The Problem with Being a Foreigner on the Mission Field: John Coleridge Patterson and the South Pacific

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Greetings, everyone. Today’s blog continues our series on the History of Missions. For this week’s blog, we find ourselves in the South Pacific in the 19th century. Today I want to study the missionary John Coleridge Patteson (1827-1871). He was the first bishop of Melanesia, an area encompassing many islands between the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn (Tucker, 210, 228). Patteson was ordained a priest in the Anglican Church and then went to New Zealand in 1855 at the suggestion of his mentor George Selwyn, bishop to New Zealand (Tucker, 228). Patteson arrived and found a vibrant, successful ministry in New Zealand, but soon colonization began to injure the mission (Tucker, 228).

Ruth Tucker observes that “by 1870 there were seventeen Europeans to every three Maoris.” The land was only so large and the more European colonists arrived, the more restricted the native populations became (Tucker, 228). The younger generations began to become very suspicious of white settlers due to these factors and many of them walked away from the Christianity that had begun to take root in New Zealand. However, Patteson had a different idea for how to minister to the area of islands as a whole. He sailed around and recruited native young men to join the missionary training area in New Zealand, so that once they were educated, they could go back to their native islands to evangelize (Tucker, 229). Patteson was a gifted linguist, learning many of the languages and dialects, which in turn allowed him to become more successful (Tucker, 229). He would often personally accompany the young boys back to their home islands after they were educated to help them become established missionaries as well as recruit new students (Tucker, 229).

One may say that Patteson understood the native/ colonist dynamics very well, seeking to train native young men to be missionaries to their own people. His actions illustrated a knowledge of the rampant distrust for white colonists among native peoples. However, he was to run into many more obstacles in his future missionary work, notably the problem of “blackbirding.”

Tucker observes that the growth of cotton and sugar plantations in the South Pacific led to a need for a larger workforce. Unfortunately, a kidnapping/ slavery industry developed in response. Usually young men and boys were kidnapped, but often they were tricked into going with slave traders. This practice was known as “blackbirding” (Tucker, 229). One can see why many native citizens would become suspicious of Patteson and his ministry model, worried that he was just another blackbirder trying to trick young men into a life of slavery. Tucker notes that over 70,000 young men were ripped from their homes in the blackbirding trade (Tucker, 230).

The widespread kidnapping of young men basically signaled a death knell to Patteson’s ministry, as suspicion and fear spread. In 1871, Patteson went to Norfolk Island to preach and gather more young men to come to his school to be trained as missionaries. However, after going ashore, he never returned. His ship, The Southern Cross, sent a couple of native boys who were on board inland to find out what had happened. They found Patteson’s body in a canoe with five wounds, which represented five men who were stolen from the tribe by blackbirders (Tucker, 230). Patteson’s life was given for his ministry, but his death brought worldwide attention to the blackbirding trade and helped to end it (Tucker, 230).

Overall, Patteson represented a faithful missionary who employed a creative model in his ministry. His goal of training natives to evangelize their own people proved rather successful. However, the fact that he brought the natives to a specific location, often on a separate island from their tribe and family, coupled with the blackbirding trade, brought about his death. Despite the fact that Patteson was such an outspoken critic of blackbirding, he was ultimately blamed for it and paid for it with his life. We can always debate whether or not Patteson should have set up training centers on each island he visited; however, his perseverance showed that he was genuinely interested in simply evangelizing and educating the natives with whom he worked.

I would argue that Patteson was simply a victim of his own historical context. Had the blackbirding trade never developed, perhaps Patteson would have been able to keep serving the islands in the South Pacific. However, his death did bring about a renewed interest in the South Pacific region for would-be missionaries (Tucker, 230). Something else that stands out from Patteson’s ministry is his devotion to his ministry. He knew that mistrust and fear were spreading throughout the region, yet he continued to not only be an outspoken critic of the blackbirding trade, but he continued to operate his ministry as he had before.

