Peggy Brock, ed. Indigenous Peoples and Religious Change. Leiden: Brill, 2005. x + 262 pp. $129.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-13899-5.
Reviewed by Tolly Bradford (Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta)
Published on H-SAfrica (October, 2006)
Agency in Religious Change
People change religion, and religion changes people. Tracking these changes is the task of Indigenous Peoples and Religious Change. For the most part, the collection focuses on the interaction between indigenous peoples and Protestant Christianity during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, examining how and why indigenous peoples changed religious practices. Scholarship on this topic, especially in African historiography, has grown rapidly over the last few decades and now seems divided into two interpretations, one emphasizing the agency of indigenous people to adapt Christianity to their own needs, and another building on the missionary-as-imperialist perspective to argue that change in religion was the result of the "imposition of a hegemonic regime" (p. 2). This collection clearly fits with the former perspective; it offers useful examples of what could be called the "agency interpretation" and points out interesting avenues for future studies. Throughout, the volume places indigenous people (not missionaries or colonial power) at the center of the history of religious change.
The book is organized into four parts: "Conceptualizing Religious Change"; "Mission Encounters"; "Transforming Christianity"; and "Assimilating Change." Peggy Brock's introduction does an excellent job of setting the ground work for the collection, outlining terminology and emphasizing that the main focus of the book is not to "provide a generalized explanation for religious change, but … to bring a better understanding of the many different aspects of change" (pp. 3-4). Brock's statement that "the receiving community is the key to understanding the process of change" (p. 3) gives the volume a nice coherence. Terence Ranger's opening chapter reinforces this approach by concluding that all indigenous societies "can lay transforming hands and minds and dreams upon Christianity" (p. 32). Each chapter has detailed footnotes; there is a short bibliography at the end of the collection.
The general argument of the volume--that indigenous people could "lay transforming hands … upon Christianity" (p. 32)--is not particularly novel. Ranger himself has been making this argument since the 1970s. Work on South Africa is particularly alive to this idea, as studies by Elizabeth Elbourne and Paul Landau suggest. While this volume mainly elaborates on this interpretative approach it also draws attention to a number of key themes. This review focuses on three of these themes and how they shed light on, and raise new questions about, religious change amongst indigenous peoples.
The indigenous missionary/teacher is the most important theme discussed in the volume. Brock's chapter is wholly dedicated to analyzing the journals of two indigenous missionaries, while other chapters, particularly John Barker's, discuss indigenous teachers as important players in the process of religious change. Although there are several biographies of indigenous missionaries, and a number of published journals by indigenous missionaries survive, there is relatively little discussion in existing scholarship of how, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the training and employment of indigenous missionaries/teachers became a worldwide phenomenon. The focus on indigenous missionaries/teachers in this volume goes some way to bridging this gap in the scholarship and should convince readers that indigenous missionaries need close study, not only because they were important in spreading new religions, but because their training and employment marked a significant event in mission history and in the history of European-indigenous interaction.
The conclusions reached in this volume on indigenous missionaries range from the evident--they were "middlemen" (p. 82) between the European missionaries and indigenous populations--to the less obvious. Brock, for example, argues that the journals of these religious middlemen are different from those left by European missionaries because they reveal a great deal about the local particularities of the indigenous world but "ignore the institutional nature of mission life and the wider political and economic context in which change occurred" (p. 9). Brock also suggests that, at least in the case of the two indigenous missionaries she writes about, the relationship between the indigenous missionaries and their father was strained because the indigenous missionary "set himself up as more knowledgeable than the father" (p. 118). Coming at things from a different angle, Barker's chapter on Melanesian teachers in Papua New Guinea makes the observation that for most European missionaries it was the "'native' qualities" of indigenous teachers--not their teaching or preaching abilities--that enabled them to succeed (p. 93). Barker does not pursue this issue much further; however, it would be worth questioning how indigenous missionaries/teachers thought about their "nativeness" in light of their unique position in mission societies.
Two other themes deserve mention. The first is Space; the second is Hope. In his chapter on Heiltsuk architecture on Canada's west coast, Michael Harkin explains how buildings were European in outside appearance but Heiltsuk in their inside organization and use. Harkin sees this use of space as a kind of metaphor for Heltsuk Christianity: "architecture was a means of imagining a new world" that was both Christian and Heitsuk (p. 225). Likewise, Barker suggests that indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea were able to integrate Christianity into their everyday lives while keeping the actual mission station physically separate from their village. In both these examples, indigenous communities assimilated Christianity while retaining the ability to organize their own Space.
David Maxwell's excellent chapter on the rise of Pentecostalism in contemporary Zimbabwe reminds us that religious change is often about Hope. Maxwell explains that the growth of Pentecostalism in Zimbabwe is in part because the church teaches people "they are not a 'nobody but a somebody'" (p. 187). Religious change in this case is not for material or educational reasons alone, but a way to achieve some sense of Hope in a contemporary Zimbabwe where life lacks security and material stability.
There are other chapters of considerable interest. Thor Wagstrom provides a useful comparative study of religious encounter in New Zealand and the Eastern Cape before the 1840s, although he incorrectly states (p. 74) that the Methodists founded Lovedale Seminary (Lovedale was in fact opened by Presbyterian missionaries connected to the Glasgow Missionary Society; it later fell under the control of the Free Church of Scotland.) Ranger's somewhat autobiographical chapter on his research into the "dynamism" (p. 21) of indigenous religions in Southern Africa and Australia gives an interesting overview of methodological issues, and Jacqueline Van Gent's analysis of how religious change influenced ideas about the body and illness amongst the Western Arrernte of Australia deserves a close reading.
Some readers may be disappointed with the near-exclusive focus on Protestant Christianity in this book. It would be useful in future to have a volume looking at indigenous peoples' interactions with other world religions, particularly Islam and Catholicism. Another problematic aspect of the book is the way the comparative method as applied in selected chapters and in structuring the volume as a whole emphasizes similarities without doing enough to explore difference. Wagstrom's chapter, for example, gives little information on why rates of conversion in New Zealand and the Eastern Cape differed so much in the 1830s: was it because of factors internal to the indigenous societies or is the violence of the Eastern Cape to blame? Exploring these differences would provide a more nuanced interpretation of religious change.
These critiques aside, this book achieves two important tasks: it explores a diverse set of case studies in the mold of the "agency interpretation" and looks forward to new scholarship by drawing attention to (at least) three themes warranting closer study--indigenous teachers/missionaries, Space and Hope. Because they present a balanced discussion of local particularities and general patterns of religious change, several of these chapters would make excellent course readings at the senior undergraduate and graduate level.
. Terence Ranger, "Mission Adaptations of African Religious Institutions: The Masai Case," in The Historical Study of African Religion , ed. Terence Ranger and I. Kimambo (Berkley: University of California Press, 1972), 221-251.
. Paul Landau, The Realm of the Word: Language, Gender, and Christianity in a Southern African Kingdom (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1995); and Elizabeth Elbourne, "Early Khoisan Uses of Mission Christianity," in Missions and Christianity in South African History, ed. H.C. Bredekamp and Robert Ross (Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand Press, 1995), 65-95.
. Robert H.W. Shepherd, Lovedale, South Africa: The Story of a Century, 1841-1941 (Lovedale: Lovedale Press, 1940), 83-101.
. Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, vol. 1, Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
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Tolly Bradford. Review of Brock, Peggy, ed., Indigenous Peoples and Religious Change.
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