CRITIC OF INDIAN MISSIONS
In the February 1808 issue of the Edinburgh Review, the Reverend Sydney Smith contributed to the emergent debate over the Christianization of India. That debate had been prompted by the decision of evangelicals, including prominent members of the Church of England, to encourage relaxation of East India Company regulations limiting missionary activity on the Indian sub-continent.
Smith (1771-1845), a clergyman of the Church of England, was suited to the formation of polite opinion. Known as a wit and as co-founder of the Edinburgh Review, he later became an eloquent proponent of Catholic Emancipation (affording civil liberties to Catholics).
Ironies in Smith's essay on "Indian Missions" derive from an implied comparison between the published words of the missionaries and the principles of Smith's "rational" Christianity. Smith drew extensively from the Periodical Accounts of the Baptist Missionary Society, offering quotations designed to exemplify the departure from reason that he took to be typical of Indian missionary sojourns.
Smith, who wrote during the Napoleonic Wars in the aftermath of the Vellore Mutiny of 1806, appealed to Britons' concerns regarding the menace of French power and the precarious loyalty of Indians. Smith's references to Baptist missionaries as "Anabaptists," however, reveal that something more than a playful irony was at work here: Smith had invoked the rhetoric of the Protestant Reformation, delivered a stinging social slur, and underscored his own anxiety to distance himself from radicalism.
Smith's rhetoric lives, but his point was not well taken. In 1813, Parliament revised the charter of the East India Company to grant legal recognition to Christian mission work in India. Proponents of Indian missions seem, meanwhile, to have drawn strength from Smith's characterization of Indian missionaries as "a nest of consecrated cobblers."
Smith's treatment of "Indian Missions" appears below in the version included in The Works of the Rev. Sydney Smith. Three Volumes Complete in One (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1845):
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Created: March 20, 2001 Updated: September 17, 2001