Christianity and colonialism


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Edward Andrews writes:

Historians have traditionally looked at Christian missionaries in one of two ways. The first church historians to catalogue missionary history provided hagiographic descriptions of their trials, successes, and sometimes even martyrdom. Missionaries were thus visible saints, exemplars of ideal piety in a sea of persistent savagery. However, by the middle of the twentieth century, an era marked by civil rights movements, anti-colonialism, and growing secularization, missionaries were viewed quite differently. Instead of godly martyrs, historians now described missionaries as arrogant and rapacious imperialists. Christianity became not a saving grace but a monolithic and aggressive force that missionaries imposed upon defiant natives. Indeed, missionaries were now understood as important agents in the ever-expanding nation-state, or “ideological shock troops for colonial invasion whose zealotry blinded them.”[3]


According to Jake Meador, “some Christians have tried to make sense of post-colonial Christianity by renouncing practically everything about the Christianity of the colonizers. They reason that if the colonialists’ understanding of Christianity could be used to justify rape, murder, theft, and empire then their understanding of Christianity is completely wrong. “[7]

According to Lamin Sanneh, “(m)uch of the standard Western scholarship on Christian missions proceeds by looking at the motives of individual missionaries and concludes by faulting the entire missionary enterprise as being part of the machinery of Western cultural imperialism.” As an alternative to this view, Sanneh presents a different perspective arguing that “missions in the modern era have been far more, and far less, than the argument about motives customarily portrayed.”[8]

Michael Wood asserts that the indigenous peoples were not considered to be human beings and that the colonisers was shaped by “centuries of Ethnocentrism, and Christian monotheism, which espoused one truth, one time and version of reality.”[9]

The convent of San Augustin. A mission centre established at Yuriria, Mexico in 1550

During the Age of Discovery, the Catholic Church inaugurated a major effort to spread Christianity in the New World and to convert the Native Americans and other indigenous people. The missionary effort was a major part of, and a partial justification for the colonial efforts of European powers such as SpainFrance and Portugal. Christian Missions to the indigenous peoples ran hand-in-hand with the colonial efforts of Catholic nations. In the Americas and other colonies in Asia and Africa, most missions were run by religious orders such as the AugustiniansFranciscansJesuits and Dominicans.

In both Portugal and Spain, religion was an integral part of the state and evangelization was seen as having both secular and spiritual benefits. Wherever these powers attempted to expand their territories or influence, missionaries would soon follow. By the Treaty of Tordesillas, the two powers divided the world between them into exclusive spheres of influence, trade and colonization. The Roman Catholic world order was challenged by the Netherlands and England. Theoretically, it was repudiated by Grotius‘s Mare Liberum. Portugal’s and Spain’s colonial policies were also challenged by the Roman Catholic Church itself. The Vatican founded the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide in 1622 and attempted to separate the churches from the influence of the Iberian kingdoms.


Jan van Butselaar writes that “for Prince Henry the Navigator and his contemporaries, the colonial enterprise was based on the necessity to develop European commerce and the obligation to propagate the Christian faith.”[10]

Christian leaders and Christian doctrines have been accused of justifying and perpetrating violence against Native Americans found in the New World.[11]

Spanish missionaries

Adriaan van Oss wrote:

If we had to choose a single, irreducible idea underlying Spanish colonialism in the New World, it would undoubtedly be the propagation of the Catholic faith. Unlike such other European as England or the Netherlands, Spain insisted on converting the natives of the lands it conquered to its state religion. Miraculously, it succeeded. Introduced in the context of Iberian expansionism, Catholicism outlived the empire itself and continues to thrive, not as an anachronistic vestige among the elite, but as a vital current even in remote mountain villages. Catholicism remains the principal colonial heritage of Spain in America. More than any set of economic relationships with the outside world, more even than the language first brought to America’s shores in 1492, the Catholic religion continues to permeate Spanish-American culture today, creating an overriding cultural unity which transcends the political and national boundaries dividing the continent.[12]

The Spanish were the first of the future European countries to colonize North and South America. They came into the region predominantly through Cuba and Puerto Rico and into Florida.[13] The Spaniards were committed, by Vatican decree, to convert their New World indigenous subjects to Catholicism. However, often initial efforts were questionably successful, as the indigenous people added Catholicism into their longstanding traditional ceremonies and beliefs. The many native expressions, forms, practices, and items of art could be considered idolatry and prohibited or destroyed by Spanish missionaries, military, and civilians. This included religious items, sculptures, and jewelry made of gold or silver, which were melted down before shipment to Spain.[14]

