Violating Missionary Culture

The Tyranny of Theory and the Ethics of Historical Research


Irving Hexham

© 1999



Deborah Lipstadt warns historians about the dangers of adopting fashionable theories like deconstruction without solidly grounding their work in an accurate representation of source materials [1994]. She makes a passionate plea for historical accuracy while demonstrating the real dangers that occur when people distort the facts. The techniques used by Holocaust deniers, who use history to propagate their views, are not isolated to rogue historians. The basic arguments used by the deniers are not as absurd as most decent people, who instinctively reject such claims, think. In fact, they are increasingly common in popular scholarship.

As Lipstadt points out "It is important to understand that the deniers do not work in a vacuum." [Lipstadt 1984:17]. Rather, holocaust "denial can be traced to an intellectual climate that has made its mark in the scholarly world during the past two decades. The deniers are plying their trade at a time when history seems to be up for grabs and attacks on the Western rationalist tradition have become commonplace." [Lipstadt 1994:17]. She continues: "This tendency can be traced, at least in part, to intellectual currents that began in the late 1960's. Various scholars began to assert that texts had no fixed meaning. The reader's interpretation, not the author's intention, determined meaning." [Lipstadt 1984:18]

The danger here is not that established scholars are likely to become converts to holocaust denial, although in places like France this is a clear possibility, rather it is the effect such techniques have on students. As Lipstadt observes: "The scholars who supported this deconstructionist approach were neither deniers themselves nor sympathetic to the deniers' attitudes; most had no trouble identifying Holocaust denial as disingenuous." But, "when students had to confront the issue. Far too many of them found it impossible to recognize Holocaust denial as a movement with no scholarly, intellectual, or rational validity" [Lipstadt 1984:18].

At the end of her work she warns again that some "historians are not crypto-deniers, but the results of their work are the same: the blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction and between persecuted and persecutor [Lipstadt 1994:215]. Further Lipstadt correctly observes that "If Holocaust denial has demonstrated anything, it is the fragility of memory, truth, reason, and history." She is right. As scholars it is our duty to defend history based upon the accurate and the objectivity of scholarship. No doubt some people will bristle at the suggestion that we ought to strive for objectivity. Such critics regard the discovery of bias as something totally new without realizing that the hermeneutics of suspicion existed long before Foucault or Deridda [Spencer 1874]


History and the deconstruction of Afrikaner Ideology

With Lipstad's warning in mind let us turn to the study of South Africa history. During the 1980's various writers used history to deconstruct the claims of Afrikaner Nationalism [Hexham 1981; du Toit and Giliomee 1983; du Toit 1983; Elphick and Giliomee 1988]. These works made an impact among Afrikaners because they exposed the inconsistencies of the historical claims used to legitimate the ideology of apartheid. This delegitimation was possible because these studies were based on the same historical sources as those used by Afrikaner Nationalists used to justify apartheid. By demonstrating that the sources themselves did not support Nationalist claims these authors struck a body blow at the intellectual edifice that maintained the self-confidence of Afrikaner Nationalist intellectuals.

At the same time other authors, such as Charles Villa-Vicencio and James Cochran, joined the fray. But, these latter writers were not trained historians. Rather they were theologians who used history as a tool in the "as a basis for ecclesial renewal" and to "understand the character of the church in South Africa and identify its social function" [Villa-Vicenciio 1988:1]. Worthy as these goals were these theologians appropriated historical evidence rather like fundamentalist Christians use proof texts from the Bible to support their arguments. Thus the historical record was forced into preconceived neo-Marxist ideological frameworks for the purpose of undermining support for apartheid. The problem with this approach was that it often distorted and misrepresented the source documents [Cf. Hexham 1989; 1993].

At this point, it is necessary to add that whenever one talks about the "distortion" or “misrepresentation” of sources it is important to recognize that everyone makes the occasional mistake. It is also true that in many cases legitimate questions of interpretation may arise when various scholars see the significance of the same piece of evidence differently. Therefore, what I am objecting to is not the occasional mistake, questionable usage, or issues of genuine interpretation. Rather, it is the systematic use or misuse of source texts to support a grand theory without regard to the context and clear intent of the original sources. Such practices ignore historical methods for the purpose of promoting an ideology [Himmelfarb 1987; Elton 1967 and 1991] The problem, of course, is that once these techniques are generally accepted the choice of ideology can change. Today they are used to promote democracy and tolerance. Tomorrow they may be used to promote totalitarianism and racism.


