A text about grass-roots support for the Basel Mission, and two commentaries arising.

Contents: the original text in German, two commentaries in English, and an English translation of the German text.

And a notice: an exhibition has been opened in the Basel Museum der Kulturen – formerly the Völkerkunde Museum, i.e. the Museum of Anthropology – entitled “Mission Possible?”, and will remain open till early October. It is a presentation by the staff of the museum of the Basel Mission’s collection of objects of anthropological interest, mostly from the 19th century. Arrangements have been made so that groups who would like a guided tour led by me can contact the Museum office to fix times and conditions: ++41 61 266 56 00.


Ein Loblied an die Generationen von

Missions-Bazaar-Frauen in den

Evangelischen Kirchen Bern-Jura-Solothurn

– und nicht zuletzt an die heutige Generation,

die zahlreich am 21. Jan. 2015 in Bern zusammenkam,

um ihre Handwerk-kreativität zu fördern –

und das 200. jährige Jubiläum der Basler Mission zu gedenken.



Ohne die Bewegung der aktiven Christen,

die ihre Arbeit unterstützen und begleiteten,

hätte es keine Basler Mission gegeben.



1815, als die Basler Mission gegründet wurde,

befassten sich diese aktiven Christen schon mit der weiten Welt.

Sie wussten, dass es andere Religionen gab:

sie hatten von den Reisen von Captain Cook gehört

und oft Bilder sakraler Orte gesehen, die von seinen Künstlern abstammten.

Sie wussten von sozialen Misständen in fernen Ländern….

nicht zuletzt von sozialen Misständen, die von Europa aus verursacht wurden.

Im Jahr 1815 waren ihnen die Gräueltaten

des Atlantischen Sklavenhandels bekannt –

und sie wussten, dass andere Bewegungen von aktiven Christen

im Namen Gottes wirksam dagegen zu kämpfen angefangen hatten.




Als ernsthafte, aktive Christen erkannten sie,

dass das Evangelium

der ganzen Welt und der ganzen Menschheit galt.

Deswegen wollten sie ihrer Mission gegenüber Menschen,

mit denen sie in indirektem Kontakt standen,

Hand und Fuss geben.

Und daher begrüssten sie

die Gründung einer Mission in ihrer Region von Europa

und schlossen sich sofort mit anderen zusammen

als Bewegung zur Unterstützung der neuen Mission.



Diese aktiven Christen gaben Geld –

das sie meistens gar nicht in Hülle und Fülle hatten.

Sie gaben auch Söhne und Töchter.

Sie gaben Aufmerksamkeit und Begleitung.

Und mit ihrer neuen Überzeugung,

mit ihrem neuen Blick auf die Welt,

bildeten sie die neue Energiequelle –

sozusagen die neu entdeckte Erdwärme –

die die ganze Arbeit der Basler Mission ermöglichte.



Mit anderen Worten: die Basler Mission mit ihrer Gründing

artikulierte – nahm auf, befestigte –

die Reaktionen von Kreisen aktiver Christen

auf ihren indirekten Kontakt mit Menschen,

die mit anderen Religionen

und in ganz anderen Kulturen lebten.






Mission ist,

wenn aktive Christen das Beispiel Christi

in ihrem Leben umzusetzen versuchen –

im unmittelbaren Kontext, in dem sie leben,

sowie im grösseren Weltkontext mit den „fernen Nächsten“.





Viele Leute sagen mit Recht:

Eine Stärke der alten Basler Mission war,

dass sie nicht nur sprach, sondern handelte,

und nicht nur handelte, sondern auch sprach.

Ihre Sprache erklärte, warum sie so handelte.

Und was sie tat, zeigte,

dass das, was sie sagte, keine leeren Worte waren.




Die Bewegung von aktiven Christen,

die die Basler Mission unterstütze,

wusste vieles von der weiten Welt.

Aber im praktischen Alltag dort,

als die neu organisierte Mission Sendboten aussandte,

stiessen letztere auf Unwägbarkeiten,

war vieles im täglichen Leben ihnen unbekannt

und bildete grosse Probleme für sie.

Es gab vieles, was die Basler Mission versuchte,

das nicht funktionierte oder abgeblasen werden musste.