Though the Spanish did not impose their language to the extent they did their religion, some indigenous languages of the Americas evolved into replacement with Spanish, and lost to present day tribal members. When more efficient they did evangelize in native languages. Introduced writing systems to the Quechua, Nahuatl and Guarani peoples may have contributed to their expansion.[citation needed]

In the early years most mission work was undertaken by the religious orders. Over time it was intended that a normal church structure would be established in the mission areas. The process began with the formation of special jurisdictions, known as apostolic prefectures and apostolic vicariates. These developing churches eventually graduated to regular diocesan status with the appointment of a local bishop. After decolonization, this process increased in pace as church structures altered to reflect new political-administrative realities. [15]

Ralph Bauer describes the Franciscan missionaries as having been “unequivocally committed to Spanish imperialism, condoning the violence and coercion of the Conquest as the only viable method of bringing American natives under the saving rule of Christianity.”[16] Jordan writes “The catastrophe of Spanish America’s rape at the hands of the Conquistadors remains one of the most potent and pungent examples in the entire history of human conquest of the wanton destruction of one culture by another in the name of religion”[17]

Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican friar on the island of Hispaniola, was the first member of the clergy to publicly denounce all forms of enslavement and oppression of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.[18] Theologians such as Francisco de Vitoria and Bartolomé de las Casas drew up theological and philosophical bases for the defense of the human rights of the colonized native populations, thus creating the basis of international law, regulating the relationships between nations.

One major aspect of Spanish Colonization in the Americas was the Reconquista. The Reconquista was series of wars over the Iberian Peninsula that lasted from 722 AD to 1492. Christian armies reclaimed the Peninsula from the Muslims, who were in control of the territory. This dispute was very influential in the growth of Iberian Catholicism. Iberian Catholicism was highly militant and was influenced by Mysticism and Marianism.[13]

At the end of the fifteenth century the Mendicant and Monastic orders sent a group of missionaries to the convert the natives that were in the new lands that had been conquered.King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile united and took back Grenada which was ruled by the Moors. In 1492, the Reconquista came to an end after the conquest of Grenada. Queen Isabella ordered for the removal of Jews that refused to converted to Christianity. Jews began to face persecution in Castile during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.[13]

The Native Americans only gave way to the force of the European after they were overcome with the diseases the Europeans had spread.[19]The Evangelization of the natives in the Americas began with private colonization. The Crown tried to establish rules to protect the natives against any unjust war of conquest. The Spanish could start a war against those who rejected the kings authority and who were aware and also rejected Christianity. There was a doctrine developed that allowed the conquest of natives if they were uncivilized.[13]

Friars and Jesuits learned native languages instead of teaching the natives Spanish because they were trying to protect them from the colonists’ negative influences. In addition, the missionaries felt it was important to show the positive aspects of the new religion to the natives after the epidemics and harsh conquest that had just occurred.[19]

French missions

The French colonial effort began later than that of the Spanish or Portuguese.

Hawaii – The French Incident (1839)

Under the rule of Kaʻahumanu the newly converted Protestant widow of Kamehameha the Great, Catholicism was illegal in Hawaii and chiefs loyal to her forcibly deported French priests onto the ArtemiseNative Hawaiian Catholic converts were imprisoned and Protestant ministers ordered them to be tortured. The prejudice against the French Catholics missionaries remained the same under the reign of her successor, the Kuhina Nui Ka’ahumanu II. In 1839 Captain Laplace of the French frigate Artémise sailed to Hawaii under orders to:

Destroy the malevolent impression which you find established to the detriment of the French name; to rectify the erroneous opinion which has been created as to the power of France; and to make it well understood that it would be to the advantage of the chiefs of those islands of the Ocean to conduct themselves in such a manner as not to incur the wrath of France. You will exact, if necessary with all the force that is yours to use, complete reparation for the wrongs which have been

mmitted, and you will not quit those places until you have left in all minds a solid and lasting impression.[This quote needs a citation]


