Foreign Exchange

Heather Sharkey examines the long-lasting effects of missionary work.
November 1, 2013

In her new book Cultural Conversions: Unexpected Consequences of Christian Missionary Encounters in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, Heather J. Sharkey, Associate Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, investigates through essays the fallout of Catholic and Protestant missionary work in communities around the globe, especially in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

“The idea was to study the manifold social effects that Christian missionaries had even on people whom they did not convert, but whom they encountered after founding schools, hospitals, printing presses, and other institutions that appealed to diverse populations,” she says. “Missionaries changed assumptions about relations between husbands and wives, and parents and children, as well as attitudes towards ancestors and ritualistic beliefs in societies in South Africa, India, what are now Israel and the Palestinian territories, and beyond. Because they set out with the idea of changing others—including intimate details of who people were and how they fit among families and neighbors—their interactions entailed bids for influence and power and were intrinsically political.”

Sharkey happened upon the topic while doing research for a previous book at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, as well as in Cairo, Egypt. She was struck by the many political effects that missionary work set rolling. In Egypt, for instance, the Muslim Brotherhood formed in 1928, partly in opposition to Christian missionaries. The Brotherhood then adopted many of the same missionary techniques that Protestants and Catholics were using, such as preaching in coffeehouses, setting up adult literacy education programs, and organizing sports clubs. 

“Missionaries affected cultures on many levels—very small ideas also took root,” says Sharkey. “I was reading papers in the Presbyterian archives here in Philadelphia about how American missionaries introduced the idea of child-sized furniture that they built in Pennsylvania to their schools in Egypt. Today you don’t think of that as an idea that needs to be introduced. It was intended as a means of including children, and reflected new notions of nurturing children in what we would now call ‘age-appropriate’ ways.”

The essays featured in Cultural Conversions came out of a conference that Sharkey organized at Penn in 2008 with support from the University Research Foundation, the Graduate School of Education, and Penn’s four area studies centers: the Middle East Center, African Studies Center, South Asia Center, and Center for East Asian Studies. The Departments of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and South Asia Studies also lent support. “The papers were of an exceptionally high quality, and I knew from the moment the conference took place that I wanted to create a volume out of it,” she says. The challenge was in rethinking approaches to some other big issues that lurked beneath the essays, such as the role of missionaries as both supporters of human rights and perpetrators of human rights abuses.

The darker side of missions, she says, included some history of abuse by teachers, as well as instances where missionaries turned a blind eye to colonial regimes involved in the massacre of colonized populations—in the notorious Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), for example. But on the positive side, missionaries worked to encourage more rights for ailing and disabled people in cultures that tended to ostracize them. Catholic and Protestant missionaries also introduced ideas about new or more active roles that girls and women could play in religious and communal life. 

“This comes back to the issue of missionaries as political actors, because you see women in places like Egypt pushing in and carving out new niches for themselves, becoming vocal members of churches, running things like vacation bible schools, and getting jobs as teachers—in other words, doing things that ran against established patriarchal assumptions,” says Sharkey. American and European women benefitted from these changes, too, because mission work abroad provided them with salaried careers—as educators, translators, medical doctors, and more.

Whether or not missionary work helped or hurt different societies may be up for debate, but its impact on history cannot be denied: “The missionary movement can teach us a lot about the push and pull of history as it connected missionaries from Europe and North America to diverse populations in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.”