John Patteson is thus an intriguing figure to me. Stubborn missionaries are not hard to find in studying the History of Missions, but what is striking is Patteson’s willingness to essentially walk into a situation that he must have known could lead to his death. The dedication to his ministry and his heart for the native peoples in the South Pacific demonstrate faithfulness and a strong calling. I wonder if it were me, would I have left. Would I have at least changed how I ministered? Should Patteson have done so?  What do you think? What is Patteson’s legacy? Should we ultimately see him as “successful?”

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Midweek Blog: Abraham Lincoln and the Will of God

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This week’s blog post continues our discussion of American church history. Today’s post focuses one of the most famous (if not the most famous) people in American History: Abraham Lincoln. Many people know many details about Lincoln’s life and role as the sixteenth president of the United States, his role in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, his leadership during the Civil War, and his subsequent assassination. Today, I want to focus on his discussion of God’s will.

Lincoln, in a small document, addresses God’s will and the Civil War. He writes, “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party… I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power on the minds of the now contestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest” (Lincoln, “Mediation on Divine Will,” 1862; Gaustad and Noll, 572).

There are a couple powerful statements in such a small sampling from Lincoln’s thoughts. First is the idea that God wills the Civil War to not only have happened but to continue in its duration. Lincoln wrote this during the War and noted that God could have simply ended it whenever God wanted to, but yet it continued to rage. Such an assertion might seem troubling, particularly to us today. The Civil War is often looked upon as a brutal, heart-wrenching conflict in American history. Families torn apart, incredible losses of life, and slavery being at the very forefront of the conflict all lead to an image of archaic barbarity that we sometimes cannot believe actually happened in the United States, especially only 150 years ago. Lincoln further complicates our view of the Civil War by noting that it’s “probably true that God wills this contest.” With the benefit of hindsight, how should we understand such a statement? Was Lincoln reflecting the thoughts of Christians everywhere? Does God will wars to happen? What does that do for our picture of God?

These are difficult questions, and somewhat impossible to answer. What we can use from Lincoln’s statement is that Lincoln defers to God’s will on the matter, showing a strong faith and trust in God’s purposes. Lincoln does not resort to blaming God for the Civil War, he merely notes that there must be a reason that it continues because it has not yet ended. The second element from Lincoln’s above statement that I want to point out is that in such a contest as the Civil War both sides claim to be on “God’s side.” One need only to read Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution by Francis Wayland and Richard Fuller to see that both pro and antislavery individuals thought that their position on slavery was biblically sanctioned. As Lincoln notes, “God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time,” so one side has to be wrong. The problem with such conflicts is not who is right and who is wrong, but the fact that both sides think that their position lines up with God’s purposes. In the Civil War and in other grand conflicts, such a dichotomy can lead to a besmirching of God’s name as well as a jumbling of the message of the Bible on certain matters.

In another document, Lincoln again ponders how to determine God’s will. He writes, “I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men who are equally certain that they represent the divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief… I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me… if I can learn what it is, I will do it” (Lincoln, “Reply to a Committee from the Religious Denominations of Chicago,” 1862).

I really like Lincoln’s forthrightness here. He comes across almost as snarky: “If God wants me to know what God’s will is for my presidency, God would have told me directly.” Fair point, and I’m glad he adds that he hopes he is not being irreverent before he says it. I think Lincoln’s vision for his own presidency shows a great deal of humility and faithfulness, but at the same time shows why he was a great leader: he was willing to say: “I’m the president, remember?”

Finally, Lincoln issued a proclamation instituting a National Fast Day on March 30, 1863 (Gaustad and Noll, 572-73) to “humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness… let us rest humbly in the hope authorized by the divine teachings, that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings no less than the pardon of national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former happy condition of unity and peace” (Gaustad and Noll, 573).

