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. xx + 258 pp. $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8028-6085-9.
Reviewed by Elisa von Joeden-Forgey (Department of History, University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-German (November, 2004)
The Power of Surrender
The Evangelical Missionary Society at Basel, or Basel Mission, is well known to students of German colonialism and African history for its superb archive. Less well known is its own institutional history, which exceeds the small field of missiology in its relevance and importance, as Jon Miller very convincingly argues in his Missionary Zeal and Institutional Control: Organizational Contradictions in the Basel Mission on the Gold Coast, 1828-1917. That the Basel Mission helped shape the history of the Gold Coast Colony and independent Ghana has been well established; Miller's findings suggest that its importance to German social history has been overlooked. In studying the contradictions between missionary zeal and institutional control on the Gold Coast, Miller develops a sociological approach to institutional history and the history of belief with broad interdisciplinary applicability. His method, which superbly balances structure and agency, is a valuable model for anyone seeking to understand the relationship between intellectual history and the dynamism of social change over time.
The Basel Mission was formed in 1815 by the German Society for Christianity, a Pietist organization of "aristocratic" Basel businessmen as a way to express publicly their religious commitments. At first, it functioned as a training institute for missionaries from other mission groups, notably the British Church Missionary Society. In 1821, however, the Basel Mission leadership decided to send out its own missionaries to expand the reach of their Württemberg Pietist brand of Christianity, in this case to Russia. In 1928, the Mission sent its first four missionaries to the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana), and this is where Miller's sociological study begins.
As was the case with so many other mission attempts in Africa during the first half of the nineteenth century, the Basel Mission's first year on the Gold Coast did not bode well for the future of the enterprise. Three of the four first missionaries sent to the Danish base at Christiansborg died within a few months of their arrival. The fourth, Johannes Henke, lived on for another lonely year and a half--long enough to read the private dairies of his deceased colleagues. In these writings, Henke, who had been targeted by his colleagues as a problem case, found confirmation of his suspicions. One fellow missionary, Schmid, even confessed "honest hatred" for him. A wounded Henke reported to the Mission's Governing Committee, "I was always aware of [Schmid's] hostile attitudes towards me, as well as his hypocritical and dishonest nature; for this reason I could never stand him and it was necessary for me to bring this and his deficiency in character to his attention.... What do you think, Dearest Inspector, about these admissions [in Schmid's papers]? Are you still inclined to seek in me the causes for our alienated existence" (p. 156)?
As we can see from Henke's complaint, Basel missionaries were struggling with much more than disease. How is it that missionaries bound for such extreme conditions would exhibit such a high level of hostility and competitiveness? Miller shows that there was much more to the poisoned missionary environment than environmental stress. The atmosphere of petty squabbling in which the four young men sacrificed their lives was in fact encouraged by their training and by official Mission policy. Miller is interested in the tensions between policies, goals, and outcomes within the mission institution and how shared commitment to Pietist values helps explain the Mission's remarkable organizational persistence in the face of these tensions. In his words:
"If the Mission is viewed as much as possible without abstraction and ideological filters, it can be seen just how unusual it was and how improbable its ambitions were. It was a collection of German and Swiss farmers and craftsmen and their essentially middle-class spouses who, at the behest of the social elites in their own communities, went off to persuade the people of the Gold Coast that the Pietist version of Christianity was their best hope for the construction of a morally and materially better life" (p. 33).
Any success in this project was indeed quite slow in coming. By 1851 the Mission could count only forty-six black Christians, twenty-five of whom it had imported from Jamaica (p. 23). The twenty-one new converts were made at great cost--between 1828 and 1843 Basel missionaries had only a 20 percent survival rate (p. 21). However, by 1917 the Mission community in the Gold Coast numbered over 30,000 members and had 10,000 students registered in 180 different schools (p. 27). Even today, adherents of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana are referred to by the Twi word basilfo (p. 195).
