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Redeeming, Ruling, and Reaping: British Missionary Societies, the East India Company, and the India-to-China Opium Trade

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At the end of the 19th century, British missionaries campaigned to abolish the India-to-China opium trade, whose profits were crucial for British ambitions in Asia. This challenge by the missionaries had been slow to emerge, however, and focusing only on that well-known opposition masks the preceding half-century of accommodations and compromises with the opium traffic, both on the production end (Bengal) and on the receiving end (in Macau and Canton). Our research addresses the subjective calculus that was at work for the missionaries and asks how their reading of that calculus affected their movement across the spectrum from unconcern to outrage about opium. At the core of their enterprise from beginning to end was their unwavering commitment to the evangelical “Great Commission,” which spelled out the obligation to bring the Christian gospel to unsaved multitudes around the world. We argue that they consistently embraced whatever was pragmatically necessary to advance that goal and resisted whatever threatened to block movement toward it. Beneath changeability on the surface, a thread of value-rational coherence ran through a century of calculated and strategic missionary activity. The same thread is likely to be in evidence in other theaters of global evangelism where missionaries were (are) involved in secular controversies.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Center for Religion and Civic Culture University of Southern California

Publication date: 2009-06-01

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