Thorsten Altena. Ein Hauflein Christen Mitten in Der Heidenwelt Des Dunklen Erdteils«: Zum Selbst- Und Fremdverstandnis Protestantischer Missionare Im Kolonialen. Münster: Waxmann, 2003. 531 pp. (broschiert), ISBN 978-3-8309-1199-9.
Reviewed by Elisa von Joeden-Forgey (University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-German (June, 2006)
This volume is a careful, meticulously documented study of Protestant missionaries in Africa during Germany's colonial period (1884-1914). Its purpose is twofold: to ground in sociological and historical data the images of Africa held by missionaries and to determine the ways these images operated and changed once missionaries reached their oversea posts. The book's strength lies in its analysis of what author Thorsten Altena calls the missionary "perception matrix" (Wahrnehmungsmatrix)--that is, the sum of influences that organized Protestant missionary understandings of reality (p. 5). In demonstrating clear historical trajectories informing missionary thought about "the [African] Other," Altena goes far in making the case for the importance of local histories to a full understanding of late nineteenth-century imperialism. Rather than the simple carriers of some generalized, pan-European set of representations and agendas, Protestant missionaries appear, in Altena's book, as a sociologically specific set of men whose African goals were the very particular cultural products of the worlds they inhabited during their childhood and seminary years.
Altena's book is based on his dissertation written under the noted historian of German colonialism, Horst Gründer, at the University of Münster. In it, Altena brings together the historical record relating to hundreds of missionaries from all of the German Protestant missions operating in colonial Africa: the Berliner Missionsgesellschaft (BMG), the Evangelische Missionsgesellschaft für Deutsch-Ostafrika (EMDOA/Bethel-Mission), the Leipziger Mission (LMG), the Herrnhuter Brüderunität, the Rheinische Mission (RMG), the Norddeutscher Mission (NMG) and the Basler Mission. His findings are organized into four main sections: an historical overview of missionary activity in the German African colonies (South West Africa, Togo, Cameroon and German East Africa); a study of the cultural influences on missionary images of Africa; a study of the biographical influences upon these images; and, finally, a comparative examination of how these images functioned once missionaries arrived in Africa. The book includes a 614-page appendix on CD-ROM, with brief narrative biographies of the 317 Protestant missionaries sent to Africa, timelines of the various mission stations, maps and a rich selection of photographs, mostly from Africa. The book therefore can serve as a comprehensive handbook for the study of Protestant missionary activity in German colonial Africa.
Based on this research Altena describes a generally held missionary image of Africa that will not be unfamiliar to historians of empire. This image was both positive and negative, with separate variants suited to particular discursive needs. Africa was the "dark continent," populated by groups that were not only savage, but also remnants of some past stage in the development of European humanity (the so-called Naturvölker). African societies needed Christian evangelization and (because they were not simply made up of irrational wild men) they--or at least some of them--could in fact benefit from this evangelization. Key to this image of Africa was the missionary understanding of Kultur, which expressed itself in the form of a pronounced paternalism: "The Protestant mission liked to see itself as a 'Kulturmacht,' emphasized its 'Kulturarbeit' as well as the 'Kulturfortschritte' that came with it, and prided itself on its role as the 'conveyor' of Kultur through 'education'" (pp. 98-99). According to the missionary understanding of the term, Kultur was the manifestation of the specific ethical outlook of Christianity, without which one was left merely with heathen Unkultur on the one hand or destructive civilization on the other (symbolized by such things as the alcohol trade). Christianity was, in other words, the fundamental basis of Kultur, and without it human progress was impossible.
Altena breaks down this general Protestant image of Africa into four (somewhat clumsy) subcategories: the negative-intentional Africa image (Africa as spiritually lacking and in need of Christianity); the positive-intentional Africa image (Africa as full of potential and receptive to Christianity); the positive-relative Africa image (Africa as peopled by respectable cultures that Christianity would fruitfully supplement); and, finally, an image of Africa that grew from the concept of ethnically defined Peoples' Churches (Africa as peopled by specific and bounded ethnic groups defined by language). Each category, Altena argues, had its own particular purpose within and influence upon missionary activity.
