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Beyond Conversion and Syncretism

Beyond Conversion and Syncretism: Indigenous Encounters with Missionary Christianity, 1800-2000

David Lindenfeld
Miles Richardson
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Beyond Conversion and Syncretism
    Book Description:

    The globalization of Christianity, its spread and appeal to peoples of non- European origin, is by now a well-known phenomenon. Scholars increasingly realize the importance of natives rather than foreign missionaries in the process of evangelization. This volume contributes to the understanding of this process through case studies of encounters with Christianity from the perspectives of the indigenous peoples who converted. More importantly, by exploring overarching, general terms such as conversion and syncretism and by showing the variety of strategies and processes that actually take place, these studies lead to a more nuanced understanding of cross-cultural religious interactions in general-from acceptance to resistance-thus enriching the vocabulary of religious interaction. The contributors tackle these issues from a variety of disciplinary perspectives-history, anthropology, religious studies-and present a broad geographical spread of cases from China, Vietnam, Australia, India, South and West Africa, North and Central America, and the Caribbean.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-218-4
    Subjects: History, Anthropology, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction. Beyond Conversion and Syncretism
    (pp. 1-24)
    David Lindenfeld and Miles Richardson

    It takes no special discernment to recognize that vigorous interactions among heterogeneous religious traditions play an important role in today’s world. Such interactions can be seen as an inevitable by-product both of the accelerated movement of peoples and of the increasing volatility of information transfers that have taken place since the middle of the twentieth century. It should further come as no surprise that such cross-religious meetings can sometimes be emotionally charged and even incendiary, fuelling the violent clashes that make the headlines—although the positive gains in interreligious dialogue that arise from this same situation are less likely to...


    • 1 Conversion, Translation, and Life-History in Colonial Central India
      (pp. 27-50)
      Saurabh Dube

      This essay explores the interplay of conversion, translation, and life-history embedded within processes of evangelical entanglements between Euro-American missionaries and central-Indian peoples. It focuses on autobiographies and biographies of converts to Christianity in the Chhattisgarh region of central India, especially accounts written between the 1920s and the 1940s. Here, the exact ordinariness and the very details of these texts—mediated by procedures of vernacular translation—reveal the writings as key registers of evangelical entanglements

      In 1868 the Reverend Oscar Lohr of the German Evangelical Mission Society initiated evangelical work in Chhattisgarh. Over the next eight decades, six missionary organizations—the...

    • 2 Conversion at the Boundaries of Religion, Identity, and Politics in Pluricultural Guatemala
      (pp. 51-78)
      C. Mathews Samson

      Wading into the waters surrounding discourse in the social sciences and the humanities in regard to syncretism and conversion is a risky task. The terms as well as the frameworks surrounding them are multireferential, and taking seriously the “beyond” in the title of this volume also reveals something of a dual optic at work in the literature addressing syncretism in the Americas. To some degree the literature even tracks along geographic lines. Two recent edited volumes provide the outlines of a debate that is more complicated than can be fully addressed here. Nevertheless, inReinventing Religions, co-editors Sidney Greenfield and...

    • 3 Christian Soldiers, Christian Allies: Coercion and Conversion in Southern Africa and Northeastern America at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century
      (pp. 79-114)
      Elizabeth Elbourne

      The nature of the relationship between Christian missions and European imperialism is a question that has preoccupied not only critics of missions but also not a few historians of Christianity in the British empire—even if the history of Christianity clearly cannot be contained within the bounds either of the history of missions or of empire.¹ A critical point that emerges from much of this literature is that the relationship of missionary activity to empire surely varies by time and place, among other things according to the stage of imperial conquest and the degree of power available to colonized groups....

