Evangelism or Colonization? Lingering Questions After Missionary John Allen Chau’s Death
The death of American missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of indigenous Sentinelese people has spurred quite a bit of debate.

The death of American missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of indigenous Sentinelese people has spurred quite a bit of debate.

The death of American missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of indigenous Sentinelese people has spurred quite a bit of debate. Some blame Chau for his own demise, pointing to the tribe’s desire to be left alone and his disregard of Indian laws restricting visitation to the island. Meanwhile, a few others regard him as a martyr for his faith. Alongside these comments, larger questions are being raised about the ethics of missionary work. To understand the reasons behind these critiques, it’s vital to learn about the history of missions and how they’ve influenced cultures around the world.

A Brief Overview of Christian Missions

The Encyclopedia Britannica places the beginnings of Christian missionary work during the first century C.E. Paul of Tarsus and his fellow believers managed to spread the fledgling faith outside of Judea into Asia Minor, southern Greece, and then ancient Rome. Eventually, Christian missionaries reached some areas of Europe such as the British Isles, Holland, and Germany. Meanwhile, rulers such as Charlemagne imposed the faith upon their conquered populations. Over the next few centuries, European expeditions backed by both monarchs and the Roman church attempted to expand the reach of their faiths and empires.

Missionary Work’s Dark History in Canada

Emory University’s ScholarBlogs reveals that the “white man’s burden” concept focused on colonialist advancement by “civilization, commerce, and Christianity.” Thus, religion became a tool by which European morals were forced upon native populations while promoting the exploitation of lands, resources, and peoples throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

The Canadian Encyclopedia refers to early Christian missions among Canadian Indigenous peoples as an “ostensible motive for European occupation.” Facing History and Ourselves cites Indian residential schools as a salient example of how First Nations civilizations were impacted in horrific ways. History reveals that these government-funded church-run institutions sought to replace Indigenous children’s cultures with a “civilized” Western version. Children at the residential schools were forbidden to speak their original languages or engage in their native cultural and religious traditions.

Understanding Chau’s Motives

One telling detail about John Allen Chau’s motives may come from his own journal. A CNN article published on November 23 revealed that he questioned whether North Sentinel Island was “Satan’s last stronghold.” Chau may have believed that he should obey what many Christians call “the Great Commission,” or the act of spreading Jesus’s teachings and making disciples. Yet many sources, including ABC News and The Root, report that Chau’s explicit purpose was to convert the Sentinelese islanders.

Several Protestant evangelical sects consider the Great Commission as an imperative that every Christian must follow, but modern thinkers wrestle with deeper questions about the meaning of this directive. Patheos columnist Paul Louis Metzger opined that modern missionaries must avoid colonizing by educating individuals instead of moralizing and oppressing them. Saba Imtiaz also describes how some progressive Christian denominations emphasize humanitarian aid rather than proselyting in a March 2018 article for The Atlantic.

Still others argue that Christian missions and their colonialist histories cannot be separated from each other. Splinter NewsLuna Malbroux discusses why many black individuals are abandoning Christianity for traditional African religions, declaring that patriarchy, misogyny, and white supremacy are still evident in Christian cultures. Others point to modern-day societal impacts, such as American pastor Scott Lively’s influence on Ugandan laws prohibiting same-sex love.

Serious Questions and Important Lessons

In the past, the desire to Christianize native peoples led to staggering atrocities and abuses. Thanks to Christian missions’ linked history with colonial occupation, people are questioning whether missionary work has an appropriate place in our modern world. If nothing else, John Allen Chau’s death can impart important lessons about discretion, respect, and understanding the difference between sharing one’s faith and significantly transforming or obliterating other cultures.


Younger LDS Members Become Ordained as Missionaries
Mormon holding Bible

The LDS Church is allowing younger members to serve as full time missionaries

On Saturday, October 6, 2012, President Thomas Monson, the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons, announced that effective immediately church policy regarding the age of missionaries had changed. Men can now become ordained missionaries at the age of 18, rather than 19, and women can be 19, rather than 21. Currently, the church has over 58,000 missionaries worldwide, and this surprising move will greatly increase those called upon to serve.

While this age change isn’t mandatory, it does open the door for those of a younger age to receive consideration from local authorities for ordination that wasn’t available to them before. Like the Universal Life Church, the Mormons encourage their members to take an active role in sharing their faith and ministering to others.

Since 1830, when the church was first organized, the Mormons have had a strong presence in Canada. In fact, converts to the church as early as October of 1830 began introducing the church’s teachings to their families and friends in Canadian cities even without being ordained missionaries. During the winter of 1829, Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery visited Canada while attempting to secure financial backing for the publication of the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.

Joseph Smith, Sr. and his son, Don Carlos Smith, were the first official missionaries to preach outside the United States. They were the father and brother of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, Jr. They arrived in Canada in September of 1830 and visited the villages that lay north of the St. Lawrence River, but Joseph Smith, Jr. also visited and preached in the upper Canadian area with Sidney Rigdon in October of 1833.

Missionary efforts were rewarded, and by 1850, about 2,500 Canada residents had joined the LDS Church. Most of them came from the Ontario area. Although a majority migrated to the United States, in 1887, the current LDS President, John Taylor, sent Charles Card to the northwest territories of Canada. The result was the organization of the Alberta Stake on June 9, 1895, the first stake established outside of the U.S.

Mormon pioneers continued to move into Canada and by 1913, there were so many Mormon Canadian residents that the church began construction of a temple in Cardston. The Cardston temple was dedicated in 1924 and became the first temple to be located outside of the U.S.

Today, the Mormon church has over 182,415 members in Canada, with several belonging to the Universal Life Church as well. This major change will affect those members’ lives in a variety of ways. While the change will prove less disruptive to the educational pursuits of men and encourage more young men to become ordained missionaries, the larger impact comes for women.

Young women will now find themselves on an even footing and given the opportunity to become knowledgeable and stronger in their faith before entering marriage and motherhood. In addition, the stigma attached to unmarried women pursuing an education will dissolve.