Explanation of the digital exhibition 'Maps with a message: missionary cartography ca. 1850-1950'

Within Protestantism, missionary maps emerged with the establishment of the first professional missionary societies just before 1800. Their heyday was between about 1850 and 1950, but they are still relevant today, circulating amongst the thousands of organisations and NGOs that are active in global mission and humanitarian aid.

'De wereld', door T.M. Looman, in 'Het zendingsblad voor de jeugd', aflevering 1, (1850)
'De wereld', by T.M. Looman, in 'Het zendelingsblad voor de jeugd', issue 1, (1850).

Among scholars, missionary maps have attracted very little attention. To this end, the Missionary Map Project was launched in 2019 to chart, describe, interpret and disseminate knowledge about missionary cartography. This exhibition aims to present a selection of Protestant missionary cartography, mostly Dutch but also British, American, German and Belgian. The exhibition shows a variety of maps, such as world maps, maps for children, colonial maps and maps of exploration. All of these maps are in possession of the Utrecht University Library Special Collections Department.

Historical background of missionary cartography

Missionary maps became popular towards the middle of the 19th century. In 1846, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission issued a report on missionary maps, which stated that ‘The extensive use of these maps in lectures on missions […] is doing much to diffuse definite information as to the condition and wants of the unevangelized world and the progress of evangelical missions, and to promote effort and prayer for the universal promulgation of the gospel.’

In order to contextualize this phenomenon, it is vital to understand the development of the Protestant missionary movement. Protestant mission in the early modern age was fragmented. Isolated missionary activities were employed in European colonies as from the early 17th century, and in the 18th century some missionary organisations were established. Protestant mission really took off with the establishment of professional missionary societies in England and The Netherlands in the 1790s, followed by Germany and the United States. By the early 1820s maps circulated within these societies, in lecture halls and in missionary magazines. Geographical knowledge of the people attending missionary lectures was usually limited, and maps provided a quick overview of global missionary activity. The maps helped missionary societies to visualize their activities and so engender support for their cause. A Christian public was already acquainted with presenting mission in cartography, most notably through Biblical maps that showed the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul.

Missionary geography

Missionary maps developed within the niche discipline of missionary geography, a term that was coined around 1825 and gained currency in the 1840s. Both developed in parallel and were probably inspired by the rise of geography as a distinct discipline in the early 19th century. The world’s oldest geographical society, the Société de Géographie, was established in Paris in 1821, followed by the Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin in 1828 and the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1830. The Dutch were late to follow in 1873 with the Koninklijk Nederlandsch Aardrijkskundig Genootschap. Cartography as a whole was never a politically neutral science but developed in tandem with the rise of the nation-state in the first quarter of the 19th century, which also aided its introduction into the school curricula.

Missionaries considered geography in general – and cartography in particular – as important. The Dutch reverend P.A. Koppius stressed the significance of missionary geography in 1856: ‘Geography should be regarded as one of the most useful servants of Christendom. It can and must be a precursor to the Gospel, because it points to the places where a door is open to receive the servant of the Lord’. Missionary world maps offered a panoramic visualization of the idealistic enterprise of global conversion. When missionary efforts increased, more detailed maps where necessary.

'Overzichtskaart van de zendingsterreinen in Ned. Oost-Indië'. In: 'Atlas van de terreinen der Protestantsche Zending in Nederlandsch Oost- en West-Indië', 1939
'Overzichtskaart van de zendingsterreinen in Ned. Oost-Indië'. In: 'Atlas van de terreinen der Protestantsche Zending in Nederlandsch Oost- en West-Indië', 1939.

Mission and empire

Missionary maps became deeply entangled with the imperial enterprise. In The Netherlands the majority of missionary maps depicted missionary activity in the Dutch colonies: the Dutch East Indies and Surinam. The Dutch Teachers Missionary Committee of 1938 stated: ‘Our pupils will learn more about our colonies precisely as a result of the interest raised by missionary education.’ Indeed, until deep into the 19th century, missionaries were overwhelmingly active in parts of the world colonized by Western powers. Sometimes they trailblazed empire, sometimes they followed in its footsteps. Often they cooperated with empire, building schools and hospitals and charting languages, implementing empire in a way.

Nevertheless, missionaries often also clashed with empire, criticizing colonial policies towards native peoples. Vice versa, colonial authorities often curtailed mission when it was thought to upset local sensitivities. Many missionary societies settled in colonies with which they maintained no ties, but this was not always acceptable to the authorities. In the 1880s, for instance, the German authorities in the East-African colony pushed British missionary societies out of the Kilimanjaro region. The evidence that may be gleaned from the maps is that missionaries were explorers, builders of hospitals and schools, dependent on empire but also transcending empire in their global efforts.

Using missionary maps

Initially, maps were usually small, folded into magazines or books, but by the 1840s maps were also being produced for public lectures and Sunday schools. Joseph Tracy, for instance, published a missionary world map ‘especially adapted for the use oe [sic] schools, geographical & historical lectures, and missionary meetings’.  In 1878, the New York-based Colton firm published a massive linen world map of 200 x 360 cm, intended for Sunday schools, lectures and geography classes in school to promote ‘the universal promulgation of the gospel’. Later in the century, maps were published in various editions. The missionary map of the Dutch East Indies of Evert Nijland, for instance, was available in a large version on linen and with wooden sticks for school classes, and a small version for in the study room.

