Mission Station Christianity: Book Review

Hovland, Ingie. 2013. Mission station Christianity: Norwegian missionaries in colonial Natal and Zululand, southern Africa 1850-1890. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

By: Casey Golomski (University of the Witwatersrand)

 

In Mission Station Christianity, Ingie Hovland gives religious studies scholars and anthropologists a concise and useful case study of the Norwegian Missionary Society’s (NMS) colonial encounters with Zulu peoples in nineteenth century Southern Africa. The book is part of Brill’s interdisciplinary Studies in Christian Mission series that presents historical, global case studies of transcultural missionary movements. This is her first book. 

Mission Station Christianity sits squarely within the anthropology of Christianity, taking cue from Engelke’s (2007) elaboration of the “problem of presence,” or how Christians in different places at different times make God visible and material. Hovland addresses this question by interrogating mission stations as theoretical spaces, namely sites for the production of cultural difference (cf. Gupta and Ferguson 1997) in history that also produce God’s presence in material form. She follows Robbins’ (2007) and Cannell’s (2006) re-readings of the Comaroffs’ Revelation and Revolution (1991, 1997) as a base for the theoretical approach to Christianity and culture. To avoid reducing the former to the latter, Christianity is taken as a polythetic concept where different locally situated versions of religion are made up of unique bundles of themes, expressed per historical and cultural setting. Hovland adopts a stance of methodological agnosticism (McCutcheon 1999) and aims to uphold Christianity as a serious, ever-changing force that implicates itself in histories of mission and colonialism in Southern Africa and elsewhere globally.

Hovland introduces two tensions in the historical and ethnographic record that frame the overall analysis of the relation between mission Christianity and space. One the one hand, missions sought equality between themselves and people they sought to evangelize, but “ended up developing patterns of interactions that facilitated European predominance.” This Hovland later terms a “colonial double vision.” The ideology of equality permeated Norwegian mission work from its early days in southern Africa into the era of apartheid where her own parents were involved, although its non-application in the former historical period and Africans’ exclusion from pastoral roles becomes a motive for analysis.

The other concept or tension she explores is more spatially based and derives from Houghton’s idea of mission “station strategy” (Simensen et al. 1986), where the majority of activities become firmly rooted in a singular location of the mission station as missionaries make it a more permanent site of residence and work. This strategy contrasts to a travelling or nomadic presence on local landscapes, one for which Hovland notes the Norwegian missions advocated yet did not realize in evangelizing practice with Zulu peoples. For the most part, they stayed put on land-cum-property they appropriated from Zulu peoples.

Overall, dependence on white male missionary authority at the station went hand in hand with dependence on spaces in the colonial Natal-Zululand landscape that became Christian. This spatial dynamic was gendered and racialized and was par for the historical course of missionary evangelism in colonial southern Africa. This landedness—and Christian religion as conceptualized through space broadly—is a critical point of analysis. A running claim is that as Norwegian missionaries stayed and Christianized their new plots, their bodies, actions and ideologies were culturally and theologically reshaped by that same land in the process. This seemingly space-based dynamic is clearly argued and well presented throughout the book.

The primary focus is the mission stations on the borders of British colonial Natal and Dingane territory between the 1850s and 1870s, despite the book title’s reach to 1890. In the 1850s, the Norwegian missionaries under Hans Schreuder’s leadership began to transform station-based spaces as Christian through the construction of rectangular houses and garden plots and their embodied habitation of those spaces through European dress, prayer, and reading activities. Religious discourse in educational lessons and Sunday sermons directed at their few initial visitors, while not drumming up adamant converts, came to make their invisible God more present (Engelke 2007) and realized the space as distinctly white and Christian. The focus on language’s discerning powers further enriches and pushes Hovland’s analyses of mission encounters beyond a theoretical base laid by previous scholarship, showing how actors translate and live out multiple, intersecting sociopolitical and economic forces.

Moving from texts to bodies, the missionaries’ bodies themselves, rather than Africans’ in Hovland’s analysis were likewise spaces for the discernment of and engagement with Christianity. Methodologically, Hovland plumbs the archives for station reports re-published in NMS periodicals, finding two interesting cases where the missionaries wrote anxiously about their material lives: one over the construction of a makeshift sofa as a possible object of over-indulgence, and one over a visiting pregnant Norwegian woman and her husband who came to loggerheads with Schreuder. Hovland locates these anxieties in Christianity’s enduring idea of the body’s “double physicality,” as both a depraved vessel of critique and one ideally suffering in godly, hard work. Taking insight from Stoler’s (2002) reading of Foucauldian surveillance, these reports reflect both missionaries’ own attempts at frugal, immaterial self-control in everyday life and a discursive structure that positioned missionaries in the social landscape vis-a-vis racial, gendered, and class hierarchies.

