The soul of empire: The Society of Missionaries of Africa in colonial Algeria, 1919--1939

Date of Completion

January 2005


History, Church|History, African|History, European




This dissertation examines how the Society of Missionaries of Africa, better known as the White Fathers, sought to evangelize the Islamic peoples of North Africa during the interwar years. In addition, it considers how these Catholic missionaries reconsidered the French "mission to civilize" in regard to Algeria's muslims, particularly the Kabyle population. Although historians have typically treated France's mission civilisatrice as a secular idea, the Missionaries of Africa articulated a distinctly Catholic version of the mission civilisatrice. The White Fathers' interpretation of the civilizing mission emphasized that French colonialism ought to be carried out in line with Catholic doctrines and values and frequently challenged secular practices. Thus, the White Fathers offered an alternative vision of the civilizing mission and argued for the continued value of missionaries to the success of French colonialism. ^ This study also assesses the White Fathers' attitudes toward Islam and indigenous Algerians. Not surprisingly, these missionaries considered Islamic theology to be errant and abhorrent. Islam, the Catholic priests asserted, had misunderstood the nature and expectations of the divine. As a result of Islam's theological faults, the missionaries argued, Islamic civilization was morally bankrupt. Even so, the missionaries rejected any suggestion that Algeria's native peoples were beyond the reach of the French civilizing mission. The Catholic missionaries insisted that Algeria's muslims could indeed become Frenchmen, but only if they first converted to Christianity. The White Fathers' efforts, however, resulted in very few converts as most muslims were reluctant to abandon their religious heritage in favor of the religion of the colonizer. ^ In spite of their lack of success, the White Fathers optimistically carried out their religious work during the interwar years. They fully expected to see Algeria's indigenous peoples become both Christians and Frenchmen. However, the White Fathers' apostolic methods, while sincere, ultimately proved ineffective. Furthermore, the Second World War, the subsequent rise of Algerian nationalism, and the Algerian war of 1954-1962 would all severely curtail missionary work. In addition, following Algeria's independence, the number of indigenous Catholics declined sharply. Thus, the interwar years were, in many respects, the White Fathers' last great opportunity in Algeria. ^