As we all know, long before cultural heroes such as Boas and Malinowski ventured off on their heroic and lonely journeys, countless missionaries had been ‘in the field’ living among peoples that an earlier generation of anthropologists would describe as pristine.(Burton and Burton 2007: 210)
Anthropologists in general have a negative attitude toward missionaries, especially when they conceive of missionaries as agents of cultural change … [A]nthropology students learn that missionaries are to be regarded as “enemies.”(Stipe 1980: 165)
For as long as anthropology has existed as an academic profession, its proponents have operated in an ambiguous relationship with Christian missionaries. One might provisionally characterize the missionization effort as the practice of sending religious professionals to a foreign land to evangelize non-Christians. Anthropology, to the contrary, purports to study the variety of diverse human social, cultural, linguistic, and physical-biological formations for the sake of recording, describing, and analyzing particular ways of life. Missionaries and anthropologists, in other words, are agents of travel par excellence. Both occupations involve specialists instructed in an operative field of action (i.e., proselytization or study, respectively, if essentialized) who leave their homes behind and journey to new locales in order to carry out specific directives. Both sets of individuals report back to official bodies or institutions (i.e., mission sending agencies and denominations and/or universities, colleges, and research organizations). Both choose to live in target regions for extended periods of time in order to become acquainted with local peoples through intensive, long-term, first-hand experience. And both take part in certain types of ‘mission’, often working with a sense of “ethnographic urgency” (Stocking 1992: 41) in order to reach groups assumed to be rapidly disappearing.1
Employing discourse and textual analysis, I examine in this article a body of writings about missionaries published in academic journals and monographs by anthropologists. Although certainly not the first point of convergence or divergence between anthropologists and missionaries, I begin with Bronislaw Malinowski’s symbolic departure from the missionary compound and founding of the modern ethnographic method. I then work up to the present, not moving in perfect synchronicity with the timeline of anthropological development, but reviewing and analyzing studies in the history of anthropology.2 I aim to show that although the two types of travelers studied herein have existed for a very long time in something of a mutually constitutive vein—and, indeed, in an occasionally symbiotic relationship—a series of influential discourses have arisen in the literature. The dually overlapping and conflicting discourses allow social scientists and theorists working in the post-colonial era to situate disciplinary boundaries, distance contemporary anthropology from what they view as the heavy ideological and normative trappings of religion, frame their work in the name of scientific objectivity, advocate for the preservation of indigenous practices rather than their transformation (or eradication), and eventually establish their profession as a form of travel and study diametrically opposed to that of the missionaries. Yet not all anthropologists concede these points.
My argument, broadly conceived, is that conflicting, overlapping, and altogether unresolved discourses on missionary travelers circulate in scholarly texts. Such discourses vary. One dominant tradition of anthropological commentary employs the general archetype of the ‘missionary-as-eradicator-of-indigenous-cultures’. In this body of discourse, missionaries act as heuristic scapegoats. In other words, dismissing the missionary as the enemy of local cultural and religious practices aids anthropologists in dealing with their own problematic pasts. Negative discourse on the missionary plays a cathartic role in exorcizing the discipline of its historic demons. Opposing one’s own travels in foreign lands to similar expeditions by religious professionals allows anthropologists to separate themselves from the profoundly theological and religious agendas of the founders of the field, agendas that ultimately derive from questions of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ religion (or ‘natural’ versus ‘revealed’, and so on). Partially constituted by intellectualist travelers influenced by Christianity (Douglas 1966; McGrane 1989), and encountering difference in colonialized lands (Cleall 2012), anthropology needed a way to conduct its travels in a religiously disinterested, culturally relativist, and ideally objective manner. Even as a subject of heated contestation, I suggest that missionaries provide the discursive means by which to legitimate a field of study. Ultimately, missionaries offer a productive foil against which anthropologists have constructed their identities. I contend that the missionary is the anthropologist’s ‘uncanny other’ whose jarring familiarity serves as a source of negative identity formation for the discipline. Without the missionary travelers—that source of ethnographic anti-identity—no scientific version could emerge. Or to put the matter in a more nuanced way, without the missionaries, a very different disciplinary formation would have occurred.
On the other end of the spectrum circulates a contradictory set of discourses on missionaries. With voices amplified after the reflexive, self-critical, postmodern, or even experimental turns or crises in ethnography and the social sciences (Abbink 1990: 122; Bonsen et al. 1990b: 7; Wilcken 2010: 210),3 historically minded commentators revisit the controversial status of the missionary and discuss the issue of the influence of missional Christianity on anthropology. Missionaries may travel for reasons dissimilar to those of anthropologists, these voices concede, but their histories are densely intertwined and complicated. At times, such discourses constitute the missionaries themselves as ethnographic data, thus expanding the purview of the anthropological gaze to include Euro-American tribes and social formations. Other commentators, in the postmodern sector of this discursive camp, problematize claims to objectivity and scientific disinterestedness4 and propose that some travelers can identify meaningfully as both professional anthropologists and confessing Christians. In this article I extract from over a century of anthropological writings on missionaries six influential discourses—ranging from positive to negative to ambivalent—analyzing each in turn.5
Discourse One: The Missionary as Anthropological Foil
In Malinowski’s text, the observer witnesses the dramatically symbolic split between professions or the social anthropologist’s “charter myth for functionalist ethnography,” as Stocking (1988: 3) aptly puts it. Or rather, we observe a posited quality or textual performance of difference in a discursive sense. This occasion—the prescribed exiting of the ethnographer from the missionary’s veranda—constitutes the symbolic-discursive moment of separation as a discipline comes of age, conjures itself into being, and formalizes its identity in comparison to and rejection of that which it is not. The anthropologist is no missionary, Malinowski urges, and anthropology is not missionary work. Because Malinowski helps to found the modern ethnographic method—whose basics are still taught to both undergraduate and graduate students in contemporary anthropology departments—let us describe this instance as “Discourse One: The Missionary as Anthropological Foil.”