    • 4 Horton’s “Intellectualist Theory” of Conversion, Reflected on by a South Asianist
      (pp. 115-134)
      Richard Fox Young

      In these pages, I am arguing—counter-intuitively, some might think—that the “Intellectualist Theory,” a theory of conversion formulated by social anthropologist Robin Horton to account for the phenomenal growth of Christianity in Africa, is actually better at doing the very opposite: explaining why reconversion back to traditional religions could (or does) occur. As a South Asianist, I have concluded that grappling with Horton, an Africanist, opens up possibilities for testing his hypothesis in new and constructive ways. In being so persuaded, I have hardly any allies; with the exception of Richard Eaton, whose work on the Nagas of the...


    • 5 Santa Barbara Africana: Beyond Syncretism in Cuba
      (pp. 137-166)
      Joseph M. Murphy

      The notion of syncretism has a long history in the interpretation of the religions of the African diaspora. Pioneering ethnologists such as Raymundo Nina Rodriques in Brazil and Fernando Ortiz in Cuba were employing the term in the early decades of the twentieth century to account for the co-existence of African and Catholic elements in the spiritual lives of their fellow citizens of color.¹ In an influential paper of 1937 called “African Gods and Catholic Saints in New World Negro Belief,” American anthropologist Melville Herskovits highlighted one of the most striking of these religious juxtapositions. He wrote of the “tendency...

    • 6 Inculturation, Mission, and Dialogue in Vietnam: The Conference of Representatives of Four Religions
      (pp. 167-194)
      Anh Q. Tran

      Since the seventeenth century, Christianity has been an important part of Vietnamese religious scene¹ in conjunction with the three religions imported from China (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism) and the indigenous cults of Heaven and spirits. Between 1615 and 1870 Catholic Christianity established itself as a significant religion in Vietnam, both in Tonkin and Cochinchina.² It took root in the native soil despite being small and often persecuted. An important witness to the encounter of Christianity with the traditional Vietnamese religions during this era is the anonymousConference of Representatives of Four Religions (Hội Đồng Tứ Giáo Danh Sư), abbreviated as...

    • 7 Concentration of Spirituality: The Taiping and the Aladura Compared
      (pp. 195-212)
      David Lindenfeld

      The comparison of these two geographically and temporally disparate movements—the Taiping Rebellion in China in the mid nineteenth century, and the Aladura churches in West Africa and its diaspora in the twentieth—has a twofold purpose: 1) to draw attention to certain patterns of non-Western adaptations of Christianity that I believe are characteristic of a wide variety of cases; and 2) to suggest some ways of overcoming the distinction between the categories “Western” and “non-Western” themselves, a distinction which, I believe, continues to shape our thinking, if not always at a conscious level.¹ If one surveys the textbooks that...

    • 8 Acculturation and Gendered Conversion: Afro-American Catholic Women in New Orleans, 1726–1884
      (pp. 213-242)
      Sylvia Frey

      Ordinarily when we think of Christian missionaries we mean missionaries from North America or Europe who go to a non-Christian place somewhere on the globe. When we think of enslaved Christians in the United States South, we think of one or another of the evangelical Protestant denominations, which attracted the great majority of enslaved peoples.¹ I want to invert that perspective by putting my focus on the process by which a predominantly white “foreign” church represented by a vanguard of French nuns evangelized a black diasporic community. I have chosen New Orleans as the site of my study. A unique...

    • 9 Colonial Constructs and Cross-Cultural Interaction: Comparing Missionary/Indigenous Encounters in Northwestern America and Eastern Australia
      (pp. 243-298)
      Anne Keary

      In 1835, Samuel Parker and Marcus Whitman, both Presbyterian missionaries with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (A.B.C.F.M.), embarked on an expedition across the continent to the American Northwest in order to locate sites for missions to the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) and Salish (Flathead) peoples on the Columbia Plateau.¹ Although they knew little of the people they hoped to convert and nothing of their languages, they felt confident of evangelical success. Accompanied by traders from the American Fur Company, they arrived at the Green River “Rendezvous” in the Rocky Mountains in August. It was there that they encountered...

  8. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 299-306)
  9. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 307-310)
  10. Index
    (pp. 311-317)