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The Scottish Churches' Work Abroad
The Bitter Need of the Heathen World

WHEN I was a boy in France I saw the Scots, a people living in Britain, eating human flesh; and although there were plenty of cattle at their disposal, yet they would prefer a ham of the herdsman, or a slice of a woman’s breast." Such is the testimony of St. Jerome, the greatest Christian scholar of the fourth century, and it is a startling reminder to us that we have been brought up "out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay." Like the Jews of old, to whom it was said, "Thy father was an Amorite, and thy mother a Hittite," we also come of heathen parentage. We are, in fact, the children of cannibals. It is a far cry from the fourth century to the twentieth, from the cannibal mercenaries of Jerome’s day to the immortal 51st Division, but it cannot be denied that the most potent factor in the evolution of the Scottish people has been the coming to our land of Christian missionaries, and the gradual saturation of the national character by the truths of the Gospel. It would seem, therefore, a matter beyond dispute that our foremost duty is to communicate to other less fortunate peoples that living Word of God which has redeemed our own nation from the lowest depths.


The question, however, has been raised whether the need of the heathen world is as bitter as has been represented, and whether the work of the Christian missionary is as beneficial as its supporters claim. It is obvious that, unless these doubts are resolved, men will not intelligently and wholeheartedly support the Church’s work abroad, but will regard it as wasted energy.

It is conceded, of course, that the heathen man, as well as the Christian, has his own natural virtues. The filial piety of the Chinese, the sobriety of the Mohammedan, the patience and good-humour of the African are notable illustrations. A Bengal tea planter, looking down upon a picturesque village in Scotland, suddenly exclaimed, with emphasis, "I have as many decent, honest, hard-working folk in my tea garden as there are in that village." Such people, doubtless, are to be found among the workers of every land, and their natural goodness runs like a vein of gold through the whole earth.

Besides that, the vices of Christendom have to be taken into account if a comparison is to be fairly made. This is an aspect of the matter which the educated men of non-Christian lands are pressing home upon us with increasing insistence. They see Christendom with its drunkenness and prostitution, its white slave trade, its war spirit, its mad race for riches and pleasure, and it stands condemned in their sight. A recent writer says of the Chinese, "They are not conscious of any moral superiority in Western civilisation. They know the Cowgate and Broomielaw, Princes Street and Sauchiehall Street, and these things are not found in China, except, perhaps, where Westerners or Western industry have appeared. They meet some moral temptations in Scotland in a form more difficult to overcome than in China. That part of our life which we have been most nearly successful in making Christian—our homes—they are seldom or never allowed to see." Similarly, in many a quiet African village, decent heathen parents bitterly deplore the degradation and corruption of their sons and daughters in the mining cities. It may be taken, then, that throughout the heathen world the moral superiority of Christendom is seriously challenged, and the question is defiantly put, "What have you to teach us, and wherein have you the better of us, except it be in the control of material forces and the applications of science ?

We are not concerned to deny these charges, nor do we hold a brief for the defence of Western civilisation. Comparisons are invidious, and it may be freely granted that there are sins and vices of Christendom which may put us all to shame. It may even be granted that, as the corruption of the best is always the worst, so the vices of Christendom may be more ingenious, more thoroughgoing, more diabolically organised than those of heathenism. Human nature is corrupt in all lands, and, but for the saving and restraining grace of God, will bring forth everywhere the same evil fruit.

These considerations, however, are really beside the point. The vital element of difference between Christendom and the heathen world lies in this, that in the former the powerful leaven of the Gospel is at work. As a consequence, public opinion is largely on the side of Christian morality, the forces of resistance to evil are alert and vigorous, the standards of life and conduct are elevated, and, in general, the Christian ideals of law and order, peace and sobriety, truth and honour, civic justice and universal brotherhood, are in the ascendant, and are working steadily towards a beneficent goal. In the heathen world almost the reverse is true. There is not the same public opinion to keep evil in restraint, there is not the same aspiration after betterment, but, on the contrary, a vast moral paralysis which leads to a dull content with things as they are, however gross the state of things may be. In Christendom the Gospel is at war with vice and wickedness in every form; in heathenism abominable evils are wrought under the sanction of religion. It is this profaning of religion, this debasing of the highest, this awful desecration of the holy of holies, which constitutes the blight of heathenism. It casts its deep shadow over many lands, wrapping men’s souls in gross darkness till the very windows of heaven are obscured and the light of life is lost.


If we consider somewhat more in detail the religious and moral condition of the heathen world, certain vital elements are seen to be lacking, which Christ alone can supply. First may be noted a knowledge of the true God and of life eternal. It is not going beyond the facts to speak of the average heathen man as "having no hope and without God in the world." Doubtless, even the lowest races have some conception of a divine Power over all, but the conception is so dim, and that Power so remote, that in actual practice it becomes negligible, and the worshipper’s immediate concern, instead of being with this Power, is with his local or tribal gods, and those fearsome spirits that haunt his home and beset his path. This is equally true of the millions of India and China as of the lowest tribes of darkest Africa. Any real conception of the Fatherhood of God such as sheds a radiance over all Christian thought, any idea of man as the son of God and the object of redeeming love such as ennobles Christian life, may be said to be entirely lacking in heathenism. When the border line is crossed, it is as if one left the sunshine and the free air of heaven to wander in the gloomy depths of some haunted forest where there is no path to guide the traveller’s steps and none can tell what fearful shapes may be encountered.

