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Livingstone's Ambiguous Legacy

I posted earlier about the ambiguous history of evangelicalism's relationship with imperialism, as sketched in Niall Ferguson's Empire. I'm afraid that the story hasn't gotten much better, and that an old hero of mine, David Livingstone, has been a casualty of the new revelations. Not of course that Livingstone turned out to be wicked or anything like that...just ambiguous. Turns out that he wasn't really a very successful missionary; in fact, it was the stubborn failure of Africans to convert that led him to turn explorer. This decision signaled a a crucial shift in philosophy that was to have great influence on British colonial policy--no converts without commerce. Livingstone decided that the spiritual and moral improvement of Africa could not be accomplished without a prior economic improvement that was to take the form of British colonization and commerce into the heart of Africa. Thus did evangelicalism hitch its wagon to the horse of capitalism long before such atrocities as Jon Schneider reared their ugly heads. Now, how much of this was a bad thing is hard to say. Undoubtedly, the influx of British commerce did much to raise African peoples out of their darkness; but we all know about its terrible exploitation as well.

While Livingstone failed at this mission in his life, his follower, Henry Morton Stanley, did not. But, though also an evangelical Christian, Stanley's methods were not Livingstone's. Stanley preferred guns and gunboats to Bibles and medicine. Among other evils, he was infamous for helping the king of Belgium establish the brutal slave-colony of Belgian Congo. Defending himself against charges of violence and brutality, he said, "the savage only respects force, power, boldness, and decision."

Learning all this dispelled the halo of idealized sanctity that earlier influences in my life had bestowed on Livingstone and Stanley, and it also offered more evidence in refutation of James Jordan's careless charge against the Anglo-Catholic movement--that it helped fuel the imperial exploitation of the Victorian age. (Jordan argues that this was a natural consequence of Anglo-Catholicism's use of images in worship!) Not only does this charge fail because the imperial exploitation had been going on for long before the Oxford Movement, and was, in fact, ameliorated in many ways during the latter half of the century, but it fails more decisively because, if anyone was complicit in the evils of imperialism, it was the evangelicals, far more than the Anglo-Catholics.

Of course, it's best not to indulge in historical finger-pointing among Christian groups. We are all guilty in our own ways. But, I did think it worth offering yet another rebuttal against Jordan's odd accusations.


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