The Wallace K. Ferguson Prize
Elizabeth Elbourne, Blood Ground: Colonialism, Missions, and the Contest for Christianity in the Cape Colony and Britain, 1799-1853. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002.
This wonderfully complex book is a study of the earliest missionaries sent out by the London Missionary Society to evangelize the doomed Khoekhoe and Khoisan (or Hottentot) culture and people of Cape Colony, South Africa. Focusing on “the politics of civilization,” Elbourne narrates the tribulations of the dissenter missionaries and their relations not only with the native Africans but, perhaps most importantly, with British society and culture. Indeed, the prime focus is on European intellectual currents and religion applied to South Africa. Elbourne provides serious engagement with theory on a wide variety of issues in her sweeping psychological and historical study of the complexities of this particular example of European colonialism. These reflect the equally momentous inner encounter of the missionary with the heathen in the grip of original sin and with lands inhabited by Satan. Elbourne offers a view of Christianity as a language subject to negotiation and highly politicized conflicts over meaning. It is an encounter, ultimately, of “an ironic and paradoxical Africa of the imagination with an imagined Britain.”
The earliest evangelical missionaries were startlingly radical, often settling down among the natives and marrying them, all in the midst of frequent clashes between the British and the Dutch settlers and between the settlers and the aboriginal people. This was the model of the Bethelsdorp missionary settlement in which the missionaries shared the life of the Khoekhoe. By the 1830s this model was being replaced with the rise of missionary capitalism and respectability. The apogee of this Africanist evangelical radicalism came in the 1835-36 Parliamentary Select Committee on Aborigines which recommended reforms to protect the natives. It was already too late. By the 1850s “race” took the place of religion as the measure of “civilization.”
Evangelicalism, rationalism, romanticism, deism–all mingle in complicated and unexpected ways in Elbourne’s sophisticated interplay of the individual and society, thought and action. The research is broad and very impressive, and the prose is at times luminous. Peopled with vivid characters and complex ethical dilemmas, this book captures the combination of missionary exhilaration at the unfolding of an unknown world before their eyes and the achingly inexorable destruction of a native society.
Ian Dowbiggin, A Merciful End. The Euthenasia Movement in Modern America. Oxford University Press, 2003.
In his book A Merciful End Ian Dowbiggin gives a clear and evenly-balanced study of the history of euthanasia in the United States since the latter part of the nineteenth century. Drawing on sources that range from turn of the century literature to personal interviews to papers of the American Euthanasia Society, this well-documented study traces shifting attitudes towards euthanasia from the Progressive era through the 1960s and up to recent attempts to legalize assisted suicide in the 1990s, positioning the issue of mercy killing within a broad social and geographical context that ranges outside the United States, and showing the influence of similar movements in Britain and Europe on American euthanasia advocates.
Dowbiggin argues that Darwinism and nineteenth century scientific ideas blended with notions of social reform to stimulate a relatively small number of Americans to support euthanasia, or mercy killing, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such a step seemed little more than an extension of the practice of eugenics which, to some reformers, appeared to offer a solution to many of America’s social ills. Then, and later, supporters also linked family planning, birth control, and abortion to the euthanasia movement. After an understandable hiatus in the 1940s and postwar period, new questions about the value of life, and the right to end it, stimulated wider public interest in the 1960s. By then, new medical breakthroughs allowed patients to live prolonged but painful lives. Thus, there was a new emphasis on the quality of life, as well as a shift from viewing euthanasia as a social reform measure to one of personal choice, reflected in the increasing number of living wills, and a growing use of the phrases “right to die” or the “right not to suffer.” As Dowbiggin states, however, it is unclear exactly what the “right to die” meant, or means, and shows that there may be a dangerous elision between the “right to die” and the “duty to die,” on the part of the old or chronically ill who can be seen as putting a strain on the health care system. The profound moral questions raised by these issues have divided supporters within the euthanasia movement into advocates of passive versus active euthanasia, and Dowbiggin charts these internal conflicts in the broader context of Americans’ divided opinions on the issue. Written in compelling and lucid prose, A Merciful End is a masterful explanation of the way in which changing social, economic and disease-related factors have affected public interest in euthanasia, and is especially strong in its ability to raise profound questions while remaining detached from partisan views.
M.D. Driedger, Obedient Heretics. Mennonite Identities in Lutheran Hamburg and Altona During the Confessional Age. Ashgate, 2002.
The history of Anabaptism and of its two principal branches, the Mennonites and the Hutterites, is less well known than that of other Protestant denominations. Its lesser importance derives from Anabaptism’s few adherents, the difficulty of properly evaluating its origins and early development, the dispersion and persecution of communities, and the absence of leading figures such as Luther and Calvin who commanded attention as much through their action as through their writings. The situation has changed, however, with the many current studies that attempt to shed light on a complex and rich movement, mainly in the Netherlands, Germany and Anglo-Saxon countries, including English Canada, whose contributions are notable.
This is the background against which we can judge the importance of Driedger’s work. Driedger set out to study, from different perspectives, the history of the Mennonite community living in the region of Altona and Hamburg during the 17th and 18th centuries. These Mennonites mostly originated in the Netherlands, to which they remained linked through religion, but they also came from Dantzig, Friesland and even the Palatinate. Although few in number, they played an important economic role, while benefiting from an increasing tolerance on the part of the local authorities and the Lutheran community. They even at times participated in political life, a striking contrast to the fierce persecution that the Anabaptists would suffer in Lutheran or Calvinist countries in a later period. Although their faith prohibited the carrying of arms or commission of violence of any kind, some high-ranking merchants of Altona and Hamburg put a military presence on their trading ships, causing a controversy within the community at the end of the 17th century. On a social level, the Mennonites were not an entirely cohesive community, being composed of factions, family groups, interwoven networks of all sorts, and being subject to inevitable tensions like mixed marriages, none of which, however, prevented the community from preserving its identity until the beginning of the 19th century.
Based on original archived records, often unpublished, located in particular in Hamburg, on printed sources, and on modern works astutely used, Driedger’s work is an exhaustive monograph of a rare erudition which should serve as a model for other studies of the same kind. In this exemplary portrait, Driedger acquaints us with the life of a small community, not only its daily life, but also its religious and administrative framework, its spiritual problems, its deviations like that of Dompelaars, and its relations with the Lutherans and the political authorities. It also provides a very nuanced reflection both on the concept of identity and on the paradigm of “confessionalization” among the Mennonites, which can be considered along with the studies and the discussions that this last issue has generated among Reform historians for the last decade. This remarkable work, perfectly situated with regard to the more general issue of Protestantism in northern Germany and the Netherlands, will enrich our knowledge of Anabaptism at the local level. There is no doubt that it will inspire other works of a similar nature.