The Role of Missionaries in Conquest

Today, a scepter is haunting South African Mission history, that of fashionable postmodernism and pseudo-Marxism which uses historical sources to proof text ideological arguments. In Southern African studies, the beginning of this trend can be dated to the publication of Nosipho Majeke's The Role of Missionaries in Conquest [1952].David Chidester correctly describes the Majeke's book as a "formative work" which "had the immediate effect of transforming debate about the role of missionaries in southern Africa." He is also correct in suggesting that it "was to remain of signal importance to the history of mission research in South Africa and to the academic study of comparative religion in the region" [Chidester 1997:48]. Among the many authors who were clearly influenced by Majeke's work are James Cochrane [1987:1 & 13], Charles Villa-Vicencio [1988:59], Willem Saayman [Prozesky 1990:31-32]; Martin Prozesky [Prozesky 1990:123], and John and Jean Comaroff [1991:7]. All of these writers appear deeply impressed by the way Africans like Majeke, in Nürnberger's words, "see Christian missions as part of the evils of Western imperialism" [Prozesky 1990:151].

            The tone of this important work reflects a strong desire to delegitimize the missionary enterprise. Its thesis is summed up on the first page where the author writes:

Now it is one of the many falsifications of history to obscure the true nature of events behind sentimental phrases or catchwords. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries we hear much of the activities of the Evangelicals, the Humanitarians, the Philanthropists, the Emancipationists, those people who concerned themselves with the morals of the poor at home and the sufferings of the slaves abroad, who devoted their energies to the emancipation of the slates the "liberation of the Hottentots," the conversion of the heathen to Christianity and such like. There is no doubt that there were well meaning people who supported these humanitarian movements. But we would have a false perspective if we accepted these grandiloquent aims at their face value and assume that there was some mysterious milk of human kindness animating th hearts of the English. [Majeke 1952:1]


After invoking this hermeneutic of suspicion the reader is then led on to see that the true nature of the missionary movement lies in the recognition that "The missionaries came from a capitalist chisitan civilization that unblushingly found religious sanctions for inequality, as it does to this day, and whose ministers solemnly blessed its wars of aggression." [Majeke 1952:4] Thus, the whole missionary enterprise is deconstructed and we are shown its true nature as a tool of capitalism intent on oppressing Blacks.

This bad tempered tirade against the role of missionaries in Southern Africa gained credence because it was believed to be authored by a Black South African who was "writing back" against colonial domination. Lacking all scholarly references the author got away with academic murder by playing fast and loose with historical data for an ideological end. Nevertheless, this flawed work was taken very seriously because it was believed to reflect a genuinely Black viewpoint.

The truth is that "Nosipho Majeke" wasn't a Black at all. The name is a pseudonym for Dora Taylor. It is usually assumed that Taylor, who was the English wife of an economics lecturer at the University of Cape Town, represented a Marxist perspective on missions. The timing of the book and the similarity between the arguments presented and those of Afrikaner Nationalists raises the question whether or not it could have been produced, or at least influenced, by an agent of Verwoerd and the Nationalist Government. When I discussed the book with Maimie Corrigall, who was an active South African Communist prior to 1948, and later a leading figure in both the Liberal Party and Black Sash, she expressed her unease with the book and questioned whether the author had been misled by “friends.” According to Professor Johannes W. Raum, his father Professor Otto F. Raum also had doubts about the true authorship and intent of this book when it first appeared. These doubts support the view that the book might have a more complex history than is usually thought.

Whatever the truth of this matter, the whole exercise was, an elaborate propaganda hoax. To add authenticity to the book, which was actually published by Printing Services in Cape Town, the back cover contained a short note saying that it was "Published by SOCIETY OF YOUNG AFRICA, 40, 17th Avenue, Alexander Township, Johannesburg." No doubt if the real author had been known the book would have been thrown out as bombastic trash. But, through a clever deceptive ploy, the book, which was essentially a lie, became the intellectual catalyst for a whole generation of young scholars who in the 1980's and 1990's began using history to promote ideological goals. In themselves these goals, which centered on the destruction of apartheid and establishment of racial justice, were good. What I object to is the systematic distortion of evidence for the sake of an ideological cause.


The clever Comaroffs

The most influential representatives of the new ideological approach to South African history in general and mission history in particular are John and Jean Comaroff. These, sometimes brilliant, scholars, use the English language in a highly sophisticated and engaging manner that is unsurpassed in the literature. Consequently, their works contain many valuable insights. Nevertheless, the ways in which they abuse historical sources to construct brilliant theoretical superstructures seriously undermines the ultimate value of their recent work. Further, in the hands of other scholars with different ideological orientations these techniques threaten the values of racial justice the Comaroffs seek to promote.

