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Empire, Mission, Ecumenism, and Human Rights: “Religious Liberty” in Egypt, 1919–1956

  • John Stuart


Historians identify many connections between human rights and religion, including the influence of religious organizations on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Protestant ecumenical movement and American Protestantism played important roles in this regard. Historical analysis has so far taken insufficient account of another contemporaneous phenomenon important in terms both of religion and of rights—the British Empire. Its authorities typically offered a “fair field” to Christian missionaries irrespective of their nationality or denomination. They might also offer protection to religious minorities. In Egypt the situation was complicated. An Islamic country and a vital part of Britain's “informal” empire in the Middle East, Egypt was also an important area of missionary activity. To Egyptian government and British imperial representatives alike missionaries asserted their right and that of Christian converts to “religious liberty.” Focusing in part on Anglican mission in Egypt, this article examines the complex interplay of empire and Anglo-American ecumenism in missionary assertion of religious freedom. It also shows how imperialism and debates about “religious liberty” in Egypt and the Middle East influenced both “universal” and Egyptian national ideas about freedom of religion up to 1956.



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1 Chatterjee, Nandini, The Making of Indian Secularism: Empire, Law and Christianity, 1830–1960 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 16.

2 For example, Traer, Robert, Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1991); van der Vyver, Johan D., “Religious Freedom and Proselytism: Ethical, Political and Legal Aspects,” The Ecumenical Review 50 (1998): 419429; Lerner, Natan, Religion, Beliefs, and International Human Rights (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2000); Witte, John Jr., “A Dickensian Era of Human Rights: An Update on Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective,” William and Mary Law Review 42 (2001): 707770.

3 Nurser, John, For All Peoples and All Nations: Christian Churches and Human Rights (Geneva: WCC, 2005).

4 Hackett, Rosalind I. J., “Revisiting Proselytization in the Twenty-first Century,” in Proselytization Revisited: Rights Talk, Free Markets and Culture Wars, ed. Hackett, Rosalind I. J. (London and Oakville, Conn.: Equinox, 2008), 13.

5 Witte, Jr., “A Dickensian Era,” 715.

6 Erdmann, Martin, Building the Kingdom of God on Earth: The Churches' Contribution to Marshal Public Support for World Order and Peace, 1919–1945 (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2005).

7 Moyn, Samuel, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 2010), 52.

8 Inboden, William, Religion and American Foreign Policy-1960: The Soul of Containment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

9 Koshy, Ninan, “The Ecumenical Understanding of Religious Liberty: The Contribution of the World Council of Churches,” Journal of Church and State 38 (1996): 137154.

10 Louis, Wm. Roger, Imperialism at Bay: The United States and the Decolonization of the British Empire, 1941–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) remains an important study in the ambiguity of American attitudes to British imperialism.

11 On those characteristics, Cox, Jeffrey, The British Missionary Enterprise since 1700 (New York: Routledge, 2008).

12 International Missionary Council, Addresses and Other Records: Report of the Jerusalem Meeting of the International Missionary Council, March 24th–April 8th, 1928: Volume VIII (London: Oxford University Press, 1928), 202.

13 On debate in Britain and on distinctions between religious liberty and religious equality, Thompson, Todd, “The Evangelical Alliance, Religious Liberty and the Evangelical Conscience in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” Journal of Religious History 33 (2009): 4965.

14 Greenlee, James G. and Johnston, Charles M., Good Citizens: British Missionaries and Imperial States, 1870–1918 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999), 79.

15 On India, Kim, Sebastian C. H., In Search of Identity: Debates on Religious Conversion in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1336.

16 On “informal empire,” Lynn, Martin, “British Policy, Trade and Informal Empire in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” in The Oxford History of the British Empire Vol. III: The Nineteenth Century, ed. Porter, Andrew (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 118120.

17 Sharkey, Heather J., American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008), 48148. Though focussing primarily on American Presbyterians, Sharkey also says much of interest about religious liberty in this work.

18 Sharkey, Heather J., “Empire and Muslim Conversion: Historical Reflections on Christian Missions in Egypt,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 16 (2005): 4360.

19 Green, Abigail, “The British Empire and the Jews: An Imperialism of Human Rights?,” Past & Present 199 (2008): 175205.

20 Parkinson, Charles O. H., Bills of Rights and Decolonization: The Emergence of Domestic Human Rights Instruments in Britain's Overseas Territories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 2150.

21 Stuart, John, British Missionaries and the End of Empire: East, Central, and Southern Africa, 1939–64 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2011).

22 Porter, Andrew, “Evangelicalism, Islam and Millennial Expectation in the Nineteenth Century,” in Converting Colonialism: Vision and Realities in Mission History, 1706–1914, ed. Robert, Dana L. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007), 6085.

