Jeffrey Cox, The British Missionary Enterprise Since 1700 (London: Routledge, 2007)

This review was published in The Economic History Review 62, No. 1 (2009): 219-220.

The problem that Cox confronts in this book is that of a contradiction between the ends of the Protestant mission societies and their means. While their goal was to provide for people abroad precisely that sort of religious experience that the established Church had failed to provide for the British people at home, their ultimate success depended on reproducing the institutional structures of the parish Christianity against which they were so often in reaction. Cox describes this contradiction as a tension between voluntarist and confessional impulses in Protestant Christianity. The first impulse is characterized by Cox as evangelical, emotional, and modern, and the second as doctrinal, pragmatic, and traditional. These two categories provide him with a conceptual frame sturdy enough to contain all the Bible, mission, and Gospel propagating societies that proliferated in nineteenth-century Britain. They also allow him to weave together a coherent narrative of the missionary enterprise without losing sight of the issue that plagues all historians of this subject: the relationship of the mission societies—what one contemporary famously called 'little detachments of maniacs' (p. 79)—to British imperialism.

Cox is particularly good at showing how improvisational the missionary enterprise was, particularly in its early stages. The voluntarist theology of salvation did not always survive contact with colonial realities, and most missionaries resorted quickly to unevangelical institution building. According to Cox, mission success was most likely to occur not in those instances when a lonely white man hacked his way through the underbrush with a machete in one hand and a Bible in the other, but at permanent mission stations. In contrast to the heroic itinerant of popular missionary narratives, the stations were embedded firmly in a local social field and their churches, schools, and hospitals were permanently staffed by an ever-increasing number of native Christians and British women. It was in such places that institutional hierarchies were most likely to become sites of conflict. Cox is at his best when he uses examples of such institutional discord to help illuminate the social and cultural fault lines that ran between and through the missionary societies. It is one of his central purposes to show that missionaries did not attempt to patch over the widening gaps that lay between colonizer and colonized by simply reproducing racist or imperialist ideology, but struggled to negotiate those hazards without losing sight of their evangelical purposes. He does so admirably, but it is telling that such debates were conducted and resolved not in the field itself but during conferences in Edinburgh, Liverpool, and London.

One of the chief refrains of British missionary enterprise is that white, male missionaries were outnumbered by both white women and native Christians. Cox argues repeatedly that those groups have been excluded from traditional mission historiography, even though they were crucial to the growth of global Christianity. Nevertheless, if the great strength of this book is its sensitivity towards institutional politics and to the disputes between decision makers and ideologues, the corollary weakness is that some of the very people Cox champions remain rather peripheral to the story he is telling. Cox does what he can to right the balance, and he includes some beautifully evocative quotes and convincing statistical evidence to prove his point, but he is too constrained by the nature of his argument, and perhaps the limitations of his sources, to provide us with much more than that. British missionary enterprise is an account of the logic that drove Christian institution building, and the men who held the purse strings must also hold centre stage in such a drama. Nonetheless, the book is likely to receive some criticism for its reduction of so many actors to the role of supporting cast members.

The irony of such a criticism, validity aside, is that Cox has long been fighting a holding action against master narratives—those histories which reduce complex historical processes into preconditions of the present by silencing disruptive voices from the past. He has shown previously how an undue emphasis on global processes of secularization has distorted the history of Victorian religion, as well as how post-colonial anxieties about the missionary as an agent of imperialism obscure the complexities of local experience. To some degree, those two lines of arguments are joined in British missionary enterprises. Cox begins the text with the observation that the rise and fall of the British empire and the revival and decline of British religion not only mirror each other, but have been followed by Christianity's explosive growth abroad. Unfortunately he does not answer explicitly the question that this observation suggests: he wraps up his history in the 1950s. However, were Cox were to attempt a solution to the puzzle of why the greatest successes of the missionary project followed, rather than preceded, decolonization, and one can only hope that he will, his answer would likely turn on the tension between theological idealism and institutional pragmatism that he has so carefully delineated in British missionary enterprises.