- Historic Sites
The Missionary Movement
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
Jesus stayed close to home, but Matthew’s Gospel ended with words that sent disciples running. Beginning with the first major and sometimes fanatic convert, Saul turned Paul, the Christians became missionaries and spread the good news about Jesus into all the known world. Within three centuries they had succeeded so well that the Roman Empire became officially Christian.
For the next thousand years most Christian growth came with the aid of the sword. When a king like Clovis chose baptism (ca. A.D. 500), all the Franks had to follow him. When he conquered another tribe, its members also had to become Christian. But there were also nonviolent spreaders of the faith like Saint Patrick in Ireland or Saint Boniface in Germany. The converts of Boniface in the eighth century claimed that he cut down an oak sacred to Thor, surviving threatened bolts from heaven to live on and baptize a hundred thousand converts. For mass production or selfless zeal, none ever outdid the Jesuit Saint Francis Xavier who felt called by God to go as far as Goa and Japan. His friends claimed he touched on fifty-two kingdoms and baptized a million souls, all Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam , “to the greater glory of God.”
But God waited for his greatest glory in the field of Christian missions until the nineteenth century, when the Protestants joined the swelling ranks of Catholic pioneers. This Protestant era began, in most reckonings, in May of 1792 when English shoemaker William Carey in a sermon called his generation to “expect great things from God,” and to “attempt great things for God.” Zealous attempters immediately founded missionary societies to recruit and pay for agents to go to the heathen. Americans soon caught up with the European enterprisers. In popular lore, the American Protestant effort began in Massachusetts in 1806 when members of a secret society of Williams College students huddled under a haystack to pray during a storm. They emerged from this incident with as zesty a slogan about missions as William Carey’s: “We can do it if we will.”
Using Andover Theological Seminary as their base, this generation helped organize the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1810 and two years later sent the first contingent of missionaries to India. Most of the first impulse for the world-wide push came from New England, where staid churchmen saw revivalists on the frontier outstrip their efforts while they themselves were losing status and prestige on the changing home front. Foreign missions were a means of recouping losses and extending New England. Most American Indians, moreover, were showing little inclination toward conversion, and out of motives of frustration and new hope the evangelicals began to aim for Indian Indians and natives of the Sandwich Islands instead.
Missionary activity soon became something of a craze. New Englanders produced a young Sandwich Islander named Henry Obookiah, who converted to Christianity and made sensational appeals to Americans to give money for missions. All over New England and later the rest of the United States, ministers filled their sermons with appeals to send money and missionaries. Sunday-school children and worshiping congregations were kept from dozing with derring-do stories of the ambassadors of Christ to the pagans. Women, too, were welcomed in this field, and many of them became heroines to the stay-at-homes. The hymns of the era filled the functions folk songs do in movements of our day: