Mission, colonialism, and changing values

von by Michael Sievernich Original aufOriginal in German, angezeigt aufdisplayed in English
PublishedErschienen: 2021-11-16
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    The article describes missionary processes in the (early) modern period and analyzes the tension that existed with colonialism. In this context, a strict distinction must be made between religious-theological and political-colonial logics and practices. The intertwining of colonial rule and ecclesiastical mission becomes apparent in the example of early modern Hispano-America, which gave rise to fierce criticism of colonialism and legal-ethical reflection. Contemporaneous missions in the Asian region (India, Japan, China, Korea) usually took place in non-colonial contexts and adapted to foreign cultures. The dual confessional mission in 19th century Africa clashed with an imperialistic European colonialism, which disappeared in the decolonization of the 20th century.

    InhaltsverzeichnisTable of Contents


    The modern era may be characterized by two different kinds of expansive processes: The religiously motivated missionary spread of Christianity and the political-economically driven expansion of settlements.1 While not directly connected themselves, these two expansionary processes seem to have become conflated in the modern era, making them virtually indistinguishable. The reasons for this, in the early modern period, lie primarily in the fact that the two main actors, the maritime powers and initiated and directed the processes of voyages of discovery and conquest. They received privileges and concessions through papal bulls, which were connected with the obligation to evangelize and the granting of patronage (patronato, padroado). Here, missionaries were sent out and their work was supported with a view to converting the newly discovered peoples and establishing the church there. Due to this political-religious connection, mission remained an essentially ecclesiastical matter. Nevertheless, missionary work and colonization in Hispano- and became closely entwined, as state and ecclesiastical (legal) spheres blended together.2

    Missionary work

    The Catholic renewal from the 16th to the 18th century also involved a missionary zeal, which especially inspired religious orders and drove them to the unfamiliar worlds of and .3 The logistical requirements and the strong motivation of the religious orders given the large populations there induced the humanistically trained monastics to spread their faith overseas. Foremost among them were the mendicants of the Franciscans (ordo fratrum minorum) San Miguel Arcángel in Huejotzingo (Fassade) IMG, who had medieval roots, the Dominicans (ordo praedicatorum), and the Jesuit Order (societas Iesu), founded in the early modern period.

    The theological term "mission" is understood as the ecclesiastical task of universally spreading the "good news" (ευαγγέλιον - Gospel) of Christianity. All four New Testament Gospels record Jesus’ sending out the "apostles" with the following imperative: "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation." (Mark 16:15) The mission of the church therefore carries on the mission of Christ. Christianity thus cannot abandon its global missionary calling without giving up its identity.

    This ministry was called by different names in the Middle Ages, such as "proclamation of the gospel" (promulgatio Evangelii), "conversion of the unbelievers" (conversio infidelium), or "spreading of the faith" (propagatio fidei), until the neologism "mission" became established in the first half of the 16th century. This changed in the middle of the 20th century, when the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) expanded the formal concept of mission with the biblical theme of "evangelization".

    In the confessional age, mission was primarily a matter of the Roman Catholic Church, which proselytized from the beginning for theological reasons. Protestant missions began only in the 18th and efforts intensified in the 19th century with numerous missionary societies. One of the reasons for this time lag may be the Lutheran tradition, which saw mission as having been accomplished by the apostles. Revivalist movements such as Pietism provided the initial spark. Moreover, only the Protestant naval powers , , and were able to provide the necessary logistical support.

    Missionary activities of the church follow their own theological logic, a biblically based dissemination of faith in various forms. The missionary travels of the apostle Paul put the focus on and . In the early Middle Ages, Pope Gregory the Great (540–604) sent monks from Rome to England, while Bonifatius (673–754)[Denkmal des heiligen Bonifatius vor dem Mainzer Dom IMG], among others, proselytized from English monasteries in . In the late Middle Ages, mendicant monks such as the Franciscans travelled to the and to . The variation in mission concepts was informed by the multiplicity of contexts.4

    From the early modern period, however, missionary work was frequently associated with colonization, even though they followed distinct and incompatible logics. On the one hand, Christian missionaries were concerned with bringing to others their own intrinsic worth, namely the intangible good of faith, together with the achievements of Western civilization. On the other hand, the colonists sought to seize others' intrinsic worth, namely their material wealth, be it precious woods and metals, spices, or colonial goods. These conflicting logics led to a highly ambivalent constellation that could only be resolved through a process of disentanglement.


    Colonies have been around for a long time. In ancient times, Phoenicians and Greeks emigrated to the , where they set up colonies. These colonizing efforts are described in the temple in , . Centuries later, the Romans founded colonies in their empire, including the "colonia" () on the Rhine or the "colonia patrizia" () on the Guadalquivir. At the end of the 15th century, the Iberian peoples took up this historically familiar example from antiquity. Due to new types of ships and navigation techniques, they managed to reach lands overseas such as America and Columbus' Arrival in America 1492 IMG.

    Today, the negatively connoted term "colonialism" refers to a system of colonial rule that results from conquest or land seizure and involves political oppression and economic exploitation. Modern colonialism assumed a variety of forms depending on the time period, geography and actors involved, especially when missionary activities were involved. Generally, however, missionary and colonial expansion were by no means identical or even necessarily linked processes, as their intentions, practices, and goals were based on divergent principles. Political-economic forms of action must therefore be fundamentally distinguished from religious-missionary ones.

