- Conversion Accounts
- Editorial Influence
- Framing and Prefacing
- “Modernizing” Education
- Citation Practices in this Essay
- Works Cited
- Page Citation
- Lead Image Details
This essay, one of a series published by One More Voice for the “BIPOC Voices in the Victorian Periodical Press” (henceforth “BIPOC Voices”) project, examines instantiations of individual voices in nineteenth-century missionary periodicals accredited to indigenous Indian speakers who narrate their conversions to Christianity. Although originally written by hand and then printed, these accounts promise to capture and convey the distinct spoken voices of indigenous individuals. This essay engages with these accounts by building on Jan Vansina’s (1985, 94) foundational conviction that, in oral history, spoken communication is always a social product and socially influential because these conversion accounts claim to be discursive records of an individual’s voice and because conversion accounts, in particular, participate in the tradition of spoken sermons or other utterances of Christian devotion. These invocations of the voice in missionary periodicals reflect social realities and have social, political, and material implications.
I argue that these conversion accounts invoke the voice of an indigenous convert to Christianity and superficially promise information about an individual, but, in reality, the speaker’s voice operates as colonial imitation that specifically reflects the intractable influence of “modernizing” colonial education in India. Conversion accounts thus describe the logistics of as well as demonstrate the influence of colonial schooling on indigenous Indians. Elements of imitation, additionally, support this project rather than conveying any form of subversion on the part of the speaker (cf. Bhabha 1984).
To demonstrate this, this essay focuses on a page-and-a-half framed narrative that appears in the November 1871 issue of the Chronicle of the London Missionary Society. Entitled “The Convert’s Account of Himself” and conveyed in the voice of a young man named Jogesh Chander Datta (Anonymous, Anonymous, and Jogesh Chunder Datta 1871), this text takes the guise of one representative voice in a series testifying to successful conversions carried out in the Bengal Mission by Christian missionaries in 1870.
Quotation marks encompass Datta’s account, suggesting that perhaps his words were spoken and written down by someone else. His account begins by acknowledging his childhood adherence to Hinduism, but describes that he became disillusioned by the religion because it portrays a “rather wrong idea of God and his attributes” (Anonymous, Anonymous, and Jogesh Chunder Datta 1871, 12 ). Datta never specifies why, specifically, Hinduism falls short in this respect, but instead proceeds to describe his study of the Bible and his approval of Jesus Christ who, he eventually concludes, is an apt God almighty.
After this realization, Datta’s writings conspicuously omit the “I” pronoun for several paragraphs, pivoting from a narrative of self-discovery to one that pontificates key Christian teachings wholesale. When the student becomes the teacher, dogma eclipses the speaker’s sense of self. That is, until the final paragraph of the conversion narrative, in which Datta announces his decision to be baptized by immersion.
Anonymous editorial writings (presumably written by London Missionary Society workers) both precede and follow Datta’s quoted account. When these sections of text are taken in concert, formally, topically, and theoretically, this text demonstrates how colonial interventions seeking to “modernize” Indian education during the nineteenth century shape the performance of voice in missionary writings.
The London Missionary Society (LMS) – unlike some other Protestant missionary societies such as the Church Missionary Society and the Baptist Missionary Society – was non-denominational and, as such, was the largest and arguably most pervasive evangelical institution in India and other British colonies in the nineteenth century (Johnston 2003, 16).
However, the LMS was just one of many organizations seeking to change the nature of Indian society in the nineteenth century and documenting these efforts via published records and edited periodicals. The British colonial government (and before 1858, the East India Company), numerous other Christian missionary organizations, and native reform institutions all sought to reshape Indian society. Despite their distinct spheres of interest, stakeholders, and tactics, nearly all of these entities sought to influence and leverage education in India to accomplish their aims.
As Jeffery Cox (2002, 189) observes of nineteenth-century Christian missions in India, both native and colonial: “almost all of the churches built institutions, especially schools, in hopes of maintaining and extending religion’s hold on society.” These educational interventions were inextricable from corollary projects of missionary and reform institutions, including as procuring and publishing conversion accounts because they all work in tandem to evidence the efficacy of these organizations’ efforts.