The anthropologist must relinquish his comfortable position in the long chair on the veranda of the missionary compound, Government station, or planter’s bungalow, where, armed with pencil and notebook and at times with a whisky and soda, he has been accustomed to collect statements from informants, write down stories, and fill out sheets of paper with savage texts. He must go out into the villages, and see the natives at work in gardens, on the beach, in the jungle … Only such anthropology can give us the all-round vision of primitive man and primitive culture.
Malinowski tellingly relegates the missionary to professional other only after his time in Mailu, when the sudden “absence of the local missionary left him ‘quite alone with the natives’” (cited in Stocking 1992: 43). The missionary’s disappearance constituted for the proto-ethnographer a period of time that he later would describe as his most intellectually productive. Because of missionary absence, and before Discourse One’s sedimentation into published text, the anthropologist comes into close proximity with the natives. Despite the fact that Malinowski was “so unmissionary in other respects,” Stocking writes, “he was clearly a European of a special sort,” who advocated “the ‘missionary view’ of physiological paternity” in terms of native sexualities and coupling practices (ibid.: 50). The record does confirm, however, that Malinowski’s “hatred of missionaries” (ibid.: 55) stemmed from his painful experience with Rev. W. J. Saville, the Mailu missionary and linguistic ethnographer “who had in fact provided him with valuable information” but had also engaged in “underhanded dealings,” which Malinowski detests (ibid.). Rev. Saville becomes in Malinowski’s mind the “negative archetypal focal point” and “distinct impediment to effective ethnographic work” (Stocking 1991: 38)—the ethnographer’s “anti model,” to state it in another way—representative of the dual project of Christianization and colonialism. Thus, Malinowski begins to contemplate “a really effective anti-missionary campaign” (Stocking 1992: 245). The anthropologist’s frustration with missionary endeavors is the very stimulation, at least as he reports it, for coming down “from ‘the verandah of the missionary compound’ into the ‘open air of the anthropological field’” (cited in ibid.: 59). Regardless of his newly conceived anti-missionary campaign, Malinowski would continue to rub shoulders with missionaries throughout his career (ibid.: 195).
Discourse One offers the most pervasive form of talk about missionaries that anthropologists produce. When commentators speak of the relationship between the two professions, they usually couch the discussion in registers of difference and contrast. In terms of discipline building and institutional formalization, anthropology comes of age as it distances itself from missionaries and the theological agendas of early ethnologists (Stanley 2001: 110). Thus, one of Malinowski’s notable students, Hortense Powdermaker (1966: 43), suggests that training under Malinowski meant that one learned that missionaries were the enemy (see also Pels 1990: 86). Missionaries came to be understood as a “convenient rival profession” in that “the development of professional identity of British anthropologists in the interbellum was directed at missionaries in particular” (ibid.). Trouwborst (1990: 33), reflecting on his training, relates that “amongst us students an attitude existed of sharp criticism by condemning every form of ethnocentrism missionaries were suspected of.” Describing Malinowski’s (1922) critical paradigm, Pels (1990: 87) states that “anthropologists could comfortably identify themselves as the brokers of the ‘native point of view’ … against those whose religion seemed to predispose them to ethnocentrism.”
Discourse along these lines continues to circulate. Wendy James (1988: 42) notes that British anthropologists in the colonial era “were usually at odds with the various administrators, missionaries, and other local Europeans” whom the ethnographer “had dealings with” in the field. John Burton, another contemporary anthropologist, states that absorbing this negative discourse while an undergraduate was tantamount to “tacit indoctrination”: “As an undergraduate majoring in anthropology it became clear to me early on that it was a moral imperative to profess a highly critical attitude towards missionaries of all devotions. In simple terms, they were to be regarded as official intellectual enemies of anthropologists. I never had to complete an exam or compose an essay explaining why this should be the case, nor did I ever take a course on the topic” (Burton and Burton 2007: 209).
In Discourse One, missionaries constitute a rival profession, intellectual enemy, or anthropological foil. The discourse caricatures the missionary “as a converter of heathens, disrespectful of native culture” (Abbink 1990: 124). Anthropologists, although existing in a complicated relationship with colonialist administrations (Asad 1988; Stocking 1991; 1992: 217), were advocates for native peoples, since “more than the missionary, and more than the bush administrator” they found themselves “speaking not only of, but for, the local populations” they studied and lived among (James 1988: 49; cf. Darnell 2001: 310). In other reiterations of this discourse, anthropologists correlate missionary endeavors with the intrusive process of modernization and the slow erosion of cohesive traditions (Ploeg 1990: 69–70), depicting missionaries as “incompetent and moralistic hordes focused on normalizing the natives, causing their cultural and, often, material demise” (see Michaud 2007: 7).6
Discourse Two: The Missionary as Practical Intermediary
A number of works in the history of anthropology, concentrated in but not limited to the 1980s to 2000s, have problematized Discourse One’s dominance. In other words, these works have returned to the classic ethnographic monographs produced by social anthropologists after Malinowski in order to revisit claims made about and against professional missionaries. Stocking (1988: 3), for instance, historicizes “the early twentieth century ‘revolution in anthropology,’ when missionaries were relegated to the ranks of meddling ethnocentric ethnographic amateurs.” Prior to Malinowski’s issuance of the veranda departure metaphor, however, “the relationship of anthropologists and missionaries was quite differently conceived” (ibid.). At that time, proto-anthropologists, including Lewis Henry Morgan and even James Frazer, “depended heavily on missionary sources for their ethnographic data” (ibid.). Thus, Stocking reprinted a surprising lecture by William Rivers, the developer of the ‘concrete method’ carried into the field, in fact, by Malinowski himself. Rivers delivered his talk before a religious audience celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the Melanesian Mission. Channeling Rivers, Stocking thus issues a second discursive model of historical nuance, critical historicization, and redescription.
