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“For the Conversion of the Heathens”: Reflections on Insider/Outsider Dynamics

Jerry Hwang

Jerry Hwang taught at Singapore Bible College as an OMF missionary from 2010 to 2023. He continues to serve remotely as Affiliate Research Professor of Advanced Studies, while teaching at Trinity Christian College near Chicago. His work lies at the intersection of OT studies and missiology, such as his latest books, Contextualization and the Old Testament (ATA/Langham, 2022) and Exploring the Old Testament in Asia (co-edited with Angukali Rotokha; ATA/Langham, 2022).

Mission Round Table 18:2 (Jul-Sep 2023): 8-14

To read articles in this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 18:2.

Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss are among the children’s writers who have been flagged recently by “sensitivity readers” for elements in their books that are no longer suitable for the twenty-first century.[1] Belittling character descriptions, such as “enormously fat” (from Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [1964]), and racist illustrations of Asian people as slant-eyed or African people as gorilla-like (from Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo [1950]) have come under particular scrutiny. This has led publishers to issue revised versions of these classics (in the case of Dahl) or even withdraw certain titles (in the case of Seuss). In response, now-adult readers of these beloved works tend to defend them, whether in conceding how they are a product of their time or by opposing the “cancel culture” that questions their appropriateness.[2]

These tensions between literary stakeholders provide a window into how Christians from Western nations have traditionally negotiated their relationship to the non-Western “other.” During the nineteenth century, the “Golden Age of Missions” intersected with the “Golden Age of Colonialism” as explorers and missionaries from nominally Protestant empires first encountered non-Christian peoples on a large scale. The reading public in Europe and North America was regaled with tales of the “primitive,” “savage,” “pagan,” and “uncivilized,” to quote labels then common for non-Western peoples. Such depictions of “natives” appear in various genres, among them anthropological studies like Edward Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871), missionary biographies like The Last Journals of David Livingstone (1874), and popular magazines like National Geographic (established in 1888).

Over a century after these publications, the decline of Christendom and the rise of the global church have blurred the traditional boundaries between Western/Christian “us” and non-Western/non-Christian “them.” What is more, globalization and the internet have enabled Christians in the Majority World to read older missions literature about their cultures that was once written by and for Western insiders. Their sometimes-unflattering portrayals of “the heathen” were never intended for consumption by descendants of the non-Western outsiders under depiction.

The dated contrast between Christian insiders and non-Christian outsiders has been fundamental to the Protestant missions movement. This can be seen in the title of William Carey’s 1791 work, An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use of Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. Carey’s pamphlet has long served as a catalyst to arouse missionary passion for “lost” peoples in foreign lands. Among its inspired readers during the last two hundred years was James Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission.

In the contemporary world, however, the obsolescence of Carey’s famous distinction between “Christians” and “the heathens” raises a question—how should mission-minded Christians understand insider/outsider dynamics with respect to religio-cultural boundaries? The distinctive synthesis of “Christianity, commerce, and civilization” that once characterized Western imperialism is no longer applicable.[3] It is thus necessary to reexamine whether pity from Christian insiders toward the inferiority of non-Christian outsiders remains a legitimate motivation for sharing the gospel. Should the modern practice of mission continue the use of “othering” terms or concepts that emphasize the helplessness of those who are far from God (cf. Matt 9:36)?

The present study applies the field of linguistics to missiological questions of this nature. Such an approach has the advantage of retracing the historical links between past and present terminology in how insiders refer to outsiders. In this regard, “heathen” is useful to examine since its reference to those outside the religio-cultural fold is not limited to Carey’s pamphlet. It has also had a long history in Western civilization for its versatility in describing a broad range of “others.”[4] As we will see, the KJV’s frequent use of “heathen” (and its cognates in other West European languages that underlie both the Protestant Reformation and nominally Protestant imperialism) has lent this term a uniquely biblical ring. The perception of biblical authority for “heathen” language has sometimes led Christians from both Western and non-Western backgrounds to defend the practice of characterizing non-Christians as primitive, ignorant, and pathetic.

