HomeSpace and scale in missionary agency (1880-1920)

HomeSpace and scale in missionary agency (1880-1920)

Space and scale in missionary agency (1880-1920)

Missions et missionnaires : agentivité, médiation et jeux d’échelle (1880-1920)

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Published on Wednesday, February 07, 2024


The revival of the Christian faith in the European and North American continents (GreatAwakenings – the Higher Life Movement) during an age of technical and technological innovations inmeans of transportation and communication prompted many Protestant and Catholic missionaries, withthe support of their respective churches, to sail to foreign lands for religious proselytizing. Evangelicalmissionaries and their sending organizations have been, to varying degrees, major actors of social andcultural mutations among the people and societies they worked with. To fully comprehend the impactof European and North American evangelical missions at the turn of the twentieth century, we mustnot only consider missionaries’ social and religious agency at the local level, but also develop thediscussion to the regional, national, and transnational levels. 




Following the paradigm found in literary works of Alexis Wright or Abdulrazak Gurnah, which invites readers to reflect on the history of Christian missions and their long-term impact on local communities, this online symposium seeks to provide a framework for a comprehensive historical analysis of missionary enterprise in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The revival of Christian faith in the United States and Western Europe – manifest in the U.S. through the "Great Awakenings," in the United Kingdom via the "Higher Life Movement" and premillennialism, and in France through the renewed momentum of Catholicism (previously tested by the Enlightenment and the Revolution) – was accompanied by the development of means of transportation and communication. This development allowed numerous Catholic and Protestant missionaries, supported by flourishing missionary organizations, to cross oceans for the purpose of religious proselytism. This symposium aims to explore the missionary phenomenon and the social dimension of missions in the societies where they were established.

Furthermore, this symposium contributes to the historiographical revitalization of the study of missions and their impact on different levels. Works by Brian Stanley (The Bible and the Flag, 1990), Susan Thorne (Congregational Missions and the Making of an Imperial Culture in Nineteenth-Century England, 1999), Andrew Porter (Religion Versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700–1914, 2004), focalized on the links between religion and empire and marked a turning point in the perception of missionary issues. These works paved the way for new studies on missions, focusing on missionary practices, construction of local Churches, and the role of women as missionaries and missionary wives (Patricia Hill, 1985). While placing missions within the context of transnational networks (Nielsen, Okkenhaug, and Hestad-Skeie, 2011), they relied on different levels of analysis allowing them to go beyond a purely imperialistic framework (for instance, the international research project MisSMO aims to analyze the missionary phenomenon in the Middle East – 19th – 21st centuries – at the national, local, and regional levels).

Missions were particularly active in the social and cultural transformations of the countries where they operated: the agency of missions/missionaries can be considered at the local, regional, national, and transnational levels. Through this scale-based approach, we intend to study European and North American international missionaries and missions. More importantly, covering the period from the second half of the nineteenth century to World War I, we will expand a preliminary study of the local agency of missionaries in religious and social domains to their national and subsequently transnational agency. We encourage researchers from various disciplines (anthropology, history, sociology, etc.) working on the themes of Christian missions in different geographical areas, excluding the European and North American territories, to present their research and discuss their findings.

Local and Regional Agency

Peter Cheng-Main’s ‘contextualization’ concept (2007), defined as the reflection processes set up by Christian churches in order to adapt fundamental Christian principles to a given missionary context, invites us to reconsider missionary identities in the second half of the nineteenth century. Missionaries were conditioned not only by the sociocultural and climactic constraints of each missionary field, but also by the ever-changing conception of public order often adapted to correlate the various stages of the colonization process. Such a study of the missionary enterprise can thus be understood as the analysis of the underlying dynamics of different interactions: that of the Gospel and the missionary context; that of missionaries and converts and that missionary strategies and a given colonial context. The first panel of this symposium thus aims at investigating such local and specific correlations, and in doing so, at drawing a global understanding of missionary dynamics. Local dynamics could for example be studied by considering Christian missionaries’ responses to anti- Christian riots in China and Korea, their decision to adopt or reject the traditional clothing of the countries they served in, and the solutions put forth concerning indigenous customs deemed "idolatrous". The latter being a good example, as it led, in the case of Catholic missions, to the "Chinese Rites Controversy" and the papal condemnation of accommodation in 1704. We also encourage, however, papers that would put emphasis on more local case studies that bring to light failed acculturation strategies. To analyze any missionary microcosm, one must necessarily take into account the social practices of missionaries (building churches, schools, hospitals…) and their attempts to establish autonomous local churches, independently from any missionary religious, administrative or financial support. Moreover, one should not forget the study of the crucial role of women missionaries, as essential figures in the export of a form of Christianity adapted to the women of evangelized countries, and their role in the internal transformation of missions. In order to understand the development of these missionary microcosms, it is, furthermore, essential to look at the missionary enterprise of contextualization, or even "autochthonization" of Christianity, while keeping in mind that the ultimate function of such missionary microcosms was to fade away to make room for an autonomous local Church, no longer dependent on the human and financial support of missionary agencies.

