Christian missionaries in the British Empire have frequently been portrayed as willing agents of empire, imposing an insensitive cultural imperialism, yet a deeper reading reveals a more complex relationship. This paper takes two case studies of missionaries in early colonial Singapore – the London Missionary Society (from 1819) and the Infant Jesus Sisters (from 1854). The LMS operated the first printing press in Singapore and whilst its purpose was evangelical, its commercial printing for government and businesses extended its impact, so that it was instrumental in the development of printing in the area, and, arguably, also in what Anderson famously described as the formation of ‘imagined communities’. In contrast, the IJS established schools for girls, an orphanage and a women’s refuge, in effect operating as an early faith-based non-government organisation, with what today we would define as the development goals of the education of girls, reduction in child mortality and the empowerment of women.
Both organisations had to operate within the broad context of the politics of empire which was fundamentally about power, trade and spreading European ideas of civilisation and modernity, and in this sense they were political actors too – in the ‘laissez-faire’ environment of colonial Singapore, their evangelical and development work served the goals of empire and had wider implications than conversion alone. By viewing them within this broad political context and through the lens of development, their roles as early faith-based organisations become more visible, as do the links to development today and its challenges.