Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Great Awakening, Missions, Slavery, and Paternalism: Part 6

The following excerpt from my article on the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) focuses in on the missions to the Hawaiian Islands. (This is part 6 of 7 in a series on the first American foreign mission board)

ABCFM, Ethnocentrism, and the Mission to Hawaii

This ethnocentric worldview had a much broader effect than just perpetuating the institution of slavery. The ethnocentrism was so strong that it kept well-intentioned ABCFM missionaries from appointing Hawaiians to positions of authority in the church (and eventually the government). This “cultural superiority” is seen very clearly in Hiram Bingham—one of the first missionaries sent out by the ABCFM to Hawaii. Notice the condescending manner in which Bingham describes the Islanders in his first encounter with them:

On the 31st of March [1820], a considerable number of the natives came off to our vessel, from the shores of Kahal, to dispose of their little articles of barter...Their maneuvers in their canoes, some being propelled by short paddles, and some by small sails, attracted the attention of our little group...but the appearance of the destitution, degradation, and barbarism, among the chattering, and almost naked savages, whose heads and feet, and much of their sun burnt swarthy skins, were bare, was appalling.

Bingham’s words are shocking. Clearly, he views himself as superior in every way to the native Hawaiians. Not only was Bingham there to make the Islanders Christians, but he was also there to make them “civilized” like him. In spite of this ethnocentric mindset, the missionaries were welcomed by the Hawaiians and were very effective in propagating the gospel. When the Islands experienced their own “Great Awakening” it was still difficult for the missionaries to entrust the Hawaiians with the leadership in the churches. One of the members of the ABCFM was aware of the struggle that the missionaries were having and exhorted them in the following manner:

The Hawaiian people are in danger of being excluded from all important offices, both in church and state. Foreigners are occupying all the offices about the King, and in the civil government, because they deem themselves more competent to fill the offices than the natives, and would fain believe that the natives are incompetent to fill them...Better to have the duties performed imperfectly [by natives], than not done by them [natives]. I cannot help reasoning in a similar manner concerning the offices and duties of the native churches; and I feel bound to call your attention to the subject, because I believe that if the churches are officered by foreigners, the offices of the government will continue to have foreign occupants. Nothing will save the native government, but a native ministry placed over the native churches.

The significance of this exhortation is the implication that the missionaries, after more than twenty years, still had not given up control of the church because they felt they were “more competent” than the Hawaiians. Truly their ethnocentric worldview kept them from doing what was in the best interest of the gospel and the Hawaiian people.

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