The fact that an established scholar like Professor Wirz of the Humboldt University in Berlin finds the work of the Comaroffs stimulating is not surprising nor is there any danger that he is about to become a racist. The danger lies in the reaction of his students. Today between 80% and 90% of students at the Humbolt are former East Germans who were born and began their education during the communist regime of the German Democratic Republic. These are people who saw many of their relatives and parents loose their jobs following the reunification of Germany. They also witnessed the purging of excellent former East Germany academics from universities like the Humboldt and their replacement West German scholars many of whom the students consider “third rate.” Under such circumstances, we must question what lessons these and other students will learn from the techniques taught by people like the Comaroffs and whether they will use them to promote non-democratic causes.

Here it must be noted that while Michael Foucault was decidedly left in his political orientation his works are immensely popular among a growing number of European intellectuals who openly proclaim their commitment to fascism [Golsan 1998:227]. The fact that the Comaroffs base much of their work on Foucault ought to serve as a warning that unless it can be shown that they are scrupulously careful in their use of sources then the example they are setting could have very different consequences from those intended. Unfortunately, as will be show, the Comaroffs play fast and loose with their sources.

When Jean Comaroff's Body of Power: Spirit of Resistance [Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1985] appeared in 1985 it was a passionate tract solidly grounded in Marxist analysis [Cf. Comaroff 1985:4]. As such it was part of a commendable, if misguided, attempt to use an ideological interpretation of history to liberate Black South Africans. By the time volume one of Jean and John Comaroff's Of REVELATION and REVOLUTION: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa [1991], in 1991, Mandela had been released, the end of the apartheid era was in sight, and the Berlin Wall had fallen. Consequently, this latter work lacks the passion of the earlier study. Even more noticeable is the almost complete absence of references to Marx.

Volumes One and Two of Of REVELATION and REVOLUTION provide a good example of talented scholars who, once they move beyond their earlier commitment to social justice in South Africa, continue to have no qualms about forcing historical evidence to fit their grand theories. Thus their response to specific problems pointed out in reviews of Volume One was to say "On such things there seems very little point in commenting, just as, despite the temptation to do so, it is impossible to answer every criticism" [Comaroff and Comaroff 1997:424].

Fair enough, but a least one can expect that people learn from their mistakes. Therefore when a set of problems is pointed out in one book, they ought to be corrected in the next. But, this simple expedient seems beyond the Comaroff's ken because in Volume Two we find exactly the same problems in their use of source materials. Consider the way Moffat's description of the South African landscape is distorted in Volume One to fit their literary theory. The Comaroffs write:

The stylized narratives of these overland travels reveal an important dimension of the evangelical enterprise … The journey, retold in the indicative mood, framed the encounter, stressing the unreconstructed savagery of the land and its inhabitants" [Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:173].


Having prepared their readers for what follows they begin to examine missionary descriptions of the Karoo. This examination is prefaced with the comment:

Notwithstanding, its dryness in comparison to England, the country through which the missionaries passed was hardly a desert, a century later, in fact … Charles Ray, was to remark that even its thirstiest parts, the Kalahari, were 'misnamed Desert' [Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:174]


With this point established, they add:

Its extreme lack of fertility to the eyes of the evangelists was a metaphor made matter-of-fact … But it also evoked the long-standing symbolic contrasts between church-as-garden and world-as-wilderness… [Ibid.]


To prove their theory about the missionaries writing trope the Comaroff's provide the readers with the following quotation from the writing's of David Livingstone's father-in-law Robert Mofatt:

The Karoo country, which is the back ground of the colony, is … a parched and arid plain, stretching out to such an extent that the vast hills by which it is terminated, or rather which divide it from to her plains, are lost in the distance. The beds of numberless little rivers (in which water is rarely to be found) cross like veins in a thousand directions this enormous space … Excepting these. ... [n]owhere appear any signs of life, nor point on which the eye can dwell with pleasure. The compass of human sight is too small to take in the circumference of the whole-the soul must rest on the horrors of the wide spread desert.[Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:175]


To ensure that the reader understands their argument they add "This was a desert, in short, because it lacked definition, disconcerting because it defied surveillance."

