Towards a History of Missionary Knowledge? Impressions from the Conference ‘Mapping Entanglements’

On February 10 and 11, we held a conference entitled “Mapping Entanglements: Missionary Knowledge and ‘Materialities’ across Space and Time (16th–20th centuries).” Broadly speaking, the conference posited that what we know about missionaries is not the same as what we know from missionaries, and it aimed to examine the history of the latter under the rubric of “missionary knowledge.” Accordingly, conference participants explored how missionaries produced knowledge as well as how this knowledge traveled and transformed from generation to generation and location to location. By tracing a wide variety of missionaries’ cultural productions, including writings, maps, drawings, and collections of objects, participants mapped the terrains in which missionary knowledge transpired—within, but also beyond the purview of the distinct missions in which it originated.

The image of missionary knowledge that emerged during the conference differed from conventional narratives of evangelization and expansion in two main ways. One of them was that presenters attempted to situate and explore missionaries as agents in multiple roles and networks. Several papers, for instance, emphasized that people affiliated with a missionary society abroad were ethnographers by training or at the same time involved with colonial institutions. The most consistent insight arising from studies of such interconnections was that missions developed hand in hand with Western academic disciplines such as comparative linguistics, social anthropology, evolutionary biology, botany, geology, and medicine. Perhaps due to this focus, surprisingly little was said about faith, beliefs, or religious practices (such as praying, worship, confession, or conversion) as forms of missionary knowledge production. In her keynote lecture, Rebekka Habermas argued as much when she emphasized that “knowledge-making” must not be considered separately from “religion-making”; among the most genuine legacies of global missionary work are the understandings of religious differences (between Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and their variants) that prevail in the West to this day.

The other difference to traditional missionary historiography that struck me was the close attention presenters paid to the material dimension of missions. Here, participants went beyond interpreting the content of textual sources to explore how both texts and objects—from printed books to plant collections—embodied styles and structures of missionary knowledge. Such considerations of the material side of missionary knowledge yielded results analogous to the findings about the missionaries’ various affiliations. The objects shaped—and were shaped by—multiple networks external to the mission. Missionary writings could be cited in natural history books, for instance; they were printed, edited, and revised by publishers; and they were circulated by merchants and other travelers. Similarly, the curiosities that missionaries collected in the field were transformed by requirements of visual representation. Whether displayed in private homes or in museums and exhibitions, they were arranged to meet the tastes of their viewers rather than reveal the objects’ original contexts.

This photograph shows the African American missionary Emily T. Vernon in South Africa in the 1920s. Besides visualizing African American notions about Christianity and education, the image evinces missionary knowledge in the use of photography both to garner support for the work and to provide dense and presumably accurate documentation of the mission.

Source: “‘Mother’ Vernon and her South African ‘Children,'” Emily T. Vernon, South Africa: An Open Door—A Story in Pictures, p. 9, Bishop William Tecumseh Vernon Collection, Kansas Collection, RH MS 529, box 3, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries. Courtesy of George F. Flowers, the Department of Global Witness and Ministry (Mission) of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Although the conference focused mainly on the missionaries’ multiple roles and relationships as well as on the circulating materials themselves, some papers approached the problem of missionary knowledge from other angles. These papers were noteworthy because they accounted both for the construction of the missionary archive as a coherent body of knowledge and for those instances in which this construction was fragile, contested, at times even collapsing. Justin Reynold’s (Columbia, New York) paper on the use of questionnaires in the mid-twentieth-century ecumenical movement, for instance, prompted us to consider the enormous effort that missionaries and church associations made to define and control the meaning of “missionary knowledge” themselves. Using the example of the London Missionary Society archive, C. Chandra Sekhar (Hyberdad, India) showed that we can deconstruct such sanitized records to get at the history of the people who this documentation silenced and excluded. And Senayon Olaoluwa (Ibadan, Nigeria) reminded us in his analysis of variations in the Christian message of African converts’ oral traditions that archives are, after all, only one of many sites where missionary knowledge manifested itself. Rather than looking into where missionary knowledge entered dominant Western concepts of knowledge in the mold of science, these papers conceptualized missionary knowledge as a site where Western supremacy can be challenged.

As a historian of African American missionaries to Africa in the early twentieth century, I would have liked to hear more about such tensions, struggles, and competitions in the missionary pursuit of knowledge. After all, the conference certainly underscored that missionaries were not a homogeneous group with an “essential” way of knowing. The total sum of the papers brought into view a highly diverse constellation of people (local converts, African Americans, women, etc.) who approached knowledge from diverse perspectives for different purposes, while classing themselves as missionaries. As one of the African American missionaries I studied put it,

It is amazing, how much one can say upon a subject that he knows absolutely nothing about. But are there not books upon every imaginable subject? Yes, verily: “of making many books, there is no end.” … Those books contained a great deal of information, but most of them contained also many errors…. [It] is difficult for either a white or a colored writer to avoid being influenced by prejudice. The white man sees the African full of faults and deficiencies, which may be true; but certainly not all of the truth: while the colored man, in trying to correct the misrepresentations so apparent, may incline to the opposite extreme.1

Statements like these should encourage us all the more to approach the history of missionary knowledge from perspectives that go beyond its entanglements with Eurocentric notions of science and academia. They prompt us to consider that what missionaries constructed and presented as knowledge was as much the result of social stratifications along racial, gender, literacy, and educational lines as it was a tactic in the exercise of power, repression, and political self-representation. Perhaps the most important insight we can gain from a critical interrogation of the knowledge we have inherited from missionaries concerns a deeper understanding of the social dislocations and archival gaps that privileged certain bodies of knowledge over others.

Elisabeth Engel is a Research Fellow at the GHI in Washington, DC.

Suggested Citation: Elisabeth Engel, “Towards a History of Missionary Knowledge? Impressions from the Conference ‘Mapping Entanglements’,” History of Knowledge, March 2, 2017,