Article

Missionaries

Aliocha Maldavsky

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online August 2011 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0123
Missionaries

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
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  • Regional and National History

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In the early modern Atlantic world, Catholic and Protestant missionaries were the main agents of Amerindians, Africans, and Afroamericans’ conversion to Christianity and European civilization. They simultaneously attended to the revitalization of European religion on both sides of the Atlantic from the 16th century on during the Catholic Reformation and later during the 18th century’s Protestant “great awakening.” In 16th-century Central and South America, missionary history was first the history of the Iberian Militant Church, which argued for the justification of the conquest of the Americas. In early-17th-century North America and the Caribbean Islands, the French set up a scheme to convert their Amerindian allies to Christianity, while some English and Dutch ministers worked with mixed results on the conversion of their own allies. On the Catholic side, both in Europe and in America, the religious orders—members of the Mendicant tradition and the Jesuits—provided the main missionaries whose missions gained royal support; later in the 17th century they were relayed by the secular clerics. On the Protestant side, the missions were led in America by individuals who fought the reluctance of the civil authorities. In Europe, the Church of England worked hand in hand with the Crown to tame the “wild Scot and Irish,” and the Lutheran missions, founded by absolute rulers, overtook the Scandinavian countries. In Africa both confessions, Catholics and Protestants, used conversion to Christianity to legitimize the slave trade. And women everywhere played key roles as missionaries, benefactors, or missionized. Most of the time, the missionaries were the first to establish contact with indigenous peoples, whose traits and characteristics they extensively researched in order to convert them more easily and to give a European frame and grammar to their languages. The extensive documentation—letters, “relations,” linguistic works, and so forth—is often the only information left to historians and ethnohistorians to better understand the diverse type of encounters. A bibliography of the missionary phenomena is thus polyglot, not only because of the large linguistic diversity of actors and primary sources but also because of the worldwide academic research. One can say that the globalization of European colonial expansion in the 1500–1900 Atlantic world mirrors the universalism of the Christian church. Historical interest for global, Atlantic, and local scales gives a particular relevance to the study of international institutions, such as religious orders. Early-21st-century research stresses reciprocal influences and colonial interaction at a local level as well as missionaries’ contribution to the formation of Western knowledge in early modern times and continuities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Article.  10900 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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