All of this is very convincing until one reads Moffat's actual words and inserts the missing words represented by ellipses. Below the missing words have been added in bold type to complete Moffat's sentence. Compare these two versions of Moffat’s words:

Moffat's actual text:


The Karoo country, which is the back ground of the colony, is as Lichtenstein correctly describes it, a parched and arid plain, stretching out to such an extent that the vast hills by which it is terminated, or rather which divide it from other plains, are lost in the distance. The beds of numberless little rivers (in which water is rarely to be found) cross like veins in a thousand directions this enormous space. The course of them might in some places be clearly distinguished by the dark green of the mimosas spreading along their banks. Excepting these, as far as the eye can reach, no tree or shrub is visible. Nowhere appear any signs of life, nor point on which the eye can dwell with pleasure. The compass of human sight is too small to take in the circumference of the whole-the soul must rest on the horrors of the wide spread desert


[Moffat 1842:17. bold mine]


Moffat as cited by the Comaroffs:


The Karoo country, which is the back ground of the colony, is … a parched and arid plain, stretching out to such an extent that the vast hills by which it is terminated, or rather which divide it from to her plains, are lost in the distance. The beds of numberless little rivers (in which water is rarely to be found) cross like veins in a thousand directions this enormous space … Excepting these. ... [n]owhere appear any signs of life, nor point on which the eye can dwell with pleasure. The compass of human sight is too small to take in the circumference of the whole-the soul must rest on the horrors of the wide spread desert.


[Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:175]
























Then, after a few more descriptive comments, Moffat explains:

It is rare that rains to any extent or quantity fall in those regions. Extreme droughts continue for years together. The fountains are exceedingly few, precarious, and latterly many of these have been dried up altogether. The cause and consequences of the diminution of the rains will be noticed as the writer traverses the different fields which have come under his own immediate observation; and if his long experienced and inquiry on that and a variety of other subjects interest and scientific research, should in any degree throw additional light on doubtful points, he will consider his labour amply rewarded, but his theme is man. [Moffat 1842:17-18].


In other words, as Moffat makes clear in this later passage, Moffat was travelling through the Karoo after a particularly severe drought and his observations were intended to be reports of empirical fact. His description, no doubt, has literary overtones, but it is essentially descriptive of the Karoo as he saw it. This fact is ignored by the Comaroffs who, as illustrated, delete key passages from Moffat's account to make his words fit their theory. The Comaroffs also removed Moffat's reference to. Lichtenstein's independent testimony about the nature of the landscape. Presumably they did this because Lichtenstein was a German officer and not a missionary. Therefore, Moffat’s reference to Lichtenstein’s testimony undermines the Comaroffs' claim that Moffat's description was the result of missionary ideology and literary tropes.

With the publication of Volume Two things did not improve. For example, the Comaroffs write:

The pioneer generation of Protestant missionaries to Bechuanaland was born in an :age of anxious, ardent philanthropy" (Thompson 1854:5), an age in which reformers strove hard to press Africa's afflictions on the public awareness (RRI:115g). Their voices were visceral, their imagery organic (R. Moffat 1846:616):

Africa still lies in her blood. She wants … all the machinery we possess, for ameliorating her wretched condition. Shall we, with a remedy that may safely be applied, neglect to heal her wounds? Shall we, on whom the lamp of life shines, refuse to disperse her darkness?

This was the voice that would beckon the most legendary of all crusading doctors, David Livingstone, to the Tswana field. It echoed a tradition of Christian restorative rhetoric … [Comaroff and Comaroff 1997:324]


Anyone reading these words is bound to think that the passage, beginning "Africa still lies in her blood …", is a statement made by Robert Moffat or some other missionary that reflects a narrow evangelical vision. But, when Moffat's actual text is consulted the passage cited is from a book about the slave trade by Victorian agnostic adventurer, Sir Richard Burton. This type of subtle distortion allows the Comaroff's to scoff at missionary attitudes.

Another example is found in what the Comaroffs say about missionary attitudes to housing and health. The Comaroffs write:

“The houses are generally not very clean,” proclaimed Willoughby (1899:84-85), revealingly , in an LMS magazine for British youth. “After a year or two, creatures that the editor will not allow me to name become so numerous that even the thick-skinned natives have to clear out.” Although published at the end of the century, this account, with its heavy-handed humor, implied that venacular housing had always been this way; since time immemorial, Tswana dwellings had been the kind of places that only the “thick skinned” copuld bear. [Comaroff and Comaroff 1997:285].