    In modern times, we differentiate between two basic types of colonies.5 First, there are base colonies such as those of the Portuguese, who formed a network of settlements in overseas territories in Asia. This constituted a seaborn empire serving trade. In contrast, there are the dominion colonies, such as Spanish America, which controlled countries or empires in order to incorporate them politically and exploit them economically.


    Patronage, Conquista, Mission

    Over time, the "Catholic Monarchs" Isabella of Castile and Leon (1451–1504) and Ferdinand of Aragon (1452–1516) had patronage secured through papal concessions. Starting with the bull Inter Caetera of 1493, Pope Alexander VI (1431–1503) granted the monarchs the exclusive right to missionize in the newly discovered lands. This was then followed the bull Universalis Ecclesiae Regiminis of July 28, 1508,6 which enabled Julius II (1443–1513) to grant patronage. Hence, the crown became responsible for the organization of church affairs in the New World, and by extension, missionary work. The administration of patronage was carried out by the Council of the Indies (Consejo de Indias), the logistics by the Casa de Contratación in . During the Spanish colonial period, over 14,000 missionaries were sent to America from mendicant orders. The mission, accordingly, became increasingly dependent on the crown and, at the same time, was integrated into the colonial system of rule.

    The conquest of the at the beginning of the 16th century was rapidly succeeded by the Conquista of the Aztec Empire and its capital  (1519–1521) under Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) and the (1531–1533) under Francisco Pizarro (c. 1478–1541). The rulers Moctezuma II (1466–1520) in and Atahualpa (ca. 1502–1533) in quickly met their demise. This gave rise to the Spanish colonial empire, which in the 17th century was administered by the two viceroyalties of Nueva España and Perú, and by the Audiencia Española (Circum-Caribbean region).

    Early evidence of the entanglement of missionary work and colonization comes from the Hieronymite Ramón Pané, who accompanied the second voyage of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) to the from 1493–1496 and reported on the stay on . There, he was the first missionary among the Taino (Arwak) and studied their culture and religion. Christianization, however, took place in the context of the Conquista and the settlement of colonists. Peaceful missionary work and a clash of cultures shaped perceptions, leading to an ambivalent "transformation of values" among both the Indians and the Spaniards. Pané recounted this in his 1498 report.7

    Later, numerous accounts of the dire conditions in America would reach the Spanish court and the Roman Curia. Although the popes turned their attention to missionary issues in the second half of the 16th century, the patrons refused papal "interference". Nevertheless, a movement was underway to return the mission back to church hands. Rome established an independent Roman central authority for the ministry, which Pope Gregory XV (1554–1623) instituted (1622) in the form of a Roman Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (engl.: Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith) to emphasize its indispensably religious character. The first secretary of the Propaganda Congregation, the Francesco Ingoli (1578–1649), provided the ecclesiastical concept. In the process, he succeeded in tying the mission more closely to Rome and gradually detaching it from colonial policy, at least for the countries outside the Spanish patronato and the Portuguese padroado. Moreover, he called for an indigenous clergy and adaptation to the local cultures, especially the advanced cultures of Asia. The papal missionary authority was thus the first institutional attempt to clearly distance the ecclesial mission from colonialism.

    Early colonial criticism

    Early colonial criticism in the 16th century was particularly inflamed by the institution of the "encomienda", which linked the Indians' right to subsistence and the ministry with forced labor and genuine abuse. Criticism of this system began with a moral uprising of conscience in 1511, when the Dominican friar Antón de Montesinos (ca. 1480–1540) [Antonio de Montesinos IMG] made an appeal to the conscience of the colonists in an Advent sermon: "Say, by what right and by what justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible bondage? ... Are these not human beings?"8 The uproar among the settlers reached the distant monarch, who issued "New Laws" (Leyes de Burgos, 1513) to protect the natives.

    In the same century, two prominent figures led the debate against colonialism: Bartolomé de las Casas (1474–1566) changed his stance on the basis of an Old Testament text (Jesus Sirach 34:21–27) and relinquished his encomienda. As Bishop of (Mexico), however, he did not manage to persuade the colonists of his diocese. Back in Spain, he authored numerous writings critical of colonialism drawing on historical, ethnographic, socio-ethical and missionary theological themes. Few of these, however, were published during his lifetime. His most famous work is the treatise (which has been translated many times and is still a bestseller today) Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (eng.: A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies)Kupferstich zur ersten lateinischen Ausgabe von Bartolomé de las Casas IMG of 1552,9 while his El Tratado sobre la materia de los indios que se han hecho esclavos (eng: Treatise on Indian Slavery) (1552) is largely unknown.  Casas here uses the term "human rights" (derechos humanos) for what is probably the first time – more than 200 years before the rights’ declarations in and .10

    Francisco de Vitoria (1483–1546) questioned the legal basis of the conquest of America, although he did not know America from personal experience. He thus sparked a systematic discourse on the legality or illegitimacy of Conquista and colonization, which is found in a lecture entitled De indis nuper inventis (1539). At its heart, it deals with the fundamental question of the law of nations (ius inter gentes). He asks by what right (quo jure) the Spanish were allowed to exercise colonial rule and lays out arguments for why the Indians exercised legitimate rights of domination and ownership. In this context, he discusses the legitimate and illegitimate legal titles of Spanish colonial rule and pleads for symmetrical relations between peoples. Such an arrangement effectively prohibits all colonialism, while affirming legitimate rights such as unhindered travel (peregrinatio), trade (negotio) as well as preaching (predicatio).11 The theses of the "School of Salamanca" are still discussed to this day. Vitoria, however, fails to recognize that there was no de facto symmetry between the Indians and the Spaniards. Indeed, the latter typically only appeared in the New World as conquerors or invaders, not as peaceful migrants or traders (peregrini).

