History of Christianity in North East India

Published on June 12, 2010

History of Christianity in North East India

By Lal Dena

In the nineteenth century Christian missions and colonialism seemed to follow upon each other in Africa and Asia. It is for this reason that in the eyes of many African and Asian peoples colonialism was seen to assume both the role of a ‘politician’ and a ‘priest’ and Christian missions appeared to be a part of and expression of western colonial expansion.

Lal DenaSome of them even go to the extent of characterizing missions as merely the ‘hunting dogs of western imperialism . Under the surface of seemingly cordial relations between missions and colonialism, there lay a many branched complexity of difficulties. During the historical period, Christian missions and colonialism interacted in different forms and at different levels. This is to say that the mode of their interaction differed from mission to mission and also from country to country.

The degree and extent of the interactions or conflicts between missions and colonialism largely depended on the particular mission and the issues involved as well as the nature of the colonial situation. Therefore, any generalization of the relation of a particular mission with a particular colonial government would be risky. The specific objective of this paper is to examine the interconnections and collision of missionary and colonial interests and how did they influence or affect the growth of Christianity in North East India.

Total collaboration between missions and colonialism, even though short-lived, could be seen in the case of Spain and Portugal – the two countries of strong Catholic faith. For these two countries, missionary work could hardly be dissociated from the interests of the state; neither could the latter do without the faithful co-operation of the missions. Obsessed with the medieval conception of missionization, Portugal and Spain were solely guided by the principle of cujus region, ejus religio .

Where missionary activity was backed up by colonial power, missionary preaching obviously assumed a political character. The native peoples also got the impression that one had ‘missionised’ them to exploit them.  Aware of the serious implications of the coupling of mission and colonial politics, Catholic missions, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, gradually took missionary leadership into their own hands. The Congregotio de propaganda fade (from Pope) cautioned its missionaries that they should not occupy themselves with politics and also not allow themselves to be used for political purposes .

In contrast to Spain and Portugal, the English Crown did not become itself the colonizer. There seemed to be no clear-cut alignment of the sword and the cross even though there was a strong current of public opinion in English society that regarded plantations and colonizing agencies to be responsible for the propagation of Christian faith. In his instructions to the English navigators, Edward VI stressed that the service of Christianity must be the chief motive of their expeditions.

In fact, commercial and missionary opinion constituted the basis of nineteenth century English liberalism . The only difference was that English colonial politics in Asia lay in the hands of a powerful private trading company – the British East India Company – which was motivated purely by commercial interest.

The company saw in the missions the possibility of disruption of peace which could affect adversely its business interests. While the company’s view on missions did not necessarily represent those of the British Empire, the affinity of Christian missions and British colonial policy seemed to be apparently over-shadowed by the company’s antagonistic attitude towards the missionary movement.

In most cases, the missionary was far ahead of the government and even of the trader. In a backward region where a state of barbarism or savagery existed, the missionary usually ventured to work. The selfless services which he rendered in terms of his expert knowledge and moral influence tended to have a soothing effect on the people among whom he worked and lived.

This sometimes made the way easier for the exercise or gaining of political control over the native peoples and this happened usually where the missionary and the government belonged to the same nationality. Where such colonial rule was established, missionary work tended to legitimize colonial occupation . Unable to distinguish the ‘white man who preached’ from the ‘white man who ruled’, the native peoples looked upon colonial rule as beneficial. Of course, the psychological and social Implications of colonialism had disadvantages that far outweighed the supposed advantages .

Events in Africa produced proof that the missionaries normally favored the idea of bringing their mission areas under the government to which they belonged. Nobody could doubt David Livingstone’s sincerity when he first went to South Africa from Scotland to be a missionary and doctor to the people of Africa. However Livingstone was not always the same person. His later public utterances showed that his main objective was the opening up of a path for trade and Christianity in Africa .

So far there was not much cause for surprise. But when he was said to have whispered to the Duke of Argyll, “…What I can tell none but such as you, in whom I have confidence, is this. I hope it may result in an English colony in the healthy islands of Central Africa” . Livingstone had to eventually break away from his original African sponsors, the London Missionary Society because the latter thought that he spent too much time exploring without gospelling.