So, for example, the negative-intentional and positive-intentional images of Africa were frequently used in missionary propaganda to underscore both the need for and the benefit of missionary activity. They often worked as a team: Africa was war-torn and full of disorder, but the positive effects of missionary activity on specific ethnicities was demonstrable and clear. Such images of Africa were used at the missionary presentations and festivals frequently held all over Germany to drum up popular support and much-needed funding of missionary activities. Out of the positive-intentional representation of certain societies arose the tradition of the public presentation of individual African Christians. In an engaging section of his book, Altena discusses African Christians brought to Germany to tour missionary festivals and fundraisers as examples of Christian piety and evangelical success. Many of them were trained in Germany in such places as the NMG-run Evhe Schule in Westheim, which provided a continuous source of speakers from 1890-1900 (p. 89). Even when relationships between these model Christian Africans and German missionaries soured, as they often did over issues of power, missionary journals and newspapers continued to report on these cases in terms of the positive-intentional image.
The positive-relative image of Africa, expressed predominantly by university-trained Bethel missionaries in German East Africa, shared with the positive-intentional image the idea that Africans were capable of receiving and practicing Christianity. The positive-relative image, however, went further in its appraisal of African societies, treating them as worthy of the designation Kultur. In the words of the missionary Siegfried Delius: "The intellectual and spiritual assets are just as present in the Neger as in the European, it is only a matter of arousing and nurturing them. That occurs principally through the mission, which brings Christianity to the Neger and with it learning and cultural uplifting" (p. 135). The role of Christianity was, according to this model, to develop what was already there. Finally, the idea that Africa was made up of distinct and bounded population groups defined by language became an operational reality that helped simplify missionary activity by allowing missionaries to designate certain regionally-dominant languages as the local lingua franca, thereby avoiding the inconvenience and expense of producing Bibles and other materials in several different languages. As was the case elsewhere in colonial Africa, Altena notes that the decisions behind the missionary identification of a "people" in Africa were always linked to practical issues of power, whether these had to do with the colonial government, missionary relationships to local leaders, or financial constraints.
Having defined the four major categories of Protestant images of Africa, Altena then discusses the historical and socioeconomic sources of these images. He identifies three as historically significant: the general history of Western representations of Africa, the specific field of mission activity in mid- to late-nineteenth-century Germany, and the social and cultural backgrounds of the missionaries themselves. While Altena's discussion of Western representations is straightforward, based on a selection of secondary works on the subject, his discussion of a German missionary milieu is very innovative. What his book contributes to the literature on missionary activity and nineteenth-century expansion is a highly empirical study of the development and spread of specific images of Africa in Germany. Altena does not limit himself to contemporary published materials, or even to the archival materials relating to missionaries, but rather reaches as well into the cultural worlds in which most missionaries were raised. To do this, he looks at the autobiographies (Lebensläufe) written by missionaries themselves as parts of their applications to the various seminaries, at published biographies and memoirs, short notices and references in missionary journals and citations in ephemera such as treatises and pamphlets. Through such painstaking research Altena was able to identify the core regions and focal points from which the various Protestant mission houses drew their applicants as well as key sociological data for most individual missionaries--such as father's profession, family size, education and previous employment. The results of this research are significant: Altena determines that the majority of Protestant missionaries came from village communities and small towns, in regions that had been deeply influenced by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Pietist and Erweckung movements, such as Württemberg, northern Germany, East Prussia and eastern Westphalia. The large majority of missionaries had fathers who were employed as craftsmen or small farmers (201 of 317 missionaries, or 54 percent); a surprising percentage had been orphaned (almost 27 percent); a quarter came from large families of five or more children.