    An echo of Vitoria's argument is found in a papal letter from Pope Paul III (1468–1549) in the bull Sublimis Deus of June 2, 1537: "The Indians shall not be deprived of their liberty and property; rather, they shall freely and lawfully exercise the right to property and liberty ... Nor shall it be lawful to place them in slavery. Anything contrary to these provisions would be null and void."12 Under the terms of patronage, the crown forbade publication. Nevertheless, the letter was known to the pro-Indian missionaries.

    The mission manual De procuranda indorum salute (1588)De procuranda indorum salute of the Jesuit José de Acosta (1540–1600), which appeared in many editions, likewise criticized the fatal interweaving of colonialism and mission. It was done so fiercely, however, that the state censors removed a dozen chapters. In the modern version, the changes may be reconstructed. He complains that his countrymen hindered the missionary work "by the very worst example of morals, by greed, violence, and tyranny, for though they profess Christ, they in fact deny Him".13 The obvious contradiction underlined here between the Cross and the Sword sums up the core moral and religious problem of Conquista and colonialism.

    Late colonial criticism

    A valuable source of colonial criticism from both Indian and Christian perspectives is provided by Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala (ca. 1550–1615), who wrote a 1,200-page multilingual "chronicle" in and illustrated it with numerous pen and ink drawings. It includes Inca history and culture fused with the history of Christianity and Europe in the Americas. With his monumental work El primer Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno, he drew attention to his country, but also described glaring abuses of colonial institutions in words and pictures to move the Spanish king (Philip III 1578–1621) to govern justly and fairly. One of the illustrations shows a "poor Indian" (pobre de los indios) being threatened by six animals, metaphors of colonial violenceSix ungodly animals feared by the poor Indians of this kingdom.

    Also at the beginning of the 17th century, the so-called "reductions" (reducción), a missionary alternative to the colonial system, emerged in . In this Jesuit project, which the Franciscans of Mexico had already implemented in the 16th century, the nomadic Guaraní and other peoples were settled in localities separated from colonial society. While a certain degree of autonomy existed here, giving rise to occasional talk of a "Jesuit state", the territories remained incorporated in the Spanish colonial empire. Eventually, thirty reductions appeared which counted about 140,000 Indian inhabitants. Under the direction of a few missionaries, they formed a hybrid Christian-indigenous culture in the areas of economy (agriculture, animal husbandry), handicrafts, art, architecture, and music (polyphony). The project ended with the expulsion of the Jesuit Order (1767) from America and its later suppression (1773). This may have been due to the paradoxical attempt within the scope of a colonial empire to (counterfactually) construct a unique polity where, according to Bartomeu Melià (1932–2019), a Christian utopia could take root.14

    The period of upheaval towards the end of the 18th century paved the way for decolonization at the beginning of the 19th century following revolutionary turmoil and efforts towards independence. A significant actor within this context was "El Libertador" of South America, Simón Bolívar (1783–1830)[Simon Bolivar IMG]. Fifteen major and minor republics were formed from the four viceroyalties of the Spanish colonial empire, such as Paraguay (1811), Mexico, and Peru (1821). also broke away from Portugal and established an independent empire in 1822 under Pedro I (1798–1834), which lasted until 1889. This spelled the demise of the previous ruling colonies, yet power in the republics did not pass to the original indigenous masters of the land, as Casas postulated, but to the Creole elites. The church, with its sometimes politicized tradition bearers (bishops, clergy, religious orders) and its popular roots, succeeded in renewing Christianity. Still, many Indians were left to their own devices in the 19th century, leading to the emergence of syncretisms.15

    The different perspectives just highlighted underscore the philosophical-ethical, theological-spiritual, and practical-pastoral efforts that were made, often unsuccessfully, to change the colonial system and to ensure the inherent religious logic of the propagation of the faith. This occurred even though more than a few clergy were interested in preserving the colonial status quo.


    Due to its many cultures, the spread of the Christian faith in Asia encountered quite different circumstances. This was the region where the Portuguese established their bases, such as the Goa enclave in 1510. The latter became a hub for trade and the ecclesiastical center of Asia. With its bases in , , and elsewhere, Portugal established an Estado da Índia comprised of colonial enclaves. In Asia, the ecclesiastical apparatus and the mission were under the control of the padroado.

    In this Portuguese-dominated realm, the archipelago discovered by Fernando Magellán (1480–1521) during his circumnavigation of the world, later called , was a special case – for it was claimed by Spain. The -crossing Miguel López Legazpi (ca. 1510–1572) started colonization in 1565. However, it relied on a peaceful Christianization by religious orders, in the beginning especially the Augustinians, Dominicans, and Franciscans. became the capital and the seat of the archdiocese. Galleons were connected from Manila to   via trade route across the Pacific. In 1898, the Philippines gained independence, which the wrested away from them by 1946. Today, the Philippines is the only country in Asia that is largely Catholic (about 80 percent), with a Muslim minority.16 The Philippines and Latin America demonstrate that the mission, under the aegis of the Spanish patronato or the Portuguese Padroado, left behind nations that were shaped by Catholicism and bore a respective change of values. Since 1622, however, the Roman Congregation has not managed to do the same within its sphere of influence in Asia and , despite inculturation. This failure seems paradoxical. In the Asian region, the countries of missionary importance included India, , China, , ,17 and Siam ().