Likewise the English missionaries in Cameroon and in South African Bachuanaland also decided for British occupation of their mission areas. The Anglican missionaries in New Zealand were perhaps the strongest opponents of imperial expansion. But they also succumbed when it seemed apparent that if the British did not come in, the French would .

As political control advanced, the missionary was prepared to welcome it and to co-operative with the government if he was convinced that its policy was of benefit to the subject people. It should be noted that the missionaries belonged to the epoch of Cecil Rhodes and Bismarck. They were liable to be caught up in the stream of the time and half consciously to identify their own country’s interests with the interests of the kingdom of God.

No human motive were entirely pure and even the most blameless of missionaries could be a victim to this. Instances, though few, showed that some missionaries left the service of their missions and enthusiastically devoted themselves to the service of their country in its colonial domain. This inevitably made them appear before the eyes of the world and of the subject peoples in particular more in the character of agents of their government than messengers of the gospel.

Even where the missionary had not served any colonial power directly, he had only too gladly accepted protection from the colonial power. In such a situation, the missionary found it difficult to resist the temptation to collaborate with the government. The temptation indeed was more difficult to resist for those who had pro-imperialist leaning and held the view that the hand of God was visible in colonial expansion. They tried to mystify colonial expansion as a ‘divine command’ to intensify their evangelical work.

Gustav Warneck, the leading head of the German Evangelical Mission of the time, has admitted that the objective of the German colonial movement was not the establishment of the kingdom of heaven on earth. And so he theologized the colonial movement as if it were a ‘divinely willed’ opportunity for a missionary cause and “if God in heaven provides an opportunity then His servants on earth have to take up the work” . Such ‘divinely willed opportunities’ were usually never let go by most mission societies.

Warneck has thus justified the missionary’s action that sought to take advantage for the colonial situation. More serious, he has rigidly maintained that only the great colonial movements had made the missions acceptable . This was really a dangerous proposition because the white official’s behavior which was not always in conformity with biblical doctrines could stand in the way of the success of missionary work.

There is no doubt that missionary expansion in various countries was greatly facilitated through its association with government agencies. Prior to the extension of Britis political authority into the Igbo country in West Africa, most Igbos treated missionary evangelism with indifference. F.K.Ekechi, in this connection has argued that British military imperialism and other forms of colonial expansion were in fact basic to the decision of many Igbo communities in embracing Christianity .

Therefore some missionaries in West Africa tended to regard British power and prosperity as a blessing and so, saw nothing insidious in taking advantage of their association with British economic or political expansion in furthering what they considered to be the kingdom of God . Surely some missionary movements had an almost Hebraic faith. They also believed in worldly success and power which certainly attended the faithful pursuit of duty, and were instrumental in forwarding what they thought were God’s purposes in the world. 

The only restraining factor was that worldly success and power were not to be striven for their own sake. Where the mission submerged into the colonial plunge without any restraint, its credibility irreparably suffered and it was bound to be, to use Paul Schuetz’s words, “Caesar who allows the hunting dog to run, will whistle him back. The hunting dog serves him. The mission is an important factor in culture and civilization and Caesar has the full right to whistle him away or back and it helps fulfil his dearest tasks” .

While some missions might not have totally excluded the possibility of preparatory support for colonial aggrandizement, it would be wrong to assume that all missions had close connections with colonial politics. Nor was it true that the missions or missionaries could not operate successfully without the support of colonial governments. Klaus-J Bade, a noted German theologian, had argued with some exaggeration however, that the interconnection between missions and colonial policy centered on the question of the need for stability which was provided either by missions themselves or by colonial rule.

Bade has overlooked the fact that a stable political condition was not always a pre-condition for the success of missionary work as evidenced by the existence of some mission stations outside the European colonies. It cannot however be denied that political stability was needed by missions for greater and more permanent development. In fact the missionary and the native Christians profited from the stabilization of political relations, improvement of transportation and the economic development of a colony, let alone the significance of the freedom of preaching and practicing one’s own religion guaranteed by the state.

Peaceful and stable conditions did foster those conditions wherein Christian values and virtue and, to be more specific, Christian faith, among them could take deeper roots . Falling in line with Klaus-J Bade, Elias Schrenk, a missionary of the Basel Missionary Society, in his memorandum to the British Parliament, had emphatically stressed that peace was a sine qua non for missionary work and even justified a strong power stepping in where a weak people had not yet managed to arrive at a state of peace among themselves.

