A play performed at the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Nairobi in 1975 depicted the three main oppressors of Africa. First on stage was an Arab slave-trader, who stole the Africans' bodies. Next came the European colonialist, thief of the Africans' land. Finally the wcc depicted a Christian missionary, who took the Africans' culture.

Modern historical scholarship has been harshly critical of "colonial missionaries." That Christianity was an agent of colonialism is so widely assumed, it has become, in the words of Brian Stanley, "one of the unquestioned orthodoxies of general historical knowledge."

Why the negative reaction? The benefits of the missionaries' involvement are obvious: hospitals, schools, colleges, commercial ventures, abolition of slavery, development projects, literacy programs, and improved agricultural methods. But the benefits came at a cost.

Partners in crime

Early missionaries to Africa are most frequently faulted for collaborating with colonial powers. The missionary and colonial administrator were viewed as partners in crime.

Some missionaries were so elated by the added security and development promised by colonial overlords, they crossed the boundaries of Christian morality to advance the colonialist cause. In 1888 Charles Helm of the London Missionary Society deliberately cheated the Ndebele king Lobengula out of his land by mistranslating a crucial document from South African businessmen working with Cecil Rhodes.

Critics sometimes blame the doctrine of providence: if God brought civilization to Africa at the same moment he was sending his gospel, missionaries reasoned, then should not the missionary work with the colonial government rather than oppose it?

It is not hard to find statements by missionaries supporting colonial intrusion. Johann Krapf, the first missionary to eastern Africa, openly supported British intrusion into Ethiopia. Livingstone too hoped to plant the Union Jack in Africa, writing before his Zambezi Expedition: "All this ostensible machinery has for its ostensible object … the promotion of civilization, but I hope it may result in an English colony in the healthy highlands of central Africa."

On the other hand, missionaries also believed God had given them the opportunity to use their position to sensitize others about the injustices of colonialism.

Missionary criticisms of colonialism are also easy to come by. Alexander Mackay, a Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionary in Uganda, faulted the colonial policy of his own government: "In former years, the universal aim was to steal the African from Africa. Today the determination of Europe is to steal Africa from the African."

Patronizing parents

Though Henry Venn, secretary of the CMS, had insisted early in the 1800s that African churches should be self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating, by the end of the century, this vision had been lost.

In the famous case of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther of Nigeria, the first African bishop of the Anglican church, white missionaries undermined his authority and wrongly discredited his work. After his resignation, he was replaced by a white missionary.

As colonialism advanced, the spirit of paternalism replaced the older strategy of Africanization. New missionaries to South Africa were told, "Here we don't shake hands with Africans." For many the African was the child who needed to be brought along slowly before power could be shared.

While unbiblical paternalism is a historical fact, beyond it lay a plan for discipleship. The concept allows a period of tutelage under a "master"—but only as a step to empowering the disciple to leadership. Even the most paternalistic missionaries believed in training nationals for evangelism and church planting.

As churches grew, the missionary was forced to recognize the competence of the African convert. From the ranks of these African faithful came the future leaders of African Christianity. The Christian concept of discipleship thus transformed early paternalism into the empowerment of the African.

Revolutionary schools

Part of the paradox of the missionaries' paternalism was evident in their ubiquitous schools. After the Phelps-Stokes commission surveyed British Africa in the 1920s, it recommended the British government work through the missionary schools to educate the African. Though British policy (unlike French and Belgian) sought to raise educational standards, the suspicion persists that the curriculums of these schools were dominated by a narrow pietism and rigid biblicism calculated to maintain the status quo. In short, the schools were instruments of oppression.

But why did so many of Africa's political leaders come from mission schools? From the halls of "narrow pietism" came the leaders of Africa's first wave of independence in the 1960s. Among them were Julius Nyere, a Roman Catholic convert who became the first president of Tanzania; Jomo Kenyatta, the first prime minister and president of Kenya, who had run away from home to become a resident pupil at the mission; and Kenneth Kaunda, the son of teachers and leader of Zambia's independence movement.

How could narrow-minded missionaries be agents of social liberation? Central to both their message and that of revolutionaries was the coming kingdom of Christ. No earthly government or culture was absolute or eternal, including the colonial powers. Roland Oliver, author of The African Experience, concludes that many of the doctrines in missionary school curriculums "were in themselves revolutionary and egalitarian influences."

Mine is better than yours

Some critics claim missionaries' zealous belief in Christ's lordship made them "almost incapable of seeing anything positive and valuable in the life and culture of the African." The "Christian" civilization of the Western world, they argue, deepened the missionary's sense of cultural superiority.

Armed with these convictions, the missionary engaged in an aggressive evangelism that some believe may have irreparably damaged traditional African culture. To some, missionary Christianity was little more than "imperialism at prayer."

But in truth, not only did missionaries often soften the blow of cultural disruption of colonial overlords, they also transformed African culture for the better by translating the Scriptures into the native languages.

These vernacular translations helped tribes value their culture even more: God so valued their culture, he had put his very words and those of his divine Son into the tribe's own language. A new confidence in one's culture, and the divine acceptance of that culture's most treasured possession—its language—gave birth to liberation movements around the continent.

Nineteenth-century missionaries to Africa deserve many of the criticisms leveled against them. But deeper than the faults lies a great paradox, first expressed by perhaps the greatest of missionaries, Paul: he boasted about his weaknesses because it was through weakness that the power of God was best shown.

Livingstone and his missionary colleagues would have undoubtedly agreed.

Mark Shaw is lecturer in church history at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology and author of The Kingdom of God in Africa (Baker, 1996).