Powerful statements to come from the president. I wish people read more of Abraham Lincoln than just his “Gettysburg Address.” Seeking pardon for the national sins is a good thought. I know that such a statement would never come from any president in the twenty-first century due to the divided opinions on the place (or lack of place) that faith can have in government; however, I think one of the “national sins” today is simply thinking we are incapable of committing national sins. We look at the USA as a place that is immune to horrors and mistreatment of people, but unfortunately these happen here too. I think if Lincoln were alive and president today, he would still be shocked at how people in this country treat one another. I share his hope that God would grant “restoration” to the divided areas of our country, even today.

How to Read about Slavery

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For the last month I have been deep in the belly of studying for comprehensive exams. It has been rewarding, infuriating, and educational all at the same time. I wanted to post a quick blog today about something I have been studying. One of my exam topics is abolitionism. The many books I have examined so far tend to cover much of the same ground: William Lloyd Garrison, the “immediatists,” the Liberty Party, Frederick Douglass, etc. Often many of the books will examine the numerous, Northern, white abolitionists who were most vocal in the 1830s-1860s. While this is great to read about and shows the strategies, shifts, and divergent beliefs on slavery, it tends to overlook the real issue: the plight and suffering of blacks in the South. 

Enter the book I am reading today (pictured above), Prophets of Protest: Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism (New York: New Press, 2006). It’s a multi-author work, which the editors describe as follows: “Black protest within the United States was one of the most important factors in terms of recruiting whites to abolitionism” (p. xix). I have only gone through the first four essays and have had more visceral reactions to these short essays than I have in reading several full books on the subject. One such reaction came from a particular essay by T.K. Hunter which describes two plights of slaves who went with their masters to free lands (one to England and one to Massachusetts), and how the slaves wanted to be considered free since the places they were in were free. The essay examines law principles and how liberty functions with geography (a great read, really), but my reaction came from its description of how these people were accompanying their masters on these trips and wanted to seize the opportunity to be free. This shows me that their desire for freedom was ever before them and something for which they deeply longed. Even recounting this essay for this blog saddens me. 

This brings me to my point and the title of this post: how we should read these accounts/ works. I feel that all too often I read about the abolitionists in the North with a callous distance (e.g. “another book about white men arguing over whether or not they should vote”). When books like Prophets of Protest come along, we are greeted with a fresh, confrontational work that presents us with direct accounts of black men and women protesting the institution of slavery and clamoring for racial equality (a benefit usually denied them by their abolitionist brethren and sistren) in addition to the abolition of slavery. I would ultimately argue that one of the best ways to read about slavery is to engage accounts of those who were oppressed and who continued to endure and fight for freedom, not simply the more oft-cited William Lloyd Garrison-type white abolitionist.

By allowing ourselves to be confronted with the actual harsh realities of slavery of the 1800s, including how the abolitionists continued to practice racial segregation even after the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, we should feel uneasy and unsettled. I would offer this closing remark: In reading about slavery, abolitionism, and emancipation, if you aren’t unsettled or upset by it, you aren’t reading a full account of it. 

