A play performed at the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Nairobi in 1975 depicted the three main oppressors of Africa. First on stage was an Arab slave-trader, who stole the Africans' bodies. Next came the European colonialist, thief of the Africans' land. Finally the wcc depicted a Christian missionary, who took the Africans' culture.

Modern historical scholarship has been harshly critical of "colonial missionaries." That Christianity was an agent of colonialism is so widely assumed, it has become, in the words of Brian Stanley, "one of the unquestioned orthodoxies of general historical knowledge."

Why the negative reaction? The benefits of the missionaries' involvement are obvious: hospitals, schools, colleges, commercial ventures, abolition of slavery, development projects, literacy programs, and improved agricultural methods. But the benefits came at a cost.

Partners in crime

Early missionaries to Africa are most frequently faulted for collaborating with colonial powers. The missionary and colonial administrator were viewed as partners in crime.

Some missionaries were so elated by the added security and development promised by colonial overlords, they crossed the boundaries of Christian morality to advance the colonialist cause. In 1888 Charles Helm of the London Missionary Society deliberately cheated the Ndebele king Lobengula out of his land by mistranslating a crucial document from South African businessmen working with Cecil Rhodes.

Critics sometimes blame the doctrine of providence: if God brought civilization to Africa at the same moment he was sending his gospel, missionaries reasoned, then should not the missionary work with the colonial government rather than oppose it?

It is not hard to find ...

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