On whether missionaries were racist

Robert Woodberry unpacks the criticisms levelled at Christian missionaries – then and now.



Robert Woodberry unpacks the criticisms levelled at Christian missionaries – then and now.


Some missionaries were racist. Most of them were not. Well, it depends how you are defining racism, but missionaries varied a great deal on how sensitive they were to the cultures to which they went. There was often a sense of cultural hierarchy that 19th- and early 20th-century missionaries brought with them. But they were resistant to racialist ideas of why different societies were less economically developed and less powerful and had less modern science, etc.

So if you look at the 19th and early 20th century, it’s the younger missionaries and the more educated missionaries that tend to be more racist. The older missionaries and the less educated missionaries tended to be less racist. That’s because, in the 19th century, you get the development of sort of “scientific racism” – evolutionary ideas that were not just neutral, they were about the creation of a racial hierarchy which white people and fair-skinned people were at the top of, and which dark-skinned people were at the bottom of. And it was viewed as something that was genetic – they didn’t know about genes at the time, but like … there was a racial hierarchy that was fixed, and in terms of the rise of anthropology, for example, the people who formed anthropology, many of them were very, very critical of missionaries for thinking that dark-skinned people were capable of abstract thought, and were capable of understanding Christianity or understanding Western education, and they were criticised hugely for that.

So the person who founded anthropology was a man named James Hunt. He founded the first anthropological society, he edited the first two anthropological journals, he coined the term anthropology to differentiate it from ethnography which is what missionaries did. And he directly criticised missionaries for thinking that blacks were the same species, and for thinking that they were capable of abstract thought. And he said they were totally ignoring the facts of science.

Now missionaries were criticised by people of their day continually for being too egalitarian. Now when we look back, then we criticise them for not being egalitarian enough. But if we compare them to people during their own time period, they are on the egalitarian fringe. Now it might not be our ideal of what egalitarianism is now, but we’re in a different point in history and we have to compare them to the other people of European ancestry during their day – or even to the other people of non-European ancestry of their day. So it’s not that Europeans are the only group that had racialised ideas of hierarchies. Societies that they went to – the Chinese viewed Westerners as barbarians. So did the Koreans, so did the Japanese, so did the Thai, etc, and called them barbarians.

Many of indigenous people’s words for themselves is human being, that’s just … their name for themselves is human being, implying other people are not fully human beings, like us. So it’s not like missionaries were the only groups that were racist or ethnocentric – everyone was, to some extent. Missionaries were not free of that problem.