Christian Missionary as Colonial Institution in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”

Christian Missionary in Things Fall Apart by Chnua Achiba

The literal description of Igboland and the people in the community gives us the sense of a vibrant and cultural society in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart which is often denied and misrepresented by the western world. The social harmony and the political system helps us to know the truth about Igbo people which, the western world never intended to explore. On the other hand, Christian missionary has a spiritual responsibility that definitely has a different set of rules other than the primitive religion of Igbo people. Achebe’s insight on the settlement consciously pays much attention to the role of the Christian missionary in Africa. Initially by dismantling the family bondage and the social harmony, the missionaries make it easier to colonize the land successfully where establishment of school indicates its hegemonic agenda. Understanding non-European marginalization, an insight to orientalism and clash of civilization may guide the paper in a right direction. This research attempts a close observation of the attitude of the missionary, the interaction between both the colonizers and the missionary, the reaction of the local people, and different ideologies fueling the conflict within the native people and the missionaries. This work also intends to unfold the relationship between missionaries and the English colonizers to unmask, Christian missionaries work as a colonial enterprise wearing the mask of spirituality to understand the mind of the colonized and their cultural limitations by educating them in western value.       

 In this novel, the writer intends to give a solid idea of the native culture which has a very unique cultural identity apart from the stereotypical perception of colonizers. Despite having some culpability in their traditional practice, the society is very vibrant and colorful with conspicuous family relationship. If we deeply analyze the story, it will be easy to comprehend how the colonial power came to dethrone native authority in Umuofia with a limitless greed where Christian Missionary has enormously facilitated them. The narrative style is impeccable in presenting the incorporation in a tripartite structure. Part 1 is by far the longest, being two-thirds of the novel consisting of thirteen chapters. It succeeds in depicting Umuofia as a vibrant and sophisticated society, with its own complex culture and along with elaborate moral, ethical and religious codes. Secondly when we approach the last third of the novel, it becomes clear that Achebe recalls an era when a traditional African community is irreversibly transformed by the arrival of a ‘new God’. This structure successfully enables the reader to look back at this well-organized and structured pre-colonial religious society, and to contrast it to the epochal changes inflicted by the colonialists who had ‘brought a lunatic religion’ which is elaborated in the latter parts of the novel. Achebe’s emphasis on providing background cultural information controls two-thirds of the narrative of the novel. Yet, the ‘white man and his religion are dominant in about one-third of the novel. At the end of the novel, Okonkwo’s suicide, therefore, becomes a symbol for the death of African religion and culture that has been disregarded by the white colonialists. Consequently, Christian disregard for the customs and religion of the tribe creates an atmosphere of lawlessness and dislocation within the village. Implementation of the white man’s religion is brought into play by none other than the natives themselves: “The white man began to speak to them. He spoke through an interpreter who was an Ibo man … the white man was also their brother because they were all sons of God” (106). Execution of the strategy of employing natives as a means of communicating back to the native is a classical and aesthetic practice that evenly promotes this foreign religion. As a result, they contribute in strengthening the colonizer’s ideologies and values, as ‘they have joined his religion and they help to uphold his government’. Thus the narrator argues that: “They have broken the clan and gone their several ways. We who are there this morning have remain true to our fathers, but our brothers have deserted us and joined a stranger to soil their fatherland”(144), are directly responsible in upholding Igbo’s sense of displacement as well as contributing to the loss of ancestral memory. 

Apparently missionaries came to preach Christianity but the history witnessed how the colonial power was implemented in every land. Before the colonial government came to the village, the missionary was established which has many good approaches those are remarkable nonetheless those works functioned as an incentive to deprive natives with hegemonic power. This progress favors the missionary and the so called civilized white. The first Europeans that observed the Igbo way of life naturally knew little of the aforementioned aspects of the Igbo culture. The anthropologist, G. T. Basden writes,“It is a practical impossibility for the European to comprehend fully the subtleties of the native character” and explains (Gikandi 28). The process of understanding of the native people’s mind occurs in a very academic way because they can easily proceeds the colonial desire. The colonized does not have the culture of writing so the question of representation of the society is completely blank, Which is what has be depicted in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where he blindly indicates the African region as a ‘blank space’. He quoted,

“America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’…But there was one yet – the biggest, the most blank, so to speak – that I had a hankering after.”(108).

Conrad’s insight, in Heart of Darkness, vigorously presents a place without a touch of civilization particularly, western civilization. His intended vision clearly shows the cannibal Africa which is often presented by writers when they try to describe African society. Achebe presents the world a new Africa which is never presented before and his insight goes directly against Conrad’s.