    Indian subcontinent

    After the explorer Vasco da Gama (1469–1524) first reached in India in 1498Vasco da Gama delivers the letter of King Manuel of Portugal to the Samorim of Calicut, ca. 1905 IMG, the Portuguese subsequently established colonial trading bases. There, they provided ecclesiastical care for their countrymen and also undertook missionary efforts in the surrounding area. But major mission projects arose elsewhere in non-colonial contexts. Of course, the European missionaries of the early modern period were not the first Christians in India. The Thomas Christians (a name based on apocryphal texts that the west coast of India had been first evangelized by the apostle Thomas) had already been living there for many centuries with their own tradition.18

    The first forward-looking missionary to India was Francisco Javier or Francis Xavier (1506–1552)[Franz Xaver (1506–1552) IMG]. A member of the Society of Jesus established by Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556)[Ignatius von Loyola IMG], the latter sent Xavier to India already during the founding year of 1540. From Goa Xavier quickly achieved missionary success among the Paravar on the southern fishing coast. But his plans took him to even farther-flung locations. He sailed east via the to Japan, arriving in in 1549. Impressed by the country's culture, he stayed for three years, preaching simple gospel as far as a Portuguese-speaking Japanese had the capacity to understand. Later, he wanted to travel on to China, but died on an island off the coast of . He left numerous reports and letters on his cultural and interreligious experiences with Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists.19 Buried in Goa, he is still revered there by people of multiple faiths.

    On the subcontinent, there were novel missionary projects that were more inclusive of the prevailing cultural contexts. One project arose in the northern ,20 where Akbar the Great (1542–1605) first invited Jesuits from Goa to the court for religion talksAkbar der Große hält religiöse Debatte in der Ibādat Khāna IMG. Until the 18th century, the Jesuits were present at the court of the Muslim Great Mughals, residing in , , and . The rulers, who were usually tolerant, were interested in dialogue between the religions, since they had to govern a multi-ethnic state with several faiths. In addition, the Mughals were keen to learn more about Western science and Persian art. Numerous miniature paintings with Christian motifs have survived.21 The Jesuits operated primarily through schools, arts, and religious doctrines in the Persian court language. Among the missionaries, the Spaniards Rodolfo Acquaviva (1550–1583) and Jerónimo Xavier (1549–1617) stood out. Emphasis was placed on the "translation" of faith into words and images as well as the search for Christian forms of expression in other cultures and imagery. The intercultural exchange and transfer brought about an advantageous change of values.

    Another project was launched in the ancient south Indian city of , which boasted an enormous Hindu temple complex. The young missionary Roberto de Nobili (1577–1656), who came from the Roman city nobility, began to tailor the mission to the foreign culture, similar to what had been tried before in Japan. He studied Sanskrit as well as the local language Tamil and adopted the lifestyle of an ascetic (Christian) Sannyasin. Outwardly recognizable by the saffron-colored robe, cord, and plait of hair, his lifestyle came at the price of inclusion in the caste structure. In a letter to Pope Paul V (1552–1621), he describes himself in 1619 as an "Italian Brahmin".22 In fact, he could claim missionary success among the Brahmins. Although Rome initially tolerated this extravagant path, a century later in 1744, it would prohibit the "Malabar rites". Nonetheless, the attempt to spread the gospel in the context of a Hindu caste society yielded mutual understanding and respect for the respective cultural and religious differences.23

    Not long thereafter, Protestant missionary activities were carried out in a colonial context. Along with the growing strength of the Protestant naval powers in the Asian region, the Danish king Frederik IV (1671–1730) also founded a trading colony in the South Indian . For this purpose, he sought Protestant missionaries, whom he discovered in the circles of Pietism. In 1706, the German missionaries Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (1682–1719)[Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (1682–1719) IMG] and Heinrich Plütschau (1677–1746) were sent to the Danish Halle Mission, which produced valuable works on culture, religion, and language. In early modern India, both denominations therefore proselytized in colonial as well as in non-colonial contexts, for example in the Mughal Empire or in Madurai in southern India.

    Far East Japan

    With the help of other missionaries, Japan experienced a flourishing period of Christianization (Kirishitan) – albeit one that only lasted a little less than a century due to persecution. Missionary work included religious discussions with Buddhist schools (1550), but also friendly contacts with feudal lords (daimyos) such as Ōtomo Sōrin Yoshishige (1530–1587) of , who adopted the Christian faith. The example of such local princes, who were interested in the religion and science of the West, also led to growing interest among the people and to mass baptisms.

