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The Missionary

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Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing
          My dear Redeemer's praise! 
The glories of my God and King, 
          The triumphs of his grace!

Jesus, the name that charms our fears, 
          That bids our sorrows cease- 
"Tis music in the sinner's ears, 
          "Tis life, and health, and peace.

               - Charles Wesley, Hymns, 1740

BeothukWhile the great expansion of Christianity was linked with the imperialism and colonialism of modern Europe, it was not always a shared experience. When missionaries did not accompany the imperial forces, a greed and appetite for resources prevailed. Materials were ruthlessly acquired through conquest and suppression and, in these instances, local peoples largely were killed, their culture and language vanishing from the face of the earth. We now may know simply their names, and many such cultures can only be studied by archeologists or physical anthropologists through fragments of surviving material culture.

When missionaries accompanied imperial and colonial forces, the story of conquest is quite different-although still painful and troubling. The Christian value of the dignity of all peoples, that all children, women and men are the image and likeness of God, stood in critical contrast to the appetites of imperialism. The missionary valued each person regardless of their personal, cultural or social status and stood between them and the single-minded task of those who were responsible for the imperial and colonial agenda.

Queen VictoriaMissionaries, religious and secular alike, enter a new society with an ultimate value that they wish to share, considering it essential to a better life. But this is by no means the only value they bring as, like every member of the the human family, they are cultural and social beings. The earliest Methodist missionaries came to Western Canada as English men and women shaped in the 19th century. They valued literacy and the civil forms of English society and it is largely through this prism that they understood the development of all societies, and it is this sense of development that links them with the great chapter of modernity that so deeply shaped colonialism and continues to fashion the modern world.

Canada, along with many liberal democratic societies, holds progress and things regarded as "modern" as the unspoken values upon which all other ultimate values are based. In the same way, the mission movement cannot be understood apart from the larger idea of modernization that captured European society in the 17th century, as it has been the foundation of new societies in North America. The chief instrument of modernization is universal education and literacy, and the only legitimate form of governance is democracy.

When missionaries came to Canada they were often understood by the state as part of the colonial administration and workers for modernization. We have yet to sort out the distinctions between the evangelical impulse of the mission movement and its work on behalf of this new "gospel" of modernity. While they are not harmonious in scope and extent, they became deeply entwined. The establishment of mission schools is a well known consequence of this troubled part of the history of mission work and the history of Canada.


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