How Christian missionary media shaped the world

The Christian Broadcasting Network, founded over 50 years ago by evangelist Pat Robertson, has now launched the first 24-hour Christian television news channel.

Robertson said that the channel would help viewers understand how current events both in the United States and abroad affect them. The Christian Broadcasting Network has considerable influence among evangelicals, and President Trump, at times, has used the outlet to reach this support base.

But this is not the first time Christians have shared and shaped the content of world news and information through a distinctly Christian viewpoint.

Christian missionary publications

For much of the 19th century, Christian missionaries served as informal foreign correspondents for a broadly Christian public in the eastern United States and Western Europe.

They kept churches and missionary societies up to date on the societies in which they lived through regular letters and – by the late 19th century – photographs. Their letters were often reprinted in pamphlets and newsletters, or shared informally through extensive church networks.

One of the most notable examples of the use of missionary networks in bridging the imagined distance between a Western Christian public and distant people comes from the Congo Free State, which was established in 1885 and ruled solely by King Leopold of Belgium.

Leopold’s rule was characterized by widespread atrocities. Some estimates of the death toll of Leopold’s policies exceed 10 million people. Leopold used his reign to extract natural resources from the region. Following a boom in rubber prices, his agents were quick to use violence against the local population to make them harvest and process rubber.

In 1904, Alice Harris, a Protestant missionary with the Congo Balolo Mission, which was organized and supported by British Baptists, took what would become an iconic image of the horrors. Her image has a Congolese father sitting in a kind of stupor, gazing at his daughter’s severed hand and foot, which lie in front of him on the missionary’s porch.

A Congolese man looks at the severed hand and foot of his daughter. From a photograph taken at Baringa, Congo State, May 15, 1904.
Harris’s image was reproduced in a host of pamphlets, books and newspapers in both Britain and the United States. Along with other images and reports, it helped foment an international reaction against Leopold’s brutal reign.