To the Comaroffs, comments like this simply confirms that missionaries were obsessed with cleanliness. The truth is, as anyone who has lived in a traditional African house for any period of time knows, such homes quickly become infested with lice and numerous other equally disturbing insects [Barley 1983: 46, 52, 85; Cesara 1982:63-64]. To report such things does not mean that one cannot also recognize that at times these very same houses are clean or that some are clean and others dirty. But, the Comaroffs ignore this simple observation because they have a theory about tropes and the use of rhetoric in missionary writings. Clearly, they have never experienced poverty or the tribulation of living a traditional African lifestyle for an extended period of time.

Instead of attempting to understand the missionaries and the situation they faced the Comaroffs reduce missionary accounts to sophisticated literary constructions that deny the possibility that particular writers might be describing life as they actually saw or experienced it. Consider the following comments on a passage from Moffat’s Missionary Labours in South Africa. The Comaroffs write:

Robert Moffat (1842:399) went one better. Using a favorite literary device, he dammed Tlhaping housing by affecting a conversation with the (rival) Ngwaketse chief. In the passage, the two men appear to collude in condemning the 'barbarous manners,' the base building skills, and most of all, the lack of cleanliness of the Tswana to the south. [Comaroff and Comaroff 1997:285-286].


When read in context this is not what Moffat does or says. Moffat writes:

Having thus reached the metropolis of the Bauangketsi … I visited the town  …Their premises and houses were on a plan rather different from what I had before seen. The houses, though not larger than those of the Batlapis, were built with a greater regard to taste and comfort. The accuracy with which circles were formed, and perpendiculars raised, though guided only by the eye, was surprising. Their outer yards and house-floors were very clean, and smooth as paper. No dairy-maid in England could keep her wooden bowl cleaner and whiter than theirs were. In this respect they formed a perfect contrast to the Batlapis. Makaba [the local ruler] frequently referred to the barbarous manners of his southern neighbors, and asked me with an air of triumph, if the Batlapis ever washed a wooden bowl, or if ever they presented me with food which did not contain the mangled bodies of flies, in a dish which had had no better cleaning than the toungue of a dog. [1842:396, 398-399]


Clearly, on page 399 Moffat is not “affecting a conversation with the (rival) Nagwaketse chief,” Makaba, as a literary device [Comeroff and Comaroff 1997:285]. Moffat is reporting his own observations about housing in Makaba’s capital. Further, these comments about housing are quite distinct from the reference to “barbarous manners” which follow. When Moffat speaks about “barbarous manners” there is no indication in the text that he is “affecting a conversation.” Rather, he claims to be vividly describing the way a particular individual, the local ruler, spoke about his “southern neighbors.”

One may question whether Moffat's observations or account of these events is correct. But, to do so one needs more than literary theory. Further, it is quite unfair to claim that Moffat created an imaginary conversation about housing when, what he actually did was to discuss housing before informing his readers about the petty comments of a local ruler.

Anyone reading Moffat, who has lived in a small town or village, is immediately struck by the naturalness of these comments. Whether we like it or not neighbors often complain about each other in ways very similar to those reported by Moffat. For example in the 1960’s workers in the English town of Stalybridge made very similar comments about the habits of their neighbors in nearby Glossop [cf. Roberts 1971:44-50]. Similarly, when I lived at Madwaleni in the Transkei the local Bomvana were always complaining about the lack of civilized behavior among nearby Tembu and Fingos. Thus the Comaroffs succeed not in revealing the literary license of Moffat but in demonstrating their own positioned knowledge located in the homogeneity of middle America where such prejudices are no longer encountered.

            The Comaroffs are anxious to argue that” For the pioneer generation of evangelists, then, the very idea of healing was inseparable from that of cleansing" [Comaroff and Comaroff 1997:337]. Then they argue that the association created by the missionaries between cleanliness and health is absurd because:

In the early nineteenth century, British medicine was rudimentary, unsystematic, often unsure of itself; perhaps no more developed, and maybe less coherent, than its Tswana counterpart" [Comaroff and Comaroff 1997:328].

Once again, we are faced with a distortion of the truth. In contrast to modern medicine, the early nineteenth century was a dark age. Nevertheless, a revolution in public health had taken place in Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This revolution, which was based on the recognition of the importance of cleanliness, brought remarkable results in public health and life expectancy. [Conrad, Neve, Nutton, Porter and Wear 1995:406-410; Singer and Underwood 1962:196-232]. But, instead of placing missionary statements in their true historical context the Comaroff's make statements like:

Remember, too, that Livingstone (1961:129) also pronounced Tswant clothing "unhealthy," claiming that endemic diseases declined as decent Western apparel was put on … Livingstone's vision of the curative power of clothes was to be revisited, a century afterwards, by the founders of a hospital in his name at Molepolole in the Bechuanaland Protectorate. In a publication intended partly to raise funds "African Poverty" is portrayed as generic cause of disease. [Comaroff and Comaroff 1997:334].


