A significant amount of contemporary scholarship sees all social relationships as shaped by power. Power becomes the central interpretative key to understand social reality. In this brief reflection I will attempt to explore the understanding and use of power by Christian missionaries in the colonial and postcolonial periods with a focus on Christian mission in India.

Aspects of Power

Studies in power in social relationships identify two aspects of power. One is power over others and is about exercising influence. The other is power to enable others to achieve desired outcomes and is about power as capacity. Power over others irrespective of their own interests is often the focus of postcolonial/subaltern studies of mission history.

1.Power over others

Power over others is directed at achieving the outcomes of those exercising power. Those exercising power predetermine outcomes, barriers are created or reinforced to mute the voice of those over whom power is exercised. It also means that those in power often suppress awareness of their unrealized interests or real interests determine the wants and needs of others. Such use of power is domination, control and rule from above.

2. Power as building capacity

A person or communities ability to choose a desired outcome and act to achieve it is empowerment. Providing necessary knowledge, equipping with skills and competencies, creating opportunities to choose freely and act confidently and achieve desired outcomes is use of power to build capacity.

3.Social Structures and Institutions

Some scholarship attributes domination to social structures and institutions. Foucault and Bourdiew sound like structural determinists when discussing power in social relationships. It must be stressed that the utilitarian rationality of humans and the entrenched self-interests of communities shape institutions and structures.

4.Power as a complex network

Power is expressed through a complex network of laws, rules, norms, institutional arrangements, social identities and exclusions. Such a network can dominate some people and constrain them. It can also empower some actors and enable action.

Mission and power in Christian mission in India

The history of Christian mission in India provides useful illustrations of the various aspects of the relation between mission and power. I will highlight what I consider as key issues more as a personal reflection than carefully crafted evidence based argument.

1.Christian Mission and Colonial Enterprise

The relation between Christian mission and colonial rule in India was complex. British colonial rule was focused on trade in its early stages and considered Christian mission activities as a distraction at best. In the 18th century Christian mission was discouraged to protect the colonial enterprise.

Colonial rulers were unwilling to deal with the possible hostility of other religions to Christian mission and prevented it.

Evangelical revival and the rise of evangelical groups like the Clapham sect in Britain at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th gave a strong impetus to mission activity. Evangelicals were the major force behind the anti slavery abolitionist movement. Their mission understanding was not just to preach the gospel and save lost souls but also to transform Indian society. It was also a mission of social and spiritual transformation. Some missionaries used the language of crusades to address what they saw as evil and inhuman social systems and customs. Opposition from other religious groups was inevitable and sometimes fierce.

The appointment of evangelicals like Charles Grant to leadership positions in the colonial establishment facilitated and advanced Christian mission as seeking both conversion of people to Christianity and also as bringing social change.

It must be noted that the colonial establishment in general was suspicious and negative about Christian mission in spite of the support of individuals like Grant. So the ‘civilsational’ mission of missionaries was not generated by the civilization strategy of colonial rule. It originated in the Gospel the missionaries were called to proclaim. Its thrust was for the liberation of a people from “darkness” and not the spread of a colonial vision. That they sometimes overlapped is obvious but missionaries were always conscious of the antipathy of the colonial establishment to Christian mission.

2.The Strategy of spreading Western Civilization

In 1835 colonial rule in India adopted the strategy of bringing western civilization to the people of India through legislation drafted by Lord Macaulay. This was added as another goal of colonial rule and used as the main purpose in the justification and promotion of colonial power. So hegemonic colonial power was tied with a high mission of enlightenment to backward cultures and races. The promotional language drew on national and racial imagery. The western races became bearers of a Christian civilization and had a divine calling and national duty to spread it to all the people of the world. These people have also been endowed with superior military skills and must use them in lifting other races and nations to a higher level of civilization. So a mission language of power to always justified power over others.

Christian mission as the bearer of western education, health care and behavioral norms was accepted as a useful if not a key part of the strategy to spread western civilization. In India Christian mission was grudgingly allowed to function but did not get wide support by colonial rulers. With the establishment of direct rule from 1857/8 colonial vision and strategy took centre stage.

While many missionaries saw colonial rule as enabling Christian mission their relationship to such rule was often uneasy. It was rarely cozy. The emergence of the political independence movement in India in the last quarter of the 19th century and the emergence and fast growth of Hindu renewal movements cautioned missionaries against identifying colonial rule with Christian mission. Some missionaries did that but it was not a universal view.

