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Role of Missionaries in Things Fall Apart

Roleof Missionaries in Things Fall Apart

ChinuaAchebe’s ThingsFall Apartis an epic that illustrates how a community’s traditiondisintegrates after the infiltration of the White man. The authoruses the primary theme of “falling apart” and describes it in thelife of Okonkwo and also the community’s culture. The coming of themissionaries was first doubted until messengers came bearingthreatening news of powers of the White Man and his religion.According to the author and as described in the life of thecommunity, the missionaries came with the intention of spreadingChristianity, and they won the trust of a few people who alsocompelled their families to follow the new faith (Searle 49). Thewhite man was the sole cause of the community’s fall out throughthe introduction of Christianity, disintegrating the socialstructures that that divided the community to the extent of failingto rise again.


Themissionaries came with the primary purpose of saving the Africansfrom the darkness. The Igbo community had strong cultural practicesthat were reflected in their daily life. Before the coming of themissionaries, Achebe describes how the community enjoyed the warmthof each other through definite structures that gave every person aduty in the community (Searle 51). However, the white man regardedthis as backwardness. Some of the cultural practices includingmutilating the bodies of young children and venerating the spiritswere not acceptable in the eyes of the missionaries. They perceivedthat the people were suffering from the practices they conceived andthey required emancipation through Christianity.

Inaddition, the missionaries strived to break the belief in witchcraftand superstition. To them, such notions did not exist. The darknessthat engulfed the remote community instigated them to come into itsheart by winning some souls and establishing a church. Although theypresumed their role to be benevolent, their actions created disunityand tainted the long-practiced tradition. Those who could not fathomthe community’s cowardice expressed bitterness by burning thechurch. Okonkwo is disgruntled by the transformation, and afterkilling a white man in the market, he committed suicide. It was such“darkness of thought” expressed by the likes of Okonkwo that themissionaries sought to eradicate.

Missionariesalso had a role in spreading Christianity to counter the traditionalreligion of the Igbo. According to the author, the missionariesbelieved that the traditional practice did not have a deity andpeople worshiped stone and wooden carvings. However, it is noteworthythat the community had a god called Chukwu,who they believed was the creator of the universe (Achebe 179). Thiswas somehow similar to the Christian belief of God who created heavenand earth. However, the superiority that they assumed over the Igbopeople could not peacefully reconcile the religious difference. Thiswas seen when Reverend James Smith succeeded Reverend Brown. Smithexercised a heavy hand over the locals, and this saw some people defythe orders (Achebe 184).

Itis also noteworthy that Europeans of the 19th century had beenconvinced that they were responsible for salvaging people fromprimitive religious traditions. This was mostly triggered by theireconomic stability and dominance. When a given group of people iswell endowed, it assumes its practices to be the most applicable andprogressive in terms of religion and social tendencies (Searle 55).

Itis interesting when the leaders of Umuofia show great insight thatwas not shared among the Whiteman. They state that “The Whitemandoes not understand our customs, just as we do not understand his”(Achebe 191). The powerful means used by the missionaries of invokingthe district commissioner could not give place for such wisdom tothrive. They did not have a room for compromise, and their intentionwas to overthrow any aspect of the black culture.

TheWhiteman also played a great role in the redefinition of wealth andmanliness. Hard work was encouraged in the Igbo community, and aman’s wealth was measured by the yams in his barn. The authordescribes that “He who could feed his family on yams from oneharvest to another was a very great man indeed” (Achebe 33). Forinstance, Okonkwo was a respected man because he had picked himselffrom the poverty that he inherited from his father. With an emptybarn, he borrowed yams, and he produced enough for his family’sabundance and trade. However, this was disregarded in the Christianteaching.

Theideal of manliness has no place in Christianity. According to themissionaries, the son of God, Jesus, used to associate with the poorand had compassion for them. It is no wonder that in Mbanta Village,the first converts to the new faith were those without any economicprogression. According to the author, “None of them was a man oftitle. They were mostly the kind of people that were called efulefu,worthless, empty men” (Achebe 143). The status that some of thepeople had earned painfully in the community could not be admissiblein Christianity, and the religion was considered weak by those whoheld to the traditional beliefs.

Althougha reader may castigate the role of the missionaries in the Igbocommunity as a result of how the author presents them, it is notablethat they were instrumental in the economic progression of thepeople. They built a trading center near Umuofia, and for the firsttime, the villagers got a chance to sell palm oil and kernel. Thissoftened the hearts of the people, and a significant number of thembecame reluctant to act against the white man.

Additionally,the new converts were oriented into a faith whereby all people wereequal before the eyes of God. Initially, the poor did not have astatus, and they could not take part in communal practices. The namethat was given to them, efulefu,is an indication that the hierarchical nature of the societydisadvantaged them. Others like Okonkwo who were physically strongand wealthy were allowed to take part in negotiations regardless oftheir age. As the author notes, when a child cleans his hands, he candine with kings (Searle 57). This depicts the community’sshortcoming that could not be justified since it was based on wealth.

Themissionaries also had a role in addressing some of the practices thatwere barbaric although they were entwined in the community’sreligious practices. For example, the people could not let twinssurvive since it was considered a bad omen. Some of the people werewilling to convert to Christianity after being dissatisfied with thetraditional practices (Searle 61). The missionaries also demystifiedsome of the beliefs that people dreaded. For example, when theyrequested for a pace to build their church in Mbanta, they wereallowed to put it up in a forest that was believed to have evilspirits. Even the elders advised that the white men would succumb toillnesses in the forest. When they emerged healthy and untouched,some people questioned the authenticity of the belief and three ofthem converted to Christianity.

InUmuofia, it was an abomination to touch an egwugwu.One of the converts of Reverend Brown was brave enough to remove themask of one the smoking egwugwusand nothing happened to him. It depicts a culture that based some ofits teachings on fear and ignorance in an effort to control thepeople. Although such beliefs helped to keep the people together,they were highly superstitious. However, as some historians observe,such motives were only aimed at softening the hearts of the localsfor business and later slave trade to thrive. The separate agenda ofcommercializing the region enabled the missionaries to test thewaters and set the ground for usurping natural resources and freelabor.


Conclusively,the missionaries in ThingsFall Apartplayed a significant role in converting the villagers intoChristianity and demystified some long-held traditions andhierarchies which earned them the trust of some people before causingthe disintegration of the indigenous culture. The Whiteman redefinedmanliness and wealth from material possessions to being a committedChristians, and protagonists like Okonkwo could not fathom suchideologies. They also defied the superstitious beliefs regarding evilspirits, and this led to some people to critically question theauthenticity of the elders. Through their efforts, trade thrived inthe market they established near Umuofia and the people could sellpalm oil and kernel. However, historians refer to their role as aprimary input to the long-term objective of extracting raw materialsand cheap labor from the villagers into oversea countries.


Achebe,Chinua. ThingsFall Apart.United Kingdom: Heinemann. Print.

Searle,Alison. &quotThe Role of Missions in Things Fall Apart and NervousConditions.&quot Literatureand theology21.1 (2011): 49-65. Print.