It is this grim, unearthly power of superstition which has given birth to all those rites of heathen worship which seem so shocking to the Christian conscience. It is not the sheer, unprovoked wickedness of the people which has produced these rites. The real cause is deeper. They are the offspring of fear. They are the ghastly fungus-growth which has sprung up in minds darkened by superstition. These cruel rites are rather a measure of human misery than of human wickedness. The merciless treatment meted out to witches in Scotland a century or two ago has often been commented on as if it implied great barbarity on the part of our ancestors, yet nothing is more certain than that men to-day would act with the same ferocity if they were gripped by the same fears. Nothing is so utterly unnerving, so apt to overwhelm the mind with unreasoning and abject terror as the sense of a spiritual enemy hovering near, unseen, impalpable, whom no weapon can injure nor wall shut out, who can strike at will, and in the dark. Not even the strongest mind could bear for long the strain of such a fear. The impulse would become irresistible to strike out madly, or, giving up the unequal contest, to grovel in abject submission, and yield obedience to the most extreme demands. It is only when we realise the atmosphere of superstition which pervades the heathen world that we are able to view with pity the most dreadful rites and customs, and to see in them the desperate efforts of burdened souls to ease themselves of an all-too-crushing load.

Such being man’s relation to the unseen world, any one can appreciate in some degree the prevailing religious gloom that has settled over heathenism. It has no real hope even in death. The naked soul, driven from its home in the body, continues an existence which is but a hollow mockery of life. It may hover feebly about the grave, it may become a haunting object of dread to be warded off by incantations from its former home, or, worst of all, it may be doomed to return to earth again in an endless succession of lives in various shapes of beast or bird or loathsome reptile. There is no bright prospect of a heavenly home to cheer the weary, nor any hope of blessed reunion to comfort the bereaved. Even Buddha, noblest of heathen sages, when he meets a distracted mother cherishing in her arms the dead body of her baby, can only bid her seek refuge from her sorrow by quenching love in her heart and ceasing from all desire.


It is to be noted further that the heathen world lacks a worthy standard of social morality. Obviously there are great and manifest differences between the various races and peoples. The South Sea Islander is not on the same moral plane as the ancient nations of the East. Yet there is the overruling fact that unregenerate human nature is the same all the world over, and it is astonishing when the evidence is collected and compared, how strong are the resemblances which emerge, and with what oppressive uniformity the same dark tale comes from all heathen lands.

Instead of religion being the bulwark of morality as in Christendom, the darkest crimes are committed under its express sanction. Human sacrifice and the cannibal feast are religious observances; so also is the lewd African dance and the prostitution which, defiles the Hindu temple. And how callous it can be to human suffering! A boat’s crew on Lake Nyasa, hearing the cries of a man whose arm had been gripped by a crocodile, pulled near enough to see who it was and then paddled off, leaving the unhappy wretch to his fate. Their explanation simply was, "He did not belong to our village."

The same spirit is seen in the oppression of the weak. Think of the inhuman treatment meted out to slaves, women, and children ! Only the Great Day will reveal all that they have suffered. Slavery is an institution which has the fullest religious sanction in heathen countries. Under it millions have been forcibly deprived of all their essential rights as human beings, unnumbered homes have been desolated, vast territories have been laid waste, and unspeakable atrocities committed. All this without any protest or sense of revulsion in any quarter outside Christendom.

And what of the disabilities imposed upon woman? Throughout the whole of the East her inferior position has been notorious. Everywhere she has been, more or less, at the disposal of her husband, frequently to be beaten and tortured without remedy, or even, as in parts of Africa and the South Seas, to be buried alive in her husband’s grave. It was only the intervention of the British Government in India which put an end to the hideous custom of Sati, according to which the Hindu widow, with solemn religious ceremony, was burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre.

The children also, like the women, are regarded as having no personal rights. When they are born it is for their parents to say whether or not they shall be suffered to live. Accordingly the custom of infanticide is widespread. The work of Mary Slessor in West Africa has recently given prominence to the fact that in that region the birth of twins is regarded as a curse, and the poor infants are flung down in the forest to die, but there has long been evidence from many quarters of the fearful amount of child murder prevailing in Africa. The record of India and China is far from clean. In certain provinces of India, even under British government, the death-rate among female infants is suspiciously high; while the pathetic fact has often been commented on that there are "no children’s graves in China."