This sociological data can help us understand both the religious and the socioeconomic factors which drove men to join missionary societies--what Altena calls "intra-individual-religious" and the "intra-individual-material" motives respectively. The latter, intraindividual-material motives, included hopes for social advancement as well as the promise of a secure income, something that had become a rarity among young men from large rural families. Altena's findings in this respect confirm the conclusions of Jon Miller's recent study of the Basel Mission. Intra-individual-religious motives were those basic spiritual convictions that led young men to yearn for practical and daily engagement with spiritual work. Many missionaries pointed to the importance of early religious instruction, at home and at church, to their decision to become missionaries. In one case at least, a young man had felt a particular longing to work with "heathens," a calling that was probably influenced by missionary propaganda efforts in his home town (p. 258). Missions often directed their public relations efforts specifically at young people; one Leipziger Mission publication, for example, included the children's rhyme: "Kling' hinaus in alle Lande / Kleine Glocke Du! / Ruf' die armen Heidenseelen / Führ' sie Jesu zu! // Kling' hinein in alle Herzen / Las' die Kinder ein / Lehr' sie bei dem großen Werke / Kleine Helfer sein!" (p. 249). One can easily imagine the effect of such images on young minds, especially in places where missionary festivals were often some of the very few breaks children experienced from daily routine.
Spiritual motives often translated into a specific and conservative worldview among missionary candidates. Many candidates expressed stark criticisms of the world around them--particularly of the urban worlds to which they were introduced at the seminaries, which they saw as heathen in their secularism and apparent social disorder. Work in Africa offered them the opportunity to create a "purified Christian culture" and a "concrete utopia" that did not seem possible amidst the decadence of industrial Europe (p. 271). Altena refers to this worldview as a mental "self-confinement to village life" (Selbstbeschränkung auf das Dörfliche)(p. 233). This self-confinement explains why German missionaries showed such a pronounced distaste for places and people in which decadent European civilization came into contact with potential African Christian utopias. So, for example, missionaries criticized colonial cities, the usage of European clothing by Africans and the colonial plantation economy each on the basis of their threat to the Christian ideal of preindustrial utopias.
In this way, Altena's data help us understand the specific histories of the representations of Africa that missionaries embraced. Rather than drawing from general Western abstractions about Africa, missionaries were developing images from an engagement with their own pasts and presents. Altena points out, for example, that the small and closed Pietist communities in rural Germany showed strong tendencies towards dualistic, us-versus-them thinking which dovetailed nicely with the dualism that characterized so much of the preexisting literature on the non-Western world and that provided the ideological foundation for modern colonial political and legal regimes. Furthermore, the fact that most missionaries came from precisely those worlds threatened by Germany's rapid industrialization helps explain why German missionary activity in Africa was characterized by Romanticist notions of creating ideal village communities, little oases made up of small farmers and often collectively organized into monarchical systems of rule. The willingness of German missionaries to support the interests of local rulers and the colonial state, and to view African resistance as acts against God, can also be explained by the dominant background of Germany's Protestant missionaries (p. 184). Since most missionaries had grown up in strictly patriarchal families where unquestioned loyalty and obedience to state and church authorities was of the highest value, it should be no surprise that they expected such loyalty and obedience both from themselves and from Germany's African subjects.
By grounding images of Africa within the individual backgrounds of German missionaries, Altena's book complicates the idea that there was a deep-seated racism within missionary thought. Altena strongly--and I think rightly--rejects the easy interpretation of dominant missionary thought as racist. Defining racism as an ideology based upon the concept of innate and unalterable differences between human groups, Altena points that "[t]he human being as the starting point and object of their work was not to be discriminated against or put down; on the contrary ... according to their philanthropic understanding, [he] should be enriched and exalted through the transmission of Christianity" (p. 147). While missionaries embraced the idea of an insurmountable barrier and a natural hierarchy between themselves and African Christians, they did so, according to Altena, based upon social models derived from their own upbringing, where local religious leaders stood beside the state and the father as final authorities. Their own claims to ultimate authority were, in other words, more the consequence of their own upbringing within patriarchal communities than of any pre-existing Western racialist discourse about Africans' proper place in the world. Since they viewed themselves as taking the place of the local pastors of their childhood, they interpreted the Africans among them according to this paternalist--and formidably undemocratic--model.
Although missionaries often shared terminology with racist thinkers in the colonial administration, in the military, among colonial settlers and in German universities, Altena notes that "actual racist thought does not necessarily lie behind each racist term" (p. 145). He offers as examples a selection of seemingly racist statements by Bethel missionaries, who used terms like "a fully underdeveloped Neger" or "the poor, lesser Blacks" (p. 145). Cultural underdevelopment and poverty were, in these cases, understood in terms of the missionary project--Africans were underdeveloped and poor by virtue of their lack of exposure to Christianity rather than due to any biological essence. Significantly, Altena notes that such terms were a rarity in missionary writing and almost always referred to non-Christianized Africans. Even those missionaries who spoke out against the social equality of Africans (while simultaneously affirming their equality of value as God's children) usually did so based upon their own romantic concepts of the ideal form of social organization, which was based upon their childhood experience with rigid hierarchies (p. 153).
There were, however, clear groups within missions motivated by concerns that Altena defines as racist. One example is the Bremer Mission committee, which forbade a missionary to marry a Christian Ewe woman from German Togo with explicit reference to inappropriateness of a "Negerin" as a missionary's partner (pp. 149-150). Not only did committee members forbid the marriage, they also involved themselves in thwarting the missionary's future plans to stay in Africa. After receiving the mission's decision, the missionary, a man named Wilhelm Müller, decided to leave the mission and seek employment within the colonial administration, which he presumably hoped would allow him to stay in Togo and remain near the woman he loved. When the Colonial Department of the Foreign Office received his application, it became suspicious of his motivations, and wrote a letter of inquiry to the Bremer Mission about it. The committee, fearing that their former missionary might cause embarrassment or trouble with local authorities in Togo, replied that it did not believe Müller to be a good candidate for colonial service, and used his marriage plans as the central point of their argument. As a consequence, Müller's application was rejected. This story is an interesting example of how missionaries, and especially the mission leadership, were inclined by virtue of the "colonial situation" to uphold the racist social and legal order that had become the foundation of German colonial rule.
Although Altena discusses the differences between missionary thought on Africans and the more racialist language used by other colonial Germans, he does not engage in a historical analysis of the relationships between these various colonial ideologies. It would have been interesting, for example, to know more about the ways in which individual missionaries participated in colonial debates more generally and how their images may have influenced the tenor and development of the colonial "reform" movement. Altena also does not analyze shifts within missionary language regarding Africans over time, although significant shifts have been noted in other colonial quarters between the years 1884 and 1914. Many cases of racist speech among missionaries that Altena discusses, for example, date to years after the turn of the century, when racialist logic was gaining ground in public and political thought about the newly invented "native question" (Eingeborenenfrage). Müller's failed marriage attempt occurred in 1901, by which time "mixed marriage" was becoming a widely shared racial-political concern in Germany proper. By the time such marriages were banned in South West Africa in 1905, the dualistic language and the premise of distinct, culturally-bounded groups that characterized missionary thought could indeed have become racist (or at least racialist) in nature as well as in effect, given that by then many of the racists within the colonial lobby had begun to employ more neutral--and often missionary-influenced--language to shore up Germany's controversial colonial policies. The evidence suggests that many Germans learned racism through colonial activity, and it would be interesting to know how missionaries fared over Germany's thirty years as an oversea empire.
