The Bible in Irish memory (2) and contemporary mission

Miriam Moffitt has written two major books on 19th Century Protestant missions – mainly those in Connemara done by The Society for Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics (ICM).

soupers and jumpersThe first is Soupers and Jumpers: The Protestant Missions in Connemara 1848-1937 (2008)

ICMThe second is The Society for Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics 1849-1950 (2010)

They tell the remarkable, contentious, important and sometimes wild story of the what Desmond Bowen called the ‘Protestant Crusade’: full of larger than life characters like Alexander Dallas, riots, violence; public debates; incredible mobilisation of resources and people; the desperate tragedy of the Famine; courageous and passionate conviction; outrageous rhetoric and the increasing politicisation of religious identity throughout the century.

What follows are some observations and questions not a summary of her arguments and conclusions.

When we look back into the past, we often tend to assume that ‘today’ is normal and those guys back then sure did believe some strange stuff. This is what C S Lewis delightfully called Chronological Snobbery.

Of course in a few decades some folks yet to be born may well be thinking the same about us. I wonder what they will point out? Any suggestions?

In other words, it’s tempting to look at the work of ICM and other evangelical Protestant missionaries of those days wonder how could they have been so wildly over-confident and naive to think something like the following (and this is a very broad sketch full of generalisations – remember blog posts are discussion starters not carefully worded essays! I know these events are still contentious.)

Being taught to read the Bible alone will lead to the Catholic poor being set free from their ignorance and the control of their clergy in order to convert to true vital religion [conversion is generally a lot more complex than this]

The desperate tragedy of the Famine was an opportunity to give alleviate starvation and at the same time encourage the missionary development of Bible education and schooling among the Irish peasantry [such actions then, and even more in subsequent folk memory, opened up their missionary activity to the charge of Souperism – conversion through a combination of bribery and desperation. Moffitt wonders if social action had been less obviously and aggressively linked to missionary agendas would results have been much more positive in the long term?]

With enough missionary effort the vast majority of the Irish Catholic population will see the error of their ways and turn to biblical Christianity [this led to exaggerated claims of success that failed to stand up to scrutiny. Evangelism was done by negatively pointing to the errors of Rome]

These new converts will become loyal citizens of the British Empire whose greatness and moral strength is derived from its Christian foundation. Thus the fate of Ireland will be secured and solidified within the Empire in the face of the threat of Catholic Emancipation [a false hope – Emancipation led to disestablishment and ultimately to Irish independence]

If all of Ireland were Protestant, most of society’s ills would be healed. A quote from a Presbyterian Church in Ireland mission report from the late 19th Century said if “Ireland were Presbyterian, instead of Romanist, oh what an Ireland that would be!” [I wonder who would say this with such confidence today with our awareness of the brokenness and fallibility of religious institutions]

The imminent return of Christ and the conflict with the Antichrist (papal power) is unfolding now in the crisis facing Ireland and compels true Christians to urgent missionary zeal to save lost Roman Catholics, even in remote places like Achill Island (Edward Nangle). [Is it just my perception or is very little said about eschatology and the return of Christ these days? Maybe in response to such confident schemes such as Nangle’s that don’t seem to have panned out? Apparently he said that Christ would return by 2016 at the latest!!]

Social, political and cultural factors in mission are virtually irrelevant: once Catholics understand the truth of the gospel as revealed in the Bible they will willingly and automatically leave their culture, community, and identity behind to become Anglican Protestants. [Moffitt makes a couple of points here: The ICM seemed to have given little thought on how an Established Church with many landed gentry could assimilate and embrace thousands of new poor Catholic converts. The missionaries also seem to have largely discounted the impact of Protestant missions being funded from British sources. This was naive at best, arrogant at worst].

And here’s a final point which Moffitt makes that, if true, is the most telling one:

The ICM missionary campaign of the 19th century was more answering the religious, social, cultural and political needs of Protestants than the needs of Catholics. [In other words, while done out of a sincere religious desire to see Catholics saved from apostasy, the wider context of increasing threat to Protestant hegemony posed by a revitalised Catholic church and the rise of organised Catholic political consciousness meant that a subtext of Protestant mission was self-preservation.]

The story Moffitt tells, whether you agree with all the details or not, raises searching questions for anyone involved in contemporary mission [and I believe in the continuing legitimacy of Christian mission!]:

– what are our motives in mission? What domestic agendas might lie behind engagement in mission? Can these honestly be identified and acknowledged? 

– how can the temptation to exaggerate missionary success and significance to funders be restrained? What does integrity in mission look like?

– how can mission be done with ‘no strings attached’ for the blessing and benefit of the ‘recipient’ (both physical and spiritual)?

– has some hard thinking been done about the cultural context of mission and significant potential barriers to mission identified and action taken?

– do we think ‘we’ have all the truth and all the answers as we engage in mission? Is our vision of mission a one-way street? What is our ‘posture’ in mission? 

– has thought and prayer gone into how to ’embrace’ and welcome and disciple potential new believers within a community of faith?

– How can mission be ‘led’ by the good news of the gospel rather than attacking the beliefs of others? Where and when is there a need for confrontation in mission?

What do you think? Are these useful questions for a church or organisation to be thinking about in light of Irish history? What might you add or change?

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