    The missionary project in a non-colonial context entailed significant costs.To finance it, the missionaries engaged in trading activities in which Portuguese and Dutch merchants vied against each other. Last, but not least, the religious orders struggled over the appropriate mission concept. In this context, the Italian Alessandro Valignano (1539–1606), as a Jesuit visitor, succeeded in initiating a lasting paradigm shift involving European missionaries and their Japanese collaborators (dōjoku). Eventually, church buildings, schools, seminaries, painting schools, and a printing press were established.24

    The new method of "accommodation" meant adapting as much as possible to the native culture in terms of language, dress, and customs. Valignano travelled to Japan several times to implement this new model from 1580 onward. The number of Christians in the country was finally estimated at about 300,000. After a period of pro-Christianity under Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1537–1598), religious policy changed. Christians were persecuted with cruel punishments, including crucifixionsDrey Seelige Martyrer der Societet Jesu IMG. This was underpinned by a policy of unifying the country, which was fragmented by princes and no longer allowed foreigners. An edict of Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543–1616) decreed the prohibition of Christianity, which resulted in systematic persecution, numerous martyrs and renegades. Christians hiding in survived and were only rediscovered with the opening of the country in 1854. At the end of the 19th century, missionary work began again and the Jesuits were able to found a new university (Sophia)Sophia-Universität, Tokyo IMG.

    Chinese empire

    Three decades after Xavier's death, the first Jesuits at last succeeded in reaching the Middle Kingdom from Macao in 1580. It was ruled by Emperor Wanli, Ming Shenzong, (1563–1620) of the Ming Dynasty, who opened the country to the West. Among the first pioneers of this missionary project was the Italian Matteo Ricci (1552–1610).25 He already enjoyed the reputation of an occidental scholar, which finally helped him to found of a residence in in 1601. Ricci relied on conversation, friendship and scholarly exchange with Confucian literati, such as the statesman and scholar Xu Guangqi (1562–1633), who later embraced the Christian faithDer Missionar Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) als Gelehrter und sein chinesischer Gelehrtenfreund Xu Guangqi (1562–1633) mit dem Taufnamen Paulus IMG. Fields of exchange includes mathematics, astronomy, geography, and moral philosophy. With a newly designed world map (America is on the right), he managed to get past both the Sinocentric and the Eurocentric view of the world. In his major work, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (1603), he treats Christian philosophy in comparison to Chinese moral philosophy. 

    Other important missionaries also belonged to the Jesuits in China, like the Rhinelander Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1666)[Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1666) IMG] and the Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688). Both were high officials and heads of the astronomical office, which was charged with calculating exactly the solar and lunar eclipses (lucky and unlucky days), all-important for the Chinese state system. Successful missionary work unfolded in Beijing and other places such as , , and , so that there were soon close to 200,000 Chinese Christians from different social classes.26 The politically fraught change to the Qing dynasty (1644) of the Manchus is illustrated by the dramatic story of Father Schall of Bell, which later became the subject of a novel.27 The method of missionary accommodation also attracted much interest from the Protestant scholar Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), as evidenced by his correspondence with the China Jesuits and his plan for a similar missionary project: Propagatio fidei per sciencias.28 

    Four basic principles inform the Jesuit method: First, adaptation to the cultural context; second, evangelization takes place as far as possible from the top down, i.e. with the political and intellectual elites; third, science is used in the process of mission; fourth, tolerance, specifically towards Confucian "rites" of a civil, non-religious nature, must be practiced. For instance, joss sticks were lit as an expression of reverence to parents and ancestors, and to Confucius. The "rite controversy" was generally about the question of missionary adaptation to the culture (accommodation); in specific cases, it concerned the appraisal of the ritual veneration of the ancestors and Confucius. The Jesuits held that these were civil rites that could be tolerated. The mendicants of the Dominicans and Franciscans felt differently, however. They had come to China from the Spanish-ruled Philippines starting in 1630 and attributed to the rites a religious character. The methods also varied: While the mendicant orders began with a direct preaching of the cross in the order’s habit, the Jesuits, by contrast, appeared in the silken robe of scholars. They also began their activity indirectly with science as well as moral philosophy, and relied on the Pauline Areopagus method of the "unknown" and yet "not distant God" (Acts 17, 23, and 27). Thus, differences and rivalries arose between the orders, which were reinforced by the fact that both adversaries went to Rome. In addition, on the ecclesiastical level, there was an ongoing conflict between the Portuguese padroado and the Roman Congregation for Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide). Ultimately, in Rome both parties were proved right: the Congregation for Propagation affirmed the Dominicans’ position that the rites were of religious nature (1645), while the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei) supported the Jesuits' view of the rites’ civil character (1656). Certainly, with their diplomatic and governmental successes (calendar reform), the Jesuits managed to secure the Edict of Tolerance of 1692 from Emperor Kangxi, Qing Shengzu, (1654–1722), which permitted Christian missions throughout the empire. This period was short-lived, however. Pope Clement XI (1649–1721) declared a prohibition of the rites (1704) and, moreover, the Papal Legate Maillard de Tournon (1668–1710) behaved so badly in the audience with the Emperor that the missionaries were expelled.

    With this, the fate of the Chinese mission was sealed. Nevertheless, the approach reveals how scientific exchange and discourses on normative philosophical and religious questions set in motion considerable processes of change and transfer in both interaction partners. In the end, European science reached China and the teachings of Confucius made their way to Europe. While European settlement efforts failed to catch on in the mighty Middle Kingdom in the early modern period, they would later during China's period of relative weakness in the 19th/20th centuries.