It would be right to conclude that power relations in Christian mission in India were not a mirror image of relationships under colonial rule. Different forces shaped such relationships in mission.

Mission and challenge to Social Order

Missionary correspondence and reflection in the 19th century is not preoccupied with the theological errors of other religions in India. Its focus is on the social order. Missionary writing abounds in descriptions of what they saw as horrendous socials evils in India. The treatment of widows, women, lower castes and groups termed as untouchables outraged missionaries. Much missionary analysis blamed local religion for sanctioning oppressive and evil social customs resulting in open conflict with religious leaders. There was also conflict with powerful local leaders over their treatment of landless laborers and tribal peoples.

Such a thrust of social mission had little colonial support, as it appeared to threaten communal peace. Missionary social activism was often opposed by colonial powers. It is also true that much of missionary social activism focused on the welfare of converts most of who came from oppressed classes. Some converts found employment in mission enterprises. They could not accommodate all converts. They had to continue to make a living outside the mission world and were still subject to the same treatment as before their conversion. Missionary correspondence shows that missionaries often intervened on behalf of converts on matters of wages, work conditions, legal issues Etc.

Susan Harper in her excellent study on Bishop Azariah of Dornakal, the first Indian to be an Anglican bishop in India has shown how challenge to social order was not just an agenda of missionaries. It was often promoted and driven by Indian converts, who saw it as a natural consequence of the new faith they embraced.

If we focus on missionary activism their power might seem dominating. A focus on the converts modifies the picture. Indian coverts from the most oppressed communities believed in the possibility of transforming entrenched social systems and customs and they were active participants in challenging such systems. They also sought to live out the social change demanded by the gospel. This suggests that relationship conformed more to empowerment of the converts than their domination.

Mission and Cultural renewal

Alongside the challenge to social systems was the effort by both “orientalist” and “evangelistic” missionaries to recover and strengthen indigenous languages and even some indigenous customs.

Indian literature and learning was dismissed and denigrated by Lord Macaulay in his Minute of 1835.He wrote, “…Who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” He attacked the orientalists who believed that Indian languages should be the basis of modern education. He promoted English language as the bearer of modern civilization.

Missionaries did not share Macaulay’s views about Indian languages. The work of Carey, Pope, Kittel and others in the renewal of Indian languages is acclaimed and celebrated by Indians who know their history. Their contributions prepared local languages for the modern world and recovered hundreds of dialects and several ancient languages. Recent work in mission history identifies the significant role of local Christians in the work of language recovery and renewal. The indigenous mission worker was indispensable to mission work. Mission activity could not proceed without such partnership

It must be noted that such partnerships of cultural renewal suggests that partnership rather than domination was at the heart of the relationship between missionaries and indigenous Christians. Asymmetrical resources means that power relationships will tend to be asymmetrical also but partnership in mission action challenged such differentiation.

Mission and Elites

Another aspect of the relationship of power to mission is the social and educational background of the missionary. In the 19th and the first half of the 20th century missionaries from both the elites educated at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and those with basic education came to India. The elites used power in the way they were used to in Britain. They assumed that they are natural leaders and naturally put service before self.  Stephen Neill describes Hudson Taylor the founder of the China Inland mission as assuming to himself almost “papal authority”. But he also opened the door to people with basic education to be missionaries in China.

The Baptist mission in India had missionaries from trade and university backgrounds. In general missionaries from non-elite backgrounds turned to fieldwork and not institutional mission.

The colonial civil servant in India who ruled the country was educated in Oxford and Cambridge. The hauteur and racism embedded in the Indian Civil Service was not evident among missionaries who came from similar backgrounds. However, their background did give them the confidence to lead and guide. It is soft power but also substantial.

Missionaries from non-elite backgrounds should have found it easier to relate to the situation of oppressed people. I am not aware of studies, which identify their relationships and attitudes. My personal observation suggests that missionaries from elite backgrounds were very aware of the power issues and tried to demonstrate   Christian servant hood where possible. The non-elites were often unaware of the issues of power that were at the heart of relationships and were more prone to dominating behavior in the work and less confident in relation to society outside the church. It is clear that the gender of the missionary made a significant difference to relationships in mission. Single missionary women made up the majority of missionaries. Many of them worked in the field on their own. Again I am not aware of substantial studies that have drawn out their experiences.

The attitudes of missionaries provided a template for indigenous Christians particularly church leaders and is a mixed legacy of the Indian Church today.