References to “heathen” in the KJV Bible

The King James Version of 1611 was a monumental achievement that had an enormous impact in shaping the language, culture, and theology of Western civilizations.[5] Its renderings from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek permeate every sentence for English speakers, whether consciously or not. Even as the KJV (also known as the Authorized Version) has become a timeless classic, it resembles all other Bible translations by also being a product of a particular time and place. Alister McGrath has demonstrated in his magisterial survey that the KJV arrived in English history at a key moment when England’s cultural identity was solidified as a Protestant nation that transcended different camps (e.g., Puritan, Anglican).[6]

The seventeenth-century challenge of unifying England’s Protestantism, particularly in the face of Catholic and Jewish alternatives, is what lies in the background of the KJV’s 145 references to “heathen” (both noun and adjective).[7] The majority of these are in lesser-known passages of the Old Testament (136x). But the same conceptual gaps between intimate “us/you” and more distant “them” can be seen in its sporadic but familiar New Testament appearances (7x). In the KJV rendering of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teaching on prayer turns on a contrast between his disciples and the “heathen”: “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Matt 7:7). Elsewhere in the KJV New Testament, the “heathen” can be dangerous in addition to being misled, as when the apostle Paul explains that his ministry has been “in perils by the heathen” (2 Cor 11:36).

A significant cluster of three New Testament references to “heathen” appears in the KJV’s rendering of Galatians. First, the mission of Paul is described as his endeavor to “preach him [Jesus] among the heathen [Gk. ethnē]” (1:16; cf. 2:9). Second and third, Paul asserts that “the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen [ethnē] through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations [ethnē] be blessed” (3:8). This verse is illustrative of the KJV’s conceptual world since the same Greek plural noun ethnē underlies KJV Galatians 3:8’s distinction between “heathen” and “nations.” In their renderings of ethnē in Galatians, the KJV translators apparently promoted the “heathen” to the rank of “nations” only when they became descendants of Abraham. This decision by the translators also reflects a theological assumption that God’s true children are not classified as the “heathen” and only sometimes among the “nations.”

Intriguingly, “heathen” was already current in the time of the KJV as a hybrid religio-cultural term for all that separated the higher civilization of Protestant England and its divine right of kingship from lower civilizations that lay beyond the British Empire. Two years before the KJV’s publication, the clergyman William Biddulph had published his popular book, Travels of Foure English Men and a Preacher. Kathryn Gin Lim summarizes that in this 1609 classic.

The primary lesson readers were to take from reading about these “Forraine and Heathen Countries” was gratitude for their own blessings and confidence in the superiority of Protestant Christianity. … In a nutshell, then, “Forraine and Heathen Countries” served as a foil against which the English could reassure themselves of their political, economic, social, and religious superiority.[8]

Biddulph’s book was one of numerous “travel itineraries” about the Orient that were popular in the seventeenth century. Due to their lasting influence on the English public, it becomes immaterial whether the KJV’s references to the “heathen” were the source of insider/outsider distinctions, or rather, a reflection of existing norms. The direction of linguistic dependence for various uses of “heathen” pales in importance next to the reality of semantic convergence—Biddulph’s broad definition of “heathen” as cultural Other and the KJV’s own references to “heathen” as religious Other both entered the vernacular and began to blend with one another.

Subsequently, this stark contrast between elect and reprobate was read back into the Old Testament with an assist from circular reasoning since the KJV had rendered goyim as “heathen” whenever non-Israelites are in view.[9] Similar to Greek ethnos/ethnē, the underlying Hebrew terms do not quite conceptualize Israel’s place as a goy among goyim along identical lines to the KJV’s insider/outsider boundaries. On this note, “nation” in English is an anachronistic rendering of Hebrew goy since modern readers will think naturally of a nation-state (which derives from eighteenth-century political ideas). The singular noun goy instead denotes a group with a common religio-cultural affiliation that also shares a land and a king.[10] Such a combination of religio-cultural, territorial, and political traits is why the Pentateuch can describe Israel in Hebrew as an ‘am (i.e., “[familial] people”) that is not yet a goy but on the way to becoming “a great goy” (e.g., Gen 12:2; Exod 32:10; Deut 4:6). To summarize, when the Old Testament distinguishes between Israel and the goyim, the matter at hand is less the spiritual conflict between a holy “nation” (cf. Exod 19:5–6) and unholy “heathen,” but more the physical difference between small Israel as an incipient goy and the larger goyim that already have a land and a king.

