Some Historical Context on the Death of John Allen Chau

Chau

Over at The Conversion, historian Bill Svelmoe, a historian of evangelical missions, offers some historical context to help understand the faith of John Allen Chau, the missionary killed last month by the native people of North Sentinel Island.  Here is a taste of his piece:

The recent killing of a 26-year-old U.S. missionary, John Allen Chau, on a remote island in India has raised many questions about global evangelical Protestant missions.

Chau was on a personal mission to convert the Sentinelese, a protected tribe who have avoided contact with the rest of the world. Indian ships monitor the waters to stop outsiders from approaching them. Chau, however, is reported to have asked fishermen to take him illegally to the island where the Sentinelese live. The Sentinelese are reported to have shot and killed him with arrows.

As my research on missionaries shows, this often unwise haste to evangelize the world was the founding characteristic of evangelical missions in the late 19th century.

From the beginning of the 19th century, Protestants sent missionaries abroad under mission boards that required seminary education and full funding for prospective recruits. By the end of the 19th century, however, some mission leaders believed that the established missions were evangelizing the world at much too slow a pace.

Evangelicals believe in a hell where the souls of those who don’t convert to Christianity will burn forever.

Missionaries are motivated by Christ’s words in the “Great Commission” to “make disciples of all nations.” In these biblical verses, the risen Christ commands his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel. This command has motivated the missionary enterprisefor centuries.

These leaders founded what became known as “faith” missions to greatly expand the missionary force. As I write in my book, the new missions began sending out highly committed but lightly educated and ill-prepared missionaries. Many had not even finished high school. Just a bit of Bible training was considered enough.

There were dozens of such missions by the early 20th century, each founded to Christianize a specific section of the globe, such as the China Inland Mission, the Sudan Interior Mission and the Central American Mission.

Hundreds of young men and women, often with families, were sent overseas with little to no training in anything beyond the Bible and no promise of funding.

Read the rest here.

“Contact may be dangerous, but so is no contact”

Sentinel Island

There were strong reactions when news first emerged about John Allen Chau, the missionary killed by the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island.  We have done several posts about the story.  Read them here.

As we learn more about Chau and the humans who inhabit North Sentinel Island the stories are becoming more nuanced.  For example, here is a taste Jeffrey Gettleman’s piece at The New York Times:

“There is no question that this attempt to make contact was totally wrong and a major violation of their human rights to autonomy,” he said. “Outsiders need to respect their wishes and treat them with dignity as fellow human beings. Respect means we don’t assume to know better how they should live.”

To me that is the operative question. How do they want to live? Can outsiders presume they don’t want contact without communicating with them? Where does their hostility come from? Maybe it’s from an old grudge (in the 19th century, a young British naval officer kidnapped a few of the islanders and some soon died). Maybe it’s from superstition or something else.

Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, thinks total isolation on a tropical island is a bit of a fantasy anyway. He said that it’s “unwise and inhumane to forcibly keep these groups isolated by building protective fences around them.”

First, if a population gets too small and isolated, like the people on North Sentinel, it will probably become extinct. Contact may be dangerous, but so is no contact. Second, some type of encounter with an outsider is inevitable, Mr. Hill said, and “accidental contact is a disaster waiting to happen.” North Sentinel is isolated, but it’s only 30 miles or so from Port Blair, the region’s growing capital. How long can the Indians keep people away from the island? Mr. Hill’s solution is to learn what the islanders want so that they can make the decision about their future.

“Humans are an extremely social species,” he said. “No groups want to live isolated forever. They do it out of fear.”

Read the entire piece here.

A Historian of Missions on the Death of John Allen Chau

TuckerWhen I was a student studying church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I read Ruth Tucker‘s book From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions.  Tucker was teaching in some capacity at Trinity at this time, but I never got a chance to take one of her courses.  As a relatively new evangelical, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya was my first exposure to the evangelical missionary enterprise.  I found it to be a both inspiring and honest treatment of the subject.

