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Various Forms of Paganism.

By Robert Henry Codrington.

From The Official Report of the Missionary Conference of the Anglican Communion on May 28, 29, 30 and June 1, 1894.
Edited by George A. Spottiswoode.
London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1894, pages 112-116.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2008


The Rev. R. H. CODRINGTON, D.D., Prebendary of Chichester.

The various forms of Paganism with which I have to deal, however varied and numerous they may be, have this in common, that they are neither great, literary, nor historical religions. They have no sacred books; they lie hardly anywhere in great masses of population; though doubtless most ancient, they have no history of change and development. Moreover, those who follow them are all backward, uncivilised people. Though they agree in many beliefs and practices, and have [112/113] much which has come to them from a common source, they are disconnected and incoherent, as they are separated geographically. In Asia they lie scattered beside the great literary religions. In Africa what is known in the West and East is separated by a region in which very much is unknown, as well as deeply divided by the encroachments of Mohammedanism; the existing connection between the aboriginal inhabitants of North and South America is but slender; in the ocean from Madagascar eastwards the native religion is broken up by distribution among islands. Nor is there a common designation which has been agreed upon for them all. As they have been approached from one side or the other, or different characteristics have appeared, or varying theories have come into vogue, they have been called forms of Animistic Religion, of Fetish Worship, Ancestor Worship, Nature Worship, Shamanism, Totemism.

It follows from this that, in the view of the work of Christian missions throughout the world, these religions seem comparatively insignificant, and also comparatively easy to deal with. The strongholds which the Gospel has to capture are not among them. But they have this significance, that they underlie all other religions; to understand the great religions we must study the small; prehistoric religions lie at the root of the historical; the religions which have sacred books still express the primary religious conceptions of mankind. And if it is comparatively easy to deal with these religions in the way of getting people to cast them off, it is probably more difficult to build up true and sound religion where these have been rejected. They lie in the way of Christian missions more like heaps of earth and sand than walls of stone; so, as it is more easy to throw them out of what shape they have and cast them down than stronger and more fixed religions, it is also more difficult to replace them. The object of Christian missions is not the destruction of false or imperfect religions; none are wholly false, none are without materials at least which must be retained. We have 'to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down; to build,' also, 'and to plant.'

What we have to do now is not to describe these religions or to estimate their character, but to consider how Christian missions can best deal with them, how we can best present the Gospel message where they prevail. We know that we cannot make any men Christian, but we are bound to do in the best way we can what we know it is our duty to do.

I. In the first place, it hardly needs be said that with the lowest religions we are not to begin with contempt or condemnation. In Church missions the time is now probably gone by when all the ways of heathen life could be treated as abominable, and every native religious action taken to be prompted by the enemy of mankind. Yet unfortunately too much of language is still common, and a good deal of feeling still lingers, which have that character. We have still to keep it before our minds that religion, as such, deserves to be respected; we must hold fast to the hope that in the thickest darkness men will be found to have been feeling after what is good and true; we must labour in the belief that we shall find a foundation on which to build moral and spiritual faculties and qualities common to mankind.

It may seem absurd, perhaps, to speak (as Bishop Patteson did) of [113/114] 'wounding the conscience' of a savage, or of darkening his spiritual eyesight. But take an illustration. A savage is seen offering food to the mouth of a rude image, or laying an offering at the foot of a simple post. The Christian who sees him tells him (as well as he can in words) that he is doing a wicked thing; or, much more intelligibly, he treats the action with ridicule or disgust. The savage takes his own customary action to be one which shows that he still respects, loves his dead father and looks to him for help. According to his poor conceptions of what is right and wrong, he thinks respect and affection for a father a good thing; in his beliefs concerning things unseen he feels sure that his father's soul did not perish with his body. What then? Is it a wicked thing to honour one's father after he is dead? Is it a foolish thing to believe that though dead he still exists? What is he to think when he hears the missionary teaching the Fifth Commandment, and telling his disciples, as something new, that death does not annihilate the soul?

Speaking from the standing-point of one who is acquainted only with one group of the forms which these religions have assumed, I venture to say that there will be found in the backward races, generally, of mankind (1) a sense of difference between right and wrong, (2) belief in a life not bodily, and in a life after death, belief in a power around men and above them other than human, greater and higher than human, to which in the consciousness of their own weakness they can appeal. Here is that which it is as absurd as it is mischievous for a Christian to scoff at or to condemn. Here we have common feelings and beliefs; here we have forces which only need right direction; here we have ground on which we can lay the foundation of our teaching, a field which, as 'labourers together with God,' we have to cultivate.

It is no doubt a common thing to say that a savage has no sense of right and wrong; certainly, when this is suggested to him in the estimate of his past life he assents to it with alacrity. But he betrays himself, while utterly untaught, by accusing others and excusing himself; and I cannot believe that it has ever occurred to him that by good and bad he means no more than useful and advantageous, troublesome and unprofitable. That he has no sense of sin, as we understand it, is true, no doubt; but he has that which develops into the sense of sin: Man may teach him to understand what sin is; God will make him feel it.

