On a Mission: American Missionaries Abroad
Take another look
Missionaries get mixed reviews in some of what you read – actually, they often get a “bad rap,” as one review remarks.
My grandfather would be a case in point, as he controversially decided to leave one mission society for another because the first required that he preach monogamy. He believed polygamy was necessary in the farming society of Sierra Leone at the time. However, he tried to bring industry to the country in order for monogamy to hold sway in the future. I came to see him and my grandmother as part of the colonialist enterprise in West Africa. But as I got older, I realized that Grandfather showed a rather surprising cultural sensitivity in his work. I also learned that many Africans are grateful to the Christian missionaries who risked their lives in order to bring their message to the continent.
I’ve tried here to find some books (and a movie) that alone or in combination give a nuanced view of missionaries’ lives and work.
Joshua's Bible by Shelly Leanne
In this novel, a young Black American minister is sent to South Africa in the 1930’s to serve as a missionary among the Xhosa. Ironically, he is at first considered an “Honorary White.” But after he falls in love with and marries a Xhosa woman, he sees that he is called to commit himself fully to the struggle against apartheid.
Black Livingstone: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-century Congo
by Pagan Kennedy
Kennedy tells the story of William Henry Sheppard, who was a Black Presbyterian missionary in the Congo from 1890 to 1910. His lectures back in the US during that period earned him the nickname “Black Livingstone.” Sheppard faced hippos, disease, and many other threats, and helped expose the cruelties of the Belgian colonial system of the time. He was also a flawed man who succumbed to temptation, and he was recalled to the US by his church.
The Other Side of Heaven
This movie is based on a book by John Groberg, who was sent to Tonga as a 19-year-old Latter Day Saints missionary in the fifties. Groberg faced all sorts of dangers, as well as cultural misunderstandings and emotional challenges. The movie is a love story, as Groberg had left his fiancée behind, and is also said to be uplifting and positive in its portrayal of a young man of faith.
The Shark God: Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacific
by Charles Montgomery
Montgomery is the great-grandson of a missionary, the daring Anglican Bishop of Tasmania. In this adventure, he decides to follow in his ancestor’s footsteps, discovering that the local Melanesian people have since syncretized Christianity with their local “custom” beliefs, or continued to hold those beliefs alone. In the dramatic climax, he reaches an island in crisis, where a new cult may make all the difference. (I have written about this book before.)
On the Road to Heaven: An Autobiographical Novel by Coke Newell
The publisher characterizes this novel as “an LSD to LDS pilgrimage.” In this Kerouac tribute, the narrator (like the author?) is a hippie who has a revelation while on acid that shows him that the Book of Mormon is true. He then leaves his girlfriend (who has also found faith) behind and is sent to the mission field in Colombia, where he has further adventures. Newell remains a believing Mormon, and was a long-time media-relations officer for his Church.
The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver, who is from Eastern Kentucky, spent time as a child in the Congo, where her father worked as a physician. As a grown writer, she struggled to make sense of this experience, as well as of European/American intervention in the Congo. Kingsolver’s parents were not missionaries, and she emphasizes in her preface that they were “different in every way” from the parents in the book. The father in the book is a harsh, bull-headed Baptist preacher who insists on taking his family to Africa despite the fact that his own church finds him unsuited to missionary work. The result is a tragedy, in which the private story of the family parallels the political story of the Congo, and in which Kingsolver, as she says, is “exploring the great, shifting terrain between righteousness and what’s right.”
City of Tranquil Light: A Novel by Bo Caldwell
According to Pippa Lee, a reviewer on Amazon, Caldwell wrote this novel partly because of the “bad rap missionaries get in fiction.” Caldwell’s grandparents were missionaries in China, and this is an imagining of their story. The protagonists are a young Mennonite couple who go to China to provide health care and food. The story takes place in the beginning of the 20th century, after the end of a two-thousand-year-old dynasty and the descent into civil war and famine. The couple remains for the long term, their faith deepening as they overcome severe trials and come to identify with their Chinese neighbors.
Photo credit: gbaku
Vaughn H. was a Religion major. She works at Half Moon Bay Library and on the Bookmobile.