Tag Archives: Missions

Missions and Empire: Are Protestant Missionaries Colonists?

A Historical Inquiry

In some colonial contexts, nominally Christian religion was forced upon natives as part and parcel of the endeavor of colonization. This being the case, many missionary groups have historically been denied state support, even when tolerated by monarchs; others, like the Donatists (4th to 6th c.) and the Brethren (19th c.), would not accept such support if it was offered. The charge of colonialism, so often levied against the Christian religion, may not be applied equally to all Christian groups, since they have quite different visions of the state-church relation.

If we try to draw together a broad treatment of the relation between Protestant missionaries and their home governments, what we find historically falls into three categories: missions and empire in unity, missions and empire at odds, and missions and empire at distance.

Missions and Empire in Unity

Catholics in Latin America

As someone who publishes books on pioneer missions, I often come across the platitude that Christian missions is “the handmaid of empire”. This sweeping criticism is held up as a banner by detractors of Christianity, secular and religious alike. It is a just verdict in particular of the Iberian colonial powers, whose vision of Catholic Christianity was that of an unchallenged state religion.

Unlike other European colonizing powers such as England or the Netherlands, Spain insisted on converting the natives of the lands it conquered to its state religion.

Adriaan C. van Oss, Catholic Colonialism, p. xi

Even there, reformers arose to oppose the systematic violence against indigenous peoples. Dominican friars Antonio de Montesinos, Pedro de Córdoba, and Bartolomé de las Casas were bright spots in a dark tide of bloodshed, as they chose in 1511 to denounce violence against the people of Hispaniola.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony

The Protestant Reformation did not immediately lead to any change in church-state relations. Luther and Zwingli were not more tolerant than their predecessors in Germany and Switzerland. Likewise, Protestant missionaries of the seventeenth century were not so different from Catholic missionaries of the sixteenth. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded with an explicitly eschatological vision of a Christian utopia, with no room for plurality of religions. This included the intention of converting and civilizing natives, as the 1629 Charter spells out.

. . . whereby our said People, Inhabitants there, may be soe religiously, peaceablie, and civilly governed, as their good Life and orderlie Conversacon, maie wynn and incite the Natives of [the] Country, to the KnowIedg and Obedience of the onlie true God and [Savior] of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth, which in our Royall Intencon, and the Adventurers free Profession, is the principall Ende of this Plantacion.

Massachusetts Bay Charter, 1629

Evangelization of indigenous did not precede settlement though, as is sometimes described. John Eliot did not attempt to preach to the Indians until 1646. Charlotte M. Yonge writes that Eliot thought that faith would lead to civilization. Though he worked with approval from colonial authorities, Eliot may also be regarded as a voice crying in the wilderness, since so few shared in this work at that time.

Anglican Missions

For two more centuries, the unity of missions and empire remained prevalent among Church of England missionaries—mainly working within the British Empire—but it declined as independent and evangelical Protestant churches began to proliferate. In 1900, the Governor of Bengal viewed missions as an “unofficial auxiliary” of British government there.

I view, then, the missionary work as an indispensable, unofficial, voluntary auxiliary of the government in carrying out in India its highest aspirations, the ennobling of the whole Hindu people.

Sir Charles Elliott, Governor of Bengal, quoted in Jacob Chamberlain, The Cobra’s Den, 1900, ch. 26

The sentiment was sometimes reciprocal. The President of the Church Missionary Society wrote as late as 1907:

[A. B. Lloyd] has been bearing his share of “the white man’s burden” of ruling, civilising, and Christianising the “silent peoples,” of whom John Bull carries no less than 350 millions on his back.

Sir John H. Kennaway, Preface to A. B. Lloyd’s In Dwarf Land and Cannibal Country: A Record of Travel and Discovery in Central Africa, 1907, p. 7.

But even at that time, these were becoming outmoded ways of discussing a Christian’s role in reaching indigenous people. In a way, another reformation had been slowly spreading in European Christianity: evangelicalism. It was the focus on individual faith, rather than institutional loyalty, that began to lead to a major shift in Christian attitudes toward the state.