    The mission of the Catholic Church suffered a sharp decline in the 18th century for both external and internal reasons. Politically, the centers of power shifted from the Iberian (Catholic) to the Protestant maritime powers of the Netherlands and . The French Revolution took its toll on religion, as did Napoleonic politics and secularization. The Enlightenment, including Idealism, asserted the"inferiority" of the southern continent of America and sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, there were ecclesiastical-political tensions such as the rites controversy in China and India, as well as the deportation of the Jesuits from overseas. The abolition of the order by Pope Clement XIV (1705–1774) in 1773 essentially purged thousands of missionaries.

    At the end of the 18th century, there was another important development: Christianity established itself in Korea on the initiative of the Korean intellectual Yi Seung-hun (1756–1801) – without the direct influence of European missionaries. Yi Seung-hun had learned about the Christian faith in Beijing and brought it to Korea in 1784, where it spread despite persecution.29 In the early 19th century, new missionary ventures also began in Africa.

    New beginnings in Africa

    Christianity had been spreading on the African continent since antiquity: Western Christianity in until the Islamic conquest (759); Coptic Christianity in (later also in ), and in . In the early modern period , the renewed Christianization of the EmpireKruzifix (Kongo-Völker) IMG was introduced. It had already been attempted with great success in the 17th and 18th centuries as missio antiqua by the propaganda missionaries (Capuchins). However, the continent was not explored and penetrated until the 19th century. A famous example of such efforts was the missionary and physician David Livingstone (1813–1873)[Das Treffen David Livingstones und Henry Morton Stanleys]. It is important to bear in mind the wounds inflicted on the people of Africa by enslavement and the slave trade. The earlier Muslim and Atlantic slave trade for the sugar and plantation economy in the Americas involved Africans as well. Abolitionary30 movements against the slave trade and slavery did not coalesce until the end of the 18th century. Here, members of the church were active participants.

    There was a missionary resurgence at the beginning of the 19th century that was triggered by a growing interest in Catholicism and its formal language - both among the people and in intellectual currents such as Romanticism. No longer were princes or bishops the initiators and financiers of the mission, but Catholic laymen, men, women and children. They made the cause of spreading the faith their own. Well before colonialism in Africa, lay movements developed in the first half of the century, with France as the focal point. There, on the initiative of the young Marie-Pauline Jaricot (1799–1862), a national association for the propagation of the faith (Association de la Propagation de la Foi) was founded (1822). Germany quickly followed with the Franziskus-Xaverius-Verein (1832), founded by the physician Heinrich Hahn (1800–1882), and the König-Ludwig-Missionsverein (1838), established in . These gave rise to today's church relief organizations. International missionary associations of this kind supported the foreign missions spiritually and financially. Also numerous media appeared, such as missionary magazines. For instance, Die katholischen Missionen (today: Forum Weltkirche) was first published in Germany in 1878.


    The international missionary work in the 19th century was carried out by numerous missionary societies and institutes such as the Paris Missionary Society (Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris), which was formed after the French Revolution in 1803. The list was rounded out by other foundations, for example in Italy (Istituto Missioni Estere) and England (Mill-Hill). The new foundation of the Italian Comboni missionaries (1867) focused on Africa, as did the Société des Missionnaires d'Afrique, started by the Frenchman Charles Lavigerie (1825–1892)[Charles-Martial-Allemand Lavigerie (Cardinal) IMG] in 1886 (he was later appointed Archbishop of and Cardinal). Because of the culture war in , the German Arnold Janssen (1837–1909) founded the Society of the Divine Word in 1875, which operated beyond Africa in China and . Moreover, there was a return of older religious orders, such as the Jesuits, re-founded in 1814. Monks discovered the missionary impulse, such as the Missionary Benedictines of , whose African monasteries are now of indigenous character.

    A lasting cultural change was brought about by nuns and female missionaries who gave the mission a feminine face. Among the many new female congregations, it is worth singling out Anne-Marie Javouhey (1779–1851), who founded the Soeurs de Saint-Joseph de Cluny in 1807. Shortly thereafter, she sent out missionary sisters, worked herself in , and advocated for liberating slaves. Missionary orders often established a female branch along with a male one, such as the Soeurs Missionnaires de Nortre Dame d'Afrique (1869). Mission, catechesis, education, and health care developed into central work areas.31 By the end of the 19th century, the missionary statistics of the Catholic Church showed impressive numbers of missionaries (i.e. monks and nuns) in Africa. There were over eight million believers, about five million belonging to Protestant denominations.32 The number of African nuns increased steadily in the 19th and 20th centuries, as did the number of indigenous congregations of sisters.

    The missionization of Africa in the 19th century was based on parallel actions of the denominations, whereby the Catholic Church and the Protestant confessions were rivals. Protestant missionary societies not infrequently specialized in Africa or other countries such as China. For instance, the London Missionary Society (LMS, 1795, 1818), the Basel Mission (1815), and the French Société de Missions évangéliques (1822) played an important role for Africa.33

    The great number of Catholic institutions were united by the vicars apostolic and the Roman Congregation de Propaganda fide. In the Protestant world, the World Missionary Conference first met in Edinburgh in 1910, which led to the formation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva in 1948.

