Identifying the True Consequence of the Spread of Christianity

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The Spread of Christianity: a Mission or a Crusade?

Christianity is currently the world’s most popular religion, with roughly 1.2 billion Catholics and over 900 million Christians of other denominations. Undeniably, the popularity of Christianity todays is due to the ongoing spread of Christian ideals and beliefs, which was at its fastest during the Crusades and religious military campaigns of the medieval era. One could say that a flash point occurred during the life of Martin Luther – a time during which many Christians were turning away from the Catholic Church, as bibles and pro-reformation writings were becoming increasingly available to the lower class with the help of the printing press. This, of course prompted the Counter Reformation efforts of the Catholic Church, which, like the Crusades, involved similar tactics of persecution that lead to more violence and the deaths of those who would not renounce their Protestant views. The spread of Christianity has an extremely violent history. However, evangelism continues today through some not-so-violent means, such as missions programs in churches, high schools, and colleges. Needless to say, today’s methods of spreading the Christian faith are not as forceful as the methods used to do so during medieval and early modern history. This is because there is a fundamental difference between sharing beliefs with a culture and forcing beliefs upon a culture. In medieval and early modern history, Christian principles were enforced, whereas today they are shared.

I believe that today’s evangelical outreach to underdeveloped countries that would benefit from hearing the word of God is a wonderful development, but this is a far cry from the methods of the Catholic Church, which have involved using force to coerce foreign cultures to accept the religion. While the Catholic Church has used forceful approaches to gain followers in the past, this is not to say that the Catholic Church itself is to blame for today’s religious violence and persecution. In many cases throughout the second half of the millennium, Christianity (of many denominations; not just Catholicism) has been used as a tool for Western Imperialist powers to gain a foothold in foreign state societies with the intentions of overthrowing them and gaining more land, resources, and capital for the motherland. More recently, in the 19th and 20th centuries, long-term missions involved strategies that echoed imperialist strategies. Though not as drastic or violent as the strategies used earlier in history, missions during the 19th and 20th centuries, similar to Western Imperialism, often caused unwanted cultural overlap. I believe that such tactics, although they have facilitated the advance of Christianity worldwide, should certainly be frowned upon and should no longer be repeated. This is because cases in which Christianity has been used to help seize control of foreign societies have resulted in long-term problems surrounding the mixing of two drastically different cultures (not to mention that using Christianity to force a population into submission goes wildly against Christian principles and is extremely ironic). Modern-day examples of such problems include the persecution and execution of Christians in countries of northern Africa and the Middle East. Generally, the governments of countries of these areas place restrictions on Christianity because they view it as an integral part of Western culture, which they have renounced due to the corruption of Western Imperialist powers. In short, imperialist tactics of imposing Christianity have had direct and indirect negative effects on non-Western views of Christianity. In some cases, the influx of Christianity and Western culture has been met by foreign societies with open arms and is now a defining aspect of such cultures, but in many other cases, the desire of a culture to keep its non-Western identity, in clashing with the insistence of Western Imperialism, has had strong negative effects on foreign outlooks towards Christianity. Furthermore, non-Western countries that were not overtaken by European Imperialist powers observed the negative effects of Western Imperialism on less fortunate countries and became biased against Western customs and practices, including Christianity. In this paper, I will focus on a specific instance of a culture denying Christianity because of its lack of desire for Western influence: China during the pan-Protestant China Inland Mission of the 19th century.

