Colonialism and Foreign Missions

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That foreign missions have been influenced by colonialism is a well-established fact. This was especially true in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when colonialism was at its peak and Mennonite foreign mission efforts were being established. Though this association came to have some negative consequences later, it also had some practical advantages. Missionary visas to the host countries were usually easy to obtain since political ties already existed between them and the sending colonial countries. Transportation was readily available, with missionaries sometimes riding on ships which facilitated trade between the two countries. Within the host country itself, compatriots (colonial administrators and missionaries) supported and assisted each other, though their foreign service was prompted by different motives.

In many instances foreign missions were established in African, Latin American, and Asian colonies when they still had a limited infrastructure. Missionaries played a substantial role in opening up the frontier. David Livingstone (1813-1873), for example, spent so much time surveying southern and central Africa that his fellow missionaries were not sure if he was one of them or if he was a government surveyor.

To sustain themselves in these remote locations, especially in the early years, missionaries had to construct their own buildings. Labor and materials were relatively cheap, resulting in the construction of some large, even palatial, buildings. These buildings for a combination of practical reasons, were grouped into what came to be known as compounds, which were not unlike the headquarters used by colonial administrators. Even the style of administration used by some missions was borrowed from colonial models.

The association between early missions and colonial governments also carried over into the area of church-state relationships. The church was expected to sanction the acts of the state. In return the state did some favors for the church. Missionaries worked closely with many governments in the establishment of schools and hospitals. Many officials in postcolonial governments of the late 20th century were educated in missionary schools. This has had both positive and negative consequences.

Occasionally, missionaries became economic opportunists. This led to coining of the phrase, "They (missionaries) came to do good and ended up doing well."

In 1852, the first foreign Mennonite missionary work was carried out in Indonesia, a Dutch colony, by churches in the Netherlands. Missions which emanated from the Mennonite churches in the United States and Canada were less affected by the colonial association, because they bad a tradition of separatist nonresistance, their governments were less involved in the overt colonialism of European countries, and because they did not become active in foreign mission until the early 20th century, when the colonial influence was subsiding. It is nevertheless apparent that North American Mennonite missions borrowed heavily from the models of earlier missionary work.

When colonialism came under severe criticism, particularly following World War II, missions were unavoidably implicated. The transition from colonial to home rule was difficult for missions, missionaries, and national churches. How were the leaders of these relatively young churches to take charge of a process which had been so heavily predicated on outside funding and leadership? At one stage some African churches called for a complete moratorium on outside funding and staffing. Eventually better understandings were arrived at. In the end it can be said that termination of the colonial era has furthered the establishment of indigenous churches. These churches are maturing and the former sending churches are increasingly working in a partner ship relationship with them.

See also Liberation TheologiesTheologies from the Two-Thirds WorldMission Schools


Juhnke, James C. A People of Mission: A History of General Conference Mennonite Overseas Missions. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1979: 26-27, 32-37, 53-54 (on mission compounds).

Author(s) Edgar Stoesz
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Stoesz, Edgar. "Colonialism and Foreign Missions." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 3 Dec 2022.

APA style

Stoesz, Edgar. (1989). Colonialism and Foreign Missions. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 3 December 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 168. All rights reserved.

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