    Colonialism and decolonization

    Of course, the colonialism of the European powers cast a heavy pall over the African continent during the missionary awakening of the 19th century. Thus, the mission was also drawn into this maelstrom nolens volens: unwillingly, because the religious reasoning was discredited; willingly, because mission and colonial administration often worked harmoniously together. Their cooperation included alliances of convenience, while both emphasized the "civilization" of Africans as a common goal.34

    After the penetration of the African continent around 1880, the European powers began their "scramble for Africa", which resulted in an almost total political division (with the exception of Ethiopia) among European nations. In this imperialist era, Britain and France chiefly benefited, but so did , Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. The German Reich occupied as "protectorates" Steyler Missionar beim Unterricht in Togo IMG, , and . Missionaries were to come from Germany if possible, so that for example German Pallotines went to Cameroon and Benedictines to East Africa.

    The arbitrary boundaries that crisscrossed the ethnic groups were drawn by the signatory powers of the Congo Conference (1884/85). Article 6 of the General Act clearly shows the close connection between colonial rule and mission. Therein the powers undertake, apart from the effective seizure of property, "to supervise the preservation of the native population, the improvement of their moral and material condition of life" ... and to make the natives "understand and appreciate the advantages of civilization".35 No "indigenous" were present at the Congo Conference.

    This was not least due to the spirit of the times, which combined nationalism with Europeanism and a sense of superiority. Colonialism survived the First World War. The victors seized the colonies of the loser, and the German missionaries were forced to return. The colonies disappeared only in the course of the decolonizations starting in the middle of the 20th century. Education in mission schools may have contributed to the processes of emancipation and independence movements.36

    Culture and value change

    The modern proverb Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis (Times change, and we change with them) captures how transformational moments can ubiquitously influence periods of time in unprecedented ways. The causes of such changes are highly diverse - they can be natural or cultivated by human creativity that is manifested in a variety of cultures. A very specific change in culture and values is closely connected with the missionary spread of the Christian faith. Such change processes took place in the course of Christianity’s globalization, especially starting with the early modern cultural contacts in America and Asia. In this context, the mission brought about a "guided cultural transformation" through acculturation and, along with it, a change in values.37

    The manner in which these processes unfolded depended on numerous factors, but above all on the respective cultures. No matter what culture missionaries encountered, however, they brought with them the religious message of Christianity embedded in their own culture. This, in turn, could lead to a shift in local norms. Useful cultural elements that enhanced the other cultures were quickly adopted. They ranged from economic innovations, settlement construction and animal husbandry to the adoption of (Latin) writing in the Americas, mathematical theories, and technological innovations in China. Certain interventions in language proved helpful and lasting, such as the conversion of the (Chinese) script of Vietnam to the Latin script with diacritical marks, undertaken by Alexandre de Rhodes (1593–1660).38 Normative reforms, such as the transition from polygamy to monogamy, took more time to be accepted. The most challenging task, however, was to penetrate into the heart of a culture, or into the realm of religious belief. This applies equally to reverse processes, namely when other cultural elements are adopted into one's own. It didn’t matter whether it was Xocolatl, the South American Chinese barkTasche zur Aufbewahrung von Chinarinde, Peru, 1777–1785 or the Sinophile reception of Confucianism in Europe, which was again turned on its head in the 19th century. These reciprocal processes depend on cultural flexibility vis-à-vis difference, not to mention the degree of ethnocentric rigidity that exists in every culture, whether Eurocentric, Sinocentric, or Inca-centric.

    The transformation of values and culture in the context of Christian mission encompasses virtually the entire cultural sphere, such as community (politics), language ("translation"), normative systems (morality, law and religion), economic life, health and education, knowledge, art and, last but not least, philosophical concerns. To recognize this, one need only comb through the various missionary projects. For our purposes, there is only room to suggest how it was possible to go beyond outward accommodation, to penetrate the heart of culture and to establish relations of equal standing. As an example, we can consider the amicable relationship between two close scientific collaborators: the Italian missionary and scholar Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) and the Chinese statesman and scholar Xu Guangqi (1562–1633). Ricci's first book in Chinese contains one hundred European aphorisms on friendship. The book, however, refers to the five Confucian social relations, four of which are relations of dependence, such as elder and younger brother. Only one social bond can be freely chosen, friendship, which touches a person at his or her core and transforms both sides.39


    After the First World War, there was a drastic paradigm shift in the Catholic mission in relation to the prevailing colonial policy. Pope Benedict XV (1854–1922) published the letter Maximum illud from Nov. 30, 1919, which set down new foundations for church policy. On the one hand, it sharply opposed the colonialism and nationalism of the time and condemned the unholy alliance between colonial rule and mission. On the other hand, it pleaded for an autochthonous clergy and for a greater participation of women in missionary activity.40 Thus, ecclesiastically, a new era beckoned, decades before the decolonizations, that placed hope in "new churches".41 This initiated a process that led to political decolonization in the middle of the 20th century.

    Soon thereafter, the Catholic Church was constituted at the ecclesiastical level as a universal Church at the Second Vatican Council (1963–1965). African bishops were also represented for the first time. On the one hand, the Catholic Church reoriented its relationship to modernity and, on the other, it updated its conception of mission. Thus, decolonization by no means marked the beginning of a "demission". Rather, it signaled a change of direction. Mission no longer emanated from Europe to countries overseas, but extended from India and Africa to the rest of the world. In addition, there was a change in the understanding of mission that addressed topics like evangelization all to way to the issue of normative conciliar foundations. Related statements include: the Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis humanae), the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate), and the Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church (Ad gentes); plus the theological foundations of the two Constitutions on the Church (Lumen gentium) and on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes).42

    Since then, the watchwords of inculturation, interreligious dialogue, and recognition of the other have gained worldwide acceptance, even ecumenically. At present, the permanent task of spreading the Christian faith is understood as missionary and spiritual "evangelization".43 Today, membership in the universal Catholic Church is at around 1.3 billion and growing.

