Dipping into old ethnographies is sometimes good fun. William Carlson Smith’s The Ao Naga Tribe of Assam (1925) is one of those mostly-forgotten books that take a while to find. Smith went from Christian missionary work to sociology/anthropology, and his book carries over some interesting ambivalence about his former line of work. He suggests that knowledge of ethnology and sociology may help reduce the various negative effects that seemed apparent wherever missionary-led civilization had taken hold. The very last bit is worth another look:
The Christian missionary occupies a unique position in relation to these groups [the backward groups of mankind] in that he devotes himself whole-heartedly to their advancement, and his supporters in the civilized communities are interested in increasing his efficiency. Quite recently a poster was displayed in a church bearing these words: “One missionary plus one Ford equals three missionaries.” If a mechanical contrivance can thus increase the usefulness of a missionary, may we not expect an even higher percentage of efficiency if he adopts some of the principles which have been formulated by the ethnologists and sociologists?
Perhaps Smith is trying to justify his shift away from Church-work. And perhaps this was meant as a stimulus package that would benefit the American car industry and otherwise-unemployed sociologists/ethnologists in the 1920s. The “even higher percentage of efficiency” is an upbeat vision at a book’s end, though I recommend reading the whole thing before jumping to conclusions about the promised uplift. And if “back home” the efficiency of missionary work in foreign lands was partly measured in the number of souls caught or converted, was there a better rate for peoples who said that a person had 33 souls than among those who assumed only 9, 7, 3, and so on?
Leif Jonsson is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Arizona State University.