In “Discourse Two: The Missionary as Practical Intermediary,” anthropological commentators reject, problematize, and distance themselves from Malinowski’s separation strategies. Such voices accuse Malinowski—and, indeed, other classic anthropologists—of masking over and obscuring the strategies of separation by which they relegate missionary sources and information to the sidelines. Further, proponents of this stance point out the indebtedness of anthropologists to missionaries, who in some instances had spent more time in target regions, knew the local languages better, and in general had a better working knowledge of native customs than the freshly arrived anthropological novices (Stocking 1992). In this sense, missionaries, along with traders and military officers, are “men of affairs” who provide proto-anthropologist “armchair scholars” with the wealth of their data (Darnell 2001: 9).7 Anthropological presence in a region is often second to that of the missionary. Anthropologists do not discover pristine people groups as much as they follow previous administrative and missionary endeavors in a region (Trouwborst 1990: 40). Because anthropologists are typically “late-comers” to the field, they find virtually every people group encountered “already visited by missionaries” (Ploeg 1990: 68; cf. Abbink 1990: 125; Wilcken 2010: 61). In these narratives, anthropologists depend upon missionaries not only for their livelihood, sustenance, and perhaps even basic survival in the field, but also as sources of crucial information and insight into indigenous cultures and languages. One example of such a dependence is Victor Turner’s (1977: 9–10) use of Dr. Livingstone’s Missionary Trends monograph as a source of data on local medicine practices.8 In this case, anthropologists extend or overtly imitate previously established missionary ethnographer strategies.
Missionaries, further, are intermediaries between anthropologists and their subjects of study; as hubs of information and goods, mission stations support anthropological work. In the early 1900s, Edwin Smith ( 1924: 518) wrote: “Social anthropology might almost be claimed as a missionary science, first, on account of its great utility to missionaries, and second, because the material upon which it is built has so largely been gathered by them.” Darnell (1970: 89) agrees, over 60 years later, writing that the early fathers of Americanist anthropology actively drew “on the time, energy and accumulated data of America’s non-professional students of the Indians.” The occupation of some of those students included missionary ethnographer.9 Anthropologists depend on missionary artifacts about indigenous peoples, including published books, travel accounts, novels, journals, reports, among other written forms (Trouwborst 1990: 41). A recent edited volume, Anthropology’s Debt to Missionaries (Plotnicov et al. 2007) also substantiates this symbiotic connection and mutual reliance. Yet Discourse Two has very old roots. Haddon’s (1910: 103) History of Anthropology provides a long list of missionaries, ranging from sixteenth-century Jesuits to late-nineteenth-century Protestants, who had “laboriously investigat[ed] the manners, customs, and ceremonies” of non-European peoples.
Discourse Three: Good Missionaries versus Bad Missionaries
Similar to Rivers’s application of the categories of destruction and deprivation, Evans-Pritchard posits as the most pressing source of native “despair” the heavy-handed policies put into order by “colonial administrator and missionary” (cited in James 1988: 44) in regard to native customs and practices of magic, among other controversies. Missionaries, by Evans-Pritchard’s reading, are to some degree extensions of colonialist programs.10 “Missionary hubris” is a significant problem (Klassen 2011: xxi).
The missionary who went to live and work among such people saw the outward ritual devoted to false gods. In many cases he also saw that the ceremonies of the native religion gave opportunities for license, even if relaxation of the ordinary rules of morality did not form part of the ritual. To him it seemed obvious that the first and most important task which lay before him was the destruction of the false and immoral religion as a preliminary to the bestowal of the gift which had brought him there. He made it his business to destroy, usually without inquiry, and failed to recognize that the structure he was destroying had not only sent its roots very deeply, but had also thrown out its tendrils widely, so that its destruction involved vital wounds in many aspects of economic and social life. In destroying the religion, or rather in destroying or undermining its rituals and beliefs, he was at the same time, and unwittingly, destroying all that gave coherence and meaning to the social fabric, and was depriving the people of many interests besides those the destruction of which he had willed.
Extrapolating from evaluative programs (à la Rivers) and discussions of colonial agendas (à la Evans-Pritchard), we might describe this form of talk about missionaries as “Discourse Three: Good Missionaries versus Bad Missionaries.” Building out of Discourse Two, Discourse Three views the professions of the missionary and the anthropologist as training similar species of travelers. Many types of missionaries exist (Trouwborst 1990: 34), after all, and bad missionaries impose restrictive new forms of practice on target peoples (Fabian 1998: 112; cf. Darnell 2001: 164).11 This is a discourse that allows for and even encourages interactions between anthropologists and missionaries, whereby the latter assist and inform anthropological novices about target areas, and the former educate missionaries on how to sensitively interpret native customs and practices. “The modern missionary no longer regards, as did the older missionaries, the religious systems of savage and barbarous peoples as the work of the devil,” Rivers (1920: 215) paternalistically allows. “The modern view is that they should rather be regarded as systems of belief, partially true, which have served the function of preparing the ground for higher forms of religion” (ibid.). The “very best missionary ethnographers,” Stocking (1992: 34) notes, conducted “sophisticated longer-term ‘intensive study,’” and were also “empathetic, extensively detailed,” while accumulating “broadly penetrating knowledge.” This is the discourse that leads to the fused existence of what commentators call ‘missionary ethnographers’ and extends retroactively to describe early ‘missionary-cumethnologists’ or ‘missionary linguists’. Such discourse persists. In 1980, a comment about a Current Anthropology article, relevantly titled “Anthropologists versus Missionaries,” questioned whether negative talk about missionaries applied only to “fundamentalist missionaries” rather than culturally sensitive ones (Salamone, cited in Stipes 1980). After the 1920s, some Protestant sub-groups suffered “a crisis of missionary confidence” and increasingly felt that “missionary work was compromised by its consanguinity with colonialism” (Klassen 2011: 105). ‘Old-style’ missionaries are considered affronting and culturally insensitive, but not so the modern ones (Miedema 1990: 47–48). Discourse Three dismisses bad missionaries but makes room for good ones. Ploeg (1990: 61) goes as far as to suggest that those missionaries “opting for a self-image of peaceful pacification and Christianization,” in fact, “can be regarded as the first anthropologists.”