A closer look at the KJV’s renderings of goyim reveals another translational issue. Perhaps since the precise sense of goy was not yet available in Old Testament scholarship, the KJV’s translators tended to conflate distinct denotations and connotations of the Hebrew plural goyim under the rubric of “heathen.” In its spatial connotations, goyim is an identifier in the Hebrew Bible for both the neighboring peoples who will invade Israel (e.g., Lev 25:44; Ps 79:1) and tempt Israel with “the abominations of the heathen” (e.g., 2 Kgs 16:3; 2 Chron 28:3), as well as the remote places where Israel will be sent into exile to “perish among the heathen” (e.g., Lev 26:38; cf. Ps 80:8; Zeph 2:11). In addition, the goyim are named as enemies of God/Israel (e.g., Ps 2:1) or mocked as ignorant for their idolatry (e.g., Ps 135:15–18), sins that require their subjugation under Yahweh (e.g., Obad 15–16) and/or his human regent (e.g., 2 Sam 22:44). Within its various literary contexts, then, the term goyim bears the neutral denotations of plural ethno-political groupings that may not be “nations” in the modern sense, with possible connotations of their hostility or disobedience in some passages.

These linguistic data indicate that the KJV’s uniform rendering of non-Israelite goyim as “heathen” obscures two kinds of lexical information from Hebrew. The first involves changing the sense of Old Testament passages that portray the goyim positively as worshipers of Yahweh. In Psalm 102:15, for example, the KJV’s statement that “the heathen shall fear the name of the Lord” suggests that the goyim are chastened opponents of Yahweh, even though the psalm contains no hint of their rebellion or sin (cf. Isa 26:2; Ps 87). Another example is found in Ezekiel 20:9, one of many passages in which Judah’s sin has made the name of Yahweh “polluted before the heathen.” In such reversals on the “recognition formula” of Exodus, the unclean group that fails to know Yahweh is actually Israelites rather than “the heathen,” since the latter are watching intently to see how Yahweh vindicates his reputation and judges his sinful people. Here, the mislabeling of the “heathen” party reinforces the sort of “us/them” dichotomy that was popularized in European culture, such as Biddulph’s travel itinerary.

On this note, there is a second issue with reserving “heathen” for non-Israelite goyim. Such a decision by the KJV translators mutes how the Old Testament Prophets often attack Israelites as more “heathen” than the (other) goyim. Jeremiah furnishes a prime example as “a prophet to the goyim” (1:10) who surprises his audience by speaking mostly against fellow Israelites. Thus, to the extent that goyim might possess “othering” connotations (which is debatable in each passage of Jeremiah), the KJV removes the theological irony at hand by identifying Judah blandly as a “nation” (e.g., Jer 2:11; 5:9, 29; 7:28) rather than as the worst goy/“heathen” (cf. Jer 9:16; 18:13). These misdrawn boundaries make it difficult for readers of KJV Jeremiah to perceive how foreign outsiders like Ebed-Melech the Cushite official (Jer 38–39) and Nebuzaradan the Babylonian guard (Jer 40) are the prophet’s most responsive listeners, even protecting him from the Israelite insiders in Jerusalem who seek his life.[11] In the book of Jeremiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament, the usual insider/outsider distinctions are undermined since “we have met the heathen and it is us.”[12]

In short, renderings such as the KJV’s “heathen” often became self-referential dichotomies between Christendom on the one hand, and the barbaroi (in Greek), pagani (in Latin), Heiden (in Germanic languages, from which English “heathen” comes), or sauvages (in French) on the other.[13] Interestingly, the impact of the KJV in reinforcing the pejorative sense of “heathen” eventually caused this term to disappear in subsequent English Bibles (such as the RSV) that counted the KJV as their inspiration, shared its essentially literal philosophy of translation, and were based on much the same manuscripts. But while “heathen” language has mostly dropped out of newer Bible translations into European languages,[14] the cultural habits of “othering” that were (mis)endowed with biblical validation have sometimes persisted until the modern era, both in Western missions literature and popular culture.

The term “heathen” in early Western missions literature

A useful window into the insider/outsider distinctions that became normative in the West can be seen in William Carey’s aforementioned work, An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.[15] This 1791 pamphlet sought to instruct professing “Christians” on the spiritual needs of “the heathen(s)” and take up their God-given responsibility to share the gospel with them. The title of the Enquiry might seem to reflect the rigid contrast between “us” and “them” that characterized the KJV Bible nearly two centuries prior, making it a product of its context in late eighteenth-century England.

However, Carey was a more perceptive reader of both the Bible and European Christian history than many mission thinkers after him. The “Introduction” of the Enquiry (3–6) provides an understanding of the Fall’s effects upon all humanity (and not just “them”) that is foundational for his entire argument. Carey’s theological discussion of the relationship between Christendom and the rest of the world exhibits three features of what would now be termed cultural humility.