The cynicism of this statement is astonishing. Only the privileged are so distanced from the reality of poverty that they can afford to scoff at others who are genuinely attempting to alleviate suffering. In fact, dirty clothing does cause scabies, impetigo and a host of other diseases. Consequently, even today, doctors working in rural areas of Africa make very similar observations and complaints [Cf. Jansen 1973:186-187].

A similar lack of empathy is found in the Comaroff's reaction to Robert Moffat's comments about the affect on health of the way African women carried their children on their backs. Moffat states that:

The child, as may be seen, [in the accompanying prints] is carried in a skin on the mother’s back, with its chest lying close to her person. When it requires to be removed from that position, it is often wet with perspiration; and from being thus exposed to cold wind, plumonary complaints are not unfrequently brought on [Moffat 1842:503].


To this observation, the Comaroff's sneer:

The warm closeness of an African mother's body did not protect or nurture. It was a source of sickness.

The management of mundane bodily functions in the name of order, health, and cleanliness was a major feature of European social engineering throughout the nineteenth century—both at home and abroad. [Comaroff and Comaroff 1997:336].


Actually, under the conditions described by Moffat, sickness is a likely outcome regardless of how romantic carrying a child around in this manner. But by calling a simple observation about one cause of childhood illness “social engineering” the Comaroffs deflect attention from the harsh realities of rural poverty to their own sophisticated theories.


Cynical gamesmanship

So far, a pattern of academic abuse with regard to evidence and social reality has been documented. Some people may be inclined to dismiss these criticisms as unimportant. Behind the criticisms lies a more important issue. This is the blurring moral judgements. A good example of the trivialization of serious moral issues is to be found when the Comaroffs argue that missionaries were “obsessed” with the activities of African rainmakers. Consider the following remarks:

“Rainmakers,” said Moffat [(1842:305), echoing many similar statements made by his brethren, “are our inverterate enemies, and uniformly oppose the introduction of Christianity among their countrymen to the utmost of their power.” The evangelists in fact became fairly obsessed with the problem--so much so that they regarded the eradication of the rites as a major measure of their success. [Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:208]


The Tswana they argue, “were to misunderstand this preoccupation with rainmaking” [ibid]. Further, “Not only did the Nonconformists fail to see the contradictions in their own actions, but they also lacked all grasp of the complexities of Tswana ontology” [Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:209]. All of this appears to make a very sophisticated argument against the missionaries based on the use of tropes and anthropological insights into African thought. Thus, the Comaroffs write “the argument over such issues as rainmaking became a confrontation between two cultures …” [Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:213]. So convincing is the flow of the narrative that one easily misses the following admission:

The fact that the color black and rhythmic sounds were important in rainmaking, and that bodily parts were used in potent medicinal concoctions, seems to have suggested to the Tswana that the foreigners intended to use their own capacities to usurp local ritual forces. [italics added, Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:212]


The question that the Comaroffs avoid is where did the “bodily parts” they admit rainmakers used come from? Actually, missionary arguments against rainmaking and related rituals of healing were not tropes at all. They were reactions to the ritual murder of small children who were killed to obtain body parts such as their hearts, intestines and testicles [Willoughby 1928:205-219. Note that until at least 1989 the South African Police Museum in Pretoria had an extensive exhibit with gory photographs of contemporary ritual murders that confirm Willoughby’s observations]. But, the Comaroff's are so busy pointing out the narrow-mindedness of the missionaries that they merely mention in passing, without even seeming to realize the import of their statement, that Tswana ritual medicine contained “bodily parts” [Comaroff and Comaroff 1991:212]. Willoughby, it should be noted, is one of the sources the Comaroffs use to build their argument against the missionaries. Yet he repeatedly points out that traditionally rainmaking involved ritual murder. The Comaroff's completely overlook Willoughby’s description of this aspect of rainmaking and offer no explanation for the source of the body parts which they appear to accept were used in these ritual [Cf. Comaroff and Comaforff 1991:158 & 212; and Willoughby 1928:211-212].