Die Organisation musste immer wieder Anlauf nehmen,

um sinnvollere Zielsetzungen und Arbeitsformen zu prüfen.

Und wieder: die Energie, die das ermöglichte und vorantrieb,

wurde nicht zuletzt von der Basis bezogen.



Unser Leben konfrontiert uns jetzt auch

Mit immer neuen Aufforderungen hier wie dort,

und heute erst recht mit neuen Unwägbarkeiten.



Es muss Teil eines Jubiläums sein,

dass Sie sich „von der Basis“ in die Probleme einbringen,

die Sie für eine Missionsbewegung für besonders dringlich halten.


in einer Welt,

die einen sehr unbequemen Gezeitenwechsel durchmacht,

sich eine alte Missionsbewegung erneuert

und den Aufforderungen der neuen Zeit stellt –

wie sie das 1815 und immer wieder nachher gemacht hat.




Two Commentaries on this Praise-Poem

Dissolving the Shadow of old-fashioned Puritanism? The “Poem” was the basic text in an illustrated lecture I gave at the beginning of the Bazaar ladies’ day in Bern. When the lecture was over the hundred or so people present split up into workshops to learn new handwork skills or polish up old ones, so they could develop new ideas about making things to sell at mission bazaars. “Shabby Chic” was the title of one workshop, another was about “Felt Elves and Angels”, another “Zpagetthi[Bernese spelling, evidently!] can be used in so many different ways that aren’t cooking”, another “How to make Origami packing for presents”.

I could almost hear my old puritan Strict Baptist grandmother’s voice from Stroud Green, London, condemning “novelties” and “fripperies” and insisting that the proper puritan way (and, really, she wouldn’t have used the word but you could also speak about the proper pietist way) was to have everything plain and utilitarian and save your money. But here we were, celebrating 200 years of an old pietist mission with shabby chic and the rest and encouraging some people to make non-essentials, and others to buy them, all for the sake of providing financial support for Basel Mission/Mission 21 programmes.

Luckily, pursuing the active historian’s “avocation” in a mission house, I had been really moved by reading scathing secular condemnations of mission puritanism and the tent-like clothes in which they supposedly hid the form of girls and women, and I had looked carefully at African women in pre-1914 Basel Mission photographs. And by backing up work done by outside researchers I had got to know Suzanne Gott, who as an anthropologist, had worked with dressmakers/seamstresses in Kumase market and was delighted to see, in long night-shifts working with old photrographs in the archive, the roots of the present-day dynamic Ghanaian fashion industry in the women’s needlework classes on the mission house verandahs of the decades before 1914.

One of the photos she pointed to, set me off thinking. It was a group portrait of an unmarried Basel Mission lady teacher in Ghana, 1888, with her Ghanaian colleagues. The European lady’s dress displayed a real modest beauty with nice lines, a brooch, and a shaped apron which was definitely not simply a utilitarian garment. The Ghanaian ladies were also “pleasing to behold”, two of them with surprisingly low neck-lines, and also wearing costume jewellery.

To cut a long story short: if the Basel missionary women were important in getting the Ghanaian profession of seamstress/dressmaker started – as I believe they were – they had a major hand in creating a profession which tens of thousands of women use to gain personal income nowadays. More: in their work it turns out that the old Basel Mission made a real contribution to new forms of women’s beauty in Ghana (and Cameroon too).   Culture, I came to understand, thinking about this, involves elaboration.   And elaboration has not only to do with enhanced pleasure and interest. It is also about the quicker turnover of more money, the growth of new forms of earning.

One of the leading women present on that day in Bern told me she was particularly pleased to see me building a bridge between the old Basel Mission and the promotion of beauty and aesthetic pleasure now. She was glad to see someone stating the idea that an important Basel Mission contribution to the history of Ghana has to do with new forms of women’s beauty and the wonderful fantasies of the Ghanaian profession of seamstress now – some of whose creations, admittedly, would startle the originators of this cultural bequest. Looked at in the context of the Ghana fashion industry, getting people here to learn to make and improve their skills at shabby chic, their Origami packing, the non-food use of Zpaghetti and all the rest is solidly part of the women’s heritage in the Basel Mission – and not least, the Mission Bazaar Women Bern/Jura/Solothurn presumably hope, helping thereby to increase the financial turnover of the Basel Mission’s Jubilee Year.