Discourse Three, however, begs several disclaimers. One might point out that even while bifurcating mission strategies into evaluative taxonomies, Rivers did insist on the specialization of the ethnographer’s role as opposed to that of the missionary. Not among the least of his reasons was that some missionization strategies were, as he puts it, “embracing the ‘duty to destroy’” native life-worlds (cited in Stocking 1992: 39). Further, although significant and influential, Discourse Three does not simply replace the previous ones. Not all scholars allow for missionary work to fall into positive and negative evaluative categories. Herzfeld (2001: 167) construes missionary linguistics as an example of how “powerful players construct scenarios of indigenous passivity in order to justify control over local communities’ material, cultural, and spiritual lives. At their most comprehensive, such practices constitute what we might call paternalistic totalitarianism.” Herzfeld’s depiction of missions is a negative one, as evidenced by his choice terms and rhetorical framing: “indigenous passivity,” “hegemony,” “conquering outsiders,” and “invasive missionizing” (ibid.).12 Similarly, Lewellen (2002: 204) writes of the Kayapó of the upper Xingu River that by the 1960s the people “had been ‘pacified’ for a generation by the state Indian agency and by missionaries, who together controlled their destiny.” Still other scholars accuse missionaries in certain contexts as guilty of ‘cultural genocide’ (Tinker 1993), or depict them as introducing invasive new media technologies (Lewis 1997: 349).
Discourse Four: The Missionary as Data
A fourth and determined discursive pattern proceeds out of and relates to “Discourse One: The Missionary as Anthropological Foil.” This discourse takes seriously claims about the complexity of the missionary-anthropologist relationship made by other discourses. For an undetermined amount of time in the professionalization of anthropology, anthropologists relegated their missionary sources to the sidelines, literally burying them deep within footnotes or obscuring entirely the fact that missionaries served as crucial mediators between novice anthropologists and native peoples in the field (see Discourse Two). In post-colonialist anthropological works, however, missions and missionaries became an evident part of ethnographic narratives. Historians of anthropology have reflected on the discipline after the crises of the 1980s and 1990s, noting that those expressions that “could once be dismissed as amateur (missionary and travel accounts, records of colonial administrators)” now count as “relevant source material” (Stocking 1992: 365).13 Abbink (1990: 122) contends that “missionaries, in their interaction with ‘non-Western’ groups, should now first of all be studied.”
By the 1980s, and with the publication of Jean Comaroff’s (1985: 11) Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance, “mission Christianity” had come to the fore as a subject and object of anthropological inquiry. Instead of searching for isolated and bounded cultural wholes untarnished by modern development and globalization (e.g., Lévi-Strauss 1961), Comaroff observed conflicted socio-cultural configurations on the ground—complexities generated by historical colonialist pasts intruding on traditional ways of life. The Methodist mission to the South African Tswana, in other words, is much of the story. To be sure, anthropologists study marginalized, indigenous peoples,14 but they also document those European tribal institutions that, through travel, movement, and expansion, relocate for religious, economic, and political reasons. A fascinating precursor to Comaroff’s work, Beidelman’s (1982) Colonial Evangelism studies the bureaucratic inner workings of the Christian Missionary Society, a pan-national, colonial-missional institution in East Africa. Published just after Comaroff’s (1985) Body of Power, Taussig’s (1986) Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man—an impressionistic, postmodern blur of a monograph that blends historical and anthropological methods—also took up the study of complexity wherein groups at different levels of power come into contact and conflict with one another. Hvalkof and Aaby’s (1981) Is God an American?, Michaud’s (2007) ‘Incidental’ Ethnographers, and Pels’s (2013) A Politics of Presence are all examples of this expanding methodological genre. Continuing in the tradition of ethnographic vision widened to include both colonists and colonized, the powerful and the resistant, Keane’s (2007) highly influential Christian Moderns examines the semiotic ideologies of Calvinist missionaries in Southeast Asia alongside the impact of those imported worldviews on indigenous peoples, the receiving end of Christian mission strategies.
In all of these projects, Euro-American missionaries are central actors on the ethnographic stage. Missionary travelers are not the protagonists of the anthropological narratives, or the stars of the show, so to say, nor are they antagonists or minor cast members (in many of these newer works, Discourse One resides just under the surface). What is important about “Discourse Four: The Missionary as Data” is that the anthropologist’s data—that is, his or her subject of study—inflates outward to subsume and encompass missionary agents as material for study. These missionaries are not simply professional foils, competitors, or compromised but necessary sources of information, shelter, and biofuels. Traveling Methodist or Calvinist tribes constitute veritable subjects of study, not unlike the Tswana, the Sumbanese, or the Algonquin. Euro-American Protestants and Catholics now constitute material for anthropological analysis.