Mission Institutions and Power

Asymmetries of power were more visible in the institutions built by missionaries. Existing institutions of education and health systems were seen as saturated with non-Christian religions and unfit for missionary efforts. So new institutions were initiated and built by every mission organization and many missionaries ran institutions. Indigenous employees remained as “native” assistants, even the most gifted ones. The framework of institutional governance, leadership and management was one of rulers and assistants. It is in its institutions mission reflected a ruling colonial pattern more than a partnership model. This was the cry of Bishop Azariah at Edinburh 1910.

With the hand over of institutions to Indian leadership since the middle of the last century, the same framework dominates with its attendant problems of inefficiency and nepotism.

Newer independent missions that have entered India in the past five decades continue the old model with institutions. A prestigious post graduate theological institution in South India with state of the art facilities is still controlled by its missionary founder though he retired and left the country several years ago. Even a humble gardening assistant cannot be appointed without his permission.

Reasons are cited for such control. Indian leadership is not available or ready to sustain let alone improve such a scaled up institution. There is some truth in that argument. Such institutions are built on resources tied to western mission enterprise that now sees itself as investment driven and shaped by globalization. It is difficult for indigenous leaders to have the same access to those resources even if such leaders are very gifted. Such resources cannot be raised locally. So such institutions are expressions of globalization. They are western companies with western investment situated in the non-western world run by western leadership or western shaped leadership and marketing their products in the country or religion they wish to serve. This may be the reality but the promotional literature talks about partnership.

International Christian Aid Agencies reflect such global institutions far more openly. This has several implications for mission. The Church in the non-western world becomes marginal to the activity of such Christian aid agencies. Aid agencies see themselves as called to address poverty and are committed to finding the best local partners for their work. More often than not churches are seen as not the best partners. An aid agency in Britain raises a majority of its financial support from churches many of which believe that they support partnership with local indigenous churches. In reality only 10% of the agencies support goes to projects where the local church is a key partner. The substantial funds that are commanded by aid agencies ensure that partnership relationships in mission today are shaped by their strategies and experiences.

The Church’s role in social transformation and witness in the public square draws little support and tends to be weak.

Mission and Indigenous systems of relationship

Traditional systems of Patronage dominated Indian culture in the 19th century and still have significant influence. They were recast and reinforced through the colonial period and have adapted to a modern democratic environment. Rulers, community leaders and religious leaders conform to a system of Patron- Client benefaction. The missionary was immediately identified as the patron who provided for his convert clients and protected them. The missionary also accepted his role possibly hoping to make it equitable.

There are instances in the mission to the Sathnamis of Central India where even American missionaries would act as protective patrons. They would use colonial political connections to protect new converts from harassment by traditional ruling castes.

The role of missionaries as teachers and medical workers led to a different perception of their social and political power from that of the colonial ruling class. It is clear that the missionary’s superior resources and race enabled the Christian converts from the most oppressed social groups to invest the missionary with the status of a powerful patron. There is not much evidence to suggest that the missionaries resisted it.

The continuation of such traditional dependent power relationships in the church decades after the missionaries have left India is partly the result of missionary silence and inaction in addressing the presence of traditional systems of patronage in the church.


In the last three decades there has been a significant growth of mission activity that focuses on mission as a display and experience of spiritual power through miraculous healing and exorcism. This is often tied to a historic conservative mission understanding which saw Indian religions and culture as distorted by Idolatry. They saw many popular religious practices as gross and demonic. They concluded that such practices dehumanized Indian society and called for rejection and replacement of Indian religions.

The language of power in mission today is not about social relationships in mission. It is a focus on the transcendental power of the Holy Spirit in mission. Pentecostal power language and themes shape much of protestant mission activity today in India even when such mission is done by historic denominations. The asymmetry of institutional and social relationships in mission is not addressed and has resulted in the growth of hegemonic patron client relationships in churches and institutions.

There is a disconnect between the promise of empowerment by the Holy Spirit for mission and the empowerment modeled by the Incarnate Christ.

In his incarnation Jesus situates divine power in a human person but removed from earthly power. Michel Gauchert describes it as a switch from the logic of superiority to the logic of identification. In his actions the universal ruler calls not for blood and revenge but love to build and sustain communities.

He did not march to victory in a triumphal procession as the roman emperor did but marched to the cross and to death. But God reversed that utter powerlessness through the resurrection to unleash the power that transform creation and ushers a new creation.

In small communities in India faithful witness to the Gospel by Christian mission activists working with poor and oppressed communities is discovering and demonstrating such transforming power for communities.