The British state and evangelical missionary societies both enacted colonialism in India, but the relationship between the two apparatuses in the nineteenth century was fraught. Although their aims overlapped, they differed on the means through which to achieve their colonial objectives. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the colonial state was successfully overtaking and extending the educational infrastructure initially laid by missionary organizations (Cox 2002, 190). This, in turn, motivated missionary organizations like LMS to sketch triumphalist narratives of conversion because such accounts testified to the organization’s enduring efficacy and sustained relevance.
Consequently, missionary periodicals throughout the nineteenth century abound with accounts of conversions of indigenous people by British evangelical Christians. These texts often share topical overlap with biographies of individuals (e.g., references to name, birthplace, upbringing, and family), but conversion accounts also, ironically, situate their speakers as one of an indistinguishable many rather than as unique individual subjects.
The ubiquity of conversion accounts in missionary periodicals suggests that these accounts held importance for the editors of missionary periodicals such as the Chronicle of the London Missionary Society, but not because these accounts give voice to multitudes of distinctive individuals. In fact, as Anna Johnston (2003, 4) remarks about the mass of missionary publications in general, “volume does not necessarily produce diversity.”
Instead, readers might better understand the glut of these conversion accounts as having “emphasized their universality rather than their particularity” (4). In other words, conversion accounts fortify a monolithic imaginary of indigenous people converted to Christianity by British missionaries as repetitive, almost indistinguishable, phenomena. The accounts do so by invoking specific individuals while, in practice, effacing individuality by scripting key topical motifs that correspond to key colonial apparatuses and institutions.
This dialectical logic emerges through the title “A Convert’s Account of Himself” and ultimately serves to ventriloquize the speaker. The quoted speaker in the piece is a man in his twenties named Jogesh Chunder Datta. Elsewhere in the periodical, one of the missionaries at the Bengal mission (Anonymous 1871a, 51) tells readers that Jogesh Chunder Datta is a medical student who “passed the Entrance examination of the Calcutta University three years back, and is about twenty-one years of age.” The title of the account, in turn, specifically the terms “convert” and “himself,” emphasize that the speaker is self-possessed and individuated, i.e., is a distinct person and a subject. The possessive underscores this promise of an account that details an individual person’s unique story in his voice. However, the sum of the parts results in a sort of bastardized biography that relays details about the speaker’s life but only those that directly contribute to developing the account of his conversion from Hinduism to Christianity. Why, then, is the narrative billed as an account of “himself” rather than an account of his conversion?
Conflating the subject and the methods of conversion permeates the form and content of this specific account and others that claim to proffer indigenous voices. The periodical gives the speaker a voice because he demonstrates the influence of missionaries; his function, not his identity, is paramount. As such, readers should understand Datta’s voice as a tool wielded by the periodical editors, silently, without obvious editorial intervention, to accomplish their goals.
“A Convert’s Account of Himself” appears within a broader report on the Bengal mission, and a few sentences written by the periodical’s editor precede the account. The tone of these framing sentences formally and otherwise imitates other material in the periodical issue that comes from the pens of British missionaries. The editor clearly intends these sentences to be read by the audience as the missionaries editorializing the succeeding conversion narrative as if such editorializing authorizes or undersigns the legitimacy or import of the convert’s account.
The section of the periodical that relays updates on the Bengal mission comes after similar dispatches from Madagascar and prior to similar ones from the Samoa mission. The issue also contains reports from a series of missionaries’ visits to New York, which are conspicuously distinct in their form and tone. Notably, when describing missionary activity in white Christian nations, the writers and editors of the reports offer explicit quoted dialogue, a rhetorical move that diverges from the framed and paraphrased invocations of the voice that characterize accounts of indigenous converts or colonial missionary subjects (cf., e.g., Anonymous 1871a, 48-53; Anonymous 1871b, 56-58). In the case of colonial missionary subjects, the insistent framing by the editors authorizes the narrative and implicitly enshrines a hierarchy in which the white British editors are the arbiters and traffickers of what is valuable from native converts.
Ironically, this editorial authorization destabilizes the meaning and legitimacy of the voices presented in the conversion accounts. As Johnston observes of editorial intervention in missionary periodicals in general: “The chain of potential editors is such that the relationship between the missionary ur-text and its subsequent manifestations is always uncertain. This interference with original texts is not exactly hidden, although there is little attention drawn to the editing of primary texts in the printed versions” (Johnston 2003, 33). Editors of these missionary periodicals change or distort original texts, with these influences oftentimes not clear in the text readers encounter.