First, Carey observes that “Israelites themselves too often joined with the rest of mankind against the God of Israel” (4). In this respect, his grasp of Scripture allows him to overcome the category confusion that was introduced by the KJV. Carey sees clearly that the distinction between “Christians” and “heathens” diverges from the gap between “us” and “them,” such as when he warns that “a very considerable part of mankind are still involved in the darkness of heathenism” (5). On a similarly universal note, he concludes that “the far greater part of the world, as we shall see presently, are still covered with heathen darkness!” (10). In sum, the “we” in Carey’s usage typically refers to English-speaking readers, who may not be right with God themselves, rather than to “us” as a Christian nation. Later in the pamphlet, Carey acknowledges in passing the British Empire’s evils in the West Indian spice trade (86). This comment reveals him to be a Christian first and foremost who would not hesitate to criticize national interests.

Second, Carey’s survey of European history indicates that “Christian” insiders are often no better than “heathen” outsiders: “But blind zeal, gross superstition, and infamous cruelties, so marked the appearances of religion all this time, that the professors of Christianity needed conversion, as much as the heathen world” (34). Particularly in colonial history, Carey concedes

a melancholy fact, that the vices of Europeans have been communicated wherever they themselves have been; so that the religious state of even heathens has been rendered worse by intercourse with them! … the face of most Christian countries presents a dreadful scene of ignorance, hypocrisy, and profligacy. (64, 66).

From such statements, it becomes clear that the initial contrast between “Christians” and “heathens” in Carey’s title serves only to grant a common assumption. He then asserts that the real divides between these groups are spiritual rather than ethnic or national in nature.

Third and most provocatively, Carey holds that non-Western/non-Christian peoples are not as primitive or wild as they might have seemed at first. Even as he notes that European explorers have observed how indigenous peoples “are in general poor, barbarous, naked pagans, as destitute of civilization, as they are of true religion” (63), in the next breath he challenges imperialism’s narrative that European Christians always brought civilizing influences to their colonies:

I greatly question whether most of the barbarities practised by them, have not originated in some real or supposed affront, and are therefore, more properly, acts of self-defence, than proofs of inhuman and blood-thirsty dispositions (64).

By hinting that the resistance of indigenous peoples was often a response to oppression, Carey makes a radical break with the “Doctrine of Discovery” that provided theological justification for Christian empires to regard themselves like Israelites with a Joshua-like imperative to subdue “Canaanites” in pagan lands.[16] Carey’s justification for Christian mission rests instead on the theological conviction that “we” (i.e., his readers) are really no different from “them,” for all are created in God’s image and can potentially join his work of redemption:

Can we as men, or as Christians [sic], hear that a great part of our fellow creatures, whose souls are as immortal as ours, and who are as capable as ourselves, of adorning the gospel and contributing by their preaching, writings, or practices to the glory of our Redeemer’s name, and the good of his church, are inveloped [sic] in ignorance and barbarism? (69–70)

Even as Carey observes that non-Christian peoples are currently “in ignorance and barbarism,” this hardly presents an insurmountable problem since conversion to true Christianity would result in them becoming “as capable as ourselves.” In short, Carey’s use of “Christians” and “heathens” in his title is a rhetorical starting point (which he quickly undoes) rather than being a permanent chasm between “us” and “them.” Much like Jeremiah’s critiques of his own people, Carey recounts that Europe’s own pagan history was the reason that the early church engaged in mission: “It was no objection to the apostles and their successors, who went among the barbarous Germans and Gauls, and still more barbarous Britons!” (69, italics original).

Western missions literature and popular culture after William Carey’s Enquiry

Carey’s decoupling of insider/outsider distinctions from Western/non-Western boundaries was not retained consistently in the missions literature that would come in the wake of his influential pamphlet. The Western missionaries to Asia who followed Carey as “The Father of Modern Missions” tended to lack his biblical literacy and theological vision, seeing themselves instead in the role of the Old Testament Prophets who railed against the horrifying idols that lay before their eyes. The icons of ancient Mesopotamia thus became superimposed upon the icons of colonial Asia. This is evident, for instance, in how British missionaries regarded “India, with its temples still thriving and alive with ritual activity… [as] a manifestation of an idolatry as pervasive as any in the ancient world. … India, although the jewel of the Empire, became the most glaring illustration of the nineteenth-century’s definition of ‘idolatry.’”[17] Similarly, in Thailand (then called Siam), an American missionary account from the same period used biblical language to condemn the Buddhist use of icons: “They raise the gods of silver and gold, of brass, iron, wood and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand their breath is, and whose are all their ways, they have not glorified.”[18]