Over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, Tucker reflects on the recent death of missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of the Sentinelese. (See my reflections here). She puts Chau’s story in the context of the so-called “Auca Five,” the missionaries killed in 1956 by the Auca Indians in the Ecuadorian rain forest.

Here is a taste of Tucker’s piece:

I am truly sorry about John Chau’s untimely death, and I certainly do not know his motives—whether any of my multiple-choice motives factored in. Was he really thinking he could bring the gospel without knowing the language? Even if he could have, he would have been seriously endangering the people. If the population of the island had died due to his bringing pathogens against which they have no immunity, wouldn’t that have been far worse?

Some will insist that Chau has potentially rallied a new generation of missionaries. Perhaps. It is indeed true that Operation Auca inspired many to become missionaries, but at what cost and at what neglect of sensible mission outreach?

In the end, missionaries evangelized both tribal groups that had defended themselves by killing the men they perceived to be enemies. In the first instance gifts were left at the perimeter of the tribal territory, allowing the people to make contact on their own terms. In the second instance, three women and a little girl visited the native people: Dayuma, leading the way, Bible translator Rachel Saint, and Elisabeth Elliot, Jim’s widow, and their young daughter.

“For those who saw it as a great Christian martyr story,” Elisabeth later wrote, “the outcome was beautifully predictable. All puzzles would be solved. God would vindicate Himself. Aucas would be converted and we could all ‘feel good’ about our faith.” But that is not what actually happened. “The truth is that not by any means did all subsequent events work out as hoped. There were negative effects of the missionaries’ entrance into Auca territory. There were arguments and misunderstandings and a few really terrible things, along with the answers to prayer.”

Read the entire piece here.

I am actually waiting for Wheaton College history professor Kathryn Long to weigh-in on this.  She is the author of the forthcoming book God in the Rainforest: A Tale of Martydom and Redemption in the Amazonian Ecuador (Oxford University Press, 2019).

ADDENDUM: A quick Google search tells me that Long offered commentary for this NPR piece.

Thoughts on the Death of John Allen Chau

Chau

What should we make of the death of a twenty-seven-year-old missionary at the hands of an indigenous tribe on North Sentinel Island off the coast of India?  On Sunday we published Kate Carte’s twitterstorm on the subject.  Yesterday I linked to Ryu Spaeth’s piece at The New Republic.  Since then, evangelical historian Thomas Kidd has weighed-in at The Gospel Coalition.  The story has also elicited several interesting comments at my Facebook page.

Frankly, this story has so many moving parts that I am not sure I have a “take” on it.  It is a tragic story on all sides.  I have mixed feelings about Chau’s death.

Here are a few thoughts:

1.This is one of those cases where people of Christian faith who believe in the Great Commission (Mt. 28) might see it differently from those who are not Christians.  As an evangelical myself, I understand and sympathize with Chau’s zeal and his desire to convert the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island. Chau was passionate about his faith and his desire to share it with others.  Conversionism, missionary work, and evangelism are at the heart of evangelical faith.  Historically, this kind of passion and zeal has often led to martyrdom.  I am reminded of my friend who I wrote about in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  He signed his letters to fellow Christians with these words: “May you suffer and die for Christ.”

I am not saying here that Chau deserves to be called a “martyr.” I am saying that Chau is not the first person to die proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Great Commission is one of the reasons I remain an evangelical. If you are a Christian and do not believe in evangelism, missions, or “making disciples” in the world then you need to explain to me why you take Jesus’s words seriously in some places of the Gospels (love your neighbor, caring for the poor, etc.) and not in Matthew 28:16-20.  It seems to me that the Great Commission of Matthew 28 is something more than simply, “go into the world and do acts of social justice.”  If this is what the Great Commission means, then I am not sure how Christianity is any different than the Peace Corps or some other non-religious agency.  It seems to me that the requirement to “make disciples” and “baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit” requires something more.  Chau took this call seriously.

2. Unfortunately, Chau was not a good steward of his passion and his commitment to the Great Commission.  He was a young man.  He had the potential of reaching so many lives with the good news of the Gospel.  We need more people in the church with his zeal for evangelism. Sadly, we will never get to witness his future ministry.