The First Evangelicals

To understand how all this began to change, we need to understand the beginnings of evangelicalism. In 1688 and 1689, at the university in Leipzig, August Francke and Philip Spener began holding a series of meetings in which the New Testament was read and discussed. They focused on a personal and living faith, but this was seen as an affront to the concept of a state church. Teaching individual conversion was controversial, and Francke became embroiled in conflict. After being prohibited from teaching in Leipzig, he began ministry in Erfurt; after fifteen months in Erfurt, he was expelled by the local authorities and given forty-eight hours to leave the city. All this happened in spite of his Lutheranism.

Francke continued his ministry by teaching children. He established an orphanage in 1698, which eventually became the largest charitable organization in the world. In 1893, the Missionary Review of the World called him “the father of evangelical missions.”

Count Zinzendorf was educated at Francke’s Foundations in Halle. In 1722, Zinzendorf founded his famous Herrnhut community for the Moravian Brethren. In 1727, a revival occurred in Herrnhut which led to several men volunteering to become missionaries.

In 1738, George Whitefield and John Wesley went to Georgia as missionaries. Wesley was greatly impressed by the faith of the Moravian colonists on their ship. Whitefield had been ordained in the Church of England, but in time his outspokenness led to him being rejected by ecclesiastical authority, and he began to pave his own path. Wesley, in a similar position, went to Herrnhut to learn of the Moravians. In 1739 and 1740, John Wesley and George Whitefield began preaching in the open air and at “revival” meetings. Their preaching sparked the First Great Awakening in America.

Missions and Empire at Odds

The First Lutheran Missionaries in Tranquebar

In 1705, the King of Denmark, Frederick IV, asked August Francke to select two men to go to the Danish colony of Tranquebar, in present-day Tamil Nadu. These were the first Lutheran missionaries. Francke chose Batholomaüs Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau, both trained by him in Halle under a yoke of Prussian Pietism. Though they were sent by the king, as Pietists, their eschatology and missiology was very much at odds with the Danish colonial government, and they butted heads on several occasions. Theologian Joar Haga writes, “the king’s interest in mission activity has been quite a riddle for historians to explain”, but apparently he was impressed with Francke’s work in Halle.

In addition, the Lutheran theologians in Copenhagen had grave doubts about the legitimacy of mission work. The Gospel had already been declared all over the world by the Apostles, according to leading theologians such as Niels Hemmingsen (1513–1600) and Hans Resen (1561–1638). They had explained that the Gospel had been declared twice before Christ’s arrival. . . . []

Joar Haga, “Consecrating the New Jerusalem in Tranquebar.” p. 419.

Haga writes that “The idea of mission was not a part of the original plan for extending Danish rule to India.” (p. 420) The Danish East India Company had been present for almost a century (since 1616) before Ziegenbalg established a church for Indians. In addition, the missionaries were not allowed to use the church used by the Danish and Germans. Even though they had the support of the king, they lacked many supports on the mission field, being generally regarded as radicals. Missions is certainly not the “handmaid of empire” in their case.

When Zeigenbalg preached the consecration sermon for his New Jerusalem church, he stated that it should never be used for “worldly and domestic” use, but that it would be dedicated to spiritual use, meaning preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments. Their stated goal on the mission field was always that polytheists would leave idolatry for the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Denmark.

Reform for Sati

The British East India Compny was very reluctant to interfere in native customs in India, to the extent that they did not even outlaw sati. Jemima Luke writes that the Baptist Missionary Society, the London (Congregational) Missionary Society, and the Church (Anglican) Missionary Society, along with many Hindus and Christians, including missionaries James Peggs and William Carey, sought reform for this practice, finally succeeding in 1829. Reforming native religion and practice was not conducive to resource colonialism (as opposed to the settler colonialism practiced in Latin America).

The East India Company and Independent Protestants

British colonial government had a tenuous relationship with those missionaries in its midst who were Protestant but unconnected to the state church. In a biography of Sarah Loveless, Richard Knill writes:

The East India Company would not allow Christian missionaries to sail in their ships; therefore Dr. Carey, Mr. Loveless, and many others, were glad to sail to British India in the ships of foreigners!

The Missionary’s Wife, 1839; quoted in Thomas Timpson, Memoirs of British Female Missionaries.

