Missionary & Religion

Missionaries and Traditional Way of Life

Africa had a strong religious and cultural tradition of their own.

Though the missionaries found this very rich African background, most of them had an attitude of contempt for the African way of life. They considered it to be backward and inadequate. Some alluded to the fact that Africans were heathens and almost irreligious. Robert Moffat talked about a total absence of religious structures and a concept of the Supreme Being (Moffat 1842:224-245). The missionaries usually equated non-western cultures with degradation, barbarism, ignorance and darkness (Moffat 1842:224). They wanted Africans to denounce their culture and adopt western ways. Concerning this missionary attitude, J.J. Freeman writes:

They must be secluded not only from the heathen portion of the community but from their home habits, customs and occupations, even though their parents may be Christian, lest they imbibe that love of a life among the flocks and herds by which natives seem so (Mackenzie 1887:264)

The desire of the missionaries was that the Africans abandon their religion and culture and adopt western religion and culture, which they hoped would facilitate the extension of colonialism. The motive was, therefore, to prepare the Africans mentally for the takeover by colonizers (Magorian 1964:17).

The aim was to have African children grow up being ignorant of their African identity and then becoming Europeanized in their ways and thinking, thus softening their hearts to embrace the European colonial takeover from a tender age. For European missionaries there was a thin line between westernizing the world and converting it to Christianity (Latouche 1996:28). Influenced by that understanding, missionaries spread Christian values and western civilization simultaneously. Western civilization, Christianity, commerce and colonization were believed to be inseparable. On the other hand, African traditions and cultural practices were perceived to be inferior, uncivilized and primitive. Reproducing their culture and imposing it on the Africans was therefore seen as part of the missionary mandate to ‘ civilise’ Africans. God was thus presented to Batswana in a foreign idiom, as if the indigenous people had no language of their own (Amadiune 1997:98. Seeing this as part of their mission work, therefore, missionaries co-operated with the colonizers in weakening the religious institutions on which the Tswana ancient cultures were founded (de Vries 1978:2).

The missionaries targeted the rulers for conversion, hoping that once the Chiefs were converted, their subjects would follow suit, thus preparing the ground for the colonial government. It was for this reason that David Livingstone believed that the missionary work had an important cultural role, that is, ‘to leaven the alleged primitiveness of African society with Christian western culture’ (Martin 1989:7). In fact, most missionaries in Southern Africa believed that their way of life represented values of universal application. They saw it as their moral duty to ‘civilise’ Africans. Civilization in this case referred to European values, standards and way of life. They also regarded themselves as chosen by God, in terms of their religion and their nations, with a duty to retrieve Africans from backwardness, heathenism and superstitious influences. They aimed at bringing these customs into conformity with western standards (Martin 1989:8).

The weakening power of the chiefs was understood as a destruction of African political and cultural systems. For instance, the failure of the missionaries to make many converts in Botswana during Sekgoma’s reign (1835-1870) was, for instance, seen as a good reason to destroy powers of the chiefs. Tswana chiefs who resisted Christianity, were removed with the assistance of the colonial government (Moffat 1858:B31). Wookey, for instance, advocated for the removal of SekgomaLetsholathebe of the Batawana from the throne because of his refusal to embrace missionary teachings. Missionaries advocated for a direct British rule, hoping that the system would make it easy for them to spread western culture, which in their view, was superior and friendlier to the spread of Christianity.

Through the weakening of the powers of chiefs they hoped that they would be able to impose rulers who would readily support this process. This partly explains their taking sides with Christian rulers in cases of dispute with their non-Christian counterparts. (Tlou& Campbell 1984:133).

Evidently, the efforts of the missionaries were to work towards weakening the traditional authority, its values, being and potential. And thus, in their evangelization drive they supported the colonial process. They, for instance, insisted that their converts to Christianity should also adopt the western cultures as part of their religious life. In doing this, the missionaries did not only violate the key teachings of Christian religion, but also compromised its message. Toyin Falola argues that even the missionary campaign against such things as polygamy was part of the strategy to force Africans to adopt a western style of life, which was seen as part of the larger vision of seeing indigenous people completely sold to their colonizers (Falola 2000:159). Tlou and Campbell argue that Livingstone supported colonialism because he persuaded Sechele in Botswana to abandon his many wives except one. This was so because the abandonment of polygamy by Sechele with the influence of the missionary led to a revolution that upset the traditional political, social and economic life of the people, and created an environment that supported the western way of life (Tlou& Campbell 1997:187).