3. Christians have abused the Great Commission in ways that have led to violence, death, genocide, slavery, and other forms of imperialism.  Kate Carte is right about the so-called Pilgrim (and Puritan) invasion.  This is a history that today’s evangelicals must confront and I have spent the better of my career trying to get my fellow evangelicals to confront it.  But I am thankful, at least when it comes to missiology, that some thoughtful evangelicals have confronted it.  I don’t know of any missiologist teaching at a reputable evangelical theological seminary who would endorse the kind of imperialism practiced by the Pilgrims, 19th-century missionaries, or even 20th-century missionaries.  Moreover, I do not think contemporary missiologists would endorse Chau’s approach either.  His approach is not representative of evangelical missionary activity today.

4. Over at my Facebook page, historian Jonathan Couser writes that he “does not consider Chau a true missionary.”  He reminds us that the term “missionary” means “one who is sent” (from Latin, missus).  This, Couser writes, “implies authorization, commission from a sending church or agency.  So far as I understand, no church SENT Chau.  He got it into his own head to undertake a lone-wolf mission to an isolated people.”  This is a great point.  There is a reason why missionaries do not go to North Sentinel Island.  Churches and missions organizations bring wisdom, history, scholarship, and experience to the missionary endeavor.  Perhaps Chau did consult with a “sending” organization and simply ignored the advice.  Perhaps a “sending” organization would have been aware of the health risk he posed to the Sentinelese.

And now the attempt to recover Chau’s body has put others at risk.  It does not seem like he thought this through.  This is what happens when missionaries go rogue.

5.  Chau’s failure to work as part of the global Christian or missionary community is an example of the individualism at the heart of Western evangelicalism.  Chau’s trip to North Sentinel Island seems to have combined evangelical individualism with the adventure/adrenaline culture popular among American millennials today.  Chau seems to have ignored the wisdom of the church and the voices of other Christians in his life.

6. A lot has been made of Chau breaking Indian law by going to the North Sentinel Island.  No argument here.  But like Ryu Spaeth, I wonder when it is appropriate to break border laws and when it is not.  Is it appropriate to interpret Chau’s actions in the context of America’s immigration debate?  Many liberals and progressives defend undocumented immigrants crossing the border in the name of justice and compassion.  Others disagree.  Those who disagree suggest that undocumented immigrants are dangerous or a threat to American society.  They thus defend strict border control and punishment for those who enter the United States illegally.  (Caveat:  I am talking here about immigrants, not asylum seekers).

In Chau’s case, he understood his arrival on New Sentinel Island as an act of love and compassion.  He believed so strongly in the evangelical message of salvation that he thought it was worth breaking the law so that he could deliver this message to the Sentinelese.  Why such a strong defense of North Sentinel Island borders, but not such a strong defense of U.S. borders?  When should love and compassion define our understand of borders and when should it not? Do we only break the law for the ideas and moral principles that we like?

7.  As a Christian, I believe in the dignity of all human beings.  I thus believe murder is wrong.  I understand that the Sentinelese acted in self-defense.  But in the end, a life was lost.  This should cause us to grieve.  Murder is murder and life is life, whether the Sentinelese are noble savages or not.  Of course one might also say the same thing about Chau.  His arrival on the island put human lives at risk.

Tragic indeed.

Addendum: It appears that Chau did indeed work with a missions agency.  Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today reports that he was a missionary with All Nations missions.

Addendum #2:  At 12:14 am on November 27, 2018 I edited points 3 and 6 for clarity.

The Author’s Corner with Emily Conroy-Krutz

The Author's Corner with Emily Conroy-Krutz

Emily Conroy-Krutz is Assistant Professor, Department of History, Michigan State University.  This interview is based on her new book Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (Cornell University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Christian Imperialism?

