Missionary travels and travails

On the Missionary Trail

By Tom Hiney Atlantic Monthly Press 304 pp., $25

Help Wanted: Christian, well versed in the Bible, foreign languages a plus, must be willing to travel. Hazards of job include: shipwreck, pirates, and cannibals.

If the London Missionary Society advertised for missionaries in the early 1800s, this is what an honest classified would have looked like. In reality, however, the volunteers venturing out to Polynesia, Asia, and Africa could not have known the struggles ahead.

Tom Hiney's new book, "On the Missionary Trail," explores the early travails of these missionaries through the eight-year voyage of Rev. Daniel Tyerman and George Bennet. The two men were sent around the globe by the London Missionary Society in 1821 to determine the progress of their missions.

Hiney chose the right men to follow for this story. They left behind a fascinating journal and their journey was itself an investigation of the movement. Unfortunately, Hiney couldn't decide what kind of story to present: historical analysis or travel literature. As a result, his narrative is anything but smooth sailing. Poorly integrated threads of history, biography, travel, and anthropology toss the plot off the charts.

Quotes from Tyerman and Bennet's remarkable journal, however, consistently carry the reader forward. Particularly engaging is their portrayal of Hawaiian King Rihoriho, a target of missionary attempts at conversion, notwithstanding his five queens, who shared his affection for the bottle. The king's posture in the mission chapel raised the travelers' eyebrows: "Rihoriho threw himself at full length on a form while one attendant ... covered himself with a piece of cloth, for the purpose of being his majesty's pillow."

When Tyerman and Bennet leave Polynesia to sail west, their wry observations are no longer front-and-center. Instead, the text meanders through biographies of regional missionaries and historical analysis of why their missions failed.

At times, Bennet and Tyerman feel more like a literary device than the central characters. On the other hand, the book could have succeeded as a historical analysis of the English missionary movement if a central thesis drove the text, rather than the journey of Tyerman and Bennet.

Surprisingly, a thesis does appear in the book's epilogue: Christian missionaries were not the stooges of imperialists. Rather, their objectives were often at odds with empire builders. Evidence of this appears throughout the journey, but the theme is never spelled out until the postscript. Too late for salvation.

Ben Arnoldy is on the Monitor staff.

On the Missionary Trail

By Tom Hiney Atlantic Monthly Press 304 pp., $25

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.