By Dr. Jennifer Snow
My work for the past few years has focused on studying the missional history of the Episcopal Church. In particular, I’ve looked for changes in mission practice and theory over time and in different contexts.
This work has culminated in a book-length manuscript on mission, race, and empire in the life of the Episcopal Church, currently under contract at Oxford University Press. I trace this history from Roanoke and Jamestown, the earliest English colonies in North America, through the twenty-first century.
The roots of this project go back first to my original scholarly focus: how the socially dominant white Christian culture of the United States incorporates, excludes, or assimilates racial and religious “others.” This research led me directly into a study of historic immigration law, and the discourse of missionaries about non-Christian immigrants.
I discovered that missionaries were far more complex and nuanced than I had previously understood—often pluralistic, politically active, and human-rights oriented. From this experience I developed an ongoing interest in the discourse and practice of Christian missions as well as their connection to the historic racial ideologies of assimilation and multiculturalism that govern U.S. culture.
A few years ago, I tested out with our faculty lunch group a “popular” (as opposed to strictly scholarly) article outlining the history of missions and ideas about evangelism. I was surprised that the most exciting part of it for my colleagues was learning that missional ideas and practices had gone through a major shift in the mid-twentieth century. At that time, missions scholars began to emphasize the idea of “missio dei,” that mission belonged to God rather than the church. This shift coincides with a belief that God is active in the world outside of the church’s missional activities.
My colleague’s interest made me wonder how denominational history, which is rarely conducted in the same circles as mission history, might be reshaped and differently understood with a focus on mission and its many changes over time and across different contexts and theological experiences.
In the spring of 2019, I taught for the first time a course on the history of the Episcopal Church. I organized the course to trace the missional and racial history of the denomination. We found that studying the Episcopal Church in this way changed our class’s own understanding of our religious identity. The story of the Episcopal Church now became one of diversity and complexity, intertwined with the political history of the United States, its territorial expansions, and its colonial practices.
Instead of seeing the church interacting with its culture like two solids in classical physics, the church becomes permeable, intermingled with and shaped by the people and events it encounters, and vice versa. With a focus on studying the church from its margins and growing edges, different figures bring their voices and experiences into center stage. The overall picture becomes much more complex and dynamic.
In the modern world, we might sometimes worry that the church is “changing too much,” is no longer relevant, or is struggling financially or demographically. Looking at history as I’ve outlined above demonstrates clearly that the church has always been this.
There has almost never been a time when the church could rest on its laurels, or succeed at everything it tried, or be without financial anxieties. At different points of its history, leaders and missionally oriented Episcopalians of all demographic and cultural groups have tried different strategies to respond to their missional contexts.
The contemporary church can learn well from seeing the trials and errors of the past. One of the students in the class wrote in their evaluation that “I never knew church history could be like this.” For a historian, there’s no better word to hear!