   “History before the coming of the Europeans”, as stated in a 19th century study by Margery Pelham says that “Finally, These people cannot represent themselves, since they have no tradition of writing” (Gikandi 27).

Simon Gikandi summarizes these statements by asserting that “the colonial tradition represses the African character, African history, and African modes of representation” (27). This repression certainly springs from a sense of superiority. As Jeffrey D. Sachs points out in an article of 165th vol. of Times, “when a society is economically dominant, it is easy for its members to assume that such dominance reflects a deeper superiority – whether religious, racial, genetic, ethnic, cultural or institutional” (42)and as it is defined, the British Colonizers confiscated the most sensitive components including Religion and Economy of the Igbo society overnight. It is often said in some works of African study that ‘African people are not able to understand themselves’ and this weakness is always an advantage for colonizers. Gikandi quoted, “Let not this be thought strange, for the black man himself does not know his own mind”, since “he is not controlled by logic” (28). We must consider, the way in which the ‘white men’ brought religion as well as a trade that helps to promote a new source of profit to the villagers. They had built ‘a trading store and for the first time palm-oil and kernel became things of great price, and much money flowed into Umuofia.

The colonial history of Britain is very profound because of academic research and cultural study of those colonized lands for her financial benefit which is not only for commercial success but also for imperial power like any other European colonizers. The major interest of colonization is certainly business and explicitly in most of cases the purpose of commerce turns into excessive greed of power and to gain that power, they need a brain washing weapon (culture), there is no weapon better than culture if the established power needs to be long lasted. Orientalism, a theory popularized by Edward Said, precisely describes how the division between west and east is drawn where Orient and oxidant is a binary opposition. The representation of orient is always uncultured, exotic, barbarous, uncivilized and uneducated. On the other hand west is always civilized, modest, and cultural and educated holding the light of enlightenment where Christianity plays a great role for making people civilized. Said quoted in his book Orientalism,

“Orientalism is never far from what Denys Hay has called the idea of Europe, a collective notion identifying “us” European as against all “those” non-Europeans, and indeed it can be argued that the major component in European cultures precisely what made the culture hegemonic both in and outside Europe: The idea of European as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures. There is in addition the hegemony of European ideas about the orient, themselves reiterating European superiority over Oriental backwardness” (7).

Understanding of weakness of the Ibo people was very easy for Christian missionaries which is why they were successful enough to deviate Ibo people from their family and society. To be precise the European culture became very lucrative to people like ‘Nwoye’ Okonkwo’s oldest son, who was converted to Christianity because of some vice in the tribal culture and for his attraction to a new idea that is superior to him. There are many young people who even turned into an extreme Christian and one of them killed a python sacred to natives. The cultural hegemony serves the original purpose of the colonizers which could have not been possible by gun. And this is what Phil Mongredien says in a review of The Guardian, “Then the English arrive in their region with the Bible- rather than the gun- their weapon of choice”. So in that sense, it can be claimed that the hypocrisy of missionaries serves the colonial purpose rather than spiritual one. 

Clashes between civilizations significantly raise a question of authenticity of the responsibility of missionaries or any other religious institutions. History witnessed too many religious brutality in the name of divine entity and here in Igboland, the clash between two cultures mounts for the sake of religious superiority of Christianity which has many black chapters of brutality along with two Crusades. A civilization depends on a major religion, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism because a civilization needs to be established on an Ideology. Besides, can we specify which one is the superior one? Samuel P. Huntington, in his book, The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order, clearly mentions, “Of all the objective elements which define civilizations, however, the most important usually is religion, as the Athenians emphasized. To a very large degree, the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions; and people who shares ethnicity and language but different in religion may slaughter each other” (42).Civilizational conflict takes place because of the claim of superiority that is claimed by the people of the civilization. Islamic civilization claims its superiority for many years and still does, so does Christianity. So it always crops up to western civilization which is based on Christianity. History gives evidences that, where ever the colonialist go, Christian missionaries are with them and in the most cases missionaries settle down first. An ethnic religion cannot survive when there is a superior one and it simply starts to vanish by its own people. It easily takes place because human psychology changes with a new environment and new ideologies. Though it is unacceptable to the elderly people while young barely faces problems to be absorbed in a new ideology. It also happens because of Master-Slave relationship. At a time a slave hates his/er master and wants to be like him that’s why young people turned against the Ibo culture and other group raised their voice against the colonialist. In Igboland, Missionary settled first and colonial power was implemented later on so that they can conceptualize the land before they come. So in that sense. Christianity and the colonial ideology functions side by side and it cannot be isolated from the political agenda of colonization.    