It is indisputable that these Western missionaries were motivated by a genuine sense of call in sharing the gospel with Indians, Thais, and other Asian peoples. At the same time, there was a strong undercurrent of cultural superiority in their misapplication of the Old Testament’s image-making parodies to the (heathen) Other rather than the (Israelite) self. The context of polemical passages such as Psalm 135, Isaiah 44, and Jeremiah 10 makes clear that the actual target and the worst problem are Israel’s own idolatry, much as perceived by Carey’s Enquiry.[19]

The tendency to vilify pagan cultures on the mission field found a parallel on the home front in the West. Two examples from the “Golden Age of Missions” in the nineteenth century will suffice to illustrate how missionary appeals to the non-Western world had a propensity to disparage the Other as primitive and uncivilized. The first is a sermon by Charles Spurgeon that is dated to 25 April 1858. In his message on “The Cry of the Heathen,”[20] Spurgeon explains Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man who pleads, “Come over into Macedonia, and help us” (Acts 16:9). The sermon utilizes a blend of biblical exposition and social commentary, drawing a link between Protestantism and civilization that is reminiscent of Biddulph’s travel diary:

If you ask what makes this land free, every candid man must say it is the open gospel and the unfettered preaching of the Word . … Certain it is that wherever you find Protestantism, you find liberty, and wherever you leave Protestantism behind you, you begin to feel the yoke, and to hear the groans of the oppressed.

Spurgeon later explains that “liberty” of all kinds forms a dividing line between civilized “us” and primitive “them.” He asserts,

There are many places where all the joys of life and the social comforts and enjoyments of our being, are as yet totally unknown. Now, the gospel has blessings in both its hands. Wherever it goes it has the blessings heaven, rich and golden—it has the blessing of the earth, fair and silvery. … The great civilizer is the cross. Nothing else can make the barbarian into a civilized man, but the cross and the vision of Christ hanging on it.

Toward the end of the sermon, Spurgeon provides his understanding of “barbarian” when he briefly assumes the persona of the man in Paul’s vision who is asking for spiritual help. But instead of portraying someone culturally adjacent to Paul who is located in another part of the Greco-Roman world, Spurgeon steps into the character of a faraway savage and places a mixture of earnest and pitiful words in his mouth. Spurgeon’s embellished characterization reveals his own view of the Other, and is worth contrasting to William Carey’s Enquiry:

Methinks, I will stand here as a heathen this morning, and I say to you as if I had not heard the gospel. “Ye Christians of Britain! ye highly favored ones, who know the name of Jesus and prove the power of the Spirit, preach the gospel to us, for we are men like yourselves. What though our skin be of a color less fair than your own? Yet he fashioneth our hearts alike. Oh tell us not, because we feed on the locust, and eat the serpent, that therefore we are not of your kith and kind! ‘Not that which goeth into a man defileth a man.’” It is true, our kings and princes are only fit to rank with your beggars; but oh! God hath made of one blood all nations that dwell upon the face of the earth; and from our huts and cabins we come forth to-day, and we say to you, ‘We are men—we are your brothers—younger brothers, it is true—we have not had a double portion of the inheritance, brothers, too, whose fathers spent their part in riotous living, but why should the children’s teeth be set on edge because the fathers have eaten sour grapes? Why must the son of man for ever bear the curse of Canaan? O preach the gospel to us! We are men, mother Eve is our mother, as well as yours; Adam, too, is the father from whose loins we sprang; and because we are men, the common sympathy of humanity bids you listen to us, when we say, ‘Come over and help us.’”

Here the mention of Adam’s sinful descendants echoes the Introduction of Carey’s Enquiry. However, Spurgeon also makes a subtle but unmistakable connection among darker skin (“less fair than your own”), the savage who consumes dirty animals (that is mitigated somewhat by his quotation of Matthew 15:11), and a clear allusion to nineteenth-century views on race that privileged white Europeans over black Africans (“the curse of Canaan”). This combination of Western tropes about dark-skinned pagans stands at odds with Spurgeon’s appeal to “the common sympathy of humanity.”

