An alternate view on missionaries

When asked to comment on the Stolen Generation and destruction of Aboriginal culture in the twentieth century, the general consensus would condemn the actions of the government and missionary involvement with the indigenous community. My findings through an in depth study of John Harris’s We Wish We’d Done More: Ninety Years of the Church Missionary Society and Aboriginal issues in north Australia, provide a contrasting insight of a missionaries experience and understanding of these events in history.

John Harris, author, researcher and missionary to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory recalls the history of the Church Missionary Society in Arnhem Land with an overarching theme that missionaries (particularly at the Roper River Mission, Arnhem Land) had good intentions although in hindsight could have played a greater role providing support to Aboriginal people and by understanding native customs and beliefs have developed a more effective way to share their Christian faith. This notion is in stark contrast to contemporary writers such as Noel Loos who deems the work of missionaries as too invasive, forcing daily regimentation and Christianity upon an unwilling population.

The culture and language of a people are an important means of identification with contemporary writer, Jillian E Barnes acknowledging the value of preserving traditional values and customs. Unlike the stereotypical paternal missionary, Harris explains his understanding of the uniqueness of Aboriginal culture, languages and the native way of life. In fact, being aware of the worth of native languages he has devoted many years to studying linguistics, learning Aboriginal languages, translating English work to native languages and within this deepening his relationships with indigenous people. While Barnes believes indigenous culture should be preserved in its’ uniqueness as a tourist attraction with Aboriginals continuing to live in their traditional patterns of life, in seclusion, without the need to assimilate to European culture. Harris on the other hand thought missionaries should learn from Aboriginals about their culture and beliefs and likewise, share European traditions and Christianity in mutually beneficial relationships. In contrast to Barnes desire to maintain a secluded Aboriginal population, Harris opts for greater interaction between Aboriginals and missionaries, and views the lack of prioritizing native languages as one of the greatest failures of CMS, considering from a church perspective this would have allowed missionaries the ability to translate and teach Christian beliefs more effectively.

Furthermore, missionaries at Roper River approached communication with the Aboriginal people through a form of Pidgin English yet expected Aboriginal children to learn proper English as taught by their schoolteachers. Harris urges towards the view of contemporary critics when he declares the failings of CMS missionaries in this area who should have spent valuable time learning native languages and better understanding traditional cultural rather than enforcing their own in a paternalistic nature. This is however where Harris flips this agreed point upon its head by declaring that Christianity would have had a greater opportunity to be shared with the indigenous people and flourish in their community if missionaries had not been overwhelmed by busyness and the multitude of native languages but instead developed ways to communicate and translate their beliefs to the native tongue.

Harris also writes in conflict to popular understanding and Bringing Them Home, the enquiry into the Stolen Generation. The separation of children from their parents, in particular half-caste Aboriginal children from their Aboriginal mothers has received a response of admission, from the government, church and private organizations, to the long term suffering caused to Aboriginal communities and the European regimentation enforced upon these children. While the Church Missionary Society apologized in 1997 for the burden their actions has caused, Harris claims that children at the Roper River Mission were not separated from their parents, rather given over to missionary care by their willing parents with regular opportunities to visit and be involved in the lives of their children. Harris defends missionaries who were under orders from the government from whom they received money and the permission to create missions, therefore were required to carry out duties they may not have agreed with. To give a balanced argument however Harris urges all readers to view Bringing Them Home and grasp the pain that was caused to this generation of the Aboriginal population.

Harris provides insight into the experiences and motivations of missionaries in Arnhem Land, who are popularly considered in a negative light. By writing with a sensitive and well-researched approach, Harris admits the faults of the Church Missionary Society and those in his profession yet provides personal insight into motivations and reasoning of missionaries to humanize these people who are so often demonized for their treatment of Aboriginal people.Image


2 comments on “An alternate view on missionaries

  1. willhalp91 says:

    This is an interesting account of the not so publicised actions of Christian missionaries of the Stolen Generation era and I enjoyed reading it. One can only hope that the intentions of the majority of these missionaries were well natured. However, these cases you mentioned seem to be only a small pool of examples out of an overwhelming number of horror stories that have arisen out of the aftermath of the missionary experience of Aboriginal Australia. I tend to agree with both Noel Loos and Harris, that missionaries were invasive and perhaps that their primary motivation was to coerce Christianity on the indigenous population but there was also concerted efforts of devoted missionaries to ensure mutual relationships between Europeans and Aboriginals. nonetheless, I enjoyed your work and may well spur me on to look further into the topic. well done.

  2. ryanspinks12 says:

    The role of missionaries was precarious across the empire throughout the 19th and 20th century. Philanthropists and missionary societies were seen as mediators of British governance and cultural transmission largely throughout Britain’s colonies. However, in the case of Jamaica and the British West Indies throughout the 19th century, missionaries and native rebellion became synonymous, following the evangelical rival of the late 18th century and the belief in Christianity and the moral progression of the coloured races of the world. Although missionaries believed in the moral progression of the indigenous community throughout Australia, a dichotomy of civilised and heathen still framed the relationship between whites and blacks. Therefore, the actions of missionary societies such as CMS, can be argued as detrimental to indigenous cultural heritage, as moral progression could only occur once their had been a dislocation between the individual/s and their heathen beliefs and traditional way of life

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