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The Evangelism or Social Action Question—A View from Late 19th Century Paraguay

One perennial question for Christians when it comes to a church’s local outreach or missions is the relative priority that should be given to evangelism and to social action. I am sorry to present this dichotomy, because many theologians have rightly spoken out against any polarization of these two tasks. The gospel news of Christ’s incarnation and work on the cross speaks so directly to how people should live, and anticipates so enthusiastically the new heavens and earth, that there is no separating these two things. Protestant theologian René Padilla, for instance, has used the expression “integral mission” to hold these tasks inseparably together. He has argued that

A comprehensive mission corresponds to a comprehensive view of salvation. Salvation is wholeness. Salvation is total humanization. Salvation is eternal life—the life of the kingdom of God—life that begins here and now…and touches all aspects of man’s being.[1]

Therefore, in bringing the message of salvation, a church works for the embodiment, as well as the proclamation, the gospel. Nevertheless, a persistent separation of two tasks—declaration of the news of redemption and taking actions to shape society in anticipation of the kingdom of God—seems to crop up again and again.

I expect many of us are sympathetic with Padilla’s holistic description of Christian mission. However, I think part of the reason discussion in churches persists over the two tasks is because it is so hard to agree about the proper form of social action. While theological literature abounds here, I believe it is equally illuminating to use historical case study to probe this question. That such study is powerful was brought home to me this past spring. In a lecture on the history of 19th century Protestant mission during the time of the British empire, a professor mentioned the theme of “evangelism vs. social justice.” But, she then finished the sentence with a striking parenthetical remark, “…or, evangelism vs. civilization, as the debate was framed at the time.” The proposal of such a seemingly odd parallel puzzled me at the time. However, there are conceptual similarities between different centurys’ articulations of Christian mission and witness in society. Seeing the pitfalls in the “civilization” agenda of an earlier era is instructive for those who are looking to present a holistic gospel in mission today.

To examine another era’s notion of the wider implications of the gospel, I consider the obscure but fascinating case study of evangelical Anglican mission to late 19th century Paraguay. Our historical character who will illuminate the issue for us is a Scottish missionary to the Chaco region with a rather archaic name—Wilfrid Barbrooke Grubb (1865-1930). Though he would make repeated comments about giving priority to Christian teaching, Grubb viewed his work as bringing the advantages of a western-style civilization to the indigenous peoples of the Chaco region. The domineering and authoritarian aspects of his work are a dismay to read, especially in cases where his more sensational actions were highlighted as promotional material to appeal to citizens of the British empire. What is so striking to notice, in the face of this, is Grubb’s own sense of the logic and virtue of his project. Christianity was more than a verbal message—but his attempt at addressing the “social action” question gave full rein to his sense of cultural superiority and led to invasive action in Chaco societies.

In hearing this story, I hope we take the opportunity to re-look at ourselves. Grubb thought he was applying the widest meaning of the gospel, but we will sharply disagree with him on this. Nevertheless, in what ways are we like him? In what ways are thought patterns of his and ours similar? And, seeing how these similarities, in his life, led to domineering actions, how can we learn to avoid falling into the same mistakes ourselves?

W. Barbrooke Grubb worked for the South America Missionary Society (SAMS), an Anglican mission group independent of the Church’s formal board, the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Since he worked from the 1890s to the 1910s, he landed right in the midst of a high point of British imperialism. Following the vision of SAMS founder Allen Gardiner, who died attempting to evangelize the people of Tierra del Fuego in 1851, the Society focused its attention on the indigenous peoples of South America. Grubb helped realized this aim through exploring and introducing Christianity to the Chaco region, which spans western Paraguay, southeastern Bolivia, and northern Argentina. He was a tireless traveler and detailed ethnographer, writing several books and articles on the different linguistic groups of the area.

Grubb’s mission work relates to our topic because he frequently confronted the question of what his mission was—was it to teach the religious message of Christianity, or was it to bring something more than this? On the one hand, he did articulate that spreading Christian teaching was a foundational intention. In 1897, after being in the Chaco for seven years, he said

It may be years before we have any converts to the faith of Christ; this matter we leave to the Holy Spirit of God…It has pleased the Almighty to grant us some success already…we have told out a good deal of the Gospel message…[2]

Writing home to supporters two years later, he insisted that “the formation of a strong and pure Christian church is of course our first and chiefest aim.”[3] On another occasion, his stated goal was bringing “the simple, loving, liberal-minded, practical, and life-giving Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[4]

Not only did Grubb on these occasions articulate an interest in spreading Christian teaching, but he also specifically favored the formation of evangelists among the indigenous people. Because “the original idea of the Church was that all were responsible to…bear their own share in the upbuilding and expansion of the Kingdom,” Grubb thought people’s new faith would waver if they were merely asked to attend a “dull round of religious exercises.” Rather, they should be “[pushed] forward into active service for their Lord.”[5] During the last years of his life, Grubb wished for SAMS to set up a “Chaco Indian Evangelists’ Fund” as his legacy.[6]

Such were Grubb’s beliefs regarding Christian proclamation. However, these tasks far from all that he thought he was supposed to be doing. For people to become Christian, they were not simply to adopt teachings, but were rather to change their entire way of life. For Grubb, however, this meant to adopt a sedentary and single-family lifestyle focused on wage-earning through labor in the cattle ranching or sugarcane farming enterprises opening at the time. How did he come to such a conclusion, which seems manifestly culturally invasive and liable to be exploited by people seeking profit?

