Owen White and J.P. Daughton (eds.), In God’s Empire: French Missionaries and the Modern World, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2012.

Owen White and J.P. Daughton (eds.), In God’s Empire: French Missionaries and the Modern World, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2012.  £45.00, ISBN 978-0-19-539644-7 (hardback), pp. 324

Reviewed by: Kathleen Vongsathorn, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, August 2013

In God’s Empire offers a collection of thirteen essays discussing the role of French missionaries across the modern world, from the time of the French Revolution to global decolonisation.  The volume is divided into geographical sections, covering territories within and outside of the French Empire in the Atlantic World, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Oceania.  Its overarching goal, as laid out in the introduction, is to explore the ways in which French missionaries interacted with European and indigenous populations and thus influenced relationships between France and the rest of the world.

In so doing, the volume makes an important contribution not only to mission history, but also to imperial history.  The book is very much a political history of mission, with many of its chapters reading as an exposition and analysis of a series of events with wider ramifications for the political relationships between missionaries and government representatives, or among missionaries and their religious authorities.  With some exceptions, emphases on the day to day interactions between missionaries and local populations, on which the missions were built (or not), are relatively brief.

Yet the volume is no less powerful for these politico-religious rather than social preoccupations, demonstrating very ably the variety of roles that French missionaries played in the imperial project, acting in concert with and against colonial states and missionaries of other nationalities and religions.  Reacting to a dearth of critical historiography on French missions, the authors manage both to furnish entirely new narratives about French missionaries, and to counter-act existing narratives that portray French missionaries as servants of empire who were relatively uniform in their ideologies and endeavours.

One notable absence in this estimable collection of scholarship is that of women missionaries.  Only two of the book’s chapters discuss female religious with more than a passing mention, a reflection not of the proportional presence of women in the French missionary endeavour, but perhaps contributing to the political rather than social focus of the volume.  This is not to suggest that women missionaries were not politically important to mission.  In her chapter on the Souers de Saint-Joseph de l’Apparition, Julia Clancy-Smith demonstrates that the welfare work of women religious, in this instance their nursing efforts in the face of a cholera epidemic, could go as far as, if not further than the work of male missionaries in garnering the support of the pre-colonial government.  This support was essential not only as a prerequisite for entering the country, but also to the growth of the mission, which in cities relied upon the ruler granting properties for the development of mission schools and hospitals.  Sarah Curtis’ chapter on the Filles de Charité in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire also demonstrates the importance of women religious to the expansion of Catholic influence.  Women religious were granted access to homes, and consequently to women and children, and so worked quietly and often more successfully to spread Catholicism than did their male counterparts, who were restricted to the public sphere and could be a threat to existing power structures.

There were, of course, aspects of mission work that were exclusively male.  One chapter discusses Catholic mission militarism in Africa, inspired by the ideology of the Christian Crusader knight, which in the two cases highlighted was a mission reaction to the government’s perceived failure to support the mission’s expansion into hostile territories, and a result of frustrations over the perceived ineffectualness of non-militaristic humanitarian interventions into the slave trade.  In the face of republican French colonial opposition to Christian schooling, the public role of male missionaries could be crucial to the survival of mission influence, as demonstrated in a chapter on the response of French missionaries and local Catholics to the efforts of government officials to reduce their political influence in twentieth-century Syria and Lebanon.

Three chapters on Africa and Oceania deal further with the politics of mission work in the colonial world.  One deals with the internal politics of the Catholic Church in Senegal, where the Vatican’s desire to promote indigenous clergy to positions of authority clashed with the Spiritan missionaries’ colonially entrenched belief in the unsuitability of Africans for high positions, and resulting unwillingness to submit to the authority of a Senegalese priest appointed apostolic prefect.  Another deals with all-out political warfare between Spiritan missionaries and their Cameroonian catechists, and the French colonial government, which was wary of the damage that these missionaries could do to their image with the League of Nations, and of the influence that these Catholic missionaries had over the local population.  Alone in the volume, a further chapter follows the work of French Protestant missionaries, who replaced British missionaries in Madagascar and Oceania when French takeover and Catholic mission interests merged to threaten the survival of the Protestant church.

By contrast, the three chapters on the Americas deal with mission fields in which Catholicism had already been established, but which were deemed by modern missionaries to be insufficient or unorthodox.  In early nineteenth-century Louisiana, a handful of missionaries struggled to apply their preparation in French seminaries to the diverse local Catholic population.  Later in the century in Haiti, Breton missionaries tried to impose a medieval model of French Catholicism, to the increasing distaste of a Haitian bourgeoisie, who began to perceive that the path to material and intellectual progress could not be found with these missionaries, but rather in the more secular ideals of modern France.  In the slaveholding colonies of the Americas, secular French utopianism and Catholic ideologies merged in the promotion of utopian schemes for the moral rehabilitation of slaves.

In an area of less evangelical success, two chapters of the book focus on French missions to Asia.  In one of the few chapters focused specifically on the interrelationship between French missionaries and the local population, a chapter on north-east China examines the data that Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris missionaries collected in order to record and regulate adherence to religious behaviours such as the observance of sacraments.  A chapter on Vietnam discusses the uneasy relationship between the French colonial state and missionaries, with the demands of World War II aggravating tensions between the two parties and leading ultimately to the decline of French mission in Vietnam.

This volume marks a significant contribution to mission and imperial history.  It successfully integrates narratives from across the modern world, and presents interesting and varied analyses of French missionaries as they worked with and against European colonial states, the Vatican, other missionaries, and local populations.  Ultimately, it demonstrates that there is no unifying narrative describing the behaviour, beliefs, and effects of French missionaries, other than to say that each mission impacted the way that France engaged with or was perceived by the rest of the world.