Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 November 2006
For many years it was widely assumed that there was a close connection between the rapid expansion of European imperial power and acquisition of territory overseas during the nineteenth century, particularly in Asia and Africa, and the congruent Protestant Christian missionary project to save the ‘heathens’ of these places by persuading them to embrace the ‘redeeming’ message of the Gospels. Over the past several decades, however, the thesis that empire-building and Christian evangelizing were mutually supportive activities has come under sustained attack from a group of British historians led by Brian Stanley and Andrew Porter – to the point where the Stanley–Porter revisionist line now occupies centre-stage. This article shows that, contrary to the dominant consensus, the relationship between church – in the form of the missionary societies – and state – in the shape of the English East India Company, initially cool, gradually warmed as the two parties came to realize that they had a common interest in providing ‘civilizing’ Western education to the Indian elites. Indeed it provocatively suggests that the colonial state might well, in time, have given its endorsement and even its support to the spread of Christianity had not the Mutiny intervened in 1857. However the analysis of the benefits generated by this South Asian partnership finds, paradoxically, that it undermined the Company’s authority, and may well have deterred many Indians from converting to Christianity – which had come to be widely seen as a privileged and imperialist religion.
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