The spread of Protestantism throughout China began in 1807 with Robert Morrison, a leading missionary from London, England who had previously produced the first Chinese translation of the Bible. Seven years after Morrison’s arrival, the Jiaqing Emperor began putting missionaries to death and exiling Chinese Christian converts by giving them away as slaves to upper class Muslims in the Middle East. This is because Christianity went against previously established Chinese laws that deemed all superstition and ritualistic practice illegal, and Christianity fell into this category. Christianity and the missionaries who sought to spread it were met with virtually immediate disapproval by the Chinese government. Nevertheless, the pan-Protestant China Inland Mission carried on throughout the 19th century. By 1839, the constant 30-year influx of missionaries into China had resulted in a large population of British on Chinese soil, many of whom were not just evangelists but traders as well. As trade between China and Britain increased, so did issues surrounding the trade and subsequent spread of opium. The Chinese government wished to terminate the trading of opium with Great Britain. When Chinese traders began seizing shipments of opium from British traders, the British began using military force to retaliate and demanded that the Chinese once again allow the trade of opium. This conflict, known as the First Opium War, resulted in the deaths of roughly 19,000 Chinese: a damning defeat considering that the British lost less than 70 men throughout the entire 3 and a half year conflict. The war also resulted in a treaty allowing the British to continue the opium trade with China. However, less than 15 years later, Britain became unhappy with the treaty, which limited the amount of opium that China could import. As the Chinese government observed opium addictions becoming increasingly common among the people, suspicions that the British were smuggling more than their allotted shipments of opium were roused among Chinese traders. When Chinese officials boarded a British vessel because it was questioned for carrying contraband, the British again retaliated, starting the Second Opium War, this time calling upon their French allies to aid in their reprisal. After 4 years of war, the Chinese surrendered for the second time.

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Whether or not the pan-Protestant missions of in China began with the intention of colonization and Westernization is open to much debate. However, the undeniable fact remains that the missions caused a large increase in British-Chinese trade, which in turn caused both Opium Wars. Although, there is a rapidly growing population of Christians in China today, one could certainly argue that the missions of the 19th century and the subsequent Opium Wars did more bad than good in terms of the preservation of Chinese culture. Also, the evangelistic goals of the British were never fully realized. Today, the persecution of Christians still takes place in some areas of China. Therefore, the pan-Protestant missions in China generally resulted in a negative reflection of Christianity, as the desired outcome was not achieved, and much damage was done to the culture itself. Coincidentally the treaty following the Second Opium War required that the Chinese government institute religious tolerance throughout China (in addition to allowing the unregulated trade of opium). The treaty also mandated that the British be allowed to transport indentured Chinese to and from the Americas as they saw fit. They were also allowed to indenture any Chinese conservationists who opposed them and use them as slaves. This, of course, opened the door to unobstructed missions in China and the development of Chinese Christian groups, which continued until the 1940’s. But because the treaty following the Second Opium War required such drastic changes in China, essentially forcing the nation into complete submission, many historians see the pan-Protestant China Inland Mission as a classic example of Christianity being used to facilitate Western Imperialism, rather than a simple mission whose sole purpose was to spread Christianity.

Christians have a reputation for actively seeking converts and new followers while most other religious groups do not carry out missions to spread their beliefs. One could easily argue that this phenomenon is due in great part to the trends set by the Catholic Church during the Catholic Counter Reformation. During this time, Christendom was a top priority of the Catholics, and so they went about forcefully trying to homogenize the nations of Europe with a single unified religion. One could say that the missionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries tried to do the same thing, only without using violent tactics of persecution. Another explanation for the Christian desire to seek converts is the scripture itself, which tells those who read, “Those who have an ear, let them hear”. However, this statement does sanctify the many instances of unwanted imposition of Western influence and culture upon nations that wished to preserve their identities. Particularly in the industrial Age when communication was becoming increasingly fast and easy, the need for missions at this time is in question, as such means of communication did not exist during the more violent epochs of Christian history. It leads one to ask, if long-distance fast communication could have been a possible medium for spreading the Christian faith, why then was it necessary to send missionaries to foreign countries over long periods of time? Many would answer that there was no need to send missionaries because long-distance communication could have accomplished their evangelistic goals without the need for arriving on foreign soil, and that the missions themselves were simply excuses to occupy and trade with foreign nations. In other words, they were more attempts at control via Westernization and colonization.

In my opinion, freedom of speech is something that, ideally, everyone should have. Everyone should be able to speak out in favor of a particular set of beliefs. However, this does not mean that anyone should be able to or required to force those beliefs on a population, especially if that population’s pre-existing beliefs do nothing to offend or damage outside cultures. Because the methods of spreading Christianity used throughout the second millennium usually involved large-scale violence – something that contradicts the very teachings of Christianity – I believe that the goal of those doing so was to take control of as much territory as possible. As things like trading and technology changed over the centuries, so did the methods of Western Imperialism. Instead of using the “convert or die” tactics of the Catholic Counter Reformation, the British disguised their intentions of occupying and Westernizing China with a façade of evangelism. While the tactics differed from century to century, the objective remained the same: make non-Western state societies Western so that they can be more easily controlled.

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