Spurgeon concludes his first-person discourse by reimagining the Macedonian man’s terse appeal as an extended invitation for Christians to visit “us” with the civilizing light of the gospel:

Besides, we have another argument. We are told that ‘unto you is the Word of this salvation sent,’ not for yourselves, but for us, brothers, who have not heard the gospel and who know it not. And you have the treasure in your own land; and we believe you have the treasure given to you, that you may lavish handfuls of it out to us. We know that old Judea had the covenant and the oracles, and the gospel to keep for coming generations; and we believe that you men of Britain have the gospel, not for yourselves, but for us. We have heard what your Master said, ‘Ye are the lights of the world;’ not lights of Britain, not lights for yourselves, the lights of the world. Oh! bear your burning torches into the glades of our dark forests. Come [sic] and shed your light through the dark mists of our idolatrous temples; let the bats of our superstition, and the owls of our ignorance, fly away before the sunlight of your gospel. It is not for yourselves you have received it, but for us. Oh! give it to us. Preach the gospel to us, for it is designed for us. But we have another argument, brethren; look at our miseries!

In conclusion, Spurgeon’s sermon resembles Carey’s Enquiry for its strong appeal for Christians to take up the cause of mission to faraway lands, but the insider/outsider divisions that Spurgeon uses have more in common with Biddulph’s account of the “heathen” from the sixteenth century as well as nineteenth-century exoticization of “the Orient.” The fact that Spurgeon has conveyed such caricatures of the Other using a “we”-character should not hide the fact that he is still relying on a sharp religio-cultural distinction between “us” and “them” that is foreign to the Bible.

Elsewhere in Spurgeon’s sermon, he implicitly criticizes American Christians whose argument for slavery as God’s design is what he deems as “the effect of a delusion which hell itself did first invent.” But in the process of challenging the theological views that eventually led to the American Civil War, Spurgeon falls into the same trap as southern American Christian advocates of slavery who used the so-called “curse of Canaan” (Gen 9:18–29) as biblical warrant for anti-blackness. Tragically, such views persist in some quarters of the American church and scholarly guild today.[21]

A second example of a missionary appeal that falls short of Carey’s Enquiry can be found in a sermon by Samuel Wilberforce, an Anglican bishop of Oxford and son of the British abolitionist William Wilberforce. In a sermon from 1860 published as The Word of the Lord to Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian,[22] Wilberforce preached to a team of new missionaries to Africa by expounding on the Lord’s words to Ebed-Melech the Cushite official. His sermon has the laudable goal of magnifying God’s grace toward “the lost”, but it does so at the expense of Ebed-Melech by labeling him “this despised example of a despised race” (6). Like William Carey, Wilberforce certainly affirms God’s love for all people when he says that “the remembrance and tender compassion of the Lord is full and entire for each one of the innumerable mass, as if he stood alone in a desert world” (7). Yet, the summons to share divine grace relies on maximizing the human depravity of a Cushite who is supposedly “despised,” reflecting the same theological misunderstanding as Charles Spurgeon’s that associated the “curse of Canaan” with blackness.[23] But as noted above, the literary context of Jeremiah 38–39 reveals that Ebed-Melech is a foreigner who rescues the prophet Jeremiah from his own countrymen and thereby shows himself to be one of the most righteous individuals in the book.

Portrait of Samuel Wilberforce by George Richmond (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

Later in the sermon, Wilberforce’s biases become more overt when he associates Ebed-Melech the ancient Cushite with modern members of “the despised enslaved tribes of suffering Ethiopia” who are trapped in “fetish rites and devil worship” (12). Whether this kind of occult behavior might soon be witnessed by Wilberforce’s hearers in Ethiopia is not relevant, for the book of Jeremiah itself has already revealed Ebed-Melech to be a better Israelite (in his theology, not ethnicity) than the Judahites who are trying to kill their own prophet from Yahweh. Wilberforce’s choice of text about Ebed-Melech (Jer 39:15–17), the only individual who receives a personalized salvation oracle, actually stands in opposition to his homiletical contrast between “the heathen darkness of Africa” and “our light” (13). Wilberforce has walked in the footsteps of the KJV by overlooking how insiders and outsiders have switched places in the book of Jeremiah.

