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Early Protestant Missionary Efforts In The Philippines

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1. Introduction

As a trained social anthropologist, I would like to present the findings of a three-year research on the early impact of Protestant missionary efforts at the turn of the last century. Some of these could be useful not only to Filipinos but also to other Asian churches as we reflect on the future of Christian mission in Asia.

It is important for us to grasp the fact that what we call Christianity is really a product of our interaction with the formal system, like the biblical text, and culture as controlling context in the process of translation. We are aware from the writings of Andrew Walls that Christianity is a vernacular faith.2 Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are constantly contextualizing the Christian faith. This is in stark contrast with Islam where "translation" is not permitted, whether in

1 An earlier version was presented in the International Symposium on Asian Mission, Manila, Jan 2002, and this revised version was published in Wonsuk Ma & Julie Ma, eds., Asian Church and God's Mission: Studies Presented in the International Symposium on Asian Mission in Manila, Jan 2002 (Manila: OMF/MWM, 2003).

* Melba Padilla MAGGAY (Ph.D.,, a Filipino Social Anthropologist, is Director of Institute of Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture (ISACC), Manila, Philippines.

2 Andrew F. Walls, "Old Athens and New Jerusalem: Some Signposts for Christian Scholarship in the Early History of Mission Studies," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 21:4 (Oct. 1997), pp. 146-53.

120 Journal of Asian Mission 5:1 (2003)

language or culture. Muslims have to understand Arabic to be truly Islamic. It is not an accident that Christianity is always engaged in translation. The incarnational nature of the Christian faith demands it.

It is also important to realize that what we call "folk" religions or "popular" religions are actually products of this interface between text and context. In a setting where "translation" is done properly, Christianity more or less remains the same in substance, in spite of sometimes radically different perspectives on it. In the Philippines, we often say that our Christianity is not really "biblical" but "folk" Christianity. Positively, this is the result of a creative interaction between our understandings of Christianity as handed down to us and our own appropriation of it within the terms of our culture. Unfortunately, according to Jose De Mesa, a colleague within the Catholic tradition, it is not the indigenous religion that got Christianized but Christianity as a religion became Filipinized.3 I assume that a similar process happens in many other Asian cultures.

2. The Static of Colonialism:

Iberian Catholicism and American Protestantism

"To civilize and Christianize" was the agenda of the early American missionaries who came to the Philippines at the turn of the last century. This was based on what they called their "manifest destiny." President William McKinley, speaking to a group of Methodist bishops just before the annexation of the Philippines, said he had this strange agonizing pain about what to do with the country. After much praying he said he finally came to the decision that it was God's will that America should come to Christianize and civilize the Filipinos.4 Now, this talk of lofty intentions was more or less similarly experienced by many third-world countries where, along with the colonial powers, Christianity came as a handmaid to imperialism.

3 Jose M. de Mesa, "Hispanic Catholicism and Lowland Filipino Culture," in Conversion to Protestant Christianity Track II Report, vol. 2 (unpublished report, Manila: ISACC, 1995-1999), p. 4.

4 From an account of Gen. James F. Rusling, "Interview with President Mckinley," The Christian Advocate 78 (January 27, 1903) and as quoted by Mariano Apilado, Revolutionary Spirituality, A Study of the Protestant Role in the American Colonial Rule of the Philippines, 1898-1928 (Quezon City, Philippines: New Day, 1999).

Maggay, "Early Protestant Missionary Efforts" 121

This is a fact that we need to face squarely: our sense of ambiguity towards the missionary as bearer of God's message and as culture-bearer of imperial power. We have seen this all throughout the influx of American Protestantism in this country. The same ambiguity was also felt about the convert. It was understood at that time that to be a Protestant was to be on the side of colonialism. During the early days of heated debates about independence from America, the converts themselves felt at a loss about their new-found faith and the fact that they were being identified as part of the colonizing power.

Also at the turn of the twentieth century, there was a massive movement called the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Philippine Independent Church). It was a bulwark of the resistance against Spain and the vanguard of the movement towards secularization of the clergy. The movement, at the highest point of its popularity, was claiming that about five million Filipinos, or nearly two-thirds of the population, were with them during the first three or four years. They were consistently claiming three to four million Filipino followers.5 The figures may have been exaggerated, but it was also true that it was a massive movement at that time.

It is said that the leader of this movement, Gregorio Aglipay, went to the missionaries and asked: "Why don't you teach and work with us? Your faith has something to do with the Bible, and we would like to go back to the Bible." But James Rodgers, the first Presbyterian missionary and first official American missionary to the Philippines, together with his colleagues, debated whether they should openly support the Iglesia Filipina Independiente or not. Eventually they decided not to endorse the movement, because they thought that Aglipay, who was an officer in Aguinaldo's army, was too political.6 In the language of Frank Laubach, a Congregationalist missionary, the missionaries thought the movement was too Roman in ritual, too rationalistic in its theology and too Spanish

5See Mary Dorita Clifford, "Iglesia Filipina Independiente: The Revolutionary Church," in Studies in Philippine Church History, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1969), p. 234. Also Howard Stuntz,



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