Jean and John Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa, Volume 1 (Of Revelation and Revolution) , (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1991)

Of Revelation and Revolution is an account of how nonconformist missionaries from Britain tried to transform Tswana culture in the nineteenth-century. It is also an attempt by anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff to resolve the disciplinary and conceptual contradictions that exist between the synchronic analysis of a society and the diachronic analysis of its history. Their solution to those contradictions is to construct a theory from elements of Marxism and Structuralism that is seaworthy enough to sail them through the Scylla of teleology and the Charybdis of ahistoricity. That the Comaroff’s plunge into such dangers so confidently, and have come bobbing out the other side so calmly, has not convinced all historians of the British missionary that it is safe to paddle out of the quiet harbors of Church history and into the stormy waters of culture. But while the rigorous scholar is justified in feeling a little anxiety when confronted by grand thought in the continental manner, it is to the daring that the glory goes and it is the Comaroffs who dare.

Their argument is that there is a sliding scale of cultural self-awareness. In politically stable societies many of the ideas individuals have about the world are assumed as givens. In general such assumptions are conservative, and ensure the continuing reproduction of the society as it is. Such assumptions are characterized by the Comaroffs as hegemonic. But no society is perpetually stable and during periods of instability – which may be the result of contradictions internal to a culture or of the influence of other cultures – assumptions that were once taken for granted become problematic and subject to debate. The Comaroffs use this model of cultural change to explain the troubled relations of nonconformist missionaries and the Tswana in the nineteenth century. Like a general’s battle plans the philanthropic ideas held by the Nonconformist about what it meant to be a Christian, and how conversion occurred, could not survive their actual application in the field. And in turn Tswana notions about the world and their place in it could not survive the stormy ideological debates initiated in their communities by the arrival of the missionaries and the transformative forces of capitalist modernity their arrival heralded.

The problem with big theories from the long view such as the one the Comaroff’s propose is that they so often seem to dissolve – or at the very least suspend – the complexities of interpersonal activity and individual motivation in the acid of abstraction. Of Revelation and Revolution is certainly not immune to the charge that it is at times a rather sloppy history. The Comaroffs are a shade too quick to treat LMS and WMMS missionaries as single body of nonconformist evangelicals all responding to a single set of ideological drives. And to those of us who suffer from a more naïve empiricism the degree to which the Comaroff’s are willing to telescope time and space can also be disconcerting. They seem unembarrassed, for instance, to use observations of the Tswana made by a Methodist missionary in 1824, by an anthropologist working among an unnamed Bantu-speaking people in Central Africa a century later, and a Postcolonial theorist writing about Algeria in the mid-1980s, as accumulative evidence of an “African perspective.”[1] But while such promiscuous interpretive practices might make the chaste historian blush, it might also be that there is a case for the claims they have produced.

Marx’s dictum that while men may make their own history they do not do so as they please is one that the Comaroffs take very seriously indeed. For the anthropologist the traditions of the dead do indeed weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living – inherited culture is the ultimate horizon of all human activity and it traps Tswana chief, British missionary and American anthropologist alike in its static webs. But it is neither their argument, nor that of Marx, that the consequent relativity of all thought makes history unfathomable or meaningless. To understand the panoramic sweep of history the analyst must simply step far enough back to be able to discern patterns that are invisible to those of us who remain entangled in the woof and weave of contemporary events.

It is after all certainly the case that despite violent theological, personal and ideological disagreements there were assumptions that nonconformist missionaries to South Africa shared regardless of their affiliations and interests, and the Comaroffs do an admirable job in identifying such assumptions. And those assumptions were so widely shared, and persisted across such a long period of time, it seems justifiable for the Comaroffs to treat them as structures, and to demand that scholars take them seriously as such. That they were invisible to the missionaries themselves, and many of the historians that have studied them, does not mean such patterns of thought and practice were not present. Of Revelation and Revolution is more than simply the addition of the unconscious to the lists of potential causes available to historians of missions – it is a reconsideration of the parameters of a problem and of the methods we can use to solve it.

The Comaroff’s intervention disengages with the stagnant and polarized “missionaries: capitalist stooges or promethean heroes?” debate by stepping far enough back from its subject that we can reconsider its scale. They are not arguing that missionaries were agents of British imperialism preparing the Tswana for proletarianization so much as they are arguing that like the Tswana they were people caught up in a process of catastrophic change. And like the Tswana they could only make sense of that catastrophe with the tools that history had thrown up before them.