The sermon concludes with an exhortation for hearers to trust God’s power and provision as they proceed on their mission. Interestingly, Wilberforce draws upon a striking biblical image in describing their journey to Africa as “brethren going forth into the wilderness” and “the great and terrible wilderness before them, of its ‘fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where is no water’” (16–17). The published version of the sermon not only footnotes Deuteronomy 8:15 as the source of these words, but also quotes Deuteronomy 31:7–8 to assure the team leader that their mission to Africa will proceed successfully like Joshua’s conquest in the promised land:

[B]efore he gave over to younger hands his rod and staff, God’s great prophet said of old to his successor,—‘Be strong and of a good courage: for thou must go with this people unto the land which the Lord hath sworn unto their fathers to give them; and Thou shalt cause them to inherit it (17–18, italics original).

The parallels that Wilberforce draws between a hostile wilderness and wild Africa have been instrumental in Western encounters with the non-Western world. Much like Biddulph’s travel itinerary and the KJV began to bolster each other’s insider/outsider categories in the seventeenth century, the pagan African inland became the nineteenth-century prototype of both the culturally “heathen” land to be taken in European empires’ “Race for Africa,” and the religiously “heathen” land that would receive Western missionaries who brought the light of the gospel. Again, the gospel-driven compassion of Wilberforce and his audience is not in question, but such a missionary appeal to Africa conflates God’s paternal love for sinful humanity with one’s own paternalistic love in crossing the boundaries between “us” to “them.” In Wilberforce’s “othering” of the pitiful, the biblically motivated self-critique of Christendom’s own faults that characterized Carey’s Enquiry has gone missing, much as in Spurgeon’s call to missionary service.


Why be critical of these works by nineteenth-century missionaries and preachers who inhabited a very different world than ours? The reason is that the present stakeholders for these works continue to offer them as worthy of emulation, without commenting on their elements that would be seen nowadays as a racist affront to the gospel. For example, Spurgeon’s sermon “The Cry of the Heathen” is hosted online by The Spurgeon Center at Midwestern Seminary, which seeks “to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ by preserving the personal library of Charles Haddon Spurgeon and fostering a deeper appreciation of his life, legacy, theology, and preaching.”[24] Similarly, numerous OMF homeside offices still publish the century-old works of the China Inland Mission that are inspiring for retracing the steps of courageous “China hands,” but perplexing for their offhand use of terms like “heathen Chinese” or “heathen nation” (that featured in the “Yellow Peril” during the same period in America).[25] The acknowledgment that our spiritual forebears were sincere but imperfect in their encounters with non-Western cultures would be preferable to upholding the aura of “saints who sometimes were.”[26] On this note, a more reflective posture toward both the past and the Other would also offer a way beyond the unnecessary choice between defending Christian luminaries without critique on the one hand, and the “cancel culture” that seeks to censor them without context on the other.

Whether one agrees with this study’s linguistic argument about the term and concept of “heathen,” it should be clear that the missionary model of self-critique offered by William Carey, following the Bible’s own lead, has remained the unfortunate exception in how the Protestant missionary movement has engaged the Other. For, as the eminent missiologist Paul Hiebert once noted, missionaries in particular seem to struggle with applying the methods of “critical contextualization” to themselves, preferring instead to contextualize for others without recognizing their own situatedness as part of (mis)assuming that “we have faith, they have culture.”[27] But as those in Christian mission relearn that contextualization is as much for “us” as it is for “them,” such a demonstration of cultural humility in our time will likely make future generations more forgiving of our mistakes where we once said, “it’s contextualization when I do it, syncretism when you do it.”[28]


Reflection Questions

  1. Where have you encountered older terms or descriptions for people which are now considered inappropriate (e.g., “heathen,” “pagan,” “savage”)? What were the generational and/or cultural differences at work?
  2. In your circles, where do you see the traditional distinctions between Western/Christian “us” and non-Western/non-Christian “them” becoming blurred or even inaccurate? How are the boundaries between “insiders” and “outsiders” in Christian faith shifting around you?
  3. How do you feel about the linguistic reality that Bible versions tend to reproduce their translators’ cultural assumptions or biases? In what ways does this impact your confidence in Scripture as God’s Word or in the Bible translations we use?
  4. What can we learn from William Carey’s posture of “cultural humility” which was countercultural for his time? Where might we be falling short in our ministry approaches to the religious or cultural “Other”?


[1] Mark Gollom, “Why the Use of Sensitivity Readers is Causing Such a Stir in the Publishing World,” CBC News, 5 March 2023, (accessed 5 May 2023).

[2] Grace Lin, “Dr. Seuss Museum Should Honor the Fact that He Outgrew His Racist Past,” New England Public Media, 11 October 2017, (accessed 5 May 2023).