Miller's study is focused on the Mission's very survival, rather than on the better-trodden historical ground of Christianity's growth in Africa and the mechanics of "conversion." His question is, how can such an improbable project withstand not only severe pragmatic constraints, but also institutional policies that appear entirely self-defeating? This is a neglected question in the historical studies of missions; often they are simply "assumed" as viable institutions and their potentially fatal internal contradictions glossed over. It may be that the better-researched Anglo-American missions had fewer or less fundamental organizational "contradictions"--a term that Miller uses "to describe the way the [Governing] Committee's devotion to conformity and obedience led to a reliance on idiosyncratic and disobedient members to move the objectives of the Mission forward, even when those strong personalities at the same time threatened to undermine the authority of the center" (p. 162). But, as Miller notes in his concluding chapter, such comparative study has not yet been done.
In fact, as historian Richard Pierard notes in his foreword, Miller's work is one of the few studies available of a continental overseas mission society. The lack of scholarship is curious, given the growth in studies of Anglo-American Protestant missions as well as the renewed interest in the last decades of German overseas colonization. German-speaking Protestant missions differed from their Anglo-American counterparts both in organization and in policy. Unlike Anglo-American missions, the Basel Mission was ecumenical, that is, it was not connected with any particular denomination, congregation, or church, and it was funded by a host of local societies that drew on the commitments of people from all classes and social strata.
This funding structure was to become important to the Mission's institutional decision-making. Its reliance on the donations of small organizations and ordinary German Protestants required that its high bourgeois leadership maintain strict adherence to the Pietist principles in order to retain its legitimacy across wide class and status gaps (p. 83). Furthermore, Pietist traditionalism, which was rooted in "a South German agrarian ideal," to use Pierard's formulation (p. xiv), molded not only the pool from which the Mission recruited its missionaries, but also its goals for missionary work overseas. Unlike Anglo-American missions, its emphasis was not on casting the net widely to catch as many souls as possible, but rather on creating economically self-sufficient Christian communities through the introduction of industries and cash crops like cocoa. How the Mission succeeded in doing this is one of the main concerns of Miller's book. He argues that the Mission's "key to survival was embedded in a process that at first appears hopelessly paradoxical." As he explains, "Authoritarian discipline and creative flexibility were often in a state of tension with each other, as were mutual watching and brotherly solidarity, but the organization could absorb those stresses--which really means it could persuade its members to 'endure them patiently'--by wrapping them in a powerful and stable set of shared fundamental understandings and values" (p. 162). Using Weber's approach to institutional history and drawing from cultural approaches in sociology (known as the "new institutionalism"), Miller underscores the crucial role played by belief in accounting for the Mission's structure, tensions, policy, and persistence over time. He develops the argument that Pietist beliefs both created and sustained the Mission as an institution by managing to account for both missionary zeal, on the one hand, and, on the other, the centralized control mechanisms that sought to shut down individual initiative. He develops this argument in five well-crafted, remarkably clear and accessible chapters, which are full of tender, amusing, and surprising anecdotes from missionary life.
The crux of Miller's argument relies on his research into what he calls "the participants"--the founders, Governing Committee Members, and the missionaries--and the institutional contradictions exposed in their personal stories and fates. His research involved a wide array of sources in the Mission archive as well as the Basel City Archive, which he discusses at some length in an engaging "Methodological Appendix." The sources he consulted included the Mission's personnel files, personal documents from the missionaries, official circulars, Governing Committee minutes, correspondence, and so forth. The leadership of the Basel Mission (the founders and the Governing Committee) was made up of people from the privileged Swiss businessmen elite of Basel and from Württemberg Germans who had studied and taught at Tübingen University, an important seat of Pietist inquiry. They were drawn to the Mission, Miller suggests, not only by personal faith, but also by the overlapping connections the Mission offered and the ways these could enhance their status and profit. Calling themselves the "patriarchy," they believed their leadership to be sanctioned by God, in line with Lutheran and Calvinist approaches to existing worldly authorities. Miller documents a strong familial connection to the Mission across generations of these patrician families, for whom the Mission seems to have become an important space for reproducing symbolic capital in the wider community (p. 75). Missionaries were drawn almost without exception from farmers and craft-people in rural Württemberg, which was experiencing increasing economic insecurity due to population growth and industrialization. For them, admittance into the Basel Mission offered not only an alternative to emigration and work in the emerging industrial sectors, but also upward mobility (pp. 50-51). Most of the sons of early Basel missionaries entered positions of higher social status than their fathers (p. 68). The upward mobility for the grandchildren of these missionaries was even more clear: "All fifty-eight [for whom information was available] either married or themselves became pastors, teachers, government employees, church officials, academics, lawyers or physicians" (p. 69). Unlike the elite families on the Governing Committee, subsequent generations of missionary families tended to convert the social capital gained through missionary training into positions that would solidify the family?s rise in society.
