich)
Jörg Haustein (SOAS University of London)


Anjana Singh: Networks of knowledge and empire: the Jesuits in early modern India

Early modern Eurasia was a connected world with men and merchandise criss-crossing the two continents with increasing frequency. People of South Asia were as keen to access knowledge from the Europeans as the latter were to gather information of the “exotic”. The Jesuits were an important conduit for the circulation of knowledge. The mission had two main goals: maintaining Catholicism among the overseas servants of the Estado da India, and proselytising of Roman Catholicism. Catholic missionaries took part in the chaotic state formations after the decline of the Mughal Empire, which intensified European national rivalries in the Indian Ocean. Competitive state formation in South Asia coupled with Enlightenment-era religious turmoil in Europe meant that the Jesuits, European Companies and the Indian states chose their alliances prudently. These alliances allow us to test transnational networks that were formed prior to and during the colonization period. Did the Jesuits remain independent of or cooperated closely with the colonizing powers?
How did the Jesuits organise themselves in the post-Mughal era? When South Asians converted to Catholicism how does one explain the leadership structures within the organization that remained steadfastly ‘trans-Catholic-European’.

Monika Baar: Competing missionaries, clashing ideologies during the Cold War in Latin America

Public health constituted an important form of soft power during the Cold War. International health-related agencies, such as the WHO and UNICEF were just as much involved in ideological rivalries as the two superpowers and their allies. Combating diseases thus became a key element in the fights to support as well as to counter communism. This paper looks at the role of missionaries as ideological agents in Latin America and in particular focuses on the rivalries between religious missionaries who sympathized with North-American anticommunism and advocates of liberation medicine (whose roots were in liberation theology) and left-wing Christian medical missionaries (mainly from Scandinavia) who usually sought to counter the official anticommunist foreign policy.

Clemens Six: The Cold War and the decline of empires as a ‘unique opportunity’: Anglican missionaries in British-Malaya

This paper discusses in how far Christian missionaries used the Cold War and decolonisation to serve their own interests. In the early Cold War years British Malaya turned into a key territory in the growing antagonism between leading capitalist powers – at that time mainly the US but also late-imperial Great Britain – and communist influence. In particular after the British-colonial authorities had installed an Emergency regime in their colony, anti-communist persecutions included large-scale resettlement programmes and anti-guerrilla warfare. In close cooperation but also in competition with other global Christian networks, Anglican missionaries played a crucial role in the ‘pacification’ and ‘’re-education’ programmes. These programmes were primarily implemented in so-called ‘New Villages’ that turned into laboratories of a post-colonial, communist-free society. The example shows that the space of manoeuvre for missionaries was significant, which justifies to analyse them as Cold War agents in their own right.

Hubertus Büschel: A small empire of madness: The Bethel missionaries in Lutindi (Tanganyika) and their “reformative” asylum during the 20th century

The paper analyses the “reformative” asylum of the Bethel missionaries in Ludindi (Tanganyika). Three generations of missionaries from Bielefeld-Bethel claimed to run “alternative” and “better” ways of psychiatric diagnoses and treatments for African people than those that were common in colonial and later postcolonial institutions. They collected knowledge about the cure of mental illnesses from local “healers”, collaborated with them and introduced new forms of treatment like so called “family therapy”. The paper will investigate these practices, the perception and experiences of the patients and their relatives as well as the collaboration with other locals. It will also analyse why and how Lutindi was a ‘living laboratory’ (Helen Tilley) when missionaries undertook frequently abusive and haunting experiments with their patients which were used for the establishment, development and spread of a geo- and bio-political network of psychiatric and anthropological knowledge.

Ulrich Brandenburg: The true religion or a perfect warrior creed? Muslim mission in Japan in the early 20th century and the global image of Islam

Okakura Tenshin once famously stated that Islam was “Confucianism on horseback.” For many Muslim reformers at the turn of the 20th century, on the other hand, Islam was a universal religion which could reconcile modern science and spiritual guidance. This paper examines in what ways the first Muslim missionaries in Japan and their converts explained Islam in order to make it attractive to the Japanese public. What will be highlighted is that missionaries did not hesitate to draw upon an essentialized image of Islam as a political and violent religion, in the belief that this corresponded to Japanese values and interests.

Jörg Haustein: Provincializing Christian missions: Missionary agency and the rise of Islam in German East Africa

The German colonial period was a time of religious change in Tanganyika, but contrary to missionary expectations, Islam spread faster and wider than Christianity under German rule. There were a number of structural and political reasons for this, which impacted missionary agency and exacerbated their strategic impairments. Evangelistic efforts among Muslim communities soon proved futile, and the majority strategy of containment via rapid expansion into territories not yet “occupied” by Islam failed to deliver the expected results in an increasingly mobile economy. At the same time, political efforts to raise the spectre of “Islamic danger” tended to marginalise missionary agency within the colonial “civilizing” discourse rather than underscore Christianising aims. The paper studies the limits of missionary strategies and activities in curbing the spread of Islam by tracing their placement in the wider colonial discourse about Islam and highlighting examples of failed efforts in the colony. It thereby aims to de-centre missionary agency in the history of Christian missions in Tanganyika in order to recover a more complex view of the fragmented, plural, and contested landscape of colonial religious change. 

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