The scope of “othering” is wide and always in favor of Europeans because of their knowledge about the native culture and social code of conduct. Said remarks on this issue in Orientalism saying that: “Once again, knowledge of subject races or Orientals is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge and so on in an increasingly profitable dialect of information and control” (36). It is evident that the colonial power has never had the ability to gain such knowledge with the force of gun, they always needs an institution in a different musk, and there is nothing more powerful than the religious institution. The first missionary to travel to Umuofia was Mr. Brown who institutes a policy of compromise, understanding, and non-aggression between his flock and the clan. He even becomes friends with prominent clansmen and builds a school and a hospital in Umuofia. Unlike Reverend Smith, he attempts to appeal respectfully to the tribe’s value system rather than harshly impose his religion on it. His compelling interaction with the people is academically tactical nonetheless he had a very strong connection with the colonial government in the territory. On the other hand, Reverend Smith’s policy is rather strict and dominating from what the novel makes a sense that he is stick to the colonial agenda rather than a spiritual responsibility.       

Achebe wants to change the way Western psychology has “set Africa up as a foil to Europe”. Creating an African identity is important to Achebe and he finds it to be one of his most important roles as a writer. Often in his life he has been asked the question “are you from Africa”, and has found that Africa seems to mean something to people. The recreation of African identity is not easy for any writer because of the previous scenario depicted by western writers and to establish an identity he had to recreate the African value and cultural harmony. His protagonist committed suicide at the end of the novel which symbolizes the death of Igbo religion and Culture nevertheless this novel makes the religion alive in fiction which was never been considered with such beautiful description. Okonkwo died defending the social value and African dignity. But is he successful? No, he is not. Okonkwo died for dignity which is destroyed by some worthless people who lacks intellectual understanding of their own existence. Obierika, friend to Okonkwo laments with an utmost depression, “None of his converts was a man whose words was heeded in the assembly of the people, and none of them was a man of title. They were mostly the kind of people that were called efulefu, worthless, empty men” (130). It is pretty often said that the convert’s people are mostly from the lower class who barely have any knowledge of their own identity, even is not conscious about the European identity, being established with the help of Christian missionaries.           

The peace process is a never ending process and every religion preaches peace through religious ideology, this idea of peace through religion is the primary stage of colonization. One of the central ideological justifications of the British colonial enterprise was the replacement of the presumed anarchic ‘savagery’ of African societies with a form of ‘civilization’. British colonialists emphasizes that this civilization can only be achieved through a ‘true God’. However, what the colonial missionaries failed to understand was that Igbo society already had a highly evolved system of agriculture, trade, religion and individual and collective democracy. Colonialist believes if they can change the fundamental beliefs of the villages, they will be able to control the natives more easily. As a result, the introduction of a foreign religion begins to destroy and fragment the structural foundation of the Igbo society. By infiltrating and targeting younger generations and those who are marginalized in the village, the missionaries and colonizers are securing the prosperity of the Empire for the future in these villages. When the missionaries first appear in Mbanta they are confined to the Evil Forest, a space that is considered to be ‘alive with sinister forces and powers of darkness and evil diseases’ and a place that ‘was a fit home for such undesirable people’. One of the elders believed that the missionaries will certainly come about their deaths in a few days when the missionaries failed to succumb to the ‘sinister forces’ of the Evil Forest. The novel investigates the deeper social factors that the mission introduced into Igbo culture, and the way these interacted with customary practices of commerce, social relations and education. Obierika, outlines that: “He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (129). Religion is a subtle ideological method of invasion that enables the white man to establish his hegemony in Mbanta.

Priests are blessing igbo child

Most of the ethnic society and its culture, religion and social norms cannot sustain its authority because of prejudices. At first, the Igbo largely ignore the Christians because they have set up camp in the evil forest and, as a result, the Igbo feel the missionaries are going to be obliterated. The survival of the church and the converts obtained a major contributing factor in the tribal split. The Christians expose the tribe’s inhuman practice of killing twins and cruelty to outcasts. These crime severely turned people’s faith to Christianity. Despite being criticized, the missionary was functioning in a normal way, there was no verbal violence until the sacred python was killed by one of the native Christians. It seems like, the situation is intended and violates Christian law, but they never condemned the crime rather acts like colonialist. Before, the natives burned the missionary, they came for a negotiation and offered their religious freedom, “You can stay with us if you like our ways. You can worship your own god. It is good that a man should worship the gods and the spirits of his father.”(172). The destruction of the missionary is obviously an outcome of the killing where colonialist supported the missionary and arrested the natives including Okonkwo without having any farther inquiry because the church represents the colonial government. Said ironically commented in Culture and Imperialism, “Independence was for whites and Europeans; the lesser or subject peoples were to be ruled; science, learning, history emanated from the West” (Said 24). So in terms of Said’s comment and the conflict that justice is only for European, independence is only for the Christians and not for the natives whose lands became their shelter.

