I am currently exploring the role of empires in shaping religion and religions around the world, and by no means just Christianity. I particularly want to look at the idea of movement and the different ways people (and their religions) travel.
If you look at a map of Christianity around the world, you will very quickly appreciate the role of past empires. The great centers of Christianity owe their origins to successive Christian empires over the past half-millennium: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Belgian and British. Within these empires, many people moved voluntarily, as settlers and settlers. Others were conquered and (at least initially) had new religious systems imposed on them. Over time, these conquered peoples appropriated the religion, but that’s another story. Put it all together, and this is the story of how a predominantly European-centric religion (in 1500) became a vast transcontinental enterprise in 2000.
So much is obvious, but this isn’t just a case of “Country X conquering a land and bringing their religion there”. You could actually compile a long list of countries ruled by European Christian powers where Christianity has had virtually no impact and survives as a fossil at best. Think of French Algeria, which was not even an imperial possession, but rather considered an integral part of the French metropolitan homeland. Yet today the country is almost entirely Muslim. In other cases, the types of religion that the empires introduced were exactly what those ruling imperial powers neither wanted nor favored. This is a complicated story, and to which I will return.
We should think about this idea of movement and what it means for faith and beliefs. By their very nature, empires needed excellent communications, whether by road and sail, or by steamship, plane, and truck. Only in this way could the imperial court or capital ensure firm authority over distant lands, while retaining the ability to send military reinforcements. By reducing travel times and bringing distant regions of the globe closer together, empires made the world shrink. Naturally, this was wonderful news for missionaries seeking to preach a faith to every corner of the world. But it also fundamentally changed the fate of dissidents, malcontents and rebels within the homelands.
How Cults Dispersed
In the English-ruled world, for example – the core of the later British Empire – the established religion from the 1530s was firmly Anglican and Protestant, with no tolerance for dissenters or dissenters, whether Catholic or Protestant. Prior to the 17th century, dissidents had little choice but to accept official rule, with any qualms, or risk their lives and property in rebellion. Things changed when dissidents could be exported to colonial possessions, where they could provide invaluable assistance to the imperial plan to expand colonization.
I have described the extraordinary climatic crisis of the years around 1680, which led to rebellions, persecutions and conspiracies in much of Europe. Unlike previous eras, this wave of crisis led to mass emigrations to imperial territories—British and Irish Quakers and Baptists in Pennsylvania, where they were soon joined by German Protestant sectarians.
Persecutions of Protestants in France soon led Huguenots there to seek their own refuges in overseas empires, whether in British America or Dutch South Africa. In each case, these colonial settlements became a breeding ground for further growth, which was particularly concentrated among religious groups who, at home, would have been tolerated dissenters at best, persecuted victims at worst. Colonial Pennsylvania boomed, but in very few cases, the people leading the expansion across the state and loyal Anglicans further west. When America revolted in the 1770s, British observers described the movement as a “Presbyterian rebellion.” Anglicanism barely survived in the new republic, following a profound metamorphosis which created the Episcopal Church.
Deeply religious people who have traveled far to escape persecution have also come to understand their plight through inevitable scriptural resources. The Huguenots who went to Africa became crucial to the development of the Afrikaaner/Boer tradition, with its strongly Old Testament idea of true believers as God’s holy people, committed to a divine covenant. All of these ideas were equally well represented among North American Presbyterians. The Huguenots brought with them a sense of martyrology, persecution, and the need for communal self-defense. This tradition shaped the politics of white South Africa well into the 1990s and beyond. Although the Afrikaans language is predominantly of Dutch origin, most Afrikaaners have Huguenot blood. Many families that dominated Afrikaaner society until recent times bear French names.
Australia offers a somewhat similar process for exporting dissidents. Although the British Empire did not deliberately decide to reduce its Catholic population by sending it to the other side of the world, it was rather what happened through the penal transport system. The new Australia that emerged in the late 19th century had a strong Irish and Catholic presence, which today makes up around a quarter of the whole. The British Empire, of course, had no intention of creating a new Catholic state in the southern hemisphere, but empires are often hit by the law of unintended consequences.