Women in Church History, Part 5: Amanda Smith, a Former Slave Turned Preacher

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I wanted to bring this series on women in church history to a close by discussing one of my favorite figures from American church history, Amanda Smith. She was a slave from Maryland who eventually became an itinerant preacher. She was converted in 1868  at Green Street Church after hearing a preacher emphasize that “it was not her work but God working in her that constituted sanctification” (Amy Oden, ed. In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought. Nashville:Abingdon, 1994, 309). She thus became part of the Holiness Movement. Her role as preacher was of course noticeable: not only a former slave preaching to people all over the country, North and South, but a woman preacher (Ruth A. Tucker, Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987, 270).
I love the image this conjures up: in the wake of the Civil War and just a few years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there is a woman who is a former slave preaching and teaching people in both the North and the South. Tucker notes, “In 1870, when the African Methodist Episcopal Church held its first general conference south of the Mason-Dixon line in Nashville, Amanda was determined to attend. Since women were not permitted to be delegates, she was looked on with suspicion” (Tucker, Daughters, 270). Interestingly, people thought she was there trying to get women’s ordination passed, but she later noted that she was never concerned about being ordained because God had ordained her for ministry (Tucker, Daughters, 271).
I have shared before on this blog that I began my seminary studies while attending a church that did not allow women to teach anyone over age 13. Initially I saw nothing wrong with this thinking, but when I learned about women in church history who had struggled against similar (and often worse) hierarchies I began to consider this teaching in a new light. However, Amanda Smith’s example really shows how God should be the ultimate authority for who should teach and preach. While I began to see this principle in my study of history, my fellow students really embodied this for me. I saw several friends of mine graduate from seminary ahead of me and begin to enter the pastoral job market (a scary time for all involved). I watched as some of these women peers particularly struggled to find openings and churches. I knew very early on in my seminary studies that I was not called to be a pastor, but I remember thinking at this time that I would have an easier time getting a pastoral position simply because I am male. To me that made no sense at all. Some of these women had such a heart for people, ministry, teaching, and preaching. They would have made much better pastors than I would have. Yet, they struggled to find opportunities. Thankfully many of them eventually did find churches which allowed them to follow God’s calling and make an impact on their communities.
Amanda Smith’s example is one that shows that God is ultimately in control of the church and the church’s impact on the world. After facing opposition at the 1870 conference, Smith continued to preach throughout “America, Britain, India, and Western Africa. Never ordained, Smith was a well-known spokeswoman for the holiness movement, gaining an international reputation. She founded the Amanda Smith Orphan’s Home for Colored Children in Chicago in 1895, and spend much of the rest of her life working for the welfare of African American Children” (Oden, In Her Words, 308). Clearly God was going to use Smith regardless of whether or not she was ordained. Her impact for the church was not just experienced at a conference which was hesitant to allow her to attend, but throughout the world. I wonder how many people grew up with a strong Christian faith as a result of her ministry in Chicago among children. God had bigger plans for her than simply attending conferences or being ordained for a particular church. Today’s church must remember ultimately that God chooses who will impact the world, not some hiring board or church committee. Amanda Smith is just one of many examples of women in church history who impacted the world in spite of others questioning her role as a woman.

The Intriguing Figure of John G. Fee

This quarter in my PhD seminar I am studying the slavery discussion between Richard Fuller and Francis Wayland, Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution. My project is nearing its completion and in it I compare the aforementioned figures to other, more extreme positions in proslavery/ antislavery camps. One of the antislavery individuals I have been studying is John G. Fee.

Fee fascinates me for several reasons. First of all he reasons against slavery in a very overt and logical way. Wayland (my main antislavery figure) often seems a bit sheepish in that he does not want to offend slaveholders from his congregation in his discussions of slavery. Fee has no qualms about that, as he convinces his church to vote against allowing any slaveholders to partake in communion at his church.

Originally Presbyterian, Fee eventually left denominational Christianity because of the shackles it placed upon his ministry. Fee had a flourishing church in Kentucky of all places, focusing on convincing slaveholders of the errors and evil of slavery from behind enemy lines.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Fee’s life and ministry occurred when his church needed a new building. They voted to not have any “negro pews” in their church, advocating integration instead. This occurred in the 1840s! Fee argued that a person shall seat him or herself wherever he or she pleases regardless of skin color. See John G. Fee, Autobiography (Chicago: National Christian Association, 1891, 56-58.

Fee was brash, innovative, and a powerful preacher. I have been reading through Victor B. Howard’s work, The Evangelical War against Slavery and Caste: The Life and Times of John    G. Fee. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1996. I recommend this as a great resource for more on the life of this abolitionist preacher from Kentucky.

I am thankful that throughout its history, the church in America has had such minds as Fee’s who focused on the rights of people coming to worship the same God as those in power. The famous preachers during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s appear to have had a kindred spirit in John G. Fee in the mid 1800s.