    Michael Sievernich



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    1. ^ For an overview, see Sievernich, Die christliche Mission 2009, pp. 71–230. Meier, Bis an die Ränder der Welt 2018.
    2. ^ On European expansion in modern times, see especially the standard work: Reinhard, Unterwerfung der Welt 2016.
    3. ^ On embedding of mission in renewal, see Hsia, Catholic Renewal 2010, pp. 187–216.
    4. ^ On the thousand-year missionary process in the Middle Ages, see Padberg, Christianisierung 1998.
    5. ^ Reinhard, Dekolonisierung 1996, pp. 2–4; cf. Pelizaeus, Kolonialismus 2017.
    6. ^ Koschorke, Außereuropäische Christentumsgeschichte 2006, p. 228f.
    7. ^ Pané, An Account of the Antiquities 1999; cf. Bitterli, Alte Welt – Neue Welt 1986, pp. 77–96.
    8. ^ Casas, Werkauswahl 1995, vol. 2, p. 226.
    9. ^ Casas, Kurzgefasster Bericht 2018.
    10. ^ Casas, Werkauswahl 1995, vol. 3/1, pp. 59–115, here p. 82.
    11. ^ De Vitoria, Vorlesungen 1997.
    12. ^ Quoted in Koschorke, Außereuropäische Christentumsgeschichte 2006, p. 228f.
    13. ^ Quoted in Acosta, De procuranda 1984, vol. 1, p. 370f.
    14. ^ Sievernich, Conquista und Evangelisation 1992, pp. 413–429; cf. Schmid Heer, Transfer 2019; Hartmann, Jesuitenstaat 2016.
    15. ^ Cf. Saint-Geours, Lateinamerika 2000; Marzal, El sincretismo iberoamericano 1988.
    16. ^ Cf. Borges, Historia de la Iglesia 1992, pp. 703–774.
    17. ^ On missionary efforts in this region, see Meier, Bis an die Ränder 2018, pp. 43–132.
    18. ^ The Thoma Christians form the Eastern Church part of Indian Christianity, a portion of which is also united with Rome. For the complex history and the current structure cf. Brakmann, Thomaschristen 2001, col. 1–5.
    19. ^ Xaver, Briefe 2006.
    20. ^ Cf. Maclagan, The Jesuits and the Great Mogul 1972.
    21. ^ O´Malley, The Jesuits and the Arts 2005, pp. 349–355.
    22. ^ Koschorke, Außereuropäische Christentumsgeschichte 2006, p. 27f.
    23. ^ Cf. Nobili, Preaching Wisdom 2000.
    24. ^ Cf. Cooper, The Southern Barbarians 1971; Boxer, The Christian Century 1967.
    25. ^ Cf. Brockey, Journey to the East 2007; Standaerd, Handbook of Christianity 2001.
    26. ^ Cf. Collani, Von Jesuiten, Kaisern und Kanonen 2012.
    27. ^ The novel is called: Franz, Uli: Im Schatten des Himmels, Munich 2000.
    28. ^ Leibniz, Briefwechsel 2006.
    29. ^ Kim, Korea 2014, pp. 73–97.
    30. ^ Cf. Ward, Christentum in Afrika 2017, pp. 230–234; Reinhard, Kolonialismus 1969, pp. 88–98; for figures, see Flaig, Weltgeschichte 2009, p. 165f.
    31. ^ Cf. Habermas, Mission global 2014.
    32. ^ For the general overview, see Krose, Missionsstatistik 1908, pp. 123, 126.
    33. ^ For an overview, see Bogner, Weltmission 2004.
    34. ^ Cf. Jedin, Weltmission 1958.
    35. ^ [Anonymous], Verhandlungen des Reichstages 1885, p. 1666.
    36. ^ On colonial rule in Africa and the relationship between decolonization and the Church, see Reinhard, Kolonialismus 1996, pp. 229–279; Foster, African Catholic 2019.
    37. ^ Cf. Reinhard, Gelenkter Kulturwandel 1976, cf. Becker, European Missions 2015, cf. Becker, Conversio im Wandel 2015.
    38. ^ Here, see Schatz, Alexander de Rhodes 2015.
    39. ^ Here, see Sievernich, Interkulturelle Freundschaft 2011.
    40. ^ For a summary at the end of the 20th century see Bevans, A Century of Catholic mission 2013.
    41. ^ Cf. Benedikt, Apostolisches Schreiben 1919.
    42. ^ Hünermann, Dokumente des Konzils 2012.
    43. ^ Here, Sievernich, Evangelisierung 2018.

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    : Mission, colonialism, and changing values, in: Europäische Geschichte Online (EGO), hg. vom Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte (IEG), Mainz European History Online (EGO), published by the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG), Mainz 2021-11-16. URL: https://www.ieg-ego.eu/sievernichm-2021-en URN: urn:nbn:de:0159-2021110421 [JJJJ-MM-TT][YYYY-MM-DD].

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