National Agency

The intersection between religion and empire, a crucial question here, has long been neglected by historians. Andrew Porter’s work (2004) emphasized that the study of imperial questions has predominantly focused on economic and political aspects, and that missionary accounts were more often used to examine local cultures than to gain insights into missionary strategies. This is why this symposium aims at going beyond the binary simplification depicting missionaries either as pure imperialist agents, or as saints uninterested in any political aspect. It is important to recognize the presence of Christian missionaries and their respective churches as a form of soft power. Nevertheless, the latter are hardly considered as non-state actors fulfilling, deliberately or not, diplomatic purposes. We are not simply advancing a vision of evangelical missions as forms of Western imperialism that contributed to the territorial expansion of these empires, particularly through cultural submission or subjugation. This panel seeks rather to highlight the influence of religious institutions on the domestic and foreign policies of their countries like the United States and Brazil. Our objective is to enrich the discourse on missions by considering, for example, the correlation between missionaries and local politics or between missions and national or transnational politics.

Transnational Agency

Finally, the third panel will delve into the reasons behind the emergence of a new Protestant model focused on ecumenical cooperation, as demonstrated by the success of the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, which brought together more than twelve hundred missionaries of various Protestant denominations. We will consider the transnational agency of missionaries and their role in local ecumenical projects, aiming at pooling missionary staff and infrastructure for greater visibility, moving beyond the logic of competition between missions. The rise of these new dynamics of ecumenical cooperation will be studied at the local level of missionaries on site, but also at the level of missionary boards. Questioning the scope of these missionary figures as messengers conveying a form of international conciliation will not only allow us to rethink the relations between international denominations on site, but also the relations between different nations. Such an approach makes it possible to consider the notion of international conciliation in a new periodization, as a current prior to World War I. The issue of interreligious dialogue and the relationship of missionaries to the religious traditions of the places where they settled will also be addressed. Although Catholicism or Protestantism was invariably presented by the missionaries as a vector of social progress on issues such as slavery, forced marriage, or in some cases the treatment of women, this last panel will also look at missionaries’ attempts to dialogue with preexisting indigenous religious traditions (ancestor worship, shamanism, animism), and conquering established religions (Islam, Hinduism).

Submission guidelines

Proposals for papers, in English or French, consisting of a title, an abstract of 500 words maximum, and a short bibliography should be submitted to both the following email addresses:


Deadline for applications: March 25.

  • Selections will be made by: April 22.
  • Symposium: June 7, 2024, online.

Organising committee

  • Alice Laydevant- Phd candidate Université Paris Cité – Université Paris Saclay
  • Abdelkrim Morsi- Phd candidate Université Paris Cité.

Scientific committee

  • Bernard Heyberger – Director of studies, EHESS
  • François de Chantal – Professor, Université Paris Cité
  • Edouard l’Hérisson – assistant Professor, Inalco
  • Maud Michaud – Assistant professor, Le Mans Université.

Event attendance modalities

Full online event


  • Monday, March 25, 2024


  • mission, missionnaire

Information source

  • Alice Laydevant
    courriel : alice [dot] decouvelaere [at] hotmail [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Space and scale in missionary agency (1880-1920) », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, February 07, 2024,

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