What do the following people have in common?
Martin Luther King, Jr., Sun Yat-Sen, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, W.E.B. DuBois , Jomo Kenyatta, Rosa Parks.
You could say they are all important people of color. You could say that they all played an important role in forging nations in the 20th century.
And if you have been following my blog lately and are good at guessing at quizzes, you are also calculating that I have some sort of missionary angle here.
Yep. But what is it?
The answer: each one of these individuals received at least some of their education from an institution founded by missionaries. And those missionaries would have been the evangelistic types who wanted to convert people to Christianity.
This is not widely known.
In fact, the missionary education connection to all of these people may not be known by anybody but you and me. (Hey, that’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?). Two weeks ago I did not put all these people together. I knew that King, Kenyatta and Mandela had gone to schools founded by missionaries. But Bob Woodberry’s article got me thinking. (Come to think of it, Bob probably knows these things, so it’s probably not just you and me. Sorry.) I started digging a little into the academic history of notable people of color from the 20th century. The Nobel Peace Prize list was a good place to start — I found quite a few there and I haven’t even listed here all the Nobel Peace prize winners who attended a school founded by missionaries. In fact, the list of nine people above is a pretty impressive group of people. I’d put it up against any list of twentieth-century people of color who were not educated at schools founded by missionaries.
Yet you will find very few scholars who make any missionary connection to any of the people above. In fact, as I was wondering about these questions the past week, I had to dig quite a bit to find the information about these people. Go ahead and research Gandhi’s life on the internet like I did (this is not the best way to do solid research, but my budget for this blog is rather limited) and see if anybody mentions that Gandhi went to a university founded by missionaries. Google “The University of Mumbai” and see how many of the links mentions this. (The University of Mumbai does not describe itself this way). A few sites will say that the institution was founded by a guy named John Wilson, but will not mention that Wilson was a missionary. It will be quite likely, though, that the reference will say the University of Mumbai was founded by the British. You’ll find the same kind of descriptions if you try to research the educational background of the others on my list.
A few years the conservative pundit and habitual gadfly Dinesh D’Souza wrote a flawed article entitled “Two Cheers for Colonialism.” D’Souza, who was born in India himself, made the argument that there was a good side to colonialism because the British brought western education to India.
Now, strictly speaking, it is true to say that the British brought western education to India. But this is sort of like saying the town of Wapakoneta, Ohio brought the American flag to the moon. Wapakoneta is a very nice little town with some fine people in it, I am sure, but when we explain how we landed on the moon, the birthplace of Neil Armstrong seems somewhat incidental as a causal explanation.
While it is true that the British and French governments established schools in their colonies, they invariably did this fifty to one hundred years after missionaries had already built schools and colleges in these areas. In fact, the British East India Company opposed missionaries and missionary schools for many years. Company officials battled missionary supporters in Parliament in 1813 over whether missionaries should be allowed to operate freely in India. So if we want to be even more precise about D’Souza’s claim, we would have to say that the British both opposed and supported bringing western education to India. So how much credit should we give them?
In essence, the British government began setting up schools many decades after the missionaries did when they began to see that locals who had been educated by missionaries were useful to their colonial system.
And there is more. Once the British Parliament implemented the policy pushed by the evangelical lobby in the early 19th century to allow missionaries the freedom to establish schools, print newspapers and exchange ideas freely, they were forced to allow Muslims, Hindus and other non-Christians in their colonies to do the same. So Gandhi, who never converted to Christianity, of course, had the freedom to campaign for democracy and against British colonialism in large part because missionaries had helped create the conditions to make this possible.
Oh, and Dinesh D’Souza, who has argued that we need to thank the British colonizers for providing India with a western education? He attended a school in Mumbai that was founded by Catholic missionaries.
Now, Neil Armstrong, on the other hand, attended a public high school in Wapakoneta, Ohio before going on to the University of Southern California. USC, which is known for its Trojan football team, was not founded by missionaries. It was founded by evangelical Methodists.
And that is different.