Grubb had two reasons for thinking this change was what evangelization required. The first reason was pragmatic. He thought people could not hear messages or attend churches if they were constantly relocating. Grubb described his predicament this way:

The Indians, living as they do in scattered communities over a great territory, cannot be adequately taught Christian principles unless they can be brought together in more manageable bodies. Once Indians have become Christians, their own desire, as well as their spiritual well-being, require their ingathering into separate communities wherein they can benefit by Christian fellowship, a new standard of social life, and adequate instruction for themselves and their children. They gradually abandon the old hunting life and take to steady occupations and acquisition of trade…[7]

In one optimistic picture of his progress by 1899, Grubb asked readers of the South America Missionary Magazine to envision the Chaco’s “past” in comparison with its “present.” While the people had formerly lived in “superstition,” he delightedly described the present, with its “Christian village, neat town square, a few neat cottages, and the houses of the missionaries.” Many were intending to become evangelists, and many “Indian men and women [would] teach their fellows, ‘Know the Lord.’”[8]

On inspecting Grubb’s work, an approving Anglican bishop noted that some objectors “wanted to keep secular and sacred matters in separate water-tight compartments.” The bishop, however,

saw the wisdom of Grubb’s industrial plan to provide the Indians with profitable employment and so wean them from their roving habits and, at the same time, create conditions for the more efficient education of the young and the presentation of the Gospel message.[9]

Another SAMS observer noted favorably that the plan of building cattle ranches fostered a “settled, orderly life without which it would be impossible for the Indian to put his faith into practice.”[10]

In Grubb’s mind, this imposition of a new lifestyle was not merely for efficient evangelism. Rather, it was also a necessary project to protect the indigenous groups from encroaching national governments and foreign traders eager to exploit the Chaco land. This problem was on his mind at the beginning of his career, as he said to his supporters in 1890:

If the Mission is to succeed in teaching and saving Indians, it must advance surely, boldly, and quickly. Other enterprises are advancing, and they come in armies in comparison with us. They have wealth, and stand at nothing…The majority by far would rather have the Indian’s room than his company; but it is well known that the mere presence of a missionary has a certain protective power on behalf of the Indian.[11]

Speaking at a New York missions conference ten years later, Grubb warned that following right on his heels was “emigration…now coming in a steadily advancing tide, and… of the very worst kind you can find anywhere.” Foreign traders paying with “the very worst gin” needed to be stopped, and the best way to do it was to urge moral Christian small businessmen to come in and establish cattle ranches and trade in “useful articles.”[12] Though the Paraguayan government used Grubb’s services in surveying work, they did not reserve land for the indigenous people, which Grubb lamented.[13] Until 1980, the only land specifically dedicated for indigenous people to live on was land the SAMS had purchased for a station along the Rio Verde.[14]

To Grubb, this project of “civilization” was a profoundly Christian project. “While we as a mission naturally devote our greatest energies to the moral and spiritual development of the people,” he said in 1908, “we are practical enough not to neglect such training as will fit these people to take their proper place in this world.” Opponents envisioned that preparing people to take their places in heaven should be the main work of mission. Grubb countered that

The Bible distinctly teaches is that the object of the Almighty is not only to save the unit [the individual] and replant him in a higher and perfect life, but that man should multiply and develop himself and this world in which God has placed him. Man has his work to do in time, as well as his future in eternity.[15]

What is striking here is how much one agrees with his abstract vision, but cannot believe one’s ears when you hear about how he thought the practical outworking was supposed to be done.

Here was someone strongly believing that the modern, “civilized” society of Western Europe and the US was coming into all the rest of the world. “The march of civilization and colonization is moving steadily on,” he reflected in 1914, “and we [missionaries] cannot hope to be left for long years unmolested.”[16] He believed it to be a largely beneficial process, but one which could go horribly wrong if immoral people or governments were holding the reins. Therefore, missionaries had to make sure this process went well for indigenous peoples.

This story illuminates for us the pitfalls that are open when we work out, as individuals and as churches, what the social implications of the gospel are and how we should foster them. One aspect particularly brought to light is the fact that theological thinking gets more precarious as we work through what the gospel’s implications in society at large would be. Grubb’s powerful position, both as a builder of knowledge on the geography and culture of the Chaco area and as a representative both of the British empire and the Paraguayan government, was very widely open to error because of his intentions to make substantial cultural change in a place that was not his own. However, even for us with perhaps smaller spheres of influence and less historically momentous roles, we have to be on the alert to see error in our visions of how to anticipate the coming kingdom in our work. Grubb serves as a reminder of how un-Christian values dominating a given time—in his case, celebration of the arrival of Western economic culture to the rest of the world—can be buried within the best of intentions.

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Morgan Crago

Morgan Crago

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