Review of Thorne’s “The Conversion of Englishmen and the Conversion of the World Inseparable”

[for HIST 518: Colonialism, WNMU, 8 May 2017]

I’ve chosen to review Susan Thorne’s essay, “’The Conversion of Englishmen and the Conversion of the World Inseparable’: Missionary Imperialism and the Language of Class in Early Industrial Britain” (1997). This essay addresses the complex question of how racism, classism, colonialism, and evangelism interacted in imperial Britain. Thorne makes multiple sound observations and provides extensive support for their arguments. However, Thorne’s primary assertion in this essay could take any of several forms, because it is obscured by overworked writing. The content itself is a multivariable and valuable analysis, and well worth the effort of reading the essay, though it’s unclear what Thorne’s main intentions were.

In the introduction, Thorne states an intention to focus “on the evangelical and missionary association of the heathen classes at ‘home’ with the heathen [indigenous] ‘races.’” This, at least, is true: each argument made in the essay relates back to this subject. Thorne continues by breaking their argument into four objectives, each of which is phrased as a question and represents an exploratory approach to supporting the relationship between racism and classism. First, Thorne questions when and why these groups were perceived as similar by British missionaries. The next questions ask what those perceived similarities were, and how they influenced prevailing public opinion of each group. Finally, Thorne asks how classist language was affected by the resulting political and social forces. These questions do not provide an outline of the essay, though. Rather, the essay is organized into sections that are roughly chronological. What Thorne’s introduction does accomplish, is setting up support for the importance of financing to evangelists and of evangelists to the ‘heathen’ classes, for whom they supplied nearly all the information about their world. Thorne also established that it was the shared religious paucity in both groups – the British working poor and the indigenous people encountered in the colonies – that provided the base analogy between the groups.

In the essay, Thorne’s primary assertion seems to be that the ‘heathen races’ and the impoverished working class became equated through the language used to promote colonialism in imperial Britain. At that time, ‘race’ and ‘class’ did not index the same concepts, but they were not fully distinct, either. While the idea Thorne suggests is intriguing and plausible, I did not find Thorne’s argument completely convincing. If in Thorne’s proposed context, race and class were viewed as being at least functionally indistinct, then proponents of home evangelism would not require a comparison of class to racial differences. Had class been equal to race in the minds of the British, there would be no need for the mission promoters to draw that analogy by bringing in the new argument of racial association; class circumstances would be sufficient and the two indexical representations should be more unified, more like synonyms than comparatives. The effectiveness of the analogy only indicates the evangelists’ willingness to denigrate both groups.

This is not to say race and class were not somehow equated; it is only that Thorne’s support for the suggestion is not sufficient. In fact, some points put forward in the article do not support Thorne’s conclusion at all. In the second part of the essay, Thorne describes the shift of evangelism from a form focused on given physical or material aid for impoverished families, to a form that focused on giving only spiritual ‘aid’ to those in need. Physical aid was popular when the working poor were valuable to the state as potential settlers. When the need for settlers reduced at the same time as an increase of the working poor population, that demographic became less valuable to the state; that was when those who could afford to provide aid began feeling that spiritual aid would be the best form to provide. What Thorne doesn’t address here is whether the requirement for the heathen class (the working poor) as potential settlers was even partially about race. I question whether the British would have felt the same need to overcome the indigenous populations with settlers, if the indigenous population – the heathen races – were not perceived to be of a different race. I also question the role of the ‘white man’s burden’ in this equation: how much of the need to send more settlers was justified in that way, and if any of it was, then would the difference between the race of the working poor and the race of the indigenous people not be more salient? There are many examinations by other authors of these exact questions, so I’m not sure why, when it’s so relevant, Thorne would have left them out.

The other side of that coin is the shift to a form of evangelism that attempted only to save the heathens’ souls, not their bodies. As political and social changes – which are fully examined by Thorne – caused a shift, too, in the geographic focus of evangelism, support for foreign missions increased while support for home missions decreased. One result of this shift was that the social and linguistic emphasis on the perceived, inherent inferiority of indigenous people. That alone seems likely to have supported an increase in racism over classism in British but it also would have strengthened the ‘dumb foreign races’ stereotype and increased social support for racism that way.