Discourse Five: The Missionary as Methodological Ancestor and Alternative Ethnographer
Emerging as an integration of “Discourse Three: Good Missionaries versus Bad Missionaries” with Discourse Four’s post-colonialist stance, a fifth discursive corpus does two main things. First, it submits, contrary to Malinowski’s Discourse One, that to posit missionaries as intellectual enemies or professional competitors is to oversimplify the genealogical details in an effort to maintain professional boundaries.15 Historical data complicate Discourse One’s simple dichotomy. During the formational years of the anthropological discipline, for instance, Marcel Mauss’s popular lectures trained audiences consisting simultaneously of missionaries, colonial administrators, and scientific ethnographers (Wilcken 2010: 18). As Burton and Burton (2007: 214) note: “Missionaries were never actually our intellectual enemies, but could be better understood, more precisely, as our methodological ancestors” (cf. Arens 1979: 166; Erickson and Murphy 2003: 32). This stance contends that missionaries actually paved the way, in an ethnographic manner, for a more scientifically minded group of travelers less interested in proselytizing. Reiterating Rivers’s admonition about ‘good missionaries’, this discourse points to a growing field of academic missiology and the increased training of novice missionaries in anthropological methods. ‘Missionary ethnography’ exists in the world as a culturally sensitive, non-antagonistic form of religious expansion, travel, and medical training, with selective, minimalized proselytization. It thus brings to at least partial fruition Edwin Smith’s ( 1924: 519) proposal that “the science of social anthropology [should be] recognized as an essential discipline in the training of missionaries” and confirms Miedema’s (1990: 56n7) claim that “ethnology or anthropology has become a standard part of the training for missionaries.”16 ‘Religious ethnography’ is a disciplinary field that is emerging via the circulation of recent texts (cf. Crane and Weibel 2013). According to this viewpoint, missions predate and thus have allowed for the subsequent development of anthropological travels, and they continue to exist as a form of ethnography that is an alternative to the secular scientific model. “In the end,” Burton and Burton (2007: 215) write, “one wonders whether, if missionaries had never taken to the field, an ethnographically-based anthropology would have ever emerged.” Such published arguments bring a fifth discourse into existence. After the turn of the new millennium, “Discourse Five: The Missionary as Methodological Ancestor and Alternative Ethnographer” pertains.
As a brief aside, one might note that as ethnographers, of sorts, who collect artifacts from target peoples and aggregate these objects as forms of visual fetish stateside for both religious talks and museum displays, missionaries might also be harnessed for their ability to amass indigenous objects and material artifacts. In his curatorial work on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History for the 1911 “World in Boston” displays, Franz Boas built networks with, and solicited contributions from, missionaries and missionary-derived object collections. As his correspondence with Christian movers and shakers in the missionary world attests, Boas did not simply denounce missionaries as anti-anthropological foils (i.e., Discourse One) or resist their involvement in the “American Indian linguistics establishment” (Stocking 1992: 69), although he did at times do those very things (see Darnell 2001: 47; Stocking 1992: 69, 91). His letters to missionaries for the 1911 event complicate static assumptions about the father of Americanist anthropology as having only “worked to define anthropology against the practices of missionaries” (Hasinoff 2011: 121). As collectors of artifacts and materials, missionaries are in this sense methodological alternatives to the anthropological version.
In its strongest forms, however, Discourse Five conceives of missionaries not as antagonists, rivals, or competitors, but as colleagues and perhaps even fellow ethnographers. Missionaries are ethnographic colleagues. Anthropologists and missionaries have a methodological affinity and “use each others presence, facilities, and knowledge” (Bonsen et al. 1990b: 6).17 Strong versions of the discourse point to a historic “attitude of mutual esteem” (Trouwborst 1990: 41) between the two types of travelers and emphasize the extent to which the disciplines rely on one another. Both camps are defined by “their relationship to social others” (Priest 1987: 13). Both nurture “genuine interest in people and knowledge” (Ploeg 1990: 60), practice the virtues of “patience, persuasion and kindness” when interacting with indigenous people, and envision themselves “as guardians of the Indians and their cultures” (ibid.: 62). Van Beek (1990) goes the furthest along these lines. Although he argues that a “fundamental contradiction between the two disciplines” exists—that is, that they have “opposite goals with similar out-puts”—much of his article confirms “the anthropologist and the missionary as partners” (ibid.: 110). According to van Beek, both professions are “no longer fully part of one’s culture of origin.” Both anthropologists and missionaries are affected by the “syndrome of the ‘professional stranger’” and become further “estranged” from their “root culture” the longer they are in the field. Both disciplines “serve as an independent translator of cultures” and are torn between the divergent cultures of “host and origin” (ibid.: 110). In other words, the professions are in actuality analogous in that they have what van Beek calls a shared, “intermediate culture” (ibid.: 109). Likewise, Abbink (1990: 126) maintains that the disciplines engage in somewhat of a symbiotic “division of labour” in which the anthropologist “shows some missionary traits, the missionary some anthropological inclinations.” At other times, this discourse of commensurability allows for the charting of negative or self-critical analogues between the two fields, suggesting, for instance, that “both camps are ‘ethnocentric’” (ibid.: 136) or that sometimes “both are unwitting agents of secularization and of culture change” (ibid.: 137).18
Discourse Six: Christian Anthropologists and the Anthropology of Christianity
Although the origins of the last several discourses on missionaries are quite old, one might note that Discourses Four and Five proceed largely after the postmodern, reflexive, and post-colonialist turns in anthropology. “Discourse Six: Christian Anthropologists and the Anthropology of Christianity” continues down the rabbit hole of positionality theorizing and reflexive attention, but it builds on a long tradition of anthropologists who were either Christian missionaries or at least identified with or confessed to being Christian. Edwin Smith and Maurice Leenhardt fall into the prior category (Clifford 1982; Desai 2001: 80–86; Priest 2008: 24). E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Mary Douglas, and Victor and Edith Turner, among others, fall into the latter (Larsen 2014). Anthropology’s relationship as a discipline to religion and secularity has long been contested, especially in terms of the ethnographer’s subjective identity vis-à-vis his or her informants or interlocutors. The question of religiosity or non-religiosity comes to the fore. Writing about ethnographers of religion, Bielo (2013: 6) insists that because anthropologists “always occupy multiple standpoints in the field,” the “simple insider/outsider approach,” historically cherished by anthropology as a tradition, is not intellectually viable. Ethnographers, in terms of subjective positions, values, and allegiances, have myriad stances and registers of identity to consider. In short, they “inhabit multiple fieldwork identities” (ibid.: 7). What happens, for instance, given such complexity of identity, when an anthropologist trained in a secular university just happens to identify in a more or less meaningful way as religious? What if an anthropologist identifies as a Christian? Complicated matters grow quickly more opaque following what Bonsen et al. (1990b: 8) describe as the rise of academic “missiology” and the emergence of “religious-anthropologists.”