Recognizing that the use of body parts involved the ritual murder of young children puts the rejection of rainmakers and rainmaking rituals by the missionaries in a completely different light. The Comaroff's claim that rainmaking was rejected because of the missionaries embraced a Biblicist ideology which caused them to think in terms of Satan and human evil [Comaroff and Comarfoff 1991:158]. No doubt, many 19th century missionaries did think in these terms. But, to claim that this was the principal reason that they opposed such practices overlooks the reality of murder and the clear testimony of the missionaries themselves.

Another instance of apparent moral blindness occurs when the Comaroffs deconstruct the work of medical missionaries in Volume Two. The Comaroffs write:

The correlation drawn by the evangelists between indigenous "customs" (mekgwa) and ill-health went yet further, reaching deep into setswana. Some offered lurid accounts of diseases and deaths cause by such “loathsome and horrible” rites as circumcision. Others told of the killing of babies in the instance of twin births (Campbell 1822:2:206). It is not surprising, therefore, that clarion calls to the civilizing mission, calls for the replacement of old African ways with the ways of European modernity, should have rung with medical metaphors.


What is this passage supposed to mean? The Comaroffs appear to be totally oblivious to the moral implications of their sophisticated theories and word games. Are they denying that Campbell was correct when he claimed that twins were murdered when such deaths are very well documented and no secret among Africans in Southern Africa even today? [Hammond-Tooke 1974:214 and 296]. Or are they seriously suggesting that objecting to the murder of twins is simply a Western prejudice associated with “European modernity” and “medical metaphors”? Such moral ambiguity is highly disturbing particularly when it is present in conjunction with sophisticated interpretations of history that frequently distort historical data.



Mejeke, or rather Taylor's, apparently pro-Black The Role of Missionaries in Conquest [1952] appeared in the same year as Capt.J.J. McCord’s anti-Black South African Struggle [1952]. Curiously, both authors agreed that missionaries were the servants of an evil capitalism thus reflecting older Afrikaner Nationalist criticisms of missionaries made by men like like J.D. du Toit [1911] and his brother-in-law Willem Postma [1918]. The same anti-missionary rhetoric is found the work of the Afrikaner Nationalists who wrote 500 Years: A History of South Africa [Muller 1969], and the reactionary French historian Robert Lacour-Gayet [1977]. Against these writers Edgar Brookes [1924] Eric Walker [1964, first published 1928], and Rodney Davenport [1977], presented a very different vision of mission activity from a non-racial, liberal, perspective.

            Only in the 1980's did a growing number of radical Whites seriously begin to view missions and missionaries as agents of capitalist oppression. When they did, they too used arguments that are almost identical to those used by Afrikaner Nationalists. We need to ask hard questions about the adoption of this type of interpretation and its implications for scholarship. But, that would take another paper.

            All that can be done now is to note that a similar change has taken place in the interpretation, or reinterpretation, of the works of men like Michael Foucault, to whom writers like the Comaroffs' are heavily indebted. This reinterpretation involves the co-option of Foucault, and other writers like Antonio Gramsci, by neo-fascists in Europe [Golsan 1998:224-232, 244-258]. What this suggests is not that scholars like the Comaroffs are fascists. They are not. Rather it demonstrates the instability of theory.

            Relying on theory and theoretical frameworks without a solid grounding in accurate factual evidence is a two edged sword. Theory can be used and misused by many groups to promote diametrically opposed causes. Only empirical data and a careful sifting of sources will protect the reader against such misuse. This is the task facing us as serious historians. Only when we command the source material can we construct theories that are not open to endless interpretations and misuse by political extremists. Deborah Lipstadt rightly warns against the misuse of historical sources, clever theories, and a lack of moral vision. To ignore her warning is folly indeed. We may disagree with the religious vision of missionaries and their solutions to the human suffering they observed. But, we are not free to distort their words or trivialize the importance of the moral issues they raise. To do so is an act of intellectual violence that rapes the missionary record in the service of a new intellectual imperialism that in the end may turn out to promote the revival of fascism.



Arnold, William, Delafield, Oakfield; of, Fellowship in the East, London, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans,1854

Barley, Nigel, Adventures in a Mud Hut, New York, Vanguard Press, 1983

Cesara, Manda, Reflections of a Woman Anthropologist, London, Academic Press, 1982

Chidester, David, Tobler, Judy, and Wratten, Darrel, Christianity in South Africa: An Annotated Bibliography, Westport, Co9nnecticut, Greenwood Press, 1997.

Chochrane, James, Servants of Power: The role of English-speaking Churches 1903-1930, Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1987.

