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From slave to missionary

23 May 2014

Peggy Brock reads a study of Native evangelists

Native Apostles: Black and Indian missionaries in the British Atlantic world
Edward E. Andrews
Harvard University Press £25
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THE subject of this book is an important and rather neglected one in studies of the spread of Christianity during the period of the colonial expansion of European powers through Africa, and the Americas.

There are many studies of missions and missionaries who originated in Europe and the Americas and evangelised peoples distant from their home societies, but remarkably few that investigate the involvement of local people in this process of religious change. This book is, therefore, a welcome addition to the still small literature on the subject.

While the main focus of the book is New England, it ranges from the Caribbean to the slave coast of West Africa, and briefly to Virginia and elsewhere in North America in the late 17th and 18th centuries. This has required Edward E. Andrews to track down and consult a very wide range of sources in a variety of archives, including Moravian, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Congregational.

Some of Andrews's examples of Native evangelism illustrate better than others its pervasiveness: the praying towns of New England are an obvious example of their success. But, when Andrews sets out to show the transatlantic connections where missionaries were trained in America to cross back to the Africa of their origins, his argument falters.

While there were plans to use (former) slaves to evangelise in their home territories, these were, on the whole, unrealised. He also argues that the experience of Indian missionaries in America influenced the plans for native evangelism in Africa. Yet the influence, if it was there, was minor when one considers the broad history of missions in Africa. De-spite attempts to link the disparate examples of Native apostles in North America, the Caribbean, and West Africa, the book at times reads as a series of essays rather than a coherently argued thesis. Andrews also runs up against the problem of paucity of sources in some of his examples, and reverts to hypotheticals to carry his case.

In the introductory chapter, Andrews discusses the many advantages in using indigenous evangelists to bring native and slave communities to Christianity; and yet many of his examples highlight the difficulties encountered by these missionaries. While Native congregations on Martha's Vineyard preferred indigenous preachers, who also were at the forefront of the movement to protect Indian rights and land, many other evangelists faced hostility and suspicion not only from their own people, but also the colonial population. If they evangelised other language groups, that hostility was even more pronounced.

Similarly, Philip Quaque, who was based on the west coast of Africa at the slave-trading fort Cape Coast Castle, had little success in converting local people. Most of those he did influence were people of mixed descent (although Andrews fails to point out their mixed ancestry) who were not integrated into local communities.

Andrews has taken on an ambitious project in a neglected field of research. He is hampered by the lack of sources that give direct voice to those evangelists whose work he is researching. Nevertheless, this study has brought together many disparate mission experiences and raised questions that future scholars should find stimulating as this field of research expands.

Dr Peggy Brock is Emeritus Professor of Colonial and Indigenous History at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia.

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