You’ve heard of “Build it and they will come?” Empires operate on the basis of “Make it possible to go, and they will go”.
The number of possible examples here is almost limitless, but here are some non-Christian stories that I find powerful. When the Spanish kings united the peninsula, they became increasingly intolerant of the large Jewish population and forced them to convert or flee. A large number of Jews accepted a fictitious conversion, but maintained their faith in secret. Beginning in the 16th century, many of these crypto-Jews took advantage of the new opportunities opened up by a global empire and emigrated in substantial numbers to many parts of South and Central America, including Mexico and New Mexico. . Until the end of the South American Inquisition in the 1820s, investigators repeatedly found traces of this global but secretive Jewish presence, in the form of secret prayers and fragments of liturgy, distinctive dietary customs and seasonal rituals.
Mapping the Hindus
To take another example, empires need labor, and more specifically localized labor in high-demand locations. Here I will mention only very briefly the role of slavery in creating the global African diaspora that is so central to modern Christian history. (I will of course come back to this). But other forms of labor were also employed, including indentured labor which often looked a lot like slavery. This involved both Chinese and Indian workers, who found themselves in strange and unexpected corners of the British Empire, where they brought their religious habits. The British had no intention of making Hinduism a world religion, but they did.
Thanks to these historical population movements (by the British and the Dutch), Hindus today represent a quarter of the populations of Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname, 40% of the population of Fiji, half of Mauritius. When you walk through the streets of the city of Singapore – a brand new 19th century British creation – you see so many Indian and Chinese places of worship. Other peoples of the Indian subcontinent, Sikhs and Muslims, also found themselves in entirely new territories, in Cape Town or Vancouver.
Post-imperial Britain itself attracted Hindus from the 1950s, as workers or small entrepreneurs. Today, the country is home to around one million Hindus, some of whom are very wealthy and powerful. One of them, Rishi Sunak, tops the list of Conservative Party candidates to replace Boris Johnson as Prime Minister (which may or may not happen, of course). Sunak’s personal fortune is probably north of $250 million, and his (Hindu) in-laws are billionaires. When he was sworn in to the House of Commons, he did so on Bhagavad-Gita.
A Muslim experience
Another “unintentional” example that I like, in that it not only shows how religions travel, but also how those religions are transformed. The Dutch had a powerful and densely populated empire in the East Indies, in what is now modern Indonesia. This experience is the subject of barely romanticized fiction Max Havelar (1860), by Eduard Douwes Dekker, which has good reason to rank as the great European empire novel: it is also VERY critical of Dutch domination. The 1978 film version is equally impressive.
The religion in these areas was predominantly Muslim but of a very tolerant and syncretistic type, with many borrowings from Hinduism, and largely cut off from the wider Muslim world. This changed in the 19th century, when the modern and efficient Dutch navy sank the pirate fleets that had cursed the region for so long. Better yet, European empires made sea travel easier by introducing cheap steamship travel, which made transoceanic travel a familiar and even monotonous reality. It has now become relatively easy for Muslims in the region to make the long impossible pilgrimage to Mecca, and even to travel to the Muslim Middle East. If you read Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, you see how such a pilgrimage had been normalized by the end of the 19th century. (See John Slight, The British Empire and the Hajj, 1865-1956 (Harvard University Press, 2015).
In the Middle East, these pilgrims discovered how their own customs and practices were out of step with the realities of modern Islam. This discovery initiated a fundamental reorientation of Indonesian Islam towards a much stricter and more orthodox variety, and even towards what we would today call political Islamism. Today, Indonesia is by far the largest Muslim nation in the world, with 230 million believers. Needless to say, this leap to orthodox Islam is not what the Dutch Empire had in mind when it began to address the problem of piracy.
By greatly facilitating travel and transportation, creating great trading cities and merchant communities, empires facilitate the spread of religions to whole new territories, and this is true of both old and new religions. Just read the Book of Acts.
For the American context, I draw attention to Katherine Carte, Religion and the American Revolution: An Imperial History (University of North Carolina Press, 2021). It is admirably clear and broad on what the revolution meant for “imperial Protestantism“.