- The Missionaries by Norman Lewis
Secker, 245 pp, £10.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 436 24595 7
European and American imperial expansion carries with it an apocalyptic strain in which the march of empire is identified with the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Last Days. According to this millenial view, the prospect of the Christian message finally being heard in every part of the world brings mankind near to the end of time, a moment predicted in the Book of Revelation. It comes when the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 to the Apostles is fulfilled, when disciples have been made among all peoples. At this point there appears ‘a great multitude ... from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues ... crying out with a loud voice “Salvation belongs to our God” ’. These events usher in the new heaven and earth foreseen by St John where righteousness reigns and death is no more.
The present inheritors of this apocalyptic strain in Christendom, evangelical missionaries attached to Protestant Churches in the United States, are engaged, therefore, in an urgent mission to reach the last remaining unproselytised tribes and translate the Gospel into their – usually unwritten – tongues, thus bringing the millennium to pass. Two organisations dominate this field, the New Tribes Mission (whose European headquarters is at Matlock Bath in Derbyshire) and the Wycliffe Bible Translators, known outside the US – in an attempt to gloss over their missionary purpose – as the Summer Institute of Linguistics. To a secular public more cognisant of American evangelism in its domestic form, thanks to the recent fiscal and sexual peccadilloes of TV preachers, it may come as a surprise to learn that these organisations, NTM and SIL, dedicated to the completion of the Great Commission, represent the biggest missionary enterprise in Christian history. Such people have no time for the swaggerers and braggarts of the electronic church.
Altogether there are some fifty thousand evangelical missionaries in the field. SIL alone has more than four thousand translators working in seven hundred languages. Their targets are people beyond the aegis of television, outside the world market, where traditional culture has not yet been reduced to folklore and spectacle. These societies are now found almost exclusively in deserts or tropical rainforests. In these last redoubts of the primitive, where a human possibility that has almost vanished from the earth is still preserved, missionaries of the Summer Institute and the New Tribes Mission have been busy since the end of World War Two felling old growths of belief, planting the seed of the Word of God, harvesting souls.
Of the last remaining tribal peoples, the Amerindians of South and Central America have been the most affected by the postwar missionary surge. For centuries the constraints of geography and the opposition of the Catholic Church kept evangelicals out of Latin American countries, but in the Fifties and Sixties the economic hegemony of the United States and the dedication of pioneer missionaries overcame these barriers in one country after another. In Guatemala and Mexico, Bolivia and Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, Protestant missions were established among the most remote and recalcitrant tribes of the interior. This expansion was facilitated by the evangelicals’ willingness to render almost everything unto Caesar. As other Churches in Latin America, notably the Catholic Church, entered into conflict with governments and business interests over questions of social justice and the rights of indigenous peoples, evangelicals came into their own, favoured by governments over Catholic missionaries even in these die-hard Catholic countries. For evangelicals do not concern themselves with human rights or social justice; they do not criticise government policy. To them – at least this is the charitable explanation – such questions are an irrelevance in view of the imminent coming of the Kingdom. At best evangelicals are quietist. At worst they are in active alliance with ranchers, loggers and mining interests, for they travel with the paradoxical baggage of imperial millenialism, where a vision of the end of the world is imbued with the values of a business civilisation, of capitalism triumphant. Missionaries of the evangelical persuasion are often the first to introduce their converts to wage labour, capital accumulation and the concept of land tenure, with attendant inequities and cruelties.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.