The truth of the matter is that many missions could operate successfully without colonial support. For instance, there emerged many mission stations in countries such as Fiji, South and Central Africa, Sierra-Leone, Burma, Guiana, etc., long before the British imperialists had set their foot on them . Similarly British missionaries had managed to penetrate into Madagascar and Buganda and consequently made a large number of converts quite outside the realm of British colonial administration. These instances not only invalidated the theory that the missionary found it impossible to work outside the protection of a colonial power or the support of armed forces but also established the fact that peaceful conditions were not indispensable.

But one must overlook the fact that colonial powers in many cases more or less directly exploited the missions for their own ends. In the course of the nineteenth century, the colonial powers had also developed the concept of ‘civilizing’ the people in their colonies. The concern for the progress of the native peoples and promotion of the ‘ideas of advantages of civilization’ also figured in the Congo Conference in Berlin, 1885, which commenced, of course, with a ceremonial evocation of the omnipotent God.

The Conference was attended by almost all the European colonial powers. It was the colonialists’ strategy to try to clothe their colonial enterprise as a divine mission – that of taking up the ‘white man’s burden’ to the subject peoples. The mutual binding between missions and colonial politics was at its strongest where the two accepted the ‘white man’s burden’ as a ‘genuine responsibility’ which some anti-imperialist missionaries referred to as ‘Christian imperialism’.

The theory of operational unity was put in such a way as to give the impression that colonization and missionary work were two sides of the same thing. Certainly there were common fields of operation. Education and medical work were the areas in which missions and colonial structures were most closely integrated. The intermingling of missionary work and colonial politics had to give in very quickly when the financial or man-power of the missions became inadequate to perform the tasks.

In such cases, the government offered funds to the missions for humanitarian services. But they did not stop there. They carefully tried to infuse or introduce the interest of the ‘mother-land’ in the teaching materials and in shaping the educational structure. The educational process thus seemed to be involved more in a systematic application of influence on the minds, moral and religious susceptibilities of subject peoples. The whole undertaking of the missions (where they collaborated with colonial powers) was made with an avowed allegiance to the nation state.

In the process, the missions tended to operate within the limited framework of the colonial structure. They catered to the needs of the government by training and recruiting the lower level of government and commercial bureaucrats. The socialization of the subject peoples into the colonial culture appeared to be the manifest function of such missions which at best only improved the existing structures .

The question arises: Why did the colonial powers back such moves? It was not that all the colonial powers had developed such an interest in missionary work from purely religious motives. They were perhaps convinced that the ‘civilizing influence of missions’ advanced colonial plans directly or indirectly. Moreover, in contrast to the officials of the colonial administration, the missionaries, by virtue of their dedication and deep commitment to their work, had gained a closer relationship of trust and intimacy with the people.

Equally important, the missionaries had remained as a rule considerably longer, if not for life, in the country. Therefore, the missionary movement was seen as the most effective force of colonization, not only because it did not use force, but especially since it penetrated more deeply into the life of the people. The cooperation of missions or missionaries was sought as the completion of the task that the colony of a Christian power (nation) became a Christianized colony because of the fear that the colonizers could never consolidate their authority if the subject people were not Christian.

Their whole concept thus centered on conquista espiritual. Aime Casaire in hid ‘Discours sur le Colonialisme’ had argued that Christianity was related to colonialism in so far as the evangelical task was exploited by colonizers as they hypocritically put the cloak of humanity on something inhuman. The double equation: Christianity=civilization; heathenism=barbarism (lack of civilization) was propagated and it gives rise to fearful colonialistic and racistic consequences, the victims of which were the non-European peoples .

The misrepresentation of missionary work as an indispensable factor for ‘national undertaking’ also provided the seemingly common ground of operational unity. In this way a significant step for the coordination of missionary and national interests of a particular country to which the missionary belonged was made. In such a case, the mission could be a ‘mission of faith and love’ only in the way it served the church and the country.

This was, in fact, a critical situation in which many missionaries were placed. Claiming to be both a missionary and a nationalist at the same time, some missionaries even carried with them their national prejudices and took up the work of spreading the gospel as a matter of ‘patriotic honour’ and ‘national duty’ . The basic characteristic of Christianity was its universalism. The moment it was made to lose its universality by linking it with the national interests of a particular country, the mission eventually became the instrument of colonial expansion and colonial expansion became colonialism .

As a matter of fact, Christianity knew no geographical or national barriers. Apostle Paul’s message: “It is through faith that all of you are God’s sons in union with Christ Jesus” and here “there is no difference between Jews and gentiles, between slaves and free men, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus . In other words, faith in Christ was faith in a new humanity. This can be further illustrated from Jesus Christ’s teaching and behavior which was subversive of both the Jewish power structure and Roman imperialism.

By birth Jesus was a Jew, but the universal character of the new humanity that he proclaimed contradicted the nationalist particularism of the Jewish authority . Discipleship of Jesus, thus in a final analysis, consists, above all, in total self-dedication to the creation of a new human community, in which love will replace violence, service will replace the brute exercise of power, in which no barrier will separate man from man, in which the first will be the least of today, namely, the wretched and the dispossessed of the earth.”

Seen in this light, some evangelical missions kept themselves firmly away from any solidarity with colonial powers and shielded themselves from the emphasis on colonial and general civilizing purpose. It follows that the right mission or anti-collaborationist missionary could not be used as the hand-maiden of colonial politics. Instead, the missionary did not give compromising loyalty to a government if that government was an instrument of oppression nor tolerate such national limitations.

In short, he denounced all subtle forms of ruling and controlling claims and undertook measures to ensure human dignity to all peoples of the world. Regardless of the nation he came from these words of Apostle Paul were the only guidance: “Pro Christo legatione fungimur” (We are emissaries of Christ) . It would be the death of the apostolate if the missionary served his earthly fatherland more than God’s kingdom, because the native people could easily understand what he actually wanted from them.

Underneath the apparent alliance between the Christian missions and colonialism, there were therefore inner ideological contradictions. The missionary movement at least in some cases, was basically motivated by ‘a profound love of Christ and an intense desire that others should share that love, together with a sincere love of fellowmen and sympathy for the poor and the suffering were the special objects of the love of Christ .

Whereas the colonial movement was primarily motivated by commercial interest – the interest to exploit the material resources and find new markets for the products of their home industries. Basically colonial policy was inconsiderably egoistic. It looked upon the natives as members of an inferior race and as instruments to further its own interests. Aime Casaire has discussed at length the damaging impact of colonialism on subject peoples. He has seen in colonization nothing but the lust for gold, plunder and profiteering and concluded that “a nation which colonized and justified colonization begot finally and inevitably its Hitler.”

The method of work and approach also point to the inner contradiction in their basic beliefs. While the missionary preached Christian precepts of charity, unselfishness, purity and temperance, the colonial official practiced ruthless severity and enriched himself by forcing the natives into virtual slavery . This is not to ignore the fact that there were many officials who were public spirited, even as much the missionary. Among the business people there was terrible class snobbery and race prejudice.

In supporting the missionary’s educational programs, the colonial government wished to have orderly and disciplined citizens who could staff its administrative apparatus. On the contrary, the cultural and social side-effects of missionary preaching and community building including health care had contributed to the availability of disciplined and thoughtful people who at times resorted to a criticism of existing systems or even protested against the injustice of colonial rule . And it was these newly emergent elite among the Asian and African people who took over the government in the post-colonial period.

From the very outset, the missions were concerned with the building up of independent churches with their own leaders both in Asia and Africa. Thus in so far as the missions were concerned, the idea of independence had been formulated often consciously and sometimes unconsciously long before any colonial power had thought of such questions of nationalism . Through this, a new conflict arose between the goals of the missionaries and those of colonial politics. While Christianity was not based on any ‘isms’ whatsoever, Christian awareness was, for instance, an integral part of the emergence of African nationalism.

Christianity taught the uniqueness of an individual, his infinite worth before God; whereas colonialism, in many respects, said just the opposite. In short, biblical teachings were basically at variance with colonialism. Few erring pro-imperialist missionaries were suspicious of the emergence of nationalist movements and they either kept themselves away from such movements or took sides with colonial powers. But these few missionaries should not be confused with the main stream of missionaries who, by example and precept demonstrated the reality of Christian principles.