The participants in the unfolding story of the Basel Mission agreed on the fundamental values around which the Mission and its day-to-day functioning were modeled. The Pietist teachings that shaped these fundamental values included an emphasis on hierarchy, unquestioning obedience, regimentation, and rural life as the true model of Christian community. This Pietist inspiration was itself a source of institutional contradiction in several ways, which Miller brilliantly outlines in chapter 3, "Authority and Discipline," and especially in the subsection "The Hermeneutics of Freedom and Control." In their promotion of southern German villages as the Christian ideal, the Basel businessmen on the Governing Committee faced a certain logical challenge. Being urbane capitalists themselves, how was it that they embraced agrarian communities as models of proper social organization? Miller places their thinking in the historical context of the first half of the nineteenth century. Their agrarianism, apart from being a stock concept in Pietism, was part of the widespread reaction to the American and French revolutions and, later, to the events of 1848. Governing Committee members believed themselves to be a hereditary elite with paternalist duties to their missionaries and African converts, both groups of whom were believed to require stable hierarchies and strict institutions of domination and obedience. Like the city of Basel itself, the Mission mixed the ideas of individualism, Christian equality and freedom into a formula of rule that was quite rigid and stratified. Individualism was understood morally, as a responsibility for one's own actions; Christian equality was understood metaphysically and in the context of a pronounced conservatism and traditionalism; and freedom was understood as submission to God, which was the only true liberation. Most of the missionaries appear to have shared these beliefs in one way or another, despite the fact that they seriously circumscribed any individual initiative or personal autonomy.
Mission leaders intentionally limited their pool to rural men from lower class strata because they represented the Pietist ideal of agrarian rootedness and unquestioning obedience. In fact, the divide between the Mission leadership and its missionaries was stark, and policies were set in place to keep it that way. In chapters 3 and 4, "Authority and Discipline" and "Contradictions and their Consequences," Miller examines these policies in illuminating detail. Applicants were screened for any evidence of "unbroken spirits" (such as willfulness and material ambition). Once they had been accepted, their daily schedule, wardrobes, social activities, contacts with the outside world, and marriages were heavily regulated.
Seminarians were expected to give total "emotional surrender" to the Mission leadership, a spiritual state that was monitored through daily student-monitor reports on each of the other students, public confessions, and social ostracism. This led to the in-group squabbling documented by Johannes Henke's experience, which was certainly no blueprint for institutional success. And although the Mission inspector characterized the intense bickering among the four ill-fated missionaries as "divisive arrogance, patronizing self-aggrandizement, masochistic severity, and childish gossiping," Mission leaders in fact recognized these things as the unavoidable consequence of the Mission's own policies.
The policy that accounted for the poisoned atmosphere among missionaries was called "mutual watchfulness" and was similar in its theory and practice to early Puritan communities in the United States (p. 177). According to its policy of mutual watchfulness, students at the Mission's seminary in Basel, Switzerland were required to report any lapses in discipline as well as any suspicious behavior or thoughts among their peers to their superiors. In addition, students kept diaries of their own infractions and were encouraged to confess any disobedience or deviance from the formal rules to their teachers and in front of their classmates. Once overseas, such internalized total social control continued, as the story of the Mission's first attempt on the Gold Coast indicates. The social separation and strongly centralized regulation was extended to the field, where missionaries were encouraged to remain separate from their African converts (believed to be lower members of the Christian hierarchy) and were expected to utilize mutual watchfulness within the convert community.