  1. Captain Cook? The British Anti-Slavery Movement? As major influences on grass-roots support for the beginning of the Basel Mission?? I am, as everyone immediately realises, when they see my name or I open my mouth, English by origin. So is it simply a latter-day case of imperial overreach when I assert (para 1.2 of the Praise-Poem) that developments in Britain were important not just for the thoughts and actions of the people leading the new Mission in 1815, but also preparing the people at the grass-roots in Switzerland and Germany to leap to support them? Are these ideas British-patriotic special pleading, best left ignored?

This isn’t a question which can be handled simply by searching all the available documents. It needs thought about contexts and probabilities. But what I am suggesting here is not wild speculation. A book review in the Economist as I was preparing this blog asserted that both sides of 1800 “Ordinary people [not only in Britain] were hungry for new ideas and many of those ideas travelled on paper.” (The review is headed “Aux armes, historiens”as if the reviewer is impatient with over-careful historians not matching the dynamics of the events they are analysing to the energetic use of their own dedicated and disciplined imaginations).

With the potential supporters of a Basel Mission we are, of course, talking about a particular category of “ordinary people” – pietists. And it seems to me very likely indeed that, in view of the international among pietists which we know existed at this time, including strong links between the European mainland and London, the people who leapt to support the Basel Mission 1815 will have been well aware that their co-religionists across the English Channel were successfully turning English politics upside down in the name of their moral view of society and the state, and had even got the British parliament to pass legislation prohibiting the trans-oceanic slave trade in 1807. And Captain Cook? His spectacular voyages were documented by artists he took with him, and engravings based on their paintings spread widely and quickly.

My intention, with the Praise-Poem, was, of course, to urge the Bazaar Women to think of themselves as principles in Mission History, and not simply as foot-soldiers following the directives of the “generals” in Basel. And there is a hint at the beginning of volume 1 of the official history of the BM by Wilhelm Schlatter that this may well have been true in 1815. He lists some of the places where people immediately responded to the founding of the Basel Mission as a training institute for missionaries and took financial responsibility for one of its students.   It’s an interesting list, and includes a number of places where you wouldn’t have expected minds and hearts to stir so early on……It is true that an orthodox view of the Basel Mission would probably say that influential people in each locality started to support the Mission, and that the support spread out to poorer people, especially when the so-called Halbbatzenkollekt was founded in the middle of the 19th century as a way of systematising poorer peoples’ small-coin donations. But I remember an old retired teacher in Gerlingen, near Stuttgart, in almost the first conversation I ever had about the social basis of the Basel Mission. He told me that already in the first half of the 19th century it was the people who attended the Pietist bible-reading and prayer meetings in the village – mostly craftspeople or small farmers, near the bread-line – who knew about the world outside, who mentally and spiritually looked over the rim of the saucer and knew something about what lay beyond. And they were linked together from community to community by various forms of written and oral communication. Again: they will have known about the Pietist international by 1815, eager for news of its progress, and wanting to be concretely part of what was going on.

But there is a broader issue here which demonstrates to me once more how easy it is for thinking about the past of a Basel Mission to turn in on itself, simply repeat the known history which people regard as forming the fixed identity of the Mission – and so lose sight of major contexts and important things which have been forgotten. Of course, everyone understands that, after Napoleon’s second defeat, Europe seemed to be on the threshold of a great new day. Even the Russian Tsar was proving to be impressed by Pietist energy and Pietist social ideals. So we can see the quick support for the Basel Mission after its founding as part of the way people were trying to seize the great new opportunity which seemed to be offering itself with the outbreak of peace. However, rather quickly on the European mainland reaction set in. What we in England call the “Metternich System” of the repression of press freedom and freedom of speech was established in much of the German-speaking world and spread its influence also to Russia and to France. Questions arise in this context.

Where, I wonder, did the Basel Mission stand in relation to that downturn in hopes?

Where does the traditional history of the Basel Mission stand in relation to the internationality of the pietist international – and its decline from the middle of the 19th century?

Is it the malign influence of Chancellor Metternich which puts us into the mould of an organisation founded at the centre and gradually spreading its influence out to what became its traditional bases of support in the regions of, especially, South-Western Germany and German-speaking Switzerland – the familiar picture of a Schwabian-Swiss organisation with a lay committee of leading people from Basel?

