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Missionaries

The changing scope of the practices of the British Empire in the Romantic era was largely characterized by the emergence of missionaries. Writings by explorers and travelers such as Mungo Park and Sir William Jones convinced many British citizens, and more importantly, politicians, that the people of foreign lands were inherently good, but simply uninformed about the Gospel of Christ. The idea of a "civilizing mission" was derived from this view, and led the British people to believe they had a duty to bring the so-called Word of God to the "heathens." The majority of Britain's relationships with distant nations had been characterized by forcible economic and military oppression. With the development of the missionary ideal, England found a way to reconcile its benevolent self-image with its brutal actions.

The Empire took credit for enlightening "savage" people with the knowledge of Christ by sending well-meaning and personally virtuous missionaries to various locations around the globe. At the same time, the British Empire was able to justify subjecting the local population into surrender of its natural resources to fuel its capitalist economy. The vehement rejection of the practice of slavery by many Christians during the Romantic period created an opportunity for missionary practice to thrive.

The great tragedy of missionary work was its good intentions. Propelled by the idea that native peoples of various foreign lands were virtuous but simply unenlightened, true believers in the Christian gospel traveled to spread the Word, or supported the dissemination of the Word from home in England. Literary sources reflect this attitude in their characterizations of devout Christians who believe themselves to be charged with the civilizing mission, such as St. John Eyre Rivers in Austen's Jane Eyre.

Although the brutality of the previous centuries of British colonial action was ameliorated by the Romantic period's deployment of missionaries, the questionable idea of Western superiority was fundamental to their practices.

Jody Dunville






Select Bibliography

Ballard, Martin. White Men's God: The Extraordinary Story of Missionaries in Africa. Oxford: Greenwood World
     Publishing, 2008. Print.