Christianity and the race problem

People like Burton who were trying to promote an alternative to biological determinism welcomed the publication in 1924 of J.H. Oldham's Christianity and the Race Problem. In December of that year, Burton (1824), as editor of the Methodist Missionary Review, devoted his editorial to an extended review of this work, noting that it was only one of many on the subject, for 'books on the problems of race are pouring forth from the press at an astonishing rate, and the popular magazines are printing numbers of articles dealing with the "menace" of the coloured peoples'. Joseph Houldsworth Oldham (1874-1969) had been a missionary in India in the 1890s who became organizing secretary for the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference and then the editor of the International Review of Missions, a journal instigated at the Edinburgh Conference. He was never ordained but brought a more secular internationalist outlook to missionary affairs. His book, rather than talking of 'menace' or of 'fan[ning] the flames of race hatred and jealousy', advocated that Europeans 'cultivate the friendly spirit, help the backward peoples and build up the City of God on this fair earth', an aim of which Burton approved (1924:1-2). The book was widely recommended in missionary circles in Australia and Europe.[27]

Here was a cogently argued rebuttal of the 'scientific' racism of Stoddard and Grant. While he did not entirely eschew evolutionary language, Oldham's treatise is a sophisticated attempt to develop an alternative Christian analysis of racial relations by attacking the determinism of Stoddard and Grant, both of whom are cited, on scientific, economic, and ethical grounds. Where Stoddard saw biological race as the determining factor, Oldham's explanation for what he took as differential development incorporated history, culture, and geographic circumstance. This essentially environmentalist argument, which saw race (though he preferred the word 'peoples') as a sociological rather than a biological concept, recognized a potential for progressivist change and development and reasserted the principle of the psychic unity of mankind.[28] Oldham (1924:52‑3) even questioned the dominance of the idea of natural selection, suggesting that the Lamarckian theory of transmission of acquired characteristics had not been disproved. With this assumption, he emphasized education and argued that social and economic gaps could thus be bridged (1924:76, 164).[29] But communities of blood or culture should not override the importance of the individual, each of whom was important with a 'uniqueness and value' in the sight of God. With this emphasis on the individual, Oldham (1924:82) undercut statistics which purport to show differential racial intelligence and mental characteristics. Using material from Franz Boas (1858-1942) — and thus tapping into the developing anthropological critique of social evolutionism (Stocking 1968:202-33) — he observed that racial 'averages' say nothing about individual capability.

The other counter to Stoddard was to accentuate another non-genetic factor, the economic causes behind racial tension. Oldham (1924:136-7, 172, 229) pointed out that the objection to Asian immigration to the United States and Australia was really a fear of undercutting wages. He noted that unequal access to economic opportunity based on race militated against the growth of real friendship which he saw as the answer to racial tension. For 'the fundamental issues in racial relations are not ethnological or biological but ethical'. Such analysis rested on the older assumption of psychic unity (1924:80): 'The differences between men … are differences within a unity. Underlying all differences of race there exists a common humanity'. When exploitation and injustice were ended, the hostility would be taken out of the issue. Oldham saw difference as a good thing, part of God's great variety. But only the growth of true respect and economic equity would counter the growth of hostility. In a synthesis of Oldham's views as they applied to the Pacific regional situation, the Australian lawyer Kenneth Bailey (1924:18, 8) questioned the morality of the White Australia policy if the land of northern Australia was not developed economically and he acknowledged widespread exploitation of non-European labourers throughout the British Empire.[30]

[27] Reviews and recommendations appeared in Missionary Review, September 1924:18-19; December 1924:1; A.B.M. Review, August 1925:9; Chronicle, August 1924:190.

[28] Belief in the psychic unity of mankind derives from the Pauline assumptions already discussed of the equality of all human beings before God, particularly as developed by Evangelicals such as James Cowles Prichard in Researches into the Physical History of Mankind (1836-47). See Weir 2003:28-33 and Chapter Six (Gardner), this volume.

[29] Oldham had a life-long interest in education, both in India and Africa. A member of the British Government's Advisory Committee on Native Education in Tropical Africa, he wrote definitive policy statements on African education together with Lord Lugard.

[30] Bailey did not acknowledge that he was developing Oldham's ideas in spite of virtually verbatim citation from his book.