How far was the Basel Mission after 1815 attractive to open-minded pietists because of its strong links to Great Britain? (Schlatter hints that this was the case, and of course many of the early graduates of the Basel missionary college went to work for the [English] Church Missionary Society, and their reports in German filled the main Basel Mission periodical of the time).   Of course Britain, was not without repression just after the Naopleonic Wars. But those British active Christians were part of the movement which renewed the British parliamentary system in 1832, and forced through the emancipation of the slaves themselves in the British Caribbean in 1833 – events which could fairly be listed on the palmares of that Pietist internationale.

            In other words: to change the context of this Blog violently, but not incorrectly – is the emphasis on the Swissness of the Basel Mission which seems so prevalent in the organisation and conduct of Jubilee year so far, a betrayal of the urgent need to strengthen our sense of a common European heritage and the necessity of holding together to face the major problems looming up on our common horizon?



A praise-poem for the women who

over the generations

have run mission-bazaars

in the Evangelical Churches of Bern, the Jura and Solothurn –

and for their successors

who met on 21st January 2015 to remember

the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Basel Mission

and sharpen up their handwork skills.



If there had not been a movement of active Christians like you,

keen to support mission

and eager to hear how its work was proceeding,

there would have been no Basel Mission.

It might have been started, but then without broad support,

it would have withered on the vine….




Those active Christians were already interested
in the wide world beyond Europe
when the Basel Mission was founded in 1815.
They knew that other religions existed –
they, too, had heard of the voyages of Captain Cook,
and many will have seen engravings
of the scenes of sacral sites his artists had painted.
They knew that violence and oppression existed in distant countries,
not least that oppression there could be caused by contact with Europe.
They knew about the cruelties of the Atlantic slave trade.
They knew, too, that other movements of active Christians like themselves
were being formed, and in the name of God
were fighting, and successfully, against the slave trade and against slavery.





As serious, active Christians, they knew

that the Gospel is for the whole world and the whole of mankind.

It made sense to set up mission

to people with whom they had indirect contact.

And so they greeted the formation of a Mission in their part of Europe,

and committed themselves quickly

– along with other like-minded people –

to be the movement which would support the new organisation.



These active Christians gave money –

although for many of them money was short.

They gave sons, daughters.

They gave their attention and concern.

And with their new convictions

they provided a new source of energy – a sort of spiritual geothermal energy –

which enabled the Basel Mission to take up its work

and persist with it.



In other words: the Basel Mission

                       articulated – took up, gave effective mobilisation to –

the reactions of circles of active Christians

                       to their indirect contact with people practising other religions,

                       and living in cultures very different from their own.




What is mission?

Mission happens when active Christians

set out to follow the example of Christ’s life

in the context of their immediate neighbourhood –

but also in the larger context of the world,

and of contact with their “distant neighbours”.



Many people say that it was a strength of the old Basel Mission

that its people not only spoke, but acted.

And not only acted, but also spoke.

What they said explained why they were doing what they were doing,

And what they did showed that their words were not simply hot air.







The movement which supported the beginnings of the Basel Mission
knew a lot about the wide world beyond its shores.

But the missionaries which were sent out from Basel

met many problems in their everyday life overseas

for which they were not prepared.

Much of what went on where they were sent

was incomprehensible for them at first.

They had to find ways of responding to things like the illnesses

which happened to them.

They faced many social problems.

In other words,

much of what the Basel Mission attempted in those early days

didn’t work.

The organisation had to think of new ways of operating.

And, again, the energy which enabled it to overcome setbacks

and try something new

Came not least from its grassroots support.



Life confronts us, now, too,

with new challenges, here as well as there,

and many things which we do not understand

and find it difficult to respond to.



Celebrating a Basel Mission jubilee has to mean

that you, at the Basel Mission’s “grass roots”

urge the Mission to tackle the issues you feel are urgent now.

So that in our world,

which is experiencing in so many ways

a very painful changing of the tide

– resurgent fundamentalisms, serious military threats –

an old mission movement can be renewed

and made fit for the challenges of a new time –

as it was in 1815, and has happened more than once since.