After the postmodern and reflexive turn, the perennial questions about private confession and scholarly stance continue but reconfigure slightly. In an article titled “The Repugnant Cultural Other Speaks Back: Christian Identity as Ethnographic ‘Standpoint,’” Howell (2007: 371–385) takes the postmodern turn seriously to argue that Christianity is a ‘subject position’ not unlike feminism or Marxism. Howell’s thoughts stem from his identification as a Christian and an anthropologist studying in the Philippines. He envisions his work as a form of native ethnography (ibid.: 374), at least along some registers (i.e., among fellow Christians). Bielo (2015: 42), an anthropologist of the US, posits a fourfold taxonomy of viable methodological postures in the social scientific study of religion, one of which includes “methodological theism.” For Bielo, methodological theism is an “experience near” positionality, wherein “religious truth claims [of one’s informants] are fully knowable for the anthropologist, and should be sought as part of doing ethnography” (ibid.; see also Geertz 1974).
In the sixth discursive pattern one also observes traces of Discourse Four. Howell’s (2012) recent monograph, Short-Term Mission, takes the missionaries-as-data model much further than his Discourse Four predecessors. What marks the difference between Howell and earlier paradigms is his overt identification as a Christian even as he travels with, critically documents, and studies the strategies employed by North American short-term missionaries and mission team leaders in constructing socio-cultural and religious difference. Howell’s strategy is an ‘experience near’ one, to employ a Geertzian category (see Geertz 1974). Whereas in the history of anthropological writings the confessional standings of the ethnographic writers have been concealed, assumed, implied, or not considered to be relevant enough for full textual disclosure, Howell lays his cards on the table and insists that his ideologies, normativities, and subject positions are not an impediment to good scholarship. In summary, Howell refuses to concede Abbink’s (1990: 144) point that the “love/hate relationship between anthropology and missions” ought to “develop into one of casual cooperation and of sound indifference.” Howell, as an anthropologist and confessing Christian, intentionally blurs the distinction that scholars in the 1990s wished to maintain. Along with others (e.g., Priest 2001: 44), Howell rejects any sort of ‘sound indifference’ posited between missions and anthropology.
Toward a Provisional Conclusion
To summarize, my task in this article has been to isolate and describe, in a genealogical manner, six prevalent discursive patterns about missionaries that have been published and circulated by anthropologists. These discourses range variously from anthropological depictions of missionaries as foils (Discourse One), as intermediaries (Discourse Two), or as operating in positive or negative manners (Discourse Three), to discourses wherein missionaries constitute veritable forms of data (Discourse Four), serve as both methodological ancestors and ethnographic alternatives to anthropologists (Discourse Five), or identify reflexively as both anthropologists and Christians (Discourse Six). I have attempted to analyze and document such patterns as I encounter them in anthropological literature, composing one of the first systematic discourse analyses of this sort.19 Although scholars since the early twentieth century have prescribed programs of convergence or divergence between the two types of fieldworkers, the identity-constitutive relationship between the disciplines of anthropology and missions has not yet been sufficiently theorized. This article has sought to develop a theory of the missionary as a problematic but necessary category of anthropological professionalization and disciplinary formation. Because identity is not stable or essential or definite, and because even disciplinary identity formation consists largely of operational, even performative acts, I suggest that anthropology needs the missionary archetype (Bayart 2005). Without the proselytizing fieldworker—without the destroyer of local life-worlds—no social scientific alternative can emerge. The missionary remains as an unsettling, uncanny figure in anthropological disciplinary consciousness.
In critical psychoanalytic theory, the ‘uncanny’ (heimlich, in German) retains two lines of meaning or interpretation. On the one hand, the concept can denote familiarity, intimacy, pleasantness; on the other, it suggests secrecy, danger, taboo. “Paradoxically,” clarifies van Alphen (1991: 11), “this second meaning is also the meaning of the opposite of Heimlich, namely Unheimlich.” The linguistic inversion underscores the relatedness of the uncanny to what classic psychologists equate with the ‘repressed’: “According to Freud this strange semantic structure occurs because sometimes things which are known are repressed, hence, are both known, familiar, and disavowed, becoming strange and spooky” (ibid.). In several anthropological discourses on missions, the missionary manifests as an uncanny historical presence. The missionary exists as the repressed of the anthropologist’s own compromised colonialist past. The ideal-typical missionary is “known and familiar, but repressed, made strange and thereby displaced onto an alien other” (ibid.; cf. Freud 1919] 2003). As long as anthropology continues to engage in the self-reflexive, ethno-historical study of its own socio-cultural formation processes, the specter of the missionary will not vanish. Anthropology requires the missionary.
I have largely refrained in this article from evaluation or prescription sensu stricto. Yet because all academic work is inherently (or eventually) evaluative, and even claims of descriptive objectivity are wrought with normative stance taking, in this concluding section I find it worthwhile to comment on the six discourses as they align with and depart from my own vision of the discipline of anthropology. First, I have a predictive comment or two. Just like the haunting specter of the missionary itself, the six discourses on missionaries that I have narrated are here to stay. They are not going anywhere. Depending on their location in the academy, and taking into account personal background, upbringing, and habitus, anthropologists encountering missionaries in the field will more than likely default to one of these six categories. Or in true bricolage fashion (Lévi-Strauss 1973; cf. Ortner 1984: 136), they will cobble together aspects of multiple discourses, filtered through the prisms of personal experience, to form seemingly novel ones. It will be interesting to see how emerging anthropological texts produce hybrids or combinations based on existing discourses on missionaries.