Missionary periodicals also exhibit traces of numerous other editors and stakeholders meddling with a text between its original dictation or composition and publication. Sometimes practical, sometimes ideological, these various gestures of intervention undermine appeals to authenticity because the interventions ensure that texts reflect institutional values or help achieve the missionary aims rather than capturing the reality of an indigenous converts' voices. Instead of conferring authenticity, these editorial moves ultimately cement the British missionaries’ authority.
Framing and Prefacing
Accounts of conversion like Datta’s subsequently become generalized tools of colonial representation because they create hierarchical distinctions between British missionary editors and the indigenous converts.
In Datta’s account and other conversion narratives in Chronicle of the London Missionary Society (see, e.g., Anonymous, Poonapun, and Authautchee  2022) editorial framing preceding the speaker’s account does not introduce any new information, but nevertheless is included because it contributes to a distinction between the British Christian missionaries and the indigenous Christian converts. The section’s title, “A Convert’s Account of Himself,” indicates who the speaker is and what he’s writing, i.e., that he is an implicitly indigenous speaker who will give a first-person story of his conversion to Christianity. Yet the framing commentators restate what is obvious on the page and from context: “Each of these converts has given a written statement of the grounds of his faith, and the circumstances which led to his conversion” (Anonymous, Anonymous, and Jogesh Chunder Datta 1871, 12).
Previous to this article in the periodical, missionaries from the Bengal mission proclaim that many young men have been successfully converted from Hinduism to Christianity. The framing sentiment that opens “A Convert’s Account of Himself,” therefore, enshrines the fact that indigenous converts have a connection to the British missionaries that converted them, while simultaneously dividing the converts and the missionaries into two distinct populations.
However, by the same maneuver that corrals convert voices into an indistinguishable group, the editors also attempt to set such voices apart. On the one hand, Datta, as a representative convert, is one of many from whom the missionaries extract a testimony of conversion. On the other hand, the editors set this testimony apart and choose to publish it while leaving other such testimonies unpublished. The editors remark specifically that, “We select[ed Datta’s account], which shows the growth of conviction during many years” (Anonymous, Anonymous, and Jogesh Chunder Datta 1871, 12).
This specific convert’s account is distinct – in the editors’ opinions – because it depicts a conversion that results in increasing faith. The editors present such a trajectory as though it is naturally impressive or meritorious, partly because it enacts the western, colonial model of progress as linear and ongoing, partly because it takes as a given that such (Christian) “faith” is worth acquiring in the first place. Notably, however, there is no concern for the veracity or authenticity of the convert’s religious feelings.
The missionary periodical editors conclude their framing sentiment by noting that the account, “is written in English, and is in his [Datta’s] own words” (Anonymous, Anonymous, and Jogesh Chunder Datta 1871, 12). It is unclear why the editors see fit to explicitly note something so readily apparent to any reader: the first-person language of the text in front of them. Such an emphasis perhaps seeks to clarify that the speaker himself fashioned the sentiment in English – rather than writing it in another language and having it translated into English by a minister or other missionary official. By contrast, the Chronicle conveys many other conversion accounts in the third person, usually when a missionary transcribes or otherwise narrates a convert’s story. Here, the assertion that Datta composed the narrative himself underscores the “success” of missionary education systems insofar as his writing demonstrates that indigenous Indian students who engage with colonial schooling structures can succeed in communicating in complex and effective English.
This also, finally, indicates that the editors’ priority in publishing this account is driven by the degree to which the account aligns with British colonial practices – such as use of the English language – in addition to the narrative content that the account encapsulates. Although the notion of a testimony in “his own words” suggests a particular character and perspective, the highlighting of English composition undermines the writer’s individualism in the representative case of Datta.
This redundant mention of English as “his [Datta’s] own” language harkens back to a biography of an indigenous convert earlier in the same issue of the Chronicle (Anonymous 1871a, 48). This earlier biography presents its speaker as an emblematic product of the colonial missionary structures in place in India during the mid-to-late nineteenth century and also alludes to the fact that changing the education system formed a central part of modern colonialism in this era (Anonymous 1871a, 48; Mahapatra and Mishra 2019, 347); see Chandra 1980 for more about nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonialism in India).