Time does not allow illustrations of those beliefs which I have ascribed to savage men. But surely they believe in ghosts. Whatever they may mean by the words they use, however indistinct may be their conceptions of what they mean, they believe that man has a soul and that the soul lives after death. They believe, then, in a life of man that is not that of the body. All descriptions of savage life are full of their superstitions concerning spiritual beings which are not the ghosts of men, spirits of the sea and of the storm, of the forest and of the stream. They believe, then, in existence which is not bodily at all. We know that when the savage feels himself powerless in sickness, danger; drought, storm, he has prayers and sacrifices. He believes, then, in a power above him that can help him. It is true that he is full of superstitions, that he is very dark and ignorant, full of false fancies and groundless fears, with cruelty and. imposture mixed up in all; but [114/115] nevertheless in these beliefs concerning things unseen is common ground on which we can stand beside him, explain and clear things to him, show him where he can put his foot on truth and step on to more. But you must go and stand beside him; you must let him see that you neither despise nor ridicule him, but really sympathise with him. You must try to enter into his mind and feelings. You must let him see that you want as much to understand him as you want him to understand you. He will never understand you unless you understand him; you will never teach him unless you sympathise with him. But with sympathy and mutual understanding, in spite of mistakes and blunders, the teacher and learner will get on; and if little advance is made, it is on sure ground.

To ascertain points of agreement, to prevent mutual misunderstanding, to provide for intelligent assent to truth when presented, and so for real belief, requires preparation, takes time, with labour and patience, and knowledge of native language. It is very much a matter of learning. In the necessary qualification of sympathy some men seem to be missionaries ready made; with some it rather comes with knowledge, or seems to be added upon faithful work. Study of books can do but little towards it. It is otherwise with the knowledge of the minds and ways of men, and the study of religion, in which no one who wishes to learn and teach can afford to neglect the writings of those who have made such subjects their own. Still, it is from men and not from books that most is to be learnt, and such learning will never find an end: And happily the Christian can begin to teach effectively at once. He has not to learn anything from those whom he comes to teach before he can show two things: that he has love in his heart for men, and that he lives himself with constant reference to an unseen power. This is intelligible to the most ignorant from the very first; it is consonant with the moral sense and the spiritual sense (such as it is) of the untaught man. It will go on and work throughout, repairing errors, filling up defects, always present and effective.

II. There are, no doubt, special difficulties which Christian missions have to meet when dealing with these religions. Of these I will briefly consider two.

(1) These are religions without literature, with obscure, indistinct notions, with unsettled and ambiguous expressions. To meet this, as books come in with Christian teaching, religious terms must be found and fixed, as exact and precise as possible; definite expressions of definite doctrine. This is of immense importance, and it is very difficult. It is impossible to take too much trouble about the words in which religious teaching is to be conveyed, and in which it is very much to lie; and yet it is to be feared that very little labour is often bestowed upon them. Men 'pick up' native language, and talk nonsense and worse. How serious, if not irreparable, is the mischief if, e.g., a missionary for 'God' takes the name of some legendary hero or great man recently deceased, for 'spirit' takes the word which means the ghost of a dead man, talks of a shadow when he means the soul, and for 'sin' uses a word which the natives apply to some particular evildoing, or perhaps to something improper but not wrong. Such mistakes are made, and mistakes where the difficulties are so great must and will be made; misunderstanding, where knowledge of native language is recent and imperfect, there must [115/116] be. But the mischief, though serious, is not irreparable: misunderstandings delay, do not preclude, the reception of the Gospel; native people find out what is meant. A missionary may never find out, or never acknowledge, how far he has been wrong, while he recognises the working of divine grace in the hearts of his hearers; but surely it is his duty from first to last to seek for and to employ the native words which will best express what he means them to convey, and to use them all the while with the knowledge that they are imperfect.

And again, if when mission work begins it is of vast importance to secure the best native expressions, it will not do when the expressions are settled, and the work advanced, to use the established words without careful study. It will not do for one who enters into a mission already at work to take it for granted that the native words he finds in use are equivalent to those which he has been using elsewhere. They are sure not to be equivalent. The best words chosen out of an unwritten language are imperfect, inexact; they cannot express what never was in men's thoughts. He has to study the words in which religious ideas are expressed in English; he has to study them as they have come into English from older tongues; and he must study them just as much in a new tongue. If he does not, while he thinks he is teaching he is not understood, because he does not understand himself. He must find out what the old true native meaning was of a word taken into Christian use; heathen meaning lingers long, and does no harm if it is understood and taken advantage of to show the difference there is. The word, e.g., in use for 'prayer' perhaps means a 'spell;' care must be taken that it shall be understood, or it will do harm.

(2) The other difficulty and danger lies in the fact that Christian missionaries now go to the followers of the religions we have in view as civilised men to savages, or as men of very superior cultivation to those little advanced. Unless the missionary takes care, he will let himself be made too much of; he is tempted to like being thought so great, wise, and good. If he allows this the mischief is great to himself, and, what is of more importance, to the work in which he is engaged. The natives come to find us out; and they are apt to think that as they have been mistaken in their estimate of their teacher, so they have been mistaken also in believing what he taught. The reaction in a second, or later generation, has in some places been disastrous. The danger is very real and serious, at any rate in some parts of the mission-field. A missionary cannot too soon or too plainly cry out, 'We also are men of like passions with you,' or say to the native who would fall down at his feet, 'Stand up, I also am a man.' The more the native people feel their inferiority, the more necessary it is to treat them as equals, so as to give them self-respect, and call out the sense of the power that is in them to teach again what they have learnt.

For if the main things needful to bring the backward races of mankind to Christ are (always depending upon the grace of the Holy Spirit) thorough sympathy and understanding, a native ministry must be aimed at and worked for throughout. We never quite sympathise or quite understand; native teachers and clergy can and do.

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