23 Sedra, Paul D., “John Lieder and his Mission in Egypt: The Evangelical Ethos at Work among Nineteenth Century Copts,” Journal of Religious History 28 (2004): 219239.

24 Rev. Matthew Rhodes, “The Anglican Church in Egypt, 1936–56, and its Relationship with British Imperialism” (Ph.D. diss., University of Birmingham, 2005).

25 “Greats” was the study of Greek and Roman history, literature and philosophy.

26 Hewitt, Gordon, The Problems of Success: A History of the Church Missionary Society, 1910–42: Volume One (London: SCM, 1971), 308310.

27 Padwick, Constance E., Temple Gairdner of Cairo (London: SPCK, 1929), 269.

28 J. H. Oldham to A. J. Balfour, May 30, 1918, IMC papers, 26.16.02/2; Rev. G. T. Manley to Oldham, March 27, 1919, IMC papers, 26.16.02/1.

29 International Missionary Council, Minutes of the International Missionary Council, Lake Mohonk, New York, October 1–6, 1921 (London and New York: IMC, 1921), 1620.

30 Egypt Inter-Mission Council (EIC), Minutes of Egypt Inter-Mission Council (Cairo: EIC, 1922).

31 Ibid., 32–35.

32 Morrison, S. A., The Way of Partnership: With the CMS in Egypt and Palestine (London: CMS, 1936), 72.

33 Morrison, S. A., “Types of Muslim Thought,” Moslem World 15 (1925): 384.

34 Morrison, S. A., “New Developments in Moslem Lands,” Moslem World 18 (1928): 245.

35 Morrison, S. A., “The Theory and Practice of Evangelism with Special Reference to Egypt,” International Review of Missions 19 (1930): 553.

36 Ibrahim, Vivian, The Copts of Egypt: Challenges of Modernisation and Identity (London: Tauris, 2011), 105–12.

37 Having previously formed part of the see of Jerusalem, Egypt, with Sudan, became a distinct Anglican diocese in 1920.

38 Hewitt, Problems of Success, 309.

39 Carter, B. L., The Copts in Egyptian Politics (London: Croom Helm, 1986), 267268.

40 Morrison, S. A., “New Tendencies in Islamic Thought,” International Review of Missions 16 (1927): 199215.

41 Riggs, W., “The Moslem World as viewed from Mount Olivet,” Moslem World 18 (1928): 331335.

42 Yates, Timothy, Christian Mission in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 6569.

43 International Missionary Council, Addresses and Other Records, 202.

44 Hutchison, William R., Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 158177.

45 Hocking, William Ernest, The Spirit of World Politics, with Special Studies of the Far East (New York: Macmillan, 1932), 468.

46 S. A. Morrison to W. E. Hocking, March 26, 1930, W. E. Hocking papers, MS Am 2375 (4278), Houghton Library, Harvard University.

47 Morrison, annual report for 1930, April 1931, CMS papers, G3 E/P4, University of Birmingham Library.

48 Jackson, Eleanor M., Red Tape and the Gospel: A Study of the Significance of the Ecumenical Missionary Struggle of William Paton (1886–1943) (Birmingham: Phlogiston, 1980), 134138.

49 W. Paton to Sir P. Loraine, 2 May 1930, the National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO) FO141/626/2.

50 Hocking to Morrison, June 10, 1930, Hocking papers.

51 Cited in Mathews, Basil, Roads to the City of God: A World Outlook from Jerusalem (London: Edinburgh House, 1928), 4243.

52 Hocking, Spirit of World Politics, 8.

53 Hocking, William Ernest, “The Ethical Basis Underlying the Legal Right of Religious Liberty as Applied to Foreign Missions,” International Review of Missions 20 (1931): 493511.

54 Hocking, Spirit of World Politics, 492–499, 530–532.

55 Watson, Charles R., “Rethinking Missions,” International Review of Missions 21 (1932): 106118.

56 Morrison to Hocking, July 4, 1930, Hocking papers.

57 On this sentiment, Carter, B. L., “On Spreading the Gospel to Egyptians Sitting in Darkness: The Political Problem of Missionaries in Egypt in the 1930s,” Middle Eastern Studies 20 (1984): 1836.

