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Anthropology’s Debt to Missionaries

Leonard Plotnicov, Paula Brown, and Vinson H. Sutlive
Published by University of Pittsburgh in 2007

The relationship between anthropologists and missionaries is a particularly intriguing one. It is full of the stuff that is fertile ground for academic engagement, not least because of a certain overlap of interests coupled with long-standing tension. The collection of articles found in Anthropology’s Debt to Missionaries, written predominantly by anthropologists, provides a valuable, though somewhat limited, contribution to this often ignored, turbulent, but also fascinating relationship.

In the Preface, the editors note the “long and persisting acrimony” in the discipline of anthropology between apologists for and castigators of missionary work (ix). Beyond the narrow confines of this debate, the alternative tendency has been to erase missionary presence altogether from anthropological writings. In contrast to these two dominant approaches, the editors intended this collection as “homage” to the ways in which missionaries have contributed to anthropology. This sympathetic approach is remarkable and refreshing. The non-aligned nature of the papers serves to open up considerable space for fruitful discussion. Taken collectively, indeed the papers do draw attention successfully “to the importance of missionary endeavors for anthropology’s development” by indicating clearly the pivotal role various missionaries have played in assisting, informing, and also creating anthropological texts (ix). In this collection the extensive interactions between missionaries and anthropologists are at long last brought out into the light.

Edited collections are often mixed affairs, especially when sourced from conferences or seminars: chapters vary in quality, partial and fragmented input leaves gaps in analysis, and repetition is common. Anthropology’s Debt to Missionaries, which began as a symposium at an American Anthropological Association annual meeting, is no exception to this general rule. The majority of the chapters consist of detailing missionary biographies and especially specific contributions by missionaries to anthropological knowledge. Many are primarily historical in nature rather than thick descriptions in the ethnographic present. There is also significant discussion of ethnolinguistics. Some of the papers are well crafted, thorough, engaging and provocative (see especially chapters by John Barker; William Svelmoe; and Andrew Strathern and Pamela J. Stewart); others much less so. The chatty and free-flowing nature of the original verbal presentations remains imprinted in many. A number of the papers have a reminiscing tone as senior researchers reflect back on what they gained from their interactions with missionaries. While reminiscing is a well-trodden anthropological genre and has value in opening up space for personal (as opposed to “academic”) reflection, these sorts of papers are often weak in theory and limited in applicability to other contexts.

I found the collection most engaging during a discussion of the tensions faced by missionary-anthropologists as they sought to bridge the chasm between these two worlds. A number of contributors commented on this issue, though Charlotte J. Frisbie’s chapter on Fr. Berard Haile, O.F.M. was the most moving. Haile was a Franciscan missionary to the Navajo who Frisbie regards as “perhaps the greatest pioneer, a scholar without whose efforts… Navajo Studies would have a slim foundation” (52). Frisbie poses the question: “Is it possible to be a good ethnologist and a good missionary at the same time?” Her response is to point out that Haile “really was neither…. and [was] estranged from both communities” (57). Though Haile was associated with both Chicago and Yale Universities, their support for his work was minimal. Haile faced constant struggle in getting work published. He also faced considerable criticism from Franciscan colleagues who doubted the value of his “secular” linguistic and ethnological pursuits. The tragedy of the mutually drawn, enlightenment-inherited sharpdemarcation of “religious” and “secular” realms is embodied within the life of this remarkable individual. In a sense the entire collection is a sort of sustained (though sometimes oblique) meditation on this issue.

The collection has significant geographical and cultural gaps. It has a strong bias toward Melanesia but no contributions that address African, Australian, Polynesian, or South American contexts. There is also no discussion of mission and anthropology among “Western” or European societies. Just as significant is the dominance of North American voices. As with all too much anthropology, it would have been a stronger collection had a greater diversity of authors been included. These gaps, however, should probably be considered inevitable or at the very least expected. More regrettable, in my view, is the reductionist interpretation of the category “missionary.” Plotnicov’s definition – “Christian religious organizations whose aim was to convert peoples to Christian beliefs and practices” – is the default conception throughout (xvii). Other types of “missionary” occasionally creep in (such as Wadley’s discussion of “development officers” in India; or the chapter by Philip Gibbs on the Melanesian Institute in Papua New Guinea) but the multiplicity of modes and forms of missionary work is given inadequate attention. The same critique is applicable in restricting the collection solely to Christian missionary activity to the exclusion of other religious groups.

It is also unfortunate that of those missionaries who are discussed in the collection, the vast majority are white men. Possibly this says more about anthropological stereotypes than it does about missionaries themselves. Or perhaps it is rather a comment on the nature of anthropological knowledge itself. The collection intentionally seeks to recover/uncover the contributions that missionaries have made to anthropology. While often there is an honest attempt to grapple with their subjects as religious scholars, in assessing the value of missionary work, only material which was considered sufficiently “anthropological” tended to be salvaged. The recovered material fits invariably into pre-set classifications biased toward the academic, scientific, and secular. Those perspectives that are not adequately “rational” – including the indigenous, feminine, or overly religious – are incapable of being reconciled. Therefore the engagement with missionaries takes place on anthropological terms and within anthropological frames.

What this book misses out on is the juicy material that would facilitate deeper self-reflexivity within anthropology. As a whole, the most awkward questions are not raised or analyzed. Fenella Cannell’s masterly and incisive analysis of the anthropology of Christianity is a good example of where the collection could have gone.1 While Plotnicov’s introduction helps set valuable background and engages well with wider theory, it is too short and too suggestive to be regarded as the seminal text on the matter. This is yet to be written. However, Plotnicov succeeds in the vital task of making the subject appear compelling. The book makes a solid case for looking again at the relationship between missionaries and anthropologists that has been long ignored or derided. Certainly a collection of this nature is well overdue. Anthropologists and missiologists alike will find much material on which to build further debate. There are also chapters in Anthropology’s Debt to Missionaries that would serve as valuable material for undergraduate courses in connected fields. If, as I hope, this book stimulates a re-engagement with the issue, then it will have served an invaluable role.

Cite this article
Phillip M. Fountain, “Anthropology’s Debt to Missionaries”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:3 , 389-391


  1. Fenella Cannell, “Introduction: the Anthropology of Christianity” In Fenella Cannell, ed.,The Anthropology of Christianity (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2006), 1-50.

Phillip M. Fountain

Phillip M. Fountain, Archaeology and Anthropology, The Australian National University