Based on his approximate age, Datta likely grew up during a period of rapid “modernization” of British schooling infrastructure in India, a period largely synonymous with “Macaulayism.” “Macaulayism” represented the guiding philosophy and school of educational reform engendered by British historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay and articulated in a particularly notable way in his famous “Minute on Indian Education” ( 1919, 107-117), which sought to overwrite native education languages and practices with utilitarian English instruction.
In their efforts and ideas, Macaulay and other British government officials, in turn, built on the foundational educational infrastructure laid down earlier in the century by missionary schools. For example, over the course of the nineteenth century, “a network of missionary and school societies engaged with the spread of ‘liberal instruction’ was part of the larger framework of the civilizing mission in Bengal [...] and around Calcutta” (Dutta 2020, 24). For the missionaries that established, ran, and expanded these schools, implementing western Christian education represented one of the most influential interventions they could make, as the biography of the indigenous convert cited earlier indicates:
The Christian education of boys and young men, in the English and native languages, has for many years formed an important part in the missionary labours carried on in the great cities of India. And in all the missions it has been found that, apart from the influence which it exercises in the conversion of individuals, in the most powerful manner it leavens the middle classes with Christian truth, and completely breaks down the power of idolatry. (Anonymous 1871a, 48-49)
This evaluation of the missionary school system emphasizes how instrumental education had been for decades in missionaries' work by the time the Datta piece appeared in the LMS Chronicle in 1871 and underscores that such education had the aim and ability not only to alter individuals, but also to impact larger swaths of Indian society. In fact, the societal influence of Christian British education – in the opinion of the anonymous missionary cited above – eclipses the change effected on individuals.
Subsequently, Datta’s account, which comes later in the same 1871 issue of the Chronicle, is not exemplary because the account is unique to the individual, but because the account is representative of this broader public shift that British education in India sought. In other words, Datta’s account functions like a parable – a narrative that superficially pertains to an individual but, in fact, primarily seeks to impart a broader, portable spiritual lesson for the public.
British efforts to nationalize and “modernize” schooling in the middle- and late-nineteenth century relied on the foundation of religious schooling infrastructure created by missionaries in India in the preceding decades. These schools sought to facilitate the conversion of diverse Indian ethnic groups to Christianity. Therefore, showcasing “successful” conversions like Datta’s necessitated alluding to the educational infrastructure that made it possible because schools were often the site where converts read the gospel and interacted with missionaries.
For instance, in an 1850 issue of the Missionary Magazine and Chronicle, the editors present two accounts of the conversion and baptism of Nathaniel and Authautchee, an indigenous husband and wife (Anonymous, Poonapun, and Authautchee  2022; also see the reference to these pieces above). In both narratives – which the British editors, notably, translate from Tamil to English – time spent in missionary churches begets the conversions. However, Authautchee also credits her conversion to her time at a “Tamil Mission School” as well as a stint living with her uncle, nicknamed “Catechist John Stevenson,” who continued her religious education both in school and at home (Anonymous, Poonapun, and Authautchee  2022). In these accounts, conversion does not simply take the shape of an encounter between an individual missionary and an individual convert; rather, engagement with missionary infrastructure in the form of churches and schools makes such conversion possible and so illustrates the ultimate success of missionary education in places like India.
Furthermore, Authautchee and Nathaniel’s accounts demonstrate how religion conspicuously supplants caste, reflecting how British missionary systems of demarcating groups come to organize and overwrite the modes that indigenous Indians might use for themselves in conversion accounts. In such narratives, in this historical context, one would expect to see discussion of caste (see Banerjee 2022; e.g., Authautchee's name might be a perversion of “Achooti,” a feminized epithet that means “untouchable”), but instead Authautchee notes only that her parents were Roman Catholic (despite the editorial preface to her account deeming her family “Hindoo”), whereas her husband, Nathaniel, in his adjacent account published in the periodical, merely notes that he was born to “heathen parents” (Anonymous, Poonapun, and Authautchee  2022, ).
The editorial framing of both Authautchee and her husband’s conversions explaining the nature of the couple’s conversion is exceptional because the family members are “joint partakers” in Christianity, in contrast to the majority of conversions, which alienate individuals from their families who observe other religions. Religion and Christian marriage become the only meaningful markers of identity in these accounts, both of which emerge from repudiation of the converts’ rejection of their Indian families.
