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Addressing part-truths in Australia’s missionary history

MEDIAWATCH | John Sandeman

Friday, 27 April 2012

The influential left wing magazine, The Monthly is not the place you would normally expect to find a wholehearted defence of the work of Christian missionaries. But in this month’s edition, there it is.

Peter Sutton, an Adelaide University anthropologist, begins a review of a new book on the Strehlow family, written by John Strehlow, with an anecdote about Professor Marilyn Strathern whom he notes is the “doyenne of British Anthropology”.

“I asked her how many people’s lives she thought had been saved by missionaries in the colonies and later. ‘Oh, millions,’ she said without hesitation.”

The Tale of Frieda Keysser, which Sutton sets out to review, is the first of a multi-volume series about the Strehlow’s Lutheran antecedents in Central Australia that began with the legendary missionary Carl Strehlow.

The April edition of 'The Monthly' carries a weighty review of more than just a missionary's biography...

In some respects John Strehlow is doing for the Lutherans (or at least his family) what the Bible Society’s historian John Harris has done with his histories of Christian mission amongst Australia’s indigenous population, with his books One Blood and We Wish We’d Done More.

“The missions were places of protection that supressed violence between the indigenous inhabitants and gave sanctuary against the murderous raids of pastoralists and troopers”, Sutton recounts. He notes too, that they were places of control, discipline, and healing of the sick.

“In many cases the missionaries not only learned a local language but encouraged literacy in that language”, says Sutton. “I’ve recorded 15 such missions in the nineteenth century alone and 22 in the twentieth – and I am still counting”.

Sutton contrasts that with the current state of the former missions, where few have any non-local staff who speak their language, and where relationships have become “monetised”.

He draws another contrast with urban mythology that have “typecast the missions” where “flat-earth assessments of the mission statements abound”, one being that missionaries extinguished indigenous language, an inversion of the truth.

Sutton calls for correctives to these “part-truths and pastiche”: a welcome call from an unexpected corner.

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