In the latter part of Mission Station Christianity’s main section, Hovland shifts greater weight to explain Zulus’ presence and perceptions of the mission station. There is scant archival evidence on early, notable converts like Mathenjwaze Shange and Mbiyana Ngidi, but Hovland reads “against the grain” from several sources to contextualize why these converts and others in the Norwegian church were not promoted to pastoral positions. Missionaries’ paternalism and doubts about converts’ sincerities in belief and practice twinned to concerns about converts’ liberal use of Western clothing and names, which shore up Hovland’s analytic claims of an operative colonial “double vision” which prevented converts’ institutional succession. These fraught ideological and practical encounters at the station between Zulus and Norwegians, as well as between Norwegians and other white colonialists are framed by Homi Bhabha’s idea of constituting a “third space” of emergent forms and identities (Rutherford 1990).

At the mission station, it was perhaps this inchoateness of the “new,” that led many Africans to perceive the space with uncertainty. Stations were often seen as practically and socially risky. They presented Zulu peoples with ripe opportunities for biomedical services and commodity exchange, much to the chagrin of missionaries who sought subjects with religious intentions. However, stations tended to attract those on the social margins, and those peoples’ potential incorporation into the mission community posed a threat to Zulu patriarchal social order and control. Likewise, the reading, writing, and novel forms of speaking therein posed epistemological enigmas. These practices made many Zulus hesitant to “cross [over]” completely to the “land of the whites”; i.e. the station and into totally converted life.

In contrast, the missionaries’ perceived the station in a more positive light, as a spiritual and social resource for both themselves and African converts within a difficult and threatening environment. Missionaries could revel in their plots of land and few converts as trophy-like wins for Christian civilization, beacons of respite and safety in spatial form that embodied ideal, moral alternatives to depraved versions of European and Zulu society. Missionaries’ imaginative expanse of what their station space meant and what form it took points to what Hovland calls “spatial Christianization.” Given the muddiness of station boundaries in that myriad exchanges of ideas, practices, and objects regularly took place between missionaries and Zulus, Hovland likens the station to a heterotopia, an assemblage of spaces that co-exist in one place, like Inhlazatshe mission discussed in chapter six. Through the station, missionaries hierarchically ordered multiple perspectives to reflect their utopic visions of self and society in history.

Indeed, Hovland carries the case of NMS in Natal and Zululand further than her scholarly predecessors by linking up the missions’ cultural dynamics to the historical context of the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War. Counterintuitively, she argues that even though Norway was itself subjugated on the European political landscape and barred from doing its own foreign policy, its missions enacted projects similar to its British, French and other colonialist counterparts. Like other missions in Southern Africa, the NMS came to see British military conquest as necessary for effective evangelization. Hovland notes that theological justification for conquest and the explanation of British victory over the Zulu was ensconced in pietist theses of humiliation. In this case, a person, namely the Zulu, had to be humiliated or cast down to show one’s errors so as to then authentically receive Christ, and in turn civilization. As the British and Boers redistributed Zulu land in the war’s wake, the Norwegian mission grew in acreage and colonial-political import, insofar that one station, Umphumulo, became a site for the South African state’s infamous native reserve system.

Hovland could have strengthened her argumentative line concerning race and gender throughout the book, as her approach appears to be more novel when reading her presentation of other studies of NMS missions and their histories. Other than this thematic-interpretive point, and an incorrect transcription of one isiZulu word (umuzi,or homestead is written umizi throughout), Mission Station Christianity is a very good and accessible monograph for the anthropology of Christianity. It is well read in the field’s intellectual conversations and contributes a unique theoretical approach to missions as potent spaces. Finally, it is strong in its intra-chapter textual organization, and each chapter includes useful “notes on method” sections. In reminding scholars about the process and politics of reading archival images (several of which are nicely reprinted) or situating missionaries’ use of metaphor in theological context, for example, Hovland helpfully situates several methodological caveats needed for any good historical ethnography of Christianity and missions.

 

Works cited:

Cannell, F., ed. 2006 The Anthropology of Christianity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Comaroff, J. and J.L. 1991. Revelation and Revolution, volume 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Comaroff, J. and J.L. 1997. Revelation and Revolution, volume 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Engelke, M. 2007. A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gupta, A. and J. Ferguson, eds. 1997. Culture, Power, Place. Durham: Duke University Press.

McCutcheon, R., ed. 1999. The Insider-Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion. London: Cassell.

Robbins, J. 2007. Continuity Thinking and the Problem of Christian Culture: Belief, Time, and the Anthropology of Christianity. Current Anthropology, 48(1): 5-38.

Rutherford, J. 1990. The Third Space: An Interview with Homi Bhabha. In Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Edited by J. Rutherford, pp. 207-221. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Simensen, J., et al. 1986. Christian Missions and Socio-cultural Change in Zululand, 1850-1906. In Norwegian Missions in African History, volume 1. Edited by J. Simensen, pp. 187-275. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stoler, A.L. 2002. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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