Second, I have a few comments on the discourses themselves. Although acknowledging important challenges to Malinowski’s construal of the missionary as anti-anthropologist in Discourses Two and Five, is there not some value in the bifurcation that we might salvage? Similarities aside, anthropology is not missionization, as significantly large sections of both fields ultimately claim differing agendas and goals. Sometimes, as mentioned, the two collectives do share methodologies, resources, and ethnographic strategies (Discourses Two and Five). Plus, background, upbringing, personal religiosity, and subject positions do rightly challenge the so-called objective stance of the social scientist (Discourse Six). I am personally most interested in Discourse Four, however, with its expanded anthropological purview that departs from the missionary veranda but then returns back to that context as a veritable space for data and study—an agenda shared, at least partly, with Discourse Six. While Discourse Six might put off post-structuralists who view Christianity as a globally hegemonic and possibly culture-destroying force, it does have at least one thing going for it. Scholars who associate with Christianity as a meaningful identifier might take seriously those combinatory forms of practice in the field that blend together indigenous, local, and native practices with newer forms sutured in and introduced through missionary work. In other words, Discourse Six might actually acknowledge indigenous groups’ hybrid and combinatory identifications as to some degree meaningful—even if imported—rather than write off newer practices as nothing more than superficial, colonialist additions layered on top of more authentic, pre-Christian cores (cf. Klassen 2011: xx; Robbins 2007: 15). Probably the only discourse I have identified that I would reject out of hand, however, would be the evaluative paradigms proposed by Discourse Three. From my standpoint and training in both anthropology and the eclectic field of religious studies, and drawing heavily on the work of Jonathan Z. Smith (1982), I see such pronouncements as problematic code switching or slippages between anthropological and theological, professional and confessional registers. I am wary, as an anthropologist, about applying the selfsame, dichotomizing programs of theological evaluation that Age of Exploration missionaries and proto-anthropologists projected upon indigenous peoples.
Lastly, I have a brief concluding comment on travel—an action or process of movement across space whose deliberated ethics and morals fill these very pages. While ease of travel has increased and continues to do so, some travel occurs due to political, economic, and social unrest, with diasporic conditions on the rise. The issue is that travel in anthropological and missionary history has largely moved in one direction. Anthropologists and missionaries, as competitive travelers, go to the people whom they will live among, study, document, or proselytize. Typically, such travel has proceeded out of ‘Western’ or ‘developed’ nations into ‘developing’ or ‘undeveloped’ ones. No such simple directionality exists at present. Peoples of the Global South (i.e., the ‘non-West’) now routinely send missionaries to nations assumed to be hyper-consumerist and increasingly secularist, effectively reversing the directionality of missionary movement. Strategies of ‘reverse mission’ (Ustorf 2010: 189–202; see also Adogame 2013: 169–191; Byrnes 2011) posit Western nations as the new target regions, that is, areas where consumerism, greed, and multiple vices of all colors abound in good measure. Those on the higher latitudes of socio-economic spectrums are now on the receiving end of missionizing activity. Similar switching of directionality or reversed gaze occurs even in anthropology, the Christian mission’s younger methodological sibling. Not only are ‘native’ or ‘indigenous’ ethnographies rightly becoming more commonplace, but anthropologists hailing from outside Euro-America now conduct ethnographies of our ‘here’ (their ‘there’) (e.g., Ntarangwi 2010). As travel itself grows increasingly multi-directional, the analyst has but to keep his or her eyes open for new discourses yet to arise—discourses seeking to account for these and other unexpected shifts in travel or movement that echo broader societal changes in the global sphere.
The author would like to thank Andrew Kunze, Bharat Ranganathan, and Thomas Tweed for valuable feedback on initial drafts of this article. I presented a shortened version at the University of Chicago Divinity School’s 2016 graduate student conference, “Religion and Movement,” and I appreciate the insightful discussions with conference attendees. I am also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers who helped sharpen the article’s claims and thicken the historical context.
In terms of social scientific ‘missions’ that follow along archetypical and even ‘mythic’ patterns, see Bellah’s foreword to Rabinow’s (2007) Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco. On anthropological schools having a shared sense of ‘mission’, see Darnell (2001: 36). Governments finance diplomatic ‘missions’ for the sake of building relations with other nations (see Hall 1989), while anthropologists carry on ‘missions’ of knowledge building and documentation of cultural phenomenon that can result in humanistic cross-cultural empathy (Ploeg 1990: 65; Tremlett 2014: 23). Furthermore, it is also important to clarify at the outset that in practice anthropological and missionary goals are not always antithetical. Both fields sometimes share the goal of increasing knowledge about cultures and languages.
To be clear, the discourses are not temporally successive nor for that matter exclusive or bounded. Rather, many of them circulate, submerge, disappear, and reappear at different time periods and for different reasons.
For more on the theoretical backdrop leading up to this shift, see Ortner (1984).
The reflexive turn notwithstanding, anthropologists have historically committed themselves to a troubled but pervasive form of idealized scientific disinterestedness and objectivity (see, e.g., Firth, cited in James 1988: 48).
Ploeg (1990: 70–71) delineates a threefold typology to describe the correspondence between anthropologists and missionaries, including “reciprocity, identification (association) and independence.” But as we will see, matters are more complex and convoluted. Nevertheless, parts of Ploeg’s taxonomy clearly track with the more specific taxonomy I am advancing in this article. Abbink’s (1990) self-described ‘meta-contextual’ approach to the study of the anthropologist versus missionary binary is the closest work to date to my own approach. Yet I have the benefit of writing nearly seventeen years after he published his analysis. Abbink’s fivefold, meta-analytic typology of scholarly considerations of the anthropology-missionary relationship (i.e., historical, pragmatic, methodological, theological, and epistemological) is numerically similar to my typology of six discourses, but still does not capture the nuance of convergence, divergence, and overlap present in these discursive contestations in their present reconfiguration.