'Zendingskaart van Oost- en West-Indië', door Evert Nijland (Utrecht: C.H.E. Breijer, 1891)
'Zendingskaart van Oost- en West-Indië', by Evert Nijland (Utrecht: C.H.E. Breijer, 1891).

The development of missionary maps

The research that accompanied the maps was sometimes impressive, even if the empirical data was hard to verify. Take for instance the very large and magnificent missionary world map of the Dutch J.A. Groen, of which no complete copy is known to exist anymore but which was popular at its time. It was published in 1854 and accompanied by an exhaustive guide that listed all the places, missionary stations, and religious developments in the places shown on the map.

The German missionary scholar Peter R. Grundemann (1836-1924) took the quality of missionary geography to a new level. Whereas early world maps showed only several world religions and clustered ‘heathendom’, Grundemann took a much more sophisticated approach by classifying in far more detail the religious make-up of the non-monotheistic religions. He thoroughly researched missionary activity and familiarized himself with cartography, enabling him to produce a series a high quality missionary atlases. Increasingly, missionary geography was also interacting with missiometrics – or statistical information about mission – which culminated in the Missionary World Atlas, produced by a committee installed by the first World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910.

'Das Capland. Mit den angrenzenden Missions gebieten unter Kafern, Basunto u.a.'. In: 'Allgemeiner Missions-Atlas' (Calw : Verlag der Vereinsbuchhandlung, 1867) door Reinhold Grundemann.
'Das Capland. Mit den angrenzenden Missions gebieten unter Kafern, Basunto u.a.'. In: 'Allgemeiner Missions-Atlas' (Calw : Verlag der Vereinsbuchhandlung, 1867) by Reinhold Grundemann.

Maps and education

The development of educational missionary maps is also interesting to track. Maps that only showed geographical names had limited appeal, and we know from reports that people attending missionary lectures in the 19th century had only rudimentary geographical knowledge of far-off places. The map of the Dutch East Indies made by Nijland in 1891 was intended for schools, but the level of detail was more suited to study room use than to Sunday school lessons. The missionary map of the Dutch East Indies made by the Utrecht Professor of Theology Annéus Brouwer in 1930, however, was much more popular. Its design was much simpler, with bright colours and limited geographic references.

'Zendingskaart van Nederlands Oost-Indie en Suriname', door A.M. Brouwer (Groningen, 1930).
'Zendingskaart van Nederlands Oost-Indie en Suriname', by A.M. Brouwer (Groningen, 1930).

The features of missionary maps

Maps could be functional, indicating the location of missionary stations or the distribution of world religions, but there are also several representational maps for show. For example, the stunning map made by John Gilbert in 1861, The pictorial missionary map of the world, showed colours indicating the major religions and cartouches with ethnological images. The map was translated into Dutch in 1863, indicating a lively transnational culture of mission. Likewise, the missionary world map of the Swiss Basel Mission, the Missions Welt Karte of 1891, was printed in colour and showed illustrations in the cartouches. Of particular interest are the children’s missionary maps, such as one made by James Nisbet in 1843, a world map in black and white with illustrations, such as of exotic animals and oceanic ships carrying the gospel.

'The pictorial misionary map of the world' door John Gilbert, 1861 (niet in de digitale tentoonstelling)
The pictorial misionary map of the world' by John Gilbert, 1861 (not in this digital exhibition).

One of the most distinctive features of missionary maps were its colour patterns. Whereas some of the early maps were in black and white, showing the names of missionary stations around the world, maps in which the distribution of world religions was shown were far more attractive. The colours varied but there were recurring patterns. First of all, world religions were without much exception limited to Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam and ‘heathendom’. Sometimes the Orthodox churches were also specified. Protestantism was usually portrayed in yellow or blue, two colours associated in Western culture with positive values, such as hope and liveliness, Catholicism was usually red, and Islam yellow or green. The ‘heathen’ territories of the world were either white or black. Buddhism and Hinduism did not appear as separate world religions until the end of the 19th century.

'The Protestant missionary map of the world' door Edward Gover (Seeley, Burnside and Seeley : Londen 1846)
'The Protestant missionary map of the world', Edward Gover (Seeley, Burnside and Seeley: Londen 1846).

Modern day missionary maps

Although this exhibition focuses on old missionary maps, the genre is still alive and kicking. Missionary societies around the world still use maps to visualize their global activities as a standard feature on leaflets and websites, informing their financial supporters. The most remarkable and one of the most successful missionary maps that is still current is the so-called 10/40 Window map, designed by the American-Argentinian missionary Luis Bush in 1990. It shows a world map with a window between 10 and 40 degrees latitude, highlighting the current focus of global mission (read more about this map). Nowadays missionary societies use these kinds of maps but are also exploring the technology made available by GPS and Google Maps, showing the resilience and adaptability of the phenomenon of missionary cartography.

This exhibition

This exhibition shows a selection of missionary maps that are held by Utrecht University Library Special Collections Department. It is part of an ongoing program, the Missionary Map Project, devoted to charting, describing and analyzing the missionary maps of the world. The exhibition shows 30 maps in six categories that help the visitor navigate the diverse cartographic collection: missionary world maps, colonial maps, maps of exploration, atlases, maps for children and thematical maps.


We have done our utmost to trace sources and rights owners of the visual material in this digital exhibition. If visual material is nevertheless shown, of which you are (co-)owner and for the use of which you have not granted permission, we request you to send an e-mail to David Onnekink or Marco van Egmond.


Hannah de Korte & David Onnekink, November 2020