Whether we like it or not, the world’s re­li­gious landscape owes much to the long history of European imperialism. But the story of empire and missions is much more complex than we might assume, and some common assumptions need debunking. In the case of some of the largest and most enduring empires, the relationship between faith and empire was strongly counterintuitive.

To some degree, all the European empires claimed religious justification for their existence, citing a command to extend the light of God’s kingdom into regions of pagan ignorance. But that is very different from forcing or demanding that their new subjects accept Christianity. The Spanish and Portuguese certainly did impose their faith, and we must ruefully admit their success in accomplishing this. Just glance at a map of the world’s Catholic populations.

Other empires, though, conceived their role very differently. Until the mid-19th century, the British viewed their vast Indian possessions in strictly economic terms and actively discouraged any evan­gelization that could provoke the wrath of Hindu and Mus­lim elites. For many years, missionaries faced de­portation, and only grudgingly did authorities tolerate newcomers like the famous missionary William Carey.