The breadth and depth of Altena's empirical research have limited the degree to which he could adequately address questions of the larger relevance of his study to German history; nevertheless, it is its very breadth that allows this study to suggest so many fruitful avenues for further study while also offering a rich sourcebook for such study. If one were to find any fault with this book, it would be simply that it attempts too much and therefore occasionally lacks in definition. Altena set out to write more than a sociology of missionary images of Africa, for example; he set out to write a transnational history of missionary images of the Self and Other (p. 4). He did this because "the mission was never a one-way street, in which, as it were, 'active' missionaries acted upon the 'passive' missionized, but rather the actions of both sides were, in the context of cultural contact, a part of a specific transcultural constellation, which was formed by mutual adoption, transformation, or new definition of cultural elements, and which had repercussions on everyone involved" (p. 4). This is a crucial point, but one that is very difficult to actualize in a study that spans so many colonies and colonial situations.
One can ask, in fact, how truly transnational Altena's study is. It is indeed transnational inasmuch as he bases his conclusions on evidence taken from the lives of missionaries not only while they were in Germany but also when they were in the field. But the book suffers from an apparent lack of engagement with the literature on African history--so, for example, Altena suggests in his conclusion that Africanists undertake the study of how Africans interpreted the Christian message and integrated it into their own value systems, a suggestion that seems to ignore the rich English-language literature that already exists on this subject (p. 421). This is not a weakness per se, though it does limit the extent to which the study achieves its own goals. The principal weakness of this study as a transnational one is the absence of any clear analysis of how specific missionary ideas--organized according to the four subcategories described above--changed (or ossified) when confronted with African realities, or how Africans themselves may have begun to influence the trajectory of missionary thought. Although the last section of the book is devoted to case studies of missionary challenges once in the field, it often reads more as a descriptive summary of the history of various missionary posts rather than as a focused analysis of transnational transformations.
The best examples Altena offers of the consequences of German Protestant missionaries' images of Africa to their work in the field are in fact given throughout the first three sections of the book, where he links specific aspects of missionary images of Africa to specific outcomes in the colonies. In these brief examples he clearly demonstrates the importance of individual biography to missionary decision-making when faced with the complex realities of African politics. In a section subtitled "Paternalism and the Transmission of Specific Values as Examples of the Effects of Concepts of Kultur," for example, Altena tells the delightfully ironic story of the Bethel-Mission in Usambara (East Africa), where two missionaries actually took active part in a war between the Waschamba (in whose territory they were based) and the neighboring Wataita (pp. 188-190). For this they were accused by fellow missionaries of "playing the Prussian NCO." They defended their much criticized partisanship in the Pietist value of self-sacrifice and strict loyalty to one's immediate superiors, in this case the Waschamba "chief," and they were supported by other missionaries on exactly this point. As a text full of such engaging stories, and rich in documentation, Ein Häuflein Christen is an impressive study of the historical sociology of German missionary activity in the colonial era and should be read by anyone interested in German colonialism and missionary history more generally.
. Jon Miller, Missionary Zeal and Institutional Control: Organizational Contradictions in the Basel Mission on the Gold Coast, 1828-1917 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003).
. Müller ended up emigrating to the United States, where he became a Protestant pastor in Texas.
. Russell A. Berman, Enlightenment or Empire: Colonial Discourse in German Culture (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1998); Pascal Grosse, Kolonialismus, Eugenik und bürgerliche Gesellschaft in Deutschland 1850-1918 (Frankfurt and New York: Campus Verlag, 2000); Andrew Zimmerman, Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001); Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, Nobody's People: Colonial Subjects, Race, Power and the German State, 1884-1945 (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2004).
. For example: Jean Comaroff, Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985); Paul Landau, The Realm of the Word: Language, Gender and Christianity in a Southern African Kingdom (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1995); J. D. Y. Peel, Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).
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Elisa von Joeden-Forgey. Review of Altena, Thorsten, Ein Hauflein Christen Mitten in Der Heidenwelt Des Dunklen Erdteils«: Zum Selbst- Und Fremdverstandnis Protestantischer Missionare Im Kolonialen.
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