[3] The coinage of “Three C’s” is first attributed to the missionary-explorer David Livingstone, though this slogan was later misunderstood to denote Livingstone’s unabashed support for colonialism. For a nuanced treatment from an African perspective, see Fidelis Nkomazana, “Livingstone’s Ideas of Christianity, Commerce and Civilization,” Pula: Botswana Journal of African Studies 12, no. 1–2 (1998): 44–57.

[4] Kathryn Gin Lum, Heathen: Religion and Race in American History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022).

[5] Melvyn Bragg, The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611–2011 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011).

[6] Alister E. McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 99–171.

[7] Nandini Das, João Vicente Melo, Haig Smith, and Lauren Working, “Heathen,” in Keywords of Identity, Race, and Human Mobility in Early Modern England, Connected Histories in the Early Modern World 3 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021), 131–36.

[8] Lum, Heathen, 26–27.

[9] As Das, Melo, Smith, and Working (see footnote 6) observe, the KJV’s references to “heathen” reinforced the impression that “Old Testament writers continually pitted heathen gentiles—those who did not worship Jehovah, the God of the Jews—against reformed Christians.” “Heathen,” 136.

[10] Daniel I. Block, “Nations/Nationality,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 4:966–72.

[11] Jerry Hwang, “The Missio Dei as an Integrative Motif in Jeremiah,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 23 (2013): 502–3.

[12] On this use of surprise in Jeremiah through “shifts in symbolic arrangements,” see Louis Stulman, “Insiders and Outsiders in the Book of Jeremiah: Shifts in Symbolic Arrangements,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 20 (1995): 65–85.

[13] On the historical development of these dichotomies in the West, see Paul G. Hiebert, “Western Images of Others and Otherness,” in This Side of Heaven: Race, Ethnicity, and Christian Faith, ed. Robert J. Priest and Alvaro L. Nieves (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 97–110.

[14] For example, the terms païen and Heide no longer appear in the latest French and German versions of the Bible, respectively.

[15] William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen (Facsimile of 1792 Edition) (London: The Carey Kingsgate Press, 1961).

[16] See the overview of Joshua’s history of interpretation by L. Daniel Hawk, Joshua in 3-D: A Commentary on Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010).

[17] Joanne Punzo Waghorne, “The Divine Image in Contemporary South India: The Renaissance of a Once Maligned Tradition,” in Born in Heaven, Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East, ed. Michael B. Dick (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 213, 215.

[18] Cited in Siu Kam-wah (Joseph), “American Missionary Views on Siamese Culture and Their Evangelical and Social Works in Siam Between the Mid-19th Century and the Early 20th Century,” Harvard-Yenching Institute Working Paper Series (2019), 32: (accessed 5 May 2023).

[19] For details, see Jerry Hwang, Contextualization and the Old Testament: Between Asian and Western Perspectives (Carlisle, UK: Langham, 2022), 156–61.

[20] Charles H. Spurgeon, “The Cry of the Heathen,” n.d., (accessed 5 May 2023).

[21] J. Daniel Hays, “Racial Bias in the Academy . . . Still?,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 34 (2007): 315–29.

[22] Samuel Wilberforce, The Word of the Lord to Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian (London: Rivington, and J. H. Parker, 1860).

[23] For example, there is a lengthy and unfortunate history among Jeremiah commentators of misunderstanding the rhetorical question, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin?” (Jer 13:23) as an observation on blackness as unattractive and/or something in need of washing off. For more discussion, see Jerry Hwang, “Who Is the Real ‘Model Minority’? An Asian American Reading of Ruth and Ebed-Melech in the Hebrew Bible,” Biblical Interpretation (2022): 9–11.


[25] E.g., M. Geraldine Guinness, The Story of the China Inland Mission Vol. 1 (London: Morgan & Scott, 1893), 32.

[26] On this need for discernment in reading missionary accounts, see Alan Neely, “Saints Who Sometimes Were: Utilizing Missionary Hagiography,” Missiology: An International Review 27 (October 1999): 441–57.

[27] R. Daniel Shaw, Danny DeLoach, Jonathan Grimes, Simon Herrmann, and Stephen Bailey, “Contextualization, Conceptualization, and Communication: The Development of Contextualization at Fuller’s Graduate School of World Mission/Intercultural Studies,” Missiology: An International Review 44 (2016): 100–103.

[28] This half-joke among missionaries is related by Gary Corwin, “A Second Look: Telling the Difference,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 40 (2004): 282.

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