ECK: 
It started with a story about Americans in the British Empire. In 1812, when the first American foreign missionaries reached India, the War of 1812 had just begun and eight American men and women now found themselves in British territory, ordered to return to the United States, and placed in police custody. They did not leave, but spent the war years divided into smaller groups, some fleeing the police and trying to find alternate mission locations and others trying to convince the local governments in India that they were not an American threat, but Christian allies in the task of converting India to Christianity and “civilization.” I came across that story when I was working on a seminar paper in graduate school and was fascinated by the boldness of the missionaries who asserted their right to be in India and played with the questions of their identity as Americans and as Christians. For some of their British missionary allies, the Americans were maddening in their lack of a plan and unwillingness to follow the rules of the East India Company in determining where they would go and what they would do.

These early American missionaries felt that they were following Providence and fulfilling their duty to take part in the conversion of the world, even as the power of their country to help them do that work was severely limited. I wanted to know much more about them and to try and figure out what inspired this movement that they were part of and what it could tell us about national identity in the early United States. I wanted to know what they thought they were doing in India in 1812, and how they found their way to open mission stations around the world by the mid-1840s.

The project grew out of these linked questions of why the foreign mission movement began when it did and where Americans wanted to go as missionaries. In 1810, when the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was founded, the ambitious global scale of the ABCFM’s plans are quite surprising, and so I wanted to think about what their decisions about where to go and what to do when they got there can tell us about how early 19thcentury American Protestants thought about the role of their country in the world. The result is a book that traces American missionaries in Asia, Africa, North America, the Pacific, and the Middle East in the years before 1848 as a way of thinking about ideas about race, religion, civilization, and empire in the early republic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Christian Imperialism?

ECK: In the early 19th century, the American foreign mission movement was motivated by an idea that I have termed Christian imperialism, a claim that America and other supposedly Christian nations such as Britain should spread Anglo-American civilization and Protestantism to the peoples of what they called the “heathen world” as a way of fulfilling their duty to spread the gospel. As they went about four decades of missionary work, they asserted the centrality of this role even as the political realities of the world around them ultimately did not conform to this vision of an American international role.

JF: Why do we need to read Christian Imperialism?

ECK: Christian Imperialism takes a broad-scale view of the foreign mission movement as a way of thinking about the US in the world during the first decades of the nineteenth century. If you are interested in how Americans have thought about the role of their country in the world, this is an important part of that story. Missionaries were some of the earliest Americans to live abroad, and their writings about their experiences were influential to how Americans at home understood the peoples of the world. They worked alongside imperial and colonial projects around the world—including the British East India Company, the Colonization Society, and the U.S. government—and had an important perspective on how religion and politics ought to relate to each other. By looking at missionaries in Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, North America, and the Middle East within the same study, I try to reconstruct the foreign mission movement as it would have been thought about at the time: a project with truly global ambitions that emerged at a moment of American political weakness on a global scale.  Thinking about how those two things fit together can reveal a lot about the place of America in the world. In light of these difficulties, missionaries had to prioritize where they went and what they did, and their decisions are revealing of their thinking about race and “civilization,” and of how that thinking shaped and was shaped by their religious beliefs and political and economic structures. The book should be of interest to readers who want to know more about not only the history of missions, but of the role of the US in the world, of American imperialism, and of religion and race.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?


ECK: 
I was lucky to have some really great history teachers in high school and college that helped me to see how exciting it could be to become a historian and try to answer big questions through a careful reading of primary source documents. In my first semester as an undergraduate at Columbia, Alice Kessler-Harris introduced us to E.H. Carr and to the idea that how we frame our questions matters, and where we go looking for our answers matters. It was that training in women’s history that really inspired me to think about history as a career. Once I started exploring archives and discovering the fun ways that research can take you in new directions you weren’t expecting, I was hooked.

JF: 
What is your next project?

ECK: 
I’m starting work now on a project looking at women and transatlantic reform before 1840. In part, this is emerging out of some research on women in the foreign mission movement that I did for this project but I’m planning on moving beyond missions to think about the ways that men and women in the US and Great Britain were talking about women’s participation in reform movements—particularly religiously motivated movements—in the decades between the Revolution and the 1840 World’s Antislavery Conference in London. It’s very early stages, but I’m having a lot of fun with it so far.

JF:
Thanks Emily!  Sounds like a great new project!

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #67

Did Adoniram Judson’s wife own a $1200 coat?