58 Morrison to W. A. Smart, January 7, 1932, TNA: PRO FO 141/702/7.

59 Morrison, account of meeting with Ismail Sidky Pasha, February 20, 1932, TNA: PRO FO 141/702/8.

60 Foreign Office, note of meeting between Paton and Sir M. Lampson, February 6, 1934, TNA: PRO FO 141/565/1.

61 A. W. Keown-Boyd to Morrison, April 26, 1932, TNA: PRO FO141/702/8.

62 Most Rev. C. G. Lang to Lampson, February 27, 1936, TNA: PRO FO141/613/9.

63 Lord Cranborne to Paton, September 8; Paton to Cranborne, September 15, 1936, TNA: PRO FO141/613/9.

64 R. W. Campbell to Lampson, December 3, 1936, TNA: PRO FO141/613/9.

65 B. Fish to Secretary of State, March 10, 1936, United States Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic Papers, 1936: The Near East and Africa, Volume III (1936), 20–24,

66 Morrison, S. A., “Religious Liberty in Iraq,” Moslem World 25 (1935): 115128. On the case of Assyrian Christians, Pedersen, Susan, “Getting Out of Iraq—in 1932: The League of Nations and the Road to Normative Statehood,” American Historical Review 115 (2010): 9991000.

67 D. V. Kelly, minute, June 23, 1939, TNA: PRO FO371/23365. Following ratification of the Anglo-Egypt Treaty, Britain was represented in Egypt by an ambassador rather than a high commissioner.

68 Oldham, J. H. and others, The Churches Survey their Task: The Report of the Conference at Oxford, July 1937, on Church, Community, and State (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 184.

69 Warren, Heather A., Theologians of a New World Order: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realists, 1920–48 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 94115.

70 Of many biographies the most informative about this aspect of Dulles's career is Toulouse, Mark G., The Transformation of John Foster Dulles: From Prophet of Realism to Priest of Nationalism (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985).

71 Hollinger, David A., “The Realist-Pacifist Summit Meeting of March 1942 and the Political Reorientation of Ecumenical Protestantism in the United States,” Church History 79 (2010): 654–77.

72 A. L. Warnshuis and E. B. Strong, report of meeting on religious liberty, New York, January 26, 1933, IMC papers, 26.16.05/5.

73 Davis, Helen Clarkson Miller, ed., Some Aspects of Religious Liberty of Nationals in the Near East (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938). In 1934 the IMC in New York had produced a small number of stencilled copies of the report.

74 Morrison, S. A., “Muslim Lands,” in The Church and the State, ed. Grubb, Kenneth G. (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), 64161. Morrison was a delegate at Tambaram.

75 Erdmann, Building the Kingdom, 64–69.

76 Morrison to Paton, April 8, 1940, IMC papers, 26.16.04/4; The Times, October 25, 1939, 6.

77 Morrison to Paton, April 8, 1940, IMC papers, 26.16.04/4.

78 Morrison, “Memorandum on Religious Freedom and Status of Minorities,” May 1942, CMS papers, G3 ASW C5/1.

79 Joint Committee on Religious Liberty (JCRL), minutes, May 6, 1942, IMC papers, 26.16.05/11.

80 JCRL, minutes, October 2, 1942, IMC papers, 26.16.05/12.

81 JCRL papers, December 1942, Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (FCC) papers, record group 27, box 8, folder 20, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia.

82 Badeau later recounted that this feeling was already widespread among Americans in Egypt in 1936: Badeau, John S., The Middle East Remembered (Washington, D.C.: Middle East Institute, 1983), 62.

83 Godfried, Nathan, “Economic Development and Regionalism: United States Foreign Relations in the Middle East, 1942–45,” Journal of Contemporary History 22 (1987): 484486.

84 Jacobs, Matthew F., Imagining the Middle East: The Building of an American Foreign Policy, 1918–1967 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 3541. Badeau worked at the Office of War Information, 1943–1945.

85 LaFarge, John S.J., “A Survey of Proposals for Postwar Reconstruction: A Catholic View,” in Religion and the World Order, ed. Johnson, F. Ernest (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944), 75.

86 Henry P. Van Dusen, “A Survey of Proposals for Postwar Reconstruction: A Protestant View,” in Johnson, ed., Religion and the World Order, 59–64.

87 J. F. Dulles, memo, “Long Range Peace Objectives including an Analysis of the Roosevelt-Churchill Eight Point Declaration,” September 18, 1941, John Foster Dulles papers, box 20, Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University.

88 Dulles, memo on visit to England, June–July 1942, July 25, 1942, FCC papers, record group 18, box 31, folder 13.

89 Morrison to Paton, December 31, 1942, IMC papers, 26.16.04/4.

90 Morrison to Warnshuis, February 27, 1943, with enclosure, “Comments on Dr. Badeau's criticism of the Memorandum from Egypt,” IMC papers, 26.16.04/3.

91 Morrison to Paton, June 12, 1943, with enclosure, “Further Comments on Dr. Badeau's criticism of the Memorandum from Egypt,” IMC papers, 26.16.04/4.

92 J.W. Decker to Morrison, June 1, 1944, IMC papers, 26.16.06/2; Morrison to M. Searle Bates, July 9, 1944, 26.16.06/6.

93 Dulles and W. W. Van Kirk, memos on visit to England, June–July 1942, FCC papers, record group 18, box 31, folder 13.

94 The committee was short-lived. It also published pamphlets, such as Human Rights and Religious Freedom (1947) and Human Rights and the United Nations (1948).