Kulturkampf is a German term referring to the conflict between the German imperial government and the Roman Catholic Church from about 1872 to 1886, predominantly over the control of educational and ecclesiastical appointments.[1][2] More rarely, the term is used by extension to refer to the power struggles between emerging constitutional democratic nation states and the Roman Catholic Church over the place and role of religion in modern polity, usually in connection with secularization campaigns.[

Asia and the Far East

Christian missionaries had mixed success in the Far East. Early Christian missionaries had very mixed success in countries in Asia. In countries like Japan, the first Christian missionaries arrived in Kyushu in 1542 and came from Portugal and brought gunpowder and Christianity with them. Jesuit priest, Francis Xavier, arrived in Japan in 1550 and was a key figure in his attempts to spread Christianity in Japan.[20] Xavier’s mission in Japan was to spread peace and forgiveness to people of Japan who followed Shinto belief and Buddhism.

For a time, Christianity was allowed to be spread in Japan, with the government of Japan fully supporting the growth of Christianity but just as quickly as it was supported, it quickly became outlawed in Japan. Emperor of Japan at the time, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, sought to keep Japan under his strict control. Toyotomi quickly became increasingly suspicious and worried about the growth of Christianity, to which he saw as a threat to his power. As a result, he outlawed the practice of Christianity which also meant banning Christianity from being practiced and executed 26 Christians as a warning to Francis Xavier and his missionaries to end their attempts at spreading Christianity. From 1597 to 1632, practicing Christianity was a risk with death as a penalty. [21]

In 1632, 55 Japanese missionaries were martyred in an event called the Great Genna Martyrdom.[21] As a result, practicing Catholicism and Christianity was forced to practice in secret underground which the people who still practiced in secret called the “Hidden Christians. ”As a result of being forced to practice in secret, many missionaries lost the meaning of prayer.

In India, the British missionaries were often in conflict with British administrators and businessmen. Missionaries had moderate success among the scheduled classes. In French-controlled Vietnam, and a Japanese-controlled Korea, the Christian missionaries had significant success in terms of membership.[22]

Christianity had a more subtle effect, reaching far beyond the converted population to potential modernizers. The introduction of European medicine was especially important, as well as the introduction of European political practices and ideals ideals such as religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, colonial reforms, and especially liberal democracy. [23]


Christian evangelists were intimately involved in the colonial process in southern Africa.[24] The Portuguese sent missions into Africa.

Early Christian missionaries had the mentality that they had to civilize Africans, that Africans were uncivilized or uncultured people. Often times, European missionaries used any means necessary, whether by peaceful means or by forceful means to colonize Africans in the 16th century. Slavery was also a key component of African colonization. Europeans did not want to have their own European people as slaves, so they sought out to have other people as their slaves so early colonizers went to countries in Africa to acquire slaves.

When Christian missionaries came to Africa, the native people of Africa were very hostile and not accepting of the missionaries in Africa. Even though there were some Christian missionaries that went about colonizing the native Africans in unchristian ways there were some missionaries were truly devoted to colonizing through peaceful means and truly thought that the people of Africa needed to be taught that Jesus was their Savior[25]. The key thought was the “Civilizing Mission” which was the thought that natives should be taught Christianity, advanced medicine, and higher standards of living. Christian missionaries’ main mission while in Africa was to preach about peace and forgiveness which directly went against early European missionaries’ mission which was to mainly exploit Africans for their own personal gain

In the mid-19th century, Protestant missions were engaged in active missionary work on the Guinea coast, in South Africa and in the Zanzibar dominions. Missionaries visited little-known regions and peoples, and in many instances became explorers and pioneers of trade and empire. David Livingstone, a Scottish missionary, had been engaged since 1840 in work north of the Orange River.

According to Heather Sharkey, the real impact of the activities of the missionaries is still a topic open to debate in academia today. Sharkey asserted that “the missionaries played manifold roles in colonial Africa and stimulated forms of cultural, political and religious change.” “Historians still debate the nature of their impact and question their relation to the system of European colonialism in the continent.”[26]

According to Sharkey, some observers believe that the missionaries did great good in Africa, providing crucial social services such as education and health care that would have otherwise not been available to the Africans. Sharkey said that, in societies that were traditionally male-dominated, female missionaries provided women in Africa with health care knowledge and basic education.[24]

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