The technique for discovering what such tools are – at least as developed by the Comaroff’s in the first half of Of Revelation and Revolution – is essentially archaeological. They spend four chapters sifting through the wreckage of the past and from the fragments they find they reconstruct the basic structures of nonconformist and Tswana thought. They show for instance how the missionaries used binary categories such as individual-society and civilized-savage to think with, and how the Tswana in turn use agnatic relations-kinship relations and go thaya-go alafa. The Comaroffs argue that when the missionaries tried to convert the Tswana into Christians they had only the most superficial of successes because their evangelical discourse was transformed by the analytic filters the Tswana ran it through. The missionaries only gradually understood, and then only incompletely, that to make the Tswana “Christian” they would first have to make them “British” – and a particular type of British at that. As some Tswana elites suspected from the beginning, a successful missionaries was a missionary who threatened the status quo. Whatever the intent of the participants of this conversation were, the consequence of it was that previously hegemonic notions – such as rainmaking and the separation of church and state – became the sites of ideological contestation.

If the first half Of Revelation and Revolution is a structural analysis of the nineteenth-century mission to the Tswana, the second half is reconsideration of that mission’s history proper. The prime mover which drives all that occurs in Of Revelation and Revolution is the industrial revolution that transformed the British economy into an engine of capitalist accumulation. The Comaroffs treatment of that event is perfunctory at best and they rely on a handful of tried and trued authorities (Hobsbawm, Hill and Thompson all make appearances in the footnotes) to show how structural change and consequent super-structural turmoil produced the missionary. But then their proper subject is not the epicenter of this seismic shift, it is the shock waves it produced and the impact of those waves on distant shores. In the Comaroffs view three such waves washed over Southern Africa in the course of the nineteenth century. From the perspective of the Tswana in the interior the first was almost imperceptible but it was crucial to the missionaries. In the warfare that followed the French Revolution the European ownership of the Cape changed hands several times until finally claimed by the British in 1806. The second wave followed hard on the first and was the Difaqane, a period of violent upheavals that convulsed the subcontinent in the first half of the nineteenth-century. [2] The third and ultimately most destructive of the waves that came crashing down on the Tswana occurred when diamonds were discovered in the region, and prospectors and capital began to pour into the territory. Each of these successive waves changed the relations of the Tswana to the peoples around them and had a destabilizing effect on their culture and polity. The mutually puzzling conversation the Tswana had with the nonconformist missionaries during this period was essentially about how best to respond to these great changes – changes that both groups experienced but neither group could fully comprehend.

Human behavior in Of Revelation and Revolution is determined by two fundamental factors. The first are the structures of thought that culture provides for making sense of the world and which are for the most part invisible to the actors. The second are world-historical events whose causes and consequences remain impenetrable to the people who experience them. From such a perspective the details of cultural change are difficult to predict let alone control. For historians who mobilize the missionary as a pantomime villain or a philanthropic adventurer such a conclusion is understandably frustrating – both villain and hero became a bewildered Briton struggling to manufacture meaning with tools unequal to the task. For me the frustration with the book is not its moral ambivalence about dead actors however, but that it remains largely a theory of change rather than a rigorous description of it. But the Comaroffs are not historians and if Of Revelation and Revolution seems to occasionally lose sight of its subject – as we imagine it – that is perhaps the price to be paid for raising big questions and providing big answers. That the Comaroffs fail to clearly distinguish between the social and ideological characters of the various mission societies, that they ignore the international nature of the societies and their transnational vision of a global Christianity, that they roughly shoulder settler society aside when it distracts them from their argument, that metropolitan political decisions occur as if acts of nature or of God, that sometimes there seems to be no difference between the passage of ten years and that of a hundred – these are not reasons to ignore the Comaroff’s as interdisciplinary cranks but an invitation to think.

[1] On page 188 the Comaroff’s quote Hodgson, Audrey Richards and Malek Alloula to the effect that to the Tswana the mirror represented the mysterious powers and practices of the whites.

[2] Sadly missing from their account is any analysis of the Great Trek, the migration of the Afrikaner’s into the hinterland which overlapped with, and surely contributed to in the dislocation of the difaqane. In general the Comaroff’s treat both English and Dutch settlers as something of an off-stage phenomenon; occasionally introducing them into their narrative as a deus ex machine, a device with which to move the story of the Tswana-nonconformist along towards its inexorable conclusion, but rarely paying attention to their role as participants in cross-cultural conversation.