If you were a missionary, what constitutes a genuine ‘conversion’? How can you be confident that the people you seek to convert are not deceiving you, or themselves? In this post Professor Alec Ryrie and Dr David Trim introduce ‘Four Axes of Mission: Conversion and the Purposes of Mission in Protestant History’— their new article in the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society.
They argue that, throughout the history of Protestant cross-cultural missions, missionaries, their sponsors and allies have considered ‘four axes’: a series of proxy measures of intangible ‘true’ conversions, often emphasising them to the point where the proxies in fact became the real goal of the missions.
In 1649, fresh from beheading King Charles I, one of the first items of business for England’s governing Rump Parliament was to establish a new Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England: one of the first Protestant missionary corporations, named in conscious rivalry to Rome’s quarter-century-old Congregatio de Propaganda Fide. Spreading the true Gospel to Native American ‘heathens’ was a pious priority for England’s godly republicans, but the task was more complex for them than for their Catholic rivals. In Catholicism, ‘conversion’ has fairly clear sacramental and institutional markers. But for Protestants, it is an inward, hidden matter, defined by faith alone. So backers of the new Society immediately confronted a vexing problem: how could they know that their supposed Native American converts to Protestantism were genuine?
The legislation overflows with answers to this challenge. It asserts that the converts were ‘not only of Barbarous become Civil’, and that they had also proved the authenticity of their conversions by:
their diligent attending of the Word so preached unto them, with tears lamenting their mis-spent lives, teaching their Children what they are instructed in themselves, being careful to place their said Children in godly English Families, and to put them to English Schools, betaking themselves to one wife, putting away the rest, and by their constant prayers to Almighty God morning and evening in their families, expressed (in all appearance) with much Devotion and Zeal of heart.
The longer this list goes on, the less convincing it becomes. It was of course impossible to prove whether these were ‘true’ conversions. The best anyone could do was come up with a series of indirect or proxy indicators, in the hope that together they might add up to a convincing case.
Our new article in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society — ‘Four Axes of Mission: Conversion and the Purposes of Mission in Protestant History’ — is about this persistent problem and how Protestant missionaries have dealt with it. What constitutes a genuine ‘conversion’? If you are a missionary, how can you ever be confident that the people with whom you are working have experienced one, and are not deceiving you – or themselves? Our argument is that, throughout the history of Protestant cross-cultural missions, missionaries, their sponsors and their allies have targeted a series of (tangible) proxy measures of (intangible) ‘true’ conversions, often emphasising them to the point where the proxies in fact became the real goal of the missions.
In order to understand the enormous impact Protestant missions have had in many parts of the world from the seventeenth century to the present, we need to appreciate not only the ultimate aim of those missions (‘conversion’, in some sense of that very elastic term) but also how and why they chose different routes to that aim.
Missionaries have chosen these measures because they believe them to be reliable markers of inner spiritual transformation; because they hope that they will prepare the way for such transformation to follow; or because they are attainable in practice, whereas transformatory conversions seem out of reach, and success in achieving the proxy measures may satisfy impatient funders or suspicious colonial governments. In order to understand the enormous impact Protestant missions have had in many parts of the world from the seventeenth century to the present, we need to appreciate not only the ultimate aim of those missions (‘conversion’, in some sense of that very elastic term) but also how and why they chose different routes to that aim.
What are those different proxy measures for conversion? We argue that there are four, all of which can be found in the 1649 legislation, though they can also be identified in missionary discourse recurrently throughout Protestant missionary history. Together they form four axes against which Protestant missionary projects can be plotted: four different tests that can be used to assess the authenticity of a Protestant conversion, or that can end up becoming goals in their own right.
1. Orthodoxy. Does a convert openly profess doctrines which the missionary regards as correct, for example by affirming a confession of faith or other creedal statement, or by demonstrating a satisfactory understanding of key doctrinal issues? So the Rump in 1649 noted the Native Americans’ ‘diligent attending of the Word … [and] teaching their Children what they are instructed in themselves’.
