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The Missionary Movement

July 2024
6min read

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.…

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:

From Greenland ‘s icy mountains, From India ‘s coral strand, Where Afric ‘s sunny fountains Roll down their golden sand, From many an ancient river, From many a palmy plain, They call us to deliver Their land from error’s chain. or: Loud and strong the Master calleth, Rich reward He offers thee; Who will answer, gladly saying, “Here am I; send me, send me!”

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.

Yet the past tense and elegiac tones are distinctly out of place in this account. There are more missionaries than ever before in the field - something like thirty-five thousand Protestants from America in 1975, making about 60 per cent of the whole, a far larger percentage than in the nineteenth century. Nowadays many of them come as undenominational free enterprisers from fundamentalist “faith” missions. To them, fraternal workers are namby-pamby liberals who have lost taste for snatching souls from the jaws of hell. Meanwhile, many “mainline” missionaries try to carry on a balanced program directed to souls and bodies. On the mission soil itself, nativeborn movements spring up with such frequency that some prophets picture Africa becoming the center of a future Christendom. They could be wrong. There are still African rulers who would deny their dream and still pay missionaries the painful compliment of persecuting, banishing, or killing them.

An old phrase about Richelieu seems appropriate for a balance sheet on the missionary: He did too much good to deserve reproach; he did too much harm to deserve praise. But the missionary seldom looked for praise. He or she worked with serene confidence that the command of Jesus in Matthew was sealed with its accompanying promise:… and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age .

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