Yale-Edinburgh Group
on the History of the Missionary Movement
and Non-Western Christianity

Consultations sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World at the University of Edinburgh , Yale Divinity School, and the Overseas Ministries Study Center

Theme for the 2002 Yale-Edinburgh Group Meeting:

"Missions and the Powers: Seen and Unseen"

Andrew F. Walls and Lamin Sanneh

Christians, said the apostle Paul, are wrestling with principalities and powers. There have been different views as to what he meant. Many have visualized an array of malign spiritual beings massed in opposition to God and to humanity's best interests, the animated dark side of the universe. Others have seen the opposition expressed in the world's political and economic structures, and embodied in representatives of power, the Caiaphases and the Pilates. Perhaps the two views are not so far apart as seems at first sight. Both point to powerful entities (some seen, some unseen) built into the way the world is organized and operates, powers hostile to what Christians say the world should be. Confrontation is inevitable; and in the apostle's vision of the universe Christ himself confronted the powers, and triumphed.

The Christianization of Europe complicated the relationships between Christianity and the representatives of political structures. The Christianization of the Enlightenment swept the array of malign spiritual powers out of the active consciousness of Western Christians. But the missionary movement, and the subsequent growth of non-Western Christianity, brought the principalities and powers back into play. Christians were once more in regular conflict with them. Sometimes it was in the persons of resistant rulers, or hostile ruling classes, or even uncooperative colonial officials, or misguided colonial policy. Sometimes it was a less visible opponent or a trickier ally. Missionaries whose own rational Enlightenment Christianity busily promoted education, medicine, scientific agriculture, and health care along with their message may not have had much mental space for hosts of wicked spirits in the heavenly places, but they were aware of powerful opposing, if impersonal forces, with deep roots in society. They sometimes called them Ignorance, or Superstition, or Idolatry.

And the hosts of wicked spirits came back, too, as acknowledged by the colonial campaign to drive them out. To local populations administratively-sanctioned witchcraft eradication efforts demonstrated that Europeans shared a common 'fear' of spirit powers, or of what they were capable of in the native mind.

Similarly, the missionary view of the slave trade as "a pestilence that walketh upon the waters" set up a bruising conflict with the powers of mammon. The duel with the captains of the slave trade was as demanding and as significant as the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar. The grip of the slave trade was global and total, and, for Africans, malevolent. In the native mind, enslaved Africans were 'possessed' by demonic alien powers, their freedom a long overdue act of 'repossession'. It was a cause in which imperial might, as Sir Robert Peel pleaded, must serve the ends of superior moral power. But, in the trenchant testimony of an old African woman, the slave trade interfered also with obligations to the powers seen and unseen as people neglected the rituals owed to the spirits, for without those continued obligations the generations felt bereft. The wrenching experience of captivity entailed links broken with the spirits, leading to afflictions of mind, body, and kin, and for a favorable outcome people looked to supernatural powers. At the point of local appropriation, missions filled this breach in the old threatened power structure. Wholeness of body required wholeness of spirit to be complete, and so material power and spiritual power were united to serve a single goal.

Nevertheless, such local trafficking with powers, seen and unseen, European philanthropy found difficult to comprehend, and so civilization was prescribed as offsetting remedy. The Enlightenment worldview, with its restricted compartmentalization of religion, proved too small to explain the non-Western world, and a discourse of the demonic, for some time dormant in Western Christianity, tentatively appeared within the missionary movement. Looking to civilization, missionaries preferred not to deal with the subject except as a barrier to be torn down. Christians in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, however, had grown up with a larger and more action-packed view of the universe than that inhabited by Western missionaries. They might refine and theologize those views of the universe, but nothing in their reading of the Bible or in their own experience as Christians compelled them to abandon them or to push them underground.

This year's Yale-Edinburgh Group invites papers on the theme of conflict with the powers, seen and unseen, in the history of the missionary movement or of World Christianity. We can hope that the papers presented will represent many regions of the world and many periods, pre-Enlightenment as well as post-Enlightenment. We can expect a variety of issues - religious, theological, historical, cultural, ideological, political, economic, medical - to arise. Some of the conflicts illuminated may occur within the context of a single worldview; some may reflect a clash or overlap of worldviews. From it all we may hope to derive a better understanding of the theme of principalities and powers of early Christianity that has been strenuously revived in the Christianity of the Non-Western World.

We intend to follow the normal pattern of twenty-minute presentations, followed by discussion. An official call for papers will be sent out in January.