It is therefore more correct to say that true European Christians stood on the side of what was right – namely, that oppression or suppression of any human being was wrong. Such missionaries were friends of national leaders and strove for independence from colonial rule in decisive phases of freedom struggle both in Asia and Africa.

1. See for example, Temu, A.J., British Protestant Missions, (London, 1972), p. 132 and Panikkar,
K.M., Asia and Western Dominance (London, 1953), p. 455.

2. Strayer, Robert W., The Making Mission Committees in East Africa (New York, 1978), p. 2

3. Blanke, Von Fritz, ‘Mission and Kolonial-Politik’ in Europe und Kolonialismus (Zurich and
Stuttgart, 1962) p. 92
4. Ibid. p. 106.
5. Mayhew, Arthur; Christianity and the Government of India 1600-1920 (London), p. 50.
6. Stokes, Eric; The English Utilitarians and India (Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 40.

7. Bade, Klaus-J; ‘Colonial Missiona and Imperialism: The Background to the Fiasco of the Rhenish
Mission in New Guinea’ in the Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. XXI, No. 2,
August, 1975, p. 78.

8. Eke, Peter; “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa’ in Comparative Studies in Society and
History, Vol.  17, No. Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 99.

9. Moorhouse, Geoggray; The Missionaries (London, 1968), p. 414.

10. Ibid. p. 135

11.  Morris James; Pax Britanica, The Climax of an Empire. (New York, 1958), P. 121.

12. Neil, Stephen; Colonialism and Christian Missiona (London, 1968), p. 414.
13. Ibid. p. 280.

14. Ibid. p. 414.

15. Bade, Klaus; op.cit., p. 82.
16. Ibid. p. 82.

17. Ekechi, F.K.; “Colonialism and Christianity in West Africa: The Igbo Case, 1900-1915” in Journal
of Africa History, XXI, I (1971), p. 103.

18. Strayer, Robert; op. cit. p. 33.

19. Stokes, Eric; op. cit. p. 33.
20. Holsten, Von Walter; ‘Kolonialismus als Theologichs Problem’ in Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis
(Festchrift fur Hans Lilje, Berlin, 1955), p. 163.
21. Bade, Klaus; op. cit. p. 78.
22. Thronton, A.P.; Doctrines of Imperialism (New York, 1965), p. 63.
23. Neil, Stephen, op. cit. p. 304-305.

24. Shivaram, V.; op. cit. p. 6.

25. Low, D.A.; The Lion Rampant. Essays in the Study of British Imperialism (London, 1973), p. 118

26. Blanke, Fritz; op. cit. p. 92.

27. Strayer. Robert; op. cit. p. 106.

28. Hermelink, Jan; ‘Die chistliche Mission und Der Kolonialismus’ in Das Eude der Kolonializet
Wade Welt Von Morgen (Stattgart, 1961), p. 34.

29. Ibid. p. 35.

30. Strayer. Robert, op. cit. p. 101.

31. Bade, Klaus, op. cit. p. 79.

32. Holsten, Von Walter; op. cit. p. 163.

33. Ibid. p. 162.

34. Gensichen, Von H.W.; ‘Die deutche Mission und der Kolonialismus’ in Kerygma und Dogma
(April, 1962), p. 143.

35. Sundkler, Gengt; The World of Mission (Michigan, 1965), p. 121; See also Bade, op. cit. p. 83.

36. Holsten: op. cit. p. 167.

37. Galatians: 3:26 and 28 (Good News Bible)

38. Kappen, Sebastian; Jesus and Freedom (New York, 1977), p. 114-115.

39. Ibid. p. 117.

40. II Corinthians 5: 20 (Good News Bible, 1977)

41. D’Souza, Jerome; Sardar Panikkar and Christian Missions, (Trichinopoly, 1957), p. 53.

42. Holsten, V.W., op. cit. p. 161.

43. Shivaram; op. cit. p. 10.

44. Neil, Stephen; op. cit. p. 332.

45. Hermelink, Jan; op. cit. p. 38.

46. Forman, Charles W. Edt., Christianity in Non-Christian World, (New Jersey, 1967), p. 113.

47. Ibid. p. 114.

The writer, author of eight books and numerous articles, is a professor at the history department in Manipur university, India. He was also president of Northeast India History Association, visiting professor at Dibrugarh University, Assam, and visiting fellow at Korea Foundation, South Korea.

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