Now such things are possible, because the heathen world has never enjoyed the inspiration of an adequate moral impulse. It has never been quickened by any conception of a progressive advance of the race. Such an idea is distinctively Christian, and is of immense moral value. It kindles hope, inspires moral effort, and underlies all social reform. In a word, it gives the assurance that life is worth living, that service and sacrifice shall not be in vain. It is not so with the great heathen world. To it life appears as a weary round, a path that leads nowhere, or if it reach the end it is but to make a fresh beginning. "As it was in the beginning, and is now, so shall it ever be," is the supreme law of life. And thus, finding themselves bound to the great wheel of existence, men surrender to fate, but are left without incentive and without hope either for themselves or for posterity. Is it to be wondered at that under such conditions these peoples are unprogressive ? What they lack is the moral stimulus of a great ideal. Only when they come into contact with Christian civilisation do they begin to waken up, as throughout the East to-day. But left to himself, the Indian ryot and the Chinese coolie plods along as patiently enduring as the oxen he drives, with but little to purify and uplift his soul. Surely, when imagination brings to view some vision of those dim millions, faring onward under auspices so dark, one cannot but be touched with a sense of the mystery of life and the unutterable pathos of it all, and breathe a prayer that upon them also the Sun of Righteousness would arise with healing in His wings.


In the light of all these facts, it surely becomes our urgent and paramount duty as Christians to spread through the whole world that light which by the infinite grace of God has come to us, and to this duty the Church has gradually been awakening during the last century and a half. Two other objections, however, have been raised, which it may be well to deal with briefly. On the one hand it is maintained that all that is needed is to let the natural forces of Western civilisation operate upon the lower races, and on the other hand it is alleged that in actual practice missions have been a failure, because, in popular phraseology, "the missionary spoils the native."

With regard to the first point, it must be borne in mind that Western civilisation is a composite of very various and diverse elements, but its living principle is Christian and its finest fruits are Christian. No one would deny that by good government, education, honest commerce, and the like, Western civilisation has done much for the uplift of the world. But its influence has also in many respects been baneful. Too often it has meant merely the exploiting of the native, the ruin of native life, and even the extermination of whole tribes. It has carried in its train strange diseases, it has given birth to forced labour, the mining compound, and many of the worst evils of industrialism. Some of the darkest pages in the history of Western civilisation are those which record the white man’s dealings with native races. Had it not been for the restraints imposed by Governments, under the strong pressure of Christian opinion, there can be little doubt that these races would have gone down before the advance of the white man or been reduced to a state of permanent servitude. Here, as elsewhere, the Gospel is the saving salt, and a challenge may confidently be issued to those who believe in the regenerating power of Western civilisation to produce even a single instance where any people, apart from the influence of Christian truth, has received a moral uplift.

In the light of what has just been said, it is easy to estimate at its true value the second allegation that "the missionary spoils the native." It would be strange indeed if it were true, but its absurdity is manifest the moment it is put to the proof. It is not, of course, a question of the efficiency of any individual missionary or mission method, but of the value of the whole work. That missions spoil the native has never been alleged by any responsible government, by any competent educationist acquainted with the facts, or by any one interested in the welfare of these peoples. The charge comes from the colonist, the white trader, the man who regards the native population only as so much black labour, and has no interest in anything but making what he is pleased to call "a white man’s country." It may be frankly admitted that for him and from his point of view missions do tend to spoil the native. If the policy be to keep the native under, to retain him for ever in the position of a hewer of wood and a drawer of water to the white man, then to educate him, to teach him a trade, above all, to quicken his soul with Christian truth, is to spoil him utterly. But that this policy of repression is hopelessly wrong, and would be disastrous if carried out, needs no showing. The millions of coloured men will not be for ever exploited and kept under. To attempt to do so is simply to sit on the lid of the boiler and invite a terrific explosion.

The history of our own country is fitted to teach us a better way. Many landowners and employers in the past were bitterly opposed to education and social reform. All that was necessary, in their view, was to teach the common people to keep their place, that is, as underlings. Had that fatal policy prevailed, as it did prevail before the War in Russia, the Scottish people of today, maddened and brutalised, might have equalled the worst excesses of the Bolshevists, and drenched their native land in blood. But, happily for us, a wiser and more Christian policy was followed, a steady policy of enlightenment and emancipation and progress.

The position in regard to the lower races is very similar, and needs to be handled with the utmost care and Christian wisdom. It is idle to conceal from ourselves the fact that a world-wide crisis is approaching, if it be not already upon us. The dominance of the white race is seriously challenged, and demands are being made which it becomes increasingly difficult to resist. For Christians, at least, it is impossible to go on preaching the universal Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all mankind, and at the same time acquiesce in the permanent subjection of any people. What solution will be found for the great racial problem, none of course can predict. It may be that, as the dominance of Rome had to be broken and her prestige had to pass away to make room for the community of nations in modern Europe, even so the dominance of the white man may be doomed to pass and give place to a world-wide community of all the races of mankind. And it may be also that, as Rome’s most precious gift to modern Europe was the preservation and handing on of the treasure of the Gospel, so the white man’s greatest service to humanity may be the sending forth of that same Gospel to be the light of every land. These high issues are in the hand of God, but the present duty is clear. If the Kingdom of Heaven is ever to come on the earth and the brotherhood of man to be realised, then we must publish abroad the Gospel to all nations. For there is no rallying centre for the broken fragments of the human race save in the Cross, nor any hope of stable progress but under the leadership of Christ.

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