95 Canon M. A. C. Warren to E. Ross, December 10, 1945, FCC papers, record group 8, box 10, folder 19.

96 Morrison to Sir R. Campbell, April 11, 1946, TNA: PRO FO141/1101; Morrison, notes on interview with Abdel Razzaq Sanhari Pasha, January 8, 1949, Conference of British Missionary Society (CBMS) papers, box 562, “Proselytism and Religious Liberty” file, School of Oriental and African Studies, London; unsigned, note on representations to Egyptian embassy, London, August 1948, CBMS papers, box 318.

97 Morrison to O. F. Nolde, June 23, 1948, FCC papers, record group 18, box 10, folder 1.

98 JCRL minutes, June 5, 1947, FCC papers, record group 18, box 67, folder 4.

99 Morrison to Rev. R. D. Rees, April 26, 1948, CBMS papers, box 318. Morrison expressed these views publicly in his short book, Religious Liberty in the Near East (London: World Dominion Press, 1948).

100 EIC minutes, June 17, 1946, CMS papers, G3 ASW C5/12B.

101 Parliamentary Debates, Lords, 5th ser. vol. 450 (1948), cols. 642, 637–645.

102 Briggs, H. W., “Rebus Sic Stantibus before the Security Council: The Anglo-Egyptian Question,” American Journal of International Law 43 (1949): 762769.

103 Morrison to Rees, June 18, 1948, CMS papers, AS 35/39 G2/E1.

104 CMS, memo, “The Society's Policy in the Near and Middle East,” November 1948, CMS papers, G3 ASW C5/1.

105 Morrison to Rev. C. S. Milford, June 8, 1950, CMS papers, AS 35/39 G2/E1.

106 Rev. S. H. Dixon to Rev. A. D. Moore, June 13, 1947, CBMS papers, box 322, “US Committee on Work among Muslims, Correspondence, 1944–52” file.

107 Warren to R. C. Mackie, October 11, 1951, CMS papers, AS35/39 G2/E1.

108 Morrison, memo, “Proselytism and the Near East,” April 1954, CBMS papers, box 562, “Proselytism and Religious Liberty” file.

109 Nurser, For All Peoples, 82–83; Inboden, Religion and American Foreign Policy, 45–46.

110 Canon G. W. Broomfield to Warren, December 18, 1944, CBMS papers, box 568, “Religious Liberty 1943–49” file.

111 Robert, Dana L., “The First Globalization: The Internationalization of the Protestant Missionary Movement between the Wars,” in Interpreting Global Christianity: Local Processes and Global Identities, eds. Kalu, Ogbu and Low, Alaine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008), 93130.

112 Paton to J. P. Chamberlain, May 4, 1931, IMC papers, 26.16.07/2.

113 Paton, William, “Christian Missions and Religious Liberty,” International Review of Missions 23 (1934): 496.

114 Morrison to Hocking, March 6, 1929, Hocking Papers.

115 Rt. Rev. G. F. Allen to Milford, August 28,1951, CMS papers, AS35/39 G2/E1.

116 Rhodes, “Anglican Church in Egypt,” 78–80.

117 CMS, Near and Middle East conference, notes, September 22, 1942, CMS papers, G3 ASW C5/1.

118 Smart, note on correspondence with Ali Maher Pasha, April 1, 1936, TNA: PRO FO141/613/9.

119 Paton, “Christian Missions and Religious Liberty,” 488, 494.

120 Morrison, annual letter for 1948-49, July 18, 1949, CMS papers, G3 AL 1935–49.

121 Sharkey, Heather J., “Muslim Apostasy, Christian Conversion, and Religious Freedom in Egypt: A Study of American Missionaries, Western Imperialism, and Human Rights Agendas,” in Proselytization Revisited, 148149.

122 On the variety of influences, including religious, Moyn, Last Utopia, 44–83. On the shortcomings of the declaration, Simpson, A. W. Brian, Human Rights and the End of Empire: Britain and the Genesis of the European Convention (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1011.

123 Burke, Roland, Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 145.

124 Hollinger, David A., “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity,” Journal of American History 98 (2011): 25. The World Evangelical Fellowship, founded in 1951, pursued a distinctive religious liberties agenda.

125 Jackson, Red Tape and the Gospel, 130.

126 Morrison, “New Developments in Muslim Lands,” 237–238.

127 Rev. Matthew Rhodes, “Anglican Mission: Egypt, A Case Study,” Henry Martyn Seminar paper, May 15, 2003, Westminster College Cambridge, 9–10,

I am grateful to the British Academy for a Small Grant award that helped facilitate research for this article. I thank also the anonymous reviewers for Church History for their comments.


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