Strict social control is one of the two organizational contradictions within the Basel Mission that Jon Miller analyzes. The other is the strict discipline demanded by the governing committee of missionaries in the field (a field which, one should note, early governing committee members had never visited). Both institutionalized forms of control sought to reign in individual initiative, that is, missionary zeal. Missionaries were sometimes dismissed outright for seemingly small infractions of the ever-present rules. Despite such strong central control, zeal was of course not absent from the Mission's history and was in fact absolutely necessary to its long-term success. The situation of "anomie," or "the absence of clear normative guidelines," in Gold Coast Mission stations required individual initiative even from those missionaries otherwise disinclined to act alone. Some missionaries, in fact many of the heroes of Basel Mission lore, challenged Mission policy and control several times during their employment. They were not dismissed, however, because their rule-breaking furthered the Mission's ultimate goals.
An interesting example of such a "strategic deviant" is the missionary Johannes Zimmermann. He was an outspoken critic of the Mission's inveterate opposition to local African forms of slavery and married one Catherine Mulgrave, a well-respected Christian teacher of West Indian descent who also happened to be black. Zimmermann married her without Mission permission (or even Mission knowledge), and in contravention of the Governing Committee's insistence on strict social separation between missionaries and Africans. Because Zimmermann was a skilled missionary, and because Mulgrave was considered to be an indispensable part of the Mission's work on the Gold Coast, the Committee "reluctantly accepted the marriage, but with two strong stipulations: first, that Johannes was no longer to consider himself a European citizen, and second, that Catherine and their children must never expect to travel to Europe" (p. 146).
How was it that missionaries could put up with the regulation and apparent debasement they suffered under strict Mission observation? In some cases, such as Johannes Zimmermann, room was made for their particular idiosyncrasies. In cases where missionaries were drawn from privileged backgrounds, certain rules were occasionally relaxed. So, for example, the Swiss missionary Charles Strömberg, who was the son of a Swedish military treasurer, was allowed to marry a woman of his own choosing (and social class) after much debate.
Most missionaries labored under the taxing demands of total emotional surrender, however. Miller argues that the Mission overcame the core weaknesses this caused by focusing the attentions of all of its members on their shared Pietist values and beliefs. From this he builds an argument about the "institutionalized contradictions" that emerge within "value drenched" organizations like missions. Had the Mission's leadership been pragmatic, it may have loosened its policy of social control; but since its policy was formed by fundamental beliefs, such pragmatism was out of the question. Missionaries, whose well-being was obviously undermined by ever-present tattling and suspicion, shared the Pietist emphasis on "faith in central authority, obedience, and alertness to the weaknesses of self and others," which acted as a kind of "social anesthesia" against the "social pain" that the Mission's troubles caused for them" (pp. 168-169). Even (perhaps especially) the "strategic deviant" Johannes Zimmermann shared the Pietist reaction to Enlightenment values:
"Ever since the French Revolution, an unbiblical conception?of personal freedom and equality, all mixed up with humanistic and Christian ideas, has made itself known and has ... dissolved the divinely ordained units of family, community, and state; confused property rights; displaced the worth of human beings and human life, the family and its honor; and, in the place of the natural units of family, community, populace and state ... has set the sterile tree of freedom" (pp. 96-97).
True liberation was not to be found in secularism or republicanism, but only in seminarians' emotional surrender to God and the powers that be (p. 116).