2. Zeal. Is a convert earnest, persistent and committed in their practice of Christianity, rather than formal, intermittent and indifferent? How confident can the missionary be of their sincerity? In this vein, the 1649 legislation spoke of Native Americans hearing the Word ‘with tears lamenting their mis-spent lives’ and praying ‘(in all appearance) with much Devotion and Zeal of heart’.
3. Civilisation. Does a convert live in a mode which the missionary regards as civilised and fully human (typically including functional literacy), or in a mode perceived as primitive, wild or animalistic (‘heathen’)? The 1649 legislation stated plainly that the Native American converts were ‘of Barbarous become Civil’, and moreover were ‘careful to place their … Children in godly English Families’.
4. Morality. Does a convert live in accordance with the ethical priorities the missionary teaches (regardless of any formal religious basis for their ethics)? Here the key evidence from 1649 was that converts limited themselves ‘to one wife, putting away the rest’, as well as that they lamented their sins.
Since most Protestant missions draw on most or all of these tests, but in different ways and to different extents, we suggest that they can form the axes of a kind of matrix of conversion, in which the interplay of these different criteria can be plotted.
Missionaries, their sponsors, and indeed many of their would-be converts have typically hoped to reach the point at which those converts are orthodox, zealous, civilised and moral – and to do so without tipping over into arid intellectualism, fanaticism, decadence or self-righteousness, which mark the opposite poles on our four axes. But different missions in different circumstances plot different routes through the matrix. For example, early modern missions often assumed that, as Charles Inglis put it in 1770, ‘it is necessary to civilise Savages before they can be converted to Christianity … in order to make them Christians, they must first be made Men.’ That view was not universal in the early period; and while later ages changed the way that civilisation-first model was used, it wasn’t abandoned.
In this and other ways, we hope our matrix offers a useful way to structure our thinking about what Protestant missionaries have been trying to achieve, why they have gone about their business as they have, and why their actions have had the intended and unintended consequences they have.
Recent mission history has rightly put indigenous peoples, rather than missionaries themselves, at its centre, recognising that missions are games for multiple players. Our point is that missionaries themselves are amongst the players, and, since conversionary encounters are typically initiated by missionaries, these are games in which they have a first-mover advantage.
Although they were never in control, not even to the extent they believed they were, we cannot understand how those games have played out, and their far-reaching and sometimes baleful consequences, without understanding what missionaries thought they were trying to achieve, and why they set about their work as they did. These are crucial questions. We hope our matrix provides a fruitful way of asking them.
 An act for the promoting and propagating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England. Die Veneris, 27 Julii, 1649. Ordered by the Commons assembled in Parliament (Wing E2505A. London: for Edward Husband, 1649), 407-8.
 The Papers of Sir William Johnson, vol. VII, ed. Alexander C. Flick (State University of New York: Albany, 1931), p. 506.
About the authors
Professor Alec Ryrie FBA is Professor of the History of Christianity in the Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University
Dr D.J.B. Trim is Director of Archives at the General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, Office of Archives Statistics and Research, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA
About Transactions of the Royal Historical Society
Transactions is the flagship academic journal of the Royal Historical Society. First published in 1872, Transactions has been publishing the highest quality scholarship in history for 150 years.
The journal welcomes submissions dealing with any geographical area from the early middle ages to the very recent past, and is interested in articles that cover entirely new ground, thematically or methodologically, as well as those that engage critically on established themes in existing literatures.
Transactions welcomes proposals from all historians. If you’re currently working on a research article or a think piece, please consider Transactions as the journal in which to publish your work.
More posts introducing recently published Transactions articles, click here.
IMAGE CAPTION: Ferdinand and Ana Stahl, Seventh-day Adventist Missionaries to Amazonia with a large group of local believers from the Shipibo people, c.1925 [photo courtesy Archives of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists]