The Missionary Movement


Why did ministers and teachers go? Why leave the shelter of the Massachusetts haystack, the coziness of Williams College, and the tea times in manses that awaited Andover Seminary graduates, for an arduous life in Ceylon or Zululand? The old-fashioned explanations may not please psychohistorians who puzzle over the drivenness of missionaries, but they seem most faithful to the record. These theories have to do with the world vie w and faith of the missionaries. In their minds, this present world was a time of probation that allowed for no second chances before eternal life begins. No other faith besides Christianity would save people. They must hear about Jesus or face eternal flames in hell. If they believed, heaven would be theirs. What was more, they asserted, Jesus was coming again. One school of thought expected him to rule during a millennium for which their missionary efforts would gradually prepare the world. The more apocalyptic types favored a kind of “big-bang” theory in which after everything in the world got bad enough, Jesus would come suddenly to end the chances for sinners. The missionaries must hurry to rescue them.


“We can do it if we will” applied well to the program of populating heaven, but these humane wayfarers also had other designs in mind. Prospective missionaries felt sorry for natives when they heard returnees report on their nakedness, hunger, illness, and cruelties. Westerners must bring know-how and medicines, must civilize the savages, enlighten the benighted. Amazingly, against all odds, they made progress in medical work, and the schools they built a century ago trained many of the leaders who today oppose the “Christian colonialists” in the new nations.


From those who did not share their outlook the missionaries received a bad name. The canard has it, “First the missionaries; then the traders; then the gunboats.” True enough, the missionary was often first on the scene, but the traders and gunners would have been there only a few years later anyway—and without humane countervoices. No one can read the missionary diaries surviving from many decades and places without finding Christian teachers doing frequent battle with exploiters. They often distanced themselves from the nationalist and racist claims of the white traders and conquerors whose boats, alas, they had to share. Their own story makes no sense apart from the thread of blended love and pride that went into their mission.

In the course of the century, however, pride began to win out over love, and the missionary sounded more and more like the imperialist. By 1900 the United States was still only seventh among the imperial powers, commanding fewer people on fewer acres than, among others, Holland, Belgium, Germany, and Russia. But the spirit that boasted of empire was as strong in America as anywhere. By 1900 there were about four thousand American missionaries abroad. Judson Smith, corresponding secretary of the American Board, in 1901 wrote that “the nineteenth century has gone into history with an imperishable name and glory. Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, are but the shadows of their former strength, and seem on the point of extinction.” There could be “no backward steps in Christ’s march down the centuries and across the nations to universal victory.” It was too soon for Christians to celebrate triumph, but “we are on the march; every foe flees before us, every year makes the cause more resistless; and the end is both certain and near at hand.”

Fifty years later China, representing one-fourth of the human race, closed itself off entirely to missions and Christianity in any form. New nationalisms, especially Marxist versions, pitted African and Asian destinies against all Americans, especially the heirs of the Christian missionaries. Other world religions meanwhile revitalized themselves and began to resist “resistless” Christianity.

In the West, many believers themselves took some long second looks. Grateful for the beachheads missionaries had made, they transformed the clinics and the schools, peopling them with “fraternal workers” while they dubbed the old mission fields “younger churches.” They called off competition for souls and formed ecumenical movements. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) found Catholics saying good things about the “heathen” religions, and many Protestants gradually came to lose their zeal to disrupt old cultures. But all this revising came too late to rescue the reputation of the missionary in a culture that often did not understand his or her goals. The cartoonist today locates the missionary in a cannibal pot. The film maker sees her as a repressed Katherine Hepburn, waiting to be liberated not by the Cross of Jesus but by Humphrey Bogart and The African Queen . The anthropologist scorns the preacher as a heedless invader of quaint landscapes.