Jeremy Best. Heavenly Fatherland: German Missionary Culture and Globalization in the Age of Empire. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2021. xiv + 322 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4875-0563-9.
Reviewed by Robert E. Alvis (Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology)
Published on H-TGS (July, 2021)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio Regionals)
In our collective memory, Germany’s overseas colonies are closely associated with the political and economic concerns of the Kaiserreich. Establishing colonies was one facet of the larger effort to match the achievements of rival powers like France and Great Britain. The colonies helped validate German national greatness, and their inhabitants were exploited mercilessly for the sake of German enrichment. German Christian missionaries have been seen as working hand in glove with the German state to advance its interests. The racist discourse and dehumanizing policies applied to Germany’s colonial subjects have been recognized by some as critical precursors to the crimes of the Third Reich.
In Heavenly Fatherland, an important new study of German Protestant missionary work in the years 1860–1914, Jeremy Best challenges his readers to rethink what they understand to be true about Germany’s colonial past by shedding light on the prominent role that Protestant missionaries played in that project. Drawing upon an impressive trove of primary-source material and focusing in particular on German East Africa, he illustrates the internationalist vision and relatively humane values that animated their efforts. He makes a convincing case that they helped expand how ordinary Germans understood the country’s overseas colonies and the processes of globalization that were transforming their lives.
In the first of the book’s six chapters, Best concentrates on a distinctive feature of the German Protestant missionary endeavor: its highly intellectualized character. Influenced by Germany’s rigorous academic culture, Protestant missionary leaders developed a new scholarly discipline known as Missionswissenschaft. Its purpose was to optimize missionary outreach through sustained reflection on its overarching rationale and practical manifestations. Best describes the discipline’s leading lights, most notably Gustav Warneck (1834–1910), and he reconstructs the shared worldview it helped inculcate among missionaries throughout the colonial period. For the first generation of Missionswissenschaftler, Christ’s injunction that his followers spread the gospel throughout the world (the “Great Commission”) remained a binding obligation. This work should be international in scope, with Protestants from various countries working together to cultivate autonomous Protestant Völker in every corner of the globe. They warned against entanglements with the state, which they viewed as potentially corrupting. This perspective came under scrutiny in the early twentieth century, and a new generation of Protestant missionary leaders proved more receptive to reconciling missionary work with German national interests, but these inclinations ultimately did not dislodge the earlier internationalist consensus.
In the next two chapters, Best considers how Protestant missionary theory translated into practice in the context of German East Africa. In chapter 2, he focuses on the educational initiatives that were so central to Protestant missionary outreach. Drawing from biblical accounts of the Tower of Babel and the first Christian Pentecost, Protestant missionaries concluded that the cultural and linguistic diversity of humankind was part of God’s plan. This reasoning was reinforced by German understandings of nation, which emphasized the centrality of language in national identity. As a result, they determined that the best way to evangelize people was in their native language and by respecting many aspects of their indigenous way of life. Protestant missionaries went to great lengths to learn the languages of their intended audiences and to build schools where they offered basic instruction designed to foster new, autonomous branches of a global Protestant community. As they pursued this agenda, they had to contend with rival visions for the peoples of German East Africa, including the demand by ardent German nationalists that mission schools educate their students in German, with the larger goal of enhancing the prestige and power of the German nation. Protestant missionaries managed to resist these pressures, thanks in large part to a shared vision that was grounded in Missionswissenschaft.
In chapter 3, Best considers a different kind of pressure experienced by Protestant missionaries in German East Africa: the push to exploit African labor for the economic benefit of Germany. This ran counter to the missionaries’ shared goal of nurturing autonomous communities of African Protestants, but they had other reasons for opposing the economic instrumentalization of the local population. Protestant missionaries were generally skeptical of the modern industrial economy, which they blamed for tearing at the fabric of society and fostering radical ideologies like socialism. Best details how Protestant missionaries resisted German efforts to exploit Africans, but he also acknowledges how, through their missionary work, they drew Africans into a global economy that did not serve the interests of the colonized particularly well.