Miller shows a gifted sensitivity to the stories of the individuals he studies. The book's emphasis on the human dimension is in fact one of its greatest strengths. His analysis of missionary responses to their complex relationship to the Mission and its leaders is an example of Miller's sensitivities at their best. "Down at the [missionaries'] level," he writes, "abstract contradictions of the sort I have described became personal experiences, in some cases personal catastrophes. It was they who had to come to terms with those complications on a day-to-day basis if they were going to continue to fuel the organization with their energies" (p. 174). Missionaries were able to put up with the stresses of emotional surrender, he argues, because they were "conditioned to recognize the will of God at work whether they were being punished, escaping punishment, causing others to be punished, or simply witnessing the punishment of others" (pp. 176-177). In other words, the Pietist tendency to see all events as God-ordained had the effect of de-personalizing the stresses and removing individuals from blame, guilt, and feelings of responsibility. One wonders what repercussions this dynamic had on missionary activities abroad. Did Basel missionaries suffer from what Chancellor Otto von Bismarck later identified as a "furor regiminalis" besetting Prussian civil servants sent to African colonies? One also wonders whether some missionaries were not genuinely satisfied by the dynamic of submission and domination, and whether this satisfaction exceeds Miller's discussion of the role of conscious and conditioned belief. Such a person may not feel guilt but joy in turning in and on his peers, or in receiving punishment from superiors. For him, there would be very few contradictions.
Miller's discussion of the role that belief can play in accounting for organizational structures and peculiarities offers very interesting comparative possibilities in colonial studies--not simply with other missions, but also with other "value drenched" but less ostensibly religious institutions, such as the colonial bureaucracy. Of particular interest is the tendency for the more zealous rule breakers in the Mission to use their position for personal enrichment and for the satisfaction of their lust for power, including, in a few cases, the rampant use of brutality. A remarkable example of missionary brutality is the "strategic deviant" Andreas Riis, who bought a plantation for himself, used the indentured labor of local slaves, traded in munitions and alcohol, and ordered the flogging of one of the black members of the local mission community, a punishment that Riis completed with "his own boots and fists" (p. 134). Miller interprets cases of brutality as zealousness and rule-breaking, but it is unclear what rules existed about the treatment of the populations within and surrounding the missions. Furthermore, signs of sadism towards Africans may themselves be the consequence of the social psychology of emotional surrender. Riis might have been an unintended consequence of Basel Mission training, and zeal therefore may not be the most productive analytical frame for Riis's cruelty towards Africans or his apparent hatred of them.
The individual stories of missionaries' lives open up tantalizing new vistas for research. Persons interested in studying continental missions in Africa would benefit greatly from reading this book, and Miller himself outlines some tempting research possibilities (pp. 191-193). To note one example, in his analysis of the story of Johannes Zimmermann, Miller notes that Zimmermann openly challenged the Mission's emphasis on strict hierarchy and separation between Europeans and Africans by claiming Africa as his spiritual home and commenting that "so far as Christianity allows it, I would rather become a black man to win over the blacks" (p. 144). Zimmermann dated the blossoming of his respect for African tradition to a local practitioner?s success in healing an ailment that no European medicine had been able to cure. The complex attitudes of individual Basel missionaries towards Africans on the Gold Coast--as reflected in their reports and the reports of their colleagues to the Governing Committee--is an unplumbed historical subject.
In writing his history of the Basel Mission, Jon Miller adeptly balances the Mission's reach from Basel to Christiansborg. In so doing, he offers food for thought for both Europeanists and Africanists studying colonization. On the European side, he offers the possibility that the founding of missions might be a neglected sociological event in German history, inasmuch as missions provided upward mobility for an increasing number of Germans in the nineteenth century. I would add that the ideological effects of such rigid training in self-abnegation is certainly another interesting question for scholars of German colonization, which was so often, and so earnestly, described in terms of Christian suffering and obedience, but which frequently resulted in all manner of emotional excess, including the rampant use of flogging, usually described as a "humanitarian" gesture.
