In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Missionaries/Evangelism

  • Introduction
  • Overviews of Mission and Empire/Overview of Christian Expansion
  • Colonial Families
  • Missionary Families
  • Mission Identity in Generational Context
  • Gender and Ideologies of Christian Selfhood
  • Missions and Indigenous Education

Childhood Studies Missionaries/Evangelism
Emily Manktelow
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0264


The study of missionary children has recently become an important aspect of mission and colonial history. Both as a topic in its own right, and as a lens through which to explore issues of identity, difference, professionalism, and agency, the missionary family with children at its heart has become a site of extended interest and study. After all, missionaries were prolific reproducers, and their lives on the geographical edges but at the conceptual and ideological heart of empire, certainly warrant extended scrutiny. Meanwhile, their proclivities for documenting, writing about, and introspectively examining their experiences provide rich seams of evidence for scholars of colonialism, religion, identity, and family in the global-colonial context of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The children of missionaries lived exceptional lives and in many ways their experiences defy generalizations. Nonetheless, certain themes emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in particular: social and cultural liminality; illness, death and disability; cultural hybridity on the one hand, and strict social conformity on the other; separation from family and home through education; and the politics of return to natal spaces having undergone considerable personal, social, and cultural transformation. The children of missionaries often found it difficult to fit into strictly policed social categories, and were thus typically configured as problematic, deviant, or in need of intense moral scrutiny by missionary parents who through their own vocation sought to transform the social, cultural, and spiritual lives of their converts, but with variable levels of success. As such, missionary children are fascinating subjects of historical study not only in the lives that they led and the experiences they had, but also through the social conventions and cultural mentalities that their presence elicited and illuminated. The following bibliographic article attempts to both navigate the emergence of the existing historiography surrounding the lives and experiences of missionary children, while also paying attention to the themes of their existence that can be useful categories of scholarly analysis. The study of missionary children has emerged from a complex reimagining of mission history away from contemporary hagiographies toward a more analytical approach to the historical phenomenon of Christian mission expansion. Inspired by postcolonial approaches to imperial history, the importance of the everyday, domestic, and quotidian brought alive by both feminism and historical anthropology, as well as more critical engagements with biography, histories of religion, and histories of domestic social formation, the history of children in the mission-evangelical context has flowered into an area of considerable and innovative historical practice. I hope that the following bibliographic essay can offer an effective taste of a vibrant and exciting area of historical and sociological academic endeavor.

Overviews of Mission and Empire/Overview of Christian Expansion

Missionary history has been revitalized over the last thirty years by the concomitant reimagining of British imperial history. Fired by the postcolonial approaches occasioned by decolonization, as well as the rise of feminist history, social history, and more broadly the cultural turn, British imperial history has moved away from narratives of “uplift” and “benevolence” toward critical engagements with the hows, whys, and wherefores of the colonial past. Subaltern studies has questioned the eurocentrism of historical approaches, the cultural turn has embedded approaches to ideology and popular culture, and the new imperial history has reimagined what analytical areas we can fruitfully investigate about the imperial past, from space and mobility, to affectivity and ideology. Missionary history has been a part of these conversations from the start, evidencing the everyday, constituting colonial ideologies, and mediating the grassroots colonial encounter for historians of place, space, and power. As such, the attention to both ideologies of empire and the everyday experience of colonial life have intersected with the history of Christian missionary expansion in intriguing ways. The rich and diverse primary source materials made available by missionaries as prolific writers and record keepers have left a wealth of material to examine for precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial content. While not uncomplicated in their inhabitation of, and sometimes resistance to, colonial power dynamics, missionary sources have nonetheless left a unique way to reimagine the telling of colonial history. The question for historians of missions that this has prompted, however, is far from resolved: how far were 19th-century missions complicit in, and a part of, the colonial project? Determining the exact dynamics of the missions and empire relationship has become something of a preoccupation for scholars of global religion, and as such, the following is more of a nod to the relevant literature than an exhaustive commentary. In perhaps the first large-scale study to explicitly tackle the question of missions’ relationship with empire, Stanley’s The Bible and the Flag 1990 both sketched out a chronology of colonial mission work and questioned how useful it is to understand the two as intimately linked. Indeed, much of the early battleground on this question revolved around the utility of the idea of “cultural imperialism,” something that Comaroff and Comaroff 1991 dealt with in great detail through the authors’ elaboration of the idea of the “colonisation of consciousness.” While Dunch 2002 has suggested “global modernity” as an alternative framework, the connections between missions and cultural change has become unassailable. Despite this, scholars such as the author of Porter 2004 have remained cautious in linking missions and empire too completely, reminding us that the relationship between the two was often tense and fraught, rather than close and cordial. Whatever the exact dynamics and their change over time and space (explored in detail in Porter 2003), the role of missions and empire has certainly earned its place in the Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series 2004, which provides a detailed historiographical overview, as well as extensive scholarly commentary on the main lines of debate throughout. Ultimately, most scholars would now agree that while missionaries were not always aggressively imperial (although they certainly could be), their aims, objectives, and practices were undoubtedly colonial in outlook and performance (Cox 2008; Carey 2008). Missions and empire were intertwined and interwoven throughout the imperial past.

  • Carey, Hilary M., ed. Empires of Religion. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    A powerful edited collection that really engages with mission history as a part of colonial history. With a real focus on issues of race, gender, and culture, this is a great tool for teaching and research alike.

  • Comaroff, John, and Jean Comaroff. Of Revelation and Revolution. Vol. 1, Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226114477.001.0001

    Historical anthropology of missions and their relationship with empire in southern Africa during the nineteenth century. A real focus on cultural history and ideological change as influenced by political and economic forces. Coins the term “colonisation of consciousness.”

  • Cox, Jeffrey. The British Missionary Enterprise since 1700. London: Routledge, 2008.

    A slim volume that packs a big punch, this engaging overview is influenced by New Imperial History’s critical colonial approach, and places missions firmly into their imperial history.

  • Dunch, R. “Beyond Cultural Imperialism: Cultural Theory, Christian Missions, and Global Modernity.” History and Theory 41.3 (2002): 301–325.

    DOI: 10.1111/1468-2303.00208

    Critical examination of the concept of “cultural imperialism” and the Comaroffs’ use of the term “colonisation of consciousness.” Posits the importance of “global modernity” as an alternative analytical framework.

  • Etherington, Norman, ed. Missions and Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Part of the Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series, this edited volume is a great introduction to the general field of missions and empire, with a particularly useful historiographical introduction by Norman Etherington.

  • Porter, Andrew. Religion versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700–1914. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004.

    A wide-ranging and deeply researched monograph by one of the field’s most eminent scholars. Provides a deep and detailed examination of mission’s relationship with empire through a strong metropolitan archival focus.

  • Porter, Andrew, ed. The Imperial Horizons of British Protestant Missions, 1880–1914. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003.

    With contributions by many of the important historians in the field, this edited collection examines the relationship between missions and empire during the height of the imperial age.

  • Stanley, Brian. The Bible and the Flag: Protestant Missions and British Imperialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Leicester, UK: Apollos, 1990.

    Overview of the Christian missionary movement and its relationship with the British Empire over the course of its rise and fall.

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