The book’s remaining chapters place the German Protestant missionary endeavor in relationship to three other populations: Catholic missionaries in German East Africa, Protestants in Germany, and Protestant missionaries in other countries. As Best makes clear in chapter 4, Protestant missionaries did not have German East Africa to themselves; German Catholic missionaries were also active in the region. Centuries of interconfessional conflict informed the contempt Protestants generally felt toward their Catholic rivals. They took it as a given that Catholics were more concerned with expanding Roman power than building up the kingdom of God. At the same time, they genuinely feared that Catholic missionaries were poised to gain ground at Protestant expense. To counter the threat, Protestant missionaries trafficked in anti-Catholic tropes and nationalist discourse, warning that their rivals were not committed to advancing German interests. Their internationalist ethos, it turns out, had its limits.
Best next examines Protestant missionary engagement with Protestants in Germany itself, upon whom they depended for financial support and new recruits, and among whom they felt a duty to encourage a missionary spirit and Christian charity. He describes the elaborate programs missionaries offered, with their reach extending from urban areas to modest villages. Collectively, this messaging “distilled globalization … into a manageable message for German consumption,” which “contradicted prevailing notions of racial difference and Africans’ (and other cultures’) supposed savagery” (p. 216).
Best concludes with a chapter devoted to missionary conferences, both at home and abroad. These conferences were designed to foster cooperation among the various missionary organizations within Germany and in other countries with vibrant missionary programs, notably Great Britain and the United States. This effort was propelled forward by the confidence that, through collective action, the global Protestant community had the potential to check a variety of threats (secularism, socialism, Islam, Catholicism) and remake the modern world in its image. Owing in part to the prestige of Missionswissenschaft, German missionary leaders exercised growing influence in these global conversations, and they helped set the agenda for the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference in 1910, which was recognized at the time as a major step toward realizing their goals. These efforts suffered severe setbacks during the Great War.
Best makes an admirable effort to understand the various relationships in which German Protestant missionaries were engaged. It is therefore surprising that he neglects what was arguably the most important relationship of all: the one they developed with the indigenous peoples of German East Africa. This is due in part to his stated purpose and method, which is to understand German Protestant missionaries by examining the vast paper trail they left behind. Even within the confines of his methodology, though, it is reasonable to expect that the Africans being evangelized would surface in prominent ways, that missionaries would reflect upon what they were learning in the field and adjust their preconceived assumptions and approaches accordingly. If Best overlooked evidence of an evolving relationship between missionaries and the missionized, it would qualify as a significant missed opportunity. If, in fact, German Protestant missionaries did not take the Africans they encountered seriously enough to learn from them and to be changed by these experiences—if they “did not listen or even try to listen much to what Africans had to say,” as Best notes at one point (p. 17)—it is damning indictment of their cultural and religious chauvinism.
This observation does not negate the very real strengths of Best’s effort. Heavenly Fatherland is an important contribution to our understanding of German missionary work and the German imperial context in which it took place. It is by no means a hagiographical celebration of their achievements. For all of their purported commitment to universalist aims mandated by scripture, missionaries were very much of their time, deeply indebted to modern German understandings of nation and race and centuries of Protestant-Catholic conflict. For all of their avowed concern for the best interests of the indigenous peoples of German East Africa, they were highly paternalistic and presumed to know what those interests were. While it may not have been their intention, they also facilitated the integration of Africans into larger colonial structures and processes, which took a brutal toll on so many. That said, German Protestant missionaries also exercised a salubrious influence. They challenged their fellow Germans to think beyond nationalist categories and to envision themselves as part of something larger. They appreciated the dangers of subjugating the church to political and economic interests and fought to preserve its autonomy. They summoned Germans to recognize the fundamental humanity of the African people and sought to defend the indigenous languages, ways of living, and autonomy of the peoples of German East Africa. These ideas resonated widely, owing to the elaborate infrastructure Protestant missionaries maintained throughout much of Germany, and they shaped how ordinary Germans understood a rapidly evolving world.
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Robert E. Alvis. Review of Best, Jeremy, Heavenly Fatherland: German Missionary Culture and Globalization in the Age of Empire.
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