On the African side, Miller's study suggests that much more work needs to be done on the intersection between Mission beliefs and values, on the one hand, and the on-the-ground institutional structure and goals on the other. Because Miller's interest is in the relationship between people, status, and belief within the European mission community, his consideration of African recruits and the local scene is relatively brief. But it is clear from missionary reports that Africans, apart from eventually transforming the Mission's teachings into an independent Presbyterian Church, also influenced the ideas of individual missionaries and perhaps also the form taken by Basel Mission stations in the Gold Coast more than Miller's study might suggest. A pregnant example of this possibility is a comment of one missionary, Friedrich Schiedt, about his West African colleague Georg Thompson, who had been educated at the Mission's seminary as a young boy:
"[I do not believe that Thompson] is capable of contrition in the sense in which we think of it there at home, for from my experience I cannot help but believe that African contrition and European repentance are essentially different from each other. That is the reason that we must sigh and cry out to the Lord that He might give these poor folk this vital contrition, because where deep and honest recognition of sin is missing we will search in vain for evidence of true contrition" (p. 142).
Miller sees the quote above as evidence of nineteenth-century bigotry, and it could simply be that. But given that the Pietist view of contrition--and Basel's rigorous and painful institutionalization of it--was itself rather particular in its strenuousness, Schiedt may also have been voicing the frustrations of men in the field when given culturally loaded and impossible directives from the home office. In an atmosphere where missionaries did not believe the requisite Pietist contrition existed, how did the dynamic of hierarchy and control manifest itself? As other studies of African Christianity have shown, we can safely assume that the institutionalization of "Gold Coast Pietism" was a very different thing than its counterpart in Basel. Paul Jenkins develops such questions about the Basel Mission's interaction with local cultures in his afterword and offers an insightful overview of the existing literature on the subject (pp. 209-217). Whether or not a study of institutional dynamics at various Basel Mission stations on the Gold Coast would add a new dimension to the institutional contradictions that Miller analyses is an open question.
As with most studies that attempt to bridge vast historical and cultural fields, readers may at times feel that Miller's discussion is too broad (as when he outlines the long-term effects of Basel activity on Ghanaian history on pp. 25-32) and at others that it is too narrow (as with his brief and mostly unexplained references to the "social disorganization" of Gold Coast communities). But this is the unavoidable consequence of studying institutions that defy neat geographical, temporal and cultural boundaries.
Miller's work offers a sophisticated and nuanced model for understanding continuity and change in the history of institutions and will undoubtedly inspire many new areas for research--in the history of continental missions, the dynamics of missionary experience, African influences on continental mission structures and ideologies, and the role played by belief in the reproduction of institutional structures.
. Miller's study originally appeared as a title in the Rose Monograph Series of the American Sociological Association. Few changes of argument have been made in the Eerdmans edition, as Miller notes in his preface. The new edition supplies, however, a broader historical perspective and missiological focus through the foreword by historian Richard V. Pierard and an afterword by historian and Basel Mission archivist Paul Jenkins, entitled "The Basel Mission, the Presbyterian Church, and Ghana since 1918," as well as twenty-five annotated plates from the Mission's own collection of photographs. Jon Miller, The Social Control of Religious Zeal: A Study of Organizational Contradictions (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994).
. See, for example, Andrew Porter, ed. The Imperial Horizons of British Protestant Missions, 1880-1914 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003).
. Miller reports that not one missionary came from the industrial proletariat during the period under review.
. The story is a bit more complicated for daughters. Since Basel missionaries were encouraged to marry into the ranks of middle-class families, daughters' upward-mobility is less noticeable in comparison with the social origins of their mothers (p. 68-69).
. Miller's comparison with Puritanism is based on Kai Erikson's Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance (New York: Wiley, 1966).
. Zimmermann children eventually studied in Basel, and he and Catherine Zimmermann (Mulgrave) returned to Germany together in 1872 (p. 150).
. An example of such a study for the Gold Coast is J. Pashington Obeng, Asante Catholicism: Religious and Cultural Reproduction among the Akan of Ghana (New York: E. J. Brill, 1996). See also Miller's discussion of African Christianity (p. 32), which is based on Richard Gray?s Black Christians and White Missionaries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Elisa von Joeden-Forgey. Review of Miller, Jon, Missionary Zeal and Institutional Control: Organizational Contradictions in the Basel Mission on the Gold Coast, 1828-1917.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.