Although missionary counter-discourses regarding anthropological competitors abound in published discourse, this genre of literature falls outside the immediate scope of my study. One might note, in passing, that missionaries harbored hostile feelings toward the other occupational ethnographers, considering them “intruders and unconcerned intellectuals” who exploited indigenous people for information and offered “little in return” (Michaud 2007: 7). See also Abbink (1990: 130–131) for a substantial list of missionary criticisms directed at anthropologists, including the claim that missionaries were, in fact, better fieldworkers since they spent far more time in target regions. Thanks to Andrew Kunze for pressing me to contextualize anthropological discourses on missionaries in terms of missionary counter-discourses.
Kroeber, one of Boas’s students, argues in 1922 that “the old ‘speculative’ ethnology,” drawing largely on missionary data and records, be “replaced ‘in full swing’ by a new ‘inductive’ science of anthropology” (as quoted in Darnell 2001: 214).
Fabian (2007: 150) describes Livingstone as a dual “missionary-explorer” working for more than one colonialist domain—as a mineral prospector in the Congo and as an active missionary.
Yet Darnell (1970) still recognizes the difference between the professions. In the formational years of Americanist anthropology, numerous groups sought urgently to record knowledge of the North American Indian peoples, even if for strikingly different agendas: “Missionaries, traders and settlers had similar urgent motivations to understand the Indians for their own practical purposes as the frontier moved westward” (ibid.: 91). As Stocking (1992: 281) puts it, although “the doctoral dissertation based on fieldwork was not yet the norm, and academically trained fieldworkers were still few in number, those who went out from the university to the field in the 1920s were confident that they were doing ethnography in a different, more efficient, more reliable, more ‘scientific’ way than the travellers, missionaries, and government officials whom they were pushing to the margins of the discipline.”
The relationship between early anthropologists and Christianity is an exceedingly complex but fascinating one. A thorough history of this genealogy falls out of this article’s immediate purview. Fortunately, the subject has been compellingly pursued elsewhere. See Cannell (2005), Douglas (1966: 11–12), Hall (1989: 206–207, 220), Klassen (2011: xxi–xxii, 34–35, 38, 162), Larsen (2014), Malinowski ( 1984: 100), McGrane (1989), Robbins (2006), and Stocking (1992: 293–294) on various aspects of anthropology’s theological roots, key anthropologist’s religious backgrounds, and the presence of Christian ethnocentrism in anthropological thought, among other topics. Firth, for instance, denounces the use of anthropology as an extension of colonization and Christianity (cited in James 1988: 47). But it must also be clarified that not all missionaries—or anthropologists, for that matter—were happy about serving larger colonial regimes (Klassen 2011: xxi).
Herzfeld’s pessimism is not unwarranted. Missionaries, alongside settlers, administrators, military personnel, and capitalists, sometimes even force diasporic movement (Cohen, cited in Lewellen 2002: 163–165) and establish pervasive, external labeling systems for indigenous formations (Benedict 1934] 2005: 31–32; see also ibid.: 21, 86). In terms of the distancing mechanisms and dehumanizing methods involved in colonialist and bureaucratic processes of forgetting (from both missionary and scientific vantage points), see Fabian (2007: 71–72). On how anthropological researchers forget missionary precursors, Lévi-Strauss (1961) offers a case in point. One of the anthropologist’s large expeditions to South America encountered a very small group of Nambikwara in Brazil. In his diary, Castro Faria noted three travelers in the group: two Nambikwara men accompanied by a Jesuit priest. Lévi-Strauss, notably, mentioned only the two indigenous figures in his diary (Wilcken 2010: 91), essentially writing the missionary presence out of the picture.
Allen and Jobson (2016: 129) characterize anthropological developments after the 1980s and 1990s, writing of the “much storied crisis of representation; attempted corrections following movements of ‘Third World’ peoples, women, and queer folks; the recent disavowal of … reflexivity and experimentation; and what George Marcus has recently termed a ‘crisis of reception.’” Describing anthropology’s decolonized, decolonizing turn, these scholars focus on the heretofore unrecognized work of the anthropologists of the African diaspora in developing anthropological theory.
As Stocking (1992: 179) puts it, “anthropology throughout most of its history has been primarily a discourse of the culturally or racially despised.”
Along these lines, Abbink (1990: 121) questions whether an “underlying reason” for the contention between the two disciplines “is probably the insecurity among anthropologists about their field being a science, and about what kind of science it should be.”
On implicit and explicit discussions on missionary funding of anthropological research, see Droogers (1990), Lewellen (2002: 218–219), and Miedema (1990). For an account of the anthropologization of missions programs at elite evangelical colleges and universities in the United States, see Worthen (2014: 124–147). See also Droogers’s (1990: 14) comment on the integration of social sciences perspectives by missionaries, as well as Handman’s (2015: 68) discussion of the emergence of a form of “noncoercive evangelism” due to the fact that “postwar American missionization did not want to be colonialist.”
As with other issues, not all anthropologists agree on this matter. Michaud (2007: 7) claims that “over colonial times, professional anthropologists and missionaries were able to largely ignore one another or keep out of each other’s way for as long as the colonial enterprise provided a logical division between their respective roles.”
Do note, though, that Abbink (1990: 126) rejects these characterizations of overlap as overly simplistic in that they ignore the foundational differences of intent that he views as driving the divergent fields. Other voices depict Christian ecumenical mission strategies as a productive model of interaction for anthropological schools to follow (Miller 1981).
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