In the rhetoric of the foreign and home missionaries, there was a discourse over which flock was more deserving of assistance. Thorne provided ample discussion of that discourse, but I would suggest that Thorne’s last evidence offered in that section, a quote from a Reverend James Stephen, may contradict Thorne’s conclusion. Stephen said, “whatever varieties may be found amongst them [mankind] in colour, language, customs, and manners; the same gloomy features of inherent depravity, the same sad proofs of estrangement from God are visible in all.” I have not read the rest of Stephen’s work, but this quote offered as evidence seems to be saying that despite racial or ethnic differences, any non-Christian is ‘depraved.’ This is not an equation of class and race; it’s a support for evangelism to any denigrated social group, which (he says) are united only by their heathen natures. Thorne could, maybe, use that to make an argument for the similarities in racial and class discourses, but I don’t think it can be taken so far as a merging of cognitive or linguistic representations of the two categories. Rather, both devalued groups of people were treated with the same level of disdain and paternalism (though the specifics of their treatments varied).

Most of Thorne’s article seems to focus on the tensions between foreign and home missionaries and the ways they contrasted their target populations. Attempting to increase support for home missions, these evangelists worked to portray working poor as worse than foreign heathens; that is, more badly in need of spiritual salvation and, of course, more deserving of funding for that salvation. That approach backfired: “Foreign missionary activists… [argued] that even if British heathens were more degraded than their foreign counterparts, their degradation was the reward of their own perverse moral choice and thus neither susceptible to nor deserving of missionary redress… ‘Our own countrymen have the means of grace.’” What’s missing in Thorne’s use of this quote is what it means for the differentiation between race and class. Britain’s “own countrymen” could choose to avoid sin, but foreign heathens could not so choose: there was an inherent difference in their capabilities that made one group more in need and deserving of missionary aid. The implication that foreign heathens were inherently inferior suggests race as a salient difference in the speaker’s assessment of the two groups. Thus, the two groups were not united in the minds of missionaries in a way that surpassed differentiation by race.

Thorne’s concluding section is primarily focused on the historiography of their topic – something completely ignored in previous sections of the paper, which seems to function primarily as a justification for having written it. Here, Thorne introduces their suggestion “that the ideas about class that British colonizers brought with them to the Empire might already have been ‘raced,’ constructed on the basis of a social nomenclature whose primary referent was the colonial encounter.” To be blunt, I’m not sure how that would work in a linear chronology. Nor do I agree that their arguments support their conclusion that “class struggles generated [in the missionary movement] were effectively contained within the racialist parameters on which the Empire’s continuance was predicated.” Without knowing where or what exactly Thorne’s ‘racialist parameters’ delineate, it seems unlikely – even given the article’s many sound points – that class struggles in the imperial British homeland can be fully defined within the racism that underscored the colonialist drive.

Despite all my criticism of Thorne’s article, I do not consider the reading wasted. Clearly, Thorne is an expert in the subject area, and has committed to extensive research in support of their article. In fairness, Thorne is clearly more informed here than I am, and it could be that my poor review says more about me than it does about the article. Still, this article is written in a language so complex – or disorganized – that I didn’t fully see the argument Thorne was making until I mapped it out in a diagram. Sometimes it seems Thorne’s forest is lost for the trees: she presents supportive evidence in great detail but tends to lose the connection between the evidence and the main point – which is constantly implied, but conveys different meanings at each attempt to clarify it.

 

 

Reference

Thorne, Susan. “The Conversion of Englishmen and the Conversation of the World Inseparable: Missionary Imperialism and the Language of Class in Early Industrial Britain.” In Cooper, Frederick, and Ann Laura Stoler, eds. Tensions of empire: colonial cultures in a bourgeois world. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997.

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