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

Days like these are rough.  I am trying to get in 3-5 hours a day on the ABS project, but some days my schedule at Messiah College makes it difficult.  For example, today I had an 8:30am meeting, which means I had to get up an hour earlier to do my ABS work.  I have not yet had a cup of coffee.

My morning was spent on two tasks:

1.  Organizing my notes in preparation for writing my chapter (Chapter Four) on the “General Supply” (ABS attempt to provide a Bible for every American).

2.  Reading through The Reformer, a religious periodical published by a Philadelphia anti-mission Baptist (or at least I think he is a Baptist–not completely sure yet). 

I would have never been aware of the existence of this periodical if an ABS agent in frontier Illinois did not mention it in an 1828 letter. The publisher of The Reformer, James Rakestraw, is staunchly opposed to benevolent societies and missions organizations that are interdenominational in nature. He is particularly hard on the American Bible Society because he thinks the ABS is only concerned with making money from the sale of Bibles.  There is a strong populist flavor to The Reformer.  The writers publish scathing attacks on Christians who they believe have succumbed to wealth and materialism.  In one issue I read this morning the editors attacked the wife of missionary Adoniram Judson for wearing a coat from India which they believe was worth $1200.

The Reformer was popular among Primitive Baptists in the Midwest during the 1820s.  These Baptists often hindered ABS attempts at supplying the region with Bibles.  Stay tuned.

OAH Panel Wrap-Up: Religion and Transatlantic Print Culture in the Early Republic

Noah Webster: Anti-Jacobinist

This morning I had the privilege of chairing a session on “Religion and Transatlantic Print Culture” at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. Actually, I was pinch hitting for Kyle Roberts of Loyola University-Chicago, who could not make it to the conference.  My responsibilities? Introduce the panelists and read Roberts’s comments.

I expected a solid panel, but I did not anticipate learning so much.

Jonathan Den Hartog of Northwestern College (St. Paul) began the festivities with a paper on religion, Anti-Jacobinism, and print culture.  (For those unfamiliar, Anti-Jacobinists were 1790s intellectuals who opposed the political ideas associated with the French Revolution). From a religious perspective, Anti-Jacobins opposed French irreligion, Paine’s Age of Reason, and the dangers of the Illuminati.  Den Hartog focused on four American Anti-Jacobin writers: grammarian Noah Webster, clergyman Timothy Dwight, printer William Cobbett, and novelist Sally Sayward Wood.

Lily Santoro of Southeast Missouri State presented a paper on the ways in which American Protestants used British texts across the Atlantic “border” to shape a distinctive discussion of science and religion in the early republic.  She focused on intellectuals such as Yale professor Benjamin Silliman and Baptist minister Thomas Staughton who used the study of the natural sciences to support their republican and Christian faith.

Ashley Moreshead of the University of Delaware (both Ashley and Lily are/were Christine Heyrman students) talked about British contributions to American missionary periodicals.  Missionary magazines created a sort of imagined community of Protestants that transcended national boundaries.  Her paper reminded me of the work by Susan O’Brien, Frank Lambert, and others who have written similar things about the First Great Awakening.

(I hope these descriptions do some justice to the three papers).

I should also add that this panel was a model for how to present complicated ideas in a compelling, passionate way.  There were no bells and whistles (Powerpoints, handouts, etc…), but all three papers were presented in a way that was very accessible to the non-specialists in the room.  I don’t think I have ever heard names and phrases such as “William Paley,” “Edmund Burke,” “natural religion,” and “heathen millions” uttered in such an enthusiastic way.

In his comments, Kyle Roberts asked Den Hartog to think harder about how (and if) less popular Anti-Jacobin works were disseminated.  He wondered whether Santoro’s intellectuals and science writers were distinctly “American” in nature.  And he asked Moreshead to examine how magazine editors repurposed European content to suit their needs.

Den Hartog, Santoro, and Moreshead are doing some great work.  I look forward to reading their forthcoming works.  Happy to be a pinch-hitter. (I have always been a big fan of Manny Mota and Rusty Staub).