“The Convert’s Account of Himself” is one of myriad conversion accounts that appear in missionary periodicals throughout the nineteenth century to testify to the success of British missionary projects. These accounts, collectively, convey colonial “success” on a scale far greater than the individual accounts they purport to present because the accounts as a group encapsulate and testify to the pervasive influence of colonial structures, especially British missionary efforts and colonial education.
In a sense, it is no surprise that education makes its mark so emphatically on conversion narratives as the century progresses: nineteenth-century India witnessed few colonial apparatuses as far-reaching and robust as the British education system. By the end of the century, British education in India had grown from the occasional provincial missionary school that would give local boys religious education in their native language to a national network of state-run schools. These schools reached students ranging in age from early childhood to young adults and insisted on an English-language curriculum explicitly focused on creating a class structure that mirrored that of Britain. This goal dovetailed with Christian missionaries’ aim of converting Indians, and the missionaries, as needed, reformed their tactics to align with the educational infrastructure made available to them by the British state.
Because the ideas of Macaulay, other British government officials, and Christian missionaries shaped India’s educational infrastructure, when colonized and converted Indian subjects express themselves – a supposed act of liberty and self-expression – the converts did so in a form and with topical content that voided their individuality. As Datta’s account illustrates, the voices of converts sketch a blueprint of British educational infrastructure more than they do a portrait of the given speaker.
The compromised self-expression evident in these accounts casts significant doubt on their ability and, potentially, that of other Victorian-era publications to provide “true” or otherwise unmediated stories of individuals’ lives. Scholars and others might better understand accounts like those of Datta’s not as unmediated first-person stories of conversion, but rather as the testaments of broad colonial projects of indoctrination.
Citation Practices in this Essay
The project team for “BIPOC Voices” encountered a variety of non-European names in the project's periodical pieces for which it proved difficult to determine what qualified as the forename and surname or if such a distinction was even appropriate for the given cultural context. The project's limited scope prevented full investigation of each case. As a result, the team decided that referencing of the project's primary texts in both in-text citations and “Works Cited” lists would use the full name of each primary text contributor – non-European and European – in the order given in the text.
The result is that all project materials consistently follow two citation practices. For periodical piece contributors, the project materials use full names in the original order for all individuals for citation purposes. For the authors of other primary and secondary texts, the project materials default to using only surnames for in-text citations and to following the convention of "surname, forename" in “Works Cited” lists. (See Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom's lesson plans on “Transimperial Networks and East Asia” for a comparable use case.)
Anonymous. 1871a. “India – Bengal Mission.” The Evangelical Magazine and the Missionary Chronicle, 48–53.
Anonymous. 1871b. “Recent Deputation to America.” The Evangelical Magazine and the Missionary Chronicle, 56–58.
Anonymous, Anonymous, and Jogesh Chunder Datta. 1871. “The Convert’s Account of Himself.” The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society, January, 12–13.
Anonymous, Poonapun, and Authautchee. (1850) 2022. “India. Bellary.” In One More Voice: BIPOC Voices in the Victorian Periodical Press, edited by Trevor Bleick, Kasey Peters, and Kenneth C. Crowell, translated by J. Shrieves, solidarity edition.
Banerjee, Sukanya. 2022. “Peer-Review Feedback: ‘Editing, Education, and Imitation in Indian Missionary Conversion Accounts.’” Document.
Bhabha, Homi. 1984. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” October 28: 125–33.
Bhabha, Homi K. 1985. “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” Critical Inquiry 12 (1): 144–65.
Chandra, Bipan. 2008. “Colonialism, Stages of Colonialism and the Colonial State.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 10 (3): 272–85.
Cox, Jeffrey. 2002. Imperial Fault Lines: Christianity and Colonial Power in India, 1818-1940. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Dutta, Sutapa. 2020. Disciplined Subjects: Schooling in Colonial Bengal. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Taylor & Francis.
Johnston, Anna. 2003. Missionary Writing and Empire, 1800-1860. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Macualay, Thomas Babington. “Minute by the Hon’ble T.B. Macaulay, Dated the 2nd February 1835.” 1919. In Selections from Educational Records Part I 1781-1839, by H. Sharp, 107–17. Calcutta: [Publisher illegible].
Mahapatra, Santosh, and Sunita Mishra. 2019. “Articulating Identities – The Role of English Language Education in Indian Universities.” Teaching in Higher Education 24 (3): 346–60.
Vansina, Jan. 1985. Oral Tradition as History. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.