Comaroff, John and Jean, Of REVELATION and REVOLUTION: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa, Chicago, Chicago University Press, Volume One 1991; Volume Two, 1997.

Conrad, Lawrence, I, Neve, Michael, Vivian Nutton, Vivian, Porter, Roy, and Wear, Andrew The Western Medical Tradition, 800 BC to AD 1800, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995

Delius, Peter, The Land Belongs To Us, London, Heinemann, 1984

Davenport, T.H.R., South Africa: A Modern History, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1987, first published 1977

du Toit, André, "No Chosen People: The Myth of the Calvinist Origins of Afrikaner Nationalism and Racial Ideology," The American Historical Review, Vol. 88, No. 1, 1983, pp. 920-952;  Andre du Toit, André, and Giliomee, Herman, Afrikaner Political Thought: analysis and documents:, Cape Town, David Philip, 1983

du Toit, J.D. Totius: Versamelde Werke, Vol. 2, Kaapstad, Tafelberg, 1977

Elton, G.R., The Practice of History, 1967

Elton, G.R., Return to essentials: some reflections on the present state of historical study, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Elphick, Richard and Giliomee, Herman, The Shaping of South African Society, 1652-1840, Middletown, Conn., Wesleyan University Press, 1988

Groves, C.P., The Planting of Christianity in Africa, Vol. 1, London, Lutterworth. 1948.

Hammond-Tooke, W.D., ed., The Bantu-Speaking Peoples of Southern Africa, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

Hexham, Irving, The Irony of Apartheid, Lewiston, Edwin Mellen Press, 1981.

Hexham, Irving review of Trapped in Apartheid: A Socio-Theological History of the English-Speaking Churches, by Charles Villa-Vicencio, David Philip, Cape Town, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 1988. In International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, 1989, pp. 516-518.

Hexham, Irving, review of The Thousand Generation Covenant, by John Gerstner, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1991. Canadian Journal of African Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1993, pp. 489-503.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude, The New History and the Old, Cambridge, harvard University Press, 1987.

Lipstadt, Deborah, Denying the  Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, New York, Penguin, 1994

Jansen, G., The Doctor-Patient Relationship in an African Tribal Society, Assen, van Gorcum, 1973

Kiernan, J.P., "Themes and Trends in the Study of African Independent Churches", Religion in Africa, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1981

Kiernan, J.P,  Havens of Health in a Zulu City: The Production and Management of Therapeutic Power in Zionist Churches, Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, 1990

Lacour-Gayet, Robert,  A History of South Africa, Loncon, Cassell, 1977

Lukhaimane, Elias, Khelebeni, The Zion Christian Church of Ignatius (Engenas) Lekganyane, 1924‑2948: An African Experiment with Christianity, unpublished M.A. thesis, University of the North, Pietersburg, 1980

Majeke, Nosipho, alias Dora Taylor, The Role of Missionaries in Conquest, Johannesburg, Society of Young Africa, 1952

McCord, Capt. J.J., South African Struggle, Pretoria, de Bussy, 1952

Merensky, Mein Missionsleben in Transvaal, Hg., Ulrich van der Heyden, Berlin, Edition Ost, 1996, first published 1899

Moffat, Robert, Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa, London, John Snow, 1842

Muller, C.F.J., ed.,  500 Years: A History of South Africa, Pretoria, Academica, 1969

Okulis, Dr., Doppers, Bloemfontein, De Nationale Pers, 1918

Prozesky, Martin, ed., Christianity in South Africa, Bergvlei, South Africa, Southern Books, 1990

Roberts, Robert, The Classic Slum, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1971.

Singer, Charles and Underwood, E. Ashworth, A Short History of Medicine, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1962:196-232]

Spencer, Herbert, The Study of Sociology, London, Henry S. King, 1874.

Trümplemann, G.P.J., Maléo en Sekoekoeni, from the work of Th. Wangemann, translated by J.F.W. Grosskopf, Cape Town, Van Riebeeck-Vereniging, 1957

Villa-Vicencio. Trapped in Apartheid: A Socio-Theological History of the English-Speaking Churches, Cape Town, David Philip, 1988

Wlaker, Eric, A History of Southern Africa, London, Longmans, 1964, first published 1928.

Wangemann, Dr., Maléo und Sekukúni, Belin, Missionshauses, 1869

Warren, Max, The Missionary Movement from Britain in Modern History, London, SCM, 1965

Warren, Max, Social History and Christian Mission, London, SCM, 1967