“I’m not making missionaries heroes,” said Richard H. Elphick, a historian at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and the author of “The Equality of Believers,” a book about Protestant missionaries in South Africa. “Missionaries and other white Christians were alarmed by the idea that the equality of all people before God means they should be equal in public life. But the equality of believers is an idea they dropped into South Africa. And it was constantly reinforced in the schools. And that made it a dangerous idea.”
Olufemi Taiwo offered a similarly nuanced endorsement, and he did so from two perspectives: as the product of a mission education in his native Nigeria and as a Cornell University professor with expertise in African studies.
“Under colonialism, there’s a tension between the missions and the colonial authorities,” said Dr. Taiwo, author of the 2010 book “How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa.” “There was a missionary idea that black people could be modern. And most churches cannot come out and say some people are not human. So you might have a patronizing attitude, but if you don’t think Africans can benefit from education, why would you set up schools?”