Polygamy, ritual killing, religious prejudices and casting twins are the major negative side of the society which is strongly condemned by the western civilization, specifically in Christianity which prohibits more than one wife and even it is considered as a vicious crime. Harold Bloom, in the criticism of Things Fall Apart explains, “Polygyny has frequently been considered by Christians “a state of adultery” (Bloom 165). Other than those images, there are many positive pictures of the society which has been neglected and fabricated by the colonialists. Achebe blames missionaries for the tragedy of Okonkwo and collectively African societies. David Whittaker and Mpalive-Hangson Msiska points out Shelton’s view in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Routledge Study Guide that: “Things Fall Apart will agree with Shelton’s attribution of Okonkwo’s tragic fall from the pinnacle of power to his ill-considered participation in ritual killing of Ikemefuna’ (49). And it also said that: “Clearly, Shelton is offended by Achebe’s strong implication in the novel that the arrival of the white man in the form of the Christian missionary and the Colonial Government…” (Whittaker 49). Though Shelton argues about Achebe’s representation of missionaries in Africa in a broad sense but he intellectually avoids the fact. In certain extent, his refusal of the idea is quite convincing but fails to stand on its own feet. Things Fall Apart leads the story to perceive the fact that the fall of the collective system of the society came after the missionary was established. Despite being banished from Umuofia, Okonkwo was waiting for his resettlement in his ancestral land and the tragedy fell upon him when his son turned to Christianity. The family bondage, the most potent instinct that tied the society was gone forever because of this transformation. Such transformation into a society makes the social security vulnerable and becomes a biggest favor for the colonialist but those transformation did not come without a force. The missionary parlayed the role for the colonialist.         

More effectively, the missionaries were the pioneers in formal education in Umuofia, hence the building of schools is another strategy in colonizing the other. Mr. Brown’s indication about the future of the land, the narrator quoted, “Mr. Brown begged and argued and prophesized. He said that the leaders of the land in the future would be men and women who had learnt to read and write . . . New churches were established in the surrounding villages and a few schools with them. From the very beginning religion and education went hand in hand” (128).

It has been argued that the establishment of schools in Africa during the colonial era was another technique in converting the ‘savage’ and reinstating western ideals. Indeed, in 1903 Bishop Shanahan wrote to Le Roy that: “Those who hold the schools hold the country, hold its religion, and hold its future” and in December, the same year he wrote, “It is through the schools we will win the whole country” (Okoledah 94). The missionaries target and ‘educate’ those young and marginalized in Umuofian society, like Nwoye ‘who is now called Isaac was sent to the new training college for teachers in Umuru’. As a result, missionary schools reiterate western religious values and it is also a method that lulls the native in a sense of ‘belonging’. It is for this reason as to why the missionaries ‘information shaped the Westerners’ perception (and that of many Africans) of Africa and its peoples’ and became very successful as a colonial institution. Therefore, the institution of education is another colonial strategy in dominating and dislocating a traditional way of life.

On the whole, we can understand by this study that establishing missionary in Umuofia is a pre-colonial establishment for understanding and convincing the native Igbo people. By implementing western ideology they came to setup their colony successfully and the native people contributed with an enormous help. Gaining knowledge about the colonized is the best strategy for European to gain control over oriental where the clash of civilizations are inevitable. Educating the natives in western value, the Christian missionaries hugely facilitates the British government to fulfil their colonial agenda. So we can come to an understanding that Christian missionaries worked as appointed institutions of the colonial power who help colonialist to shape their empire by converting natives and educating them in Christian value for a long effect under the shade of superior and so called civilized white people.

Work Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. 1958. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1969. Print.

Bloom, Harold. Blooms Modern Critical Interpretations: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. New York: Blooms Literary Criticism. 2010. Web.

Gikandi, Simon. Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction. London: James Curry Ltd., 1991. Web.

Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Orde. New York.  Simon & Schuster, 1996. Print.

Jeffrey D Sachs. “The End of Poverty.”  Time. New York: Mar 14, 2005: 11. Web.

Mongredien, Phil. “Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe”, Rev. Things Fall Apart, ed. Katharine Viner. The Guardian 31 January 2010. Web.

 Okoledah, Norbert. Problems and Prospects of the Search for a Catholic Spiritual Tradition in the Ghanaian Catholic Pastoral Ministry. Munster: LIT Verlag. 2005. Web.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. India: Penguin Books, 2001. Print.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.

Whittaker, David. Mpalive-Hangson Msiska. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Routledge Study Guide.  London: Taylor & Francis Ltd. 2007. Web.