Most Protestant missionaries, without any support of a state church, did not have the backing to travel to mission fields within the British Empire. In 1804, the Lovelesses sailed on an American ship for Chennai. Knill comments that arriving on a foreign ship “made it very difficult for a missionary to labour there.”

In the same volume, Thomas Timpson narrates how this policy of the East India Company changed “after great opposition” from British Christians. He records how in 1813, 900 signatures were sent to Parliament.

Divine Providence appeared to open a wide door in the year 1813, especially by the renewal of the East India Company’s Charter. Religious liberty gained a most glorious triumph over avarice and infidelity in the new charter: for Christians of various classes, especially . . . the committees of the London and Baptist Missionary Societies, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, sent 900 petitions to Parliament, for permission to propagate the gospel in Hindustan; and after great opposition, a clause, introduced by the government, was carried in the House of Lords, July 20th, securing protection to Christian Missionaries residing in India!

Thomas Timpson, “Elizabeth Harvard.” Memoirs of British Female Missionaries. 1841.

It is telling that Timpson, a Baptist, celebrates a unified victory of the British independent churches, and the Church of Scotland, seeking religious liberty—from their own government! Even after the change in policy, two missionaries who arrived in Bombay wrote that they were not supported beyond transportation. They were “as missionaries, unknown, unexpected, and even undesired.”

Other examples could be adduced. Recall that when Adoniram Judson and James Colman appealed directly to the Emperor of Burma in 1820 for the right to live and minister freely, they were denied. British aggression certainly did not serve his cause, and Judson was a prisoner of war to the Burmese for nearly two years, though an American. They could not help thinking that an English speaker would be helping their imperial enemy.

In his book on Unoccupied Fields (1900), Samuel M. Zwemer writes that the British government was happy for Muslims to advance their religion among pagans, but, except in Egypt, Christians were routinely prevented from doing so. Christian missionary activity in Muslim-majority lands was seen as provoking retaliation from local fanatics. Even alongside Anglican missionaries, who were sometimes seen as an approved “auxiliary” to British colonial governments, most British Protestant missionaries were considered a liability to their home governments.

Missions and Empire at Distance

Christians among Arabs

The criticism of colonial pretenses comes frequently from Muslims because, Islam being a political vision as much as a religious one, Muslim thinkers cannot help but believe that Christian missionaries work hand in hand with what they perceive to be Western, Christian governments—or, if not, they claim that that is how Protestant missions started.

This Islamic perception of Christians has been around since the earliest eras of Christian mission. Thus you will come across statements from pioneer missionaries in the Arab world, like the following:

I imagine his impression is, that we are sent out by the king of England.

Anthony Norris Groves, Baghdad, April 2, 1830; Journal of a Residence at Bagdad.

The prevailing idea is that we get so much money for every case from the Queen or our Consul in Jerusalem.

Archibald Forder, in a letter dated January 1893; With the Arabs in Tent and Town, ch. 2.

As a matter of fact, both Groves and Forder paved the way as pioneer missionaries apart from institutional backing; and both are held up today as early examples of “indigenizing” missionaries rather than colonizing missionaries. As a very early member of the Brethren movement, Groves absolutely rejected any entanglements between state and church. And Forder, far from “civilizing” Arabs, is regarded by two modern Arab academics as an example of “going native”. As much as was in his power, he dressed, travelled, and spoke like the Bedouins he worked among.

As evangelicalism began in Europe largely in the context of institutional opposition on the local scale—both among the Pietists in Germany and the Methodists in Britain—it now continues largely in the context of institutional apathy from Western governments. Today, most Protestant missionaries are not affiliated with a state church, but supported by independent churches and societies. Their home governments do nothing or almost nothing either to prevent or encourage them from overseas evangelism.

Conclusion

I conclude with these words from Susie Rijnhart, an unaffiliated missionary in Tibet.

Kind Christian friends have questioned our wisdom in entering Tibet. Why not have waited, they ask, until Tibet was opened by ‘the powers,’ so that missionaries could go under government protection?

The early apostles did not wait until the Roman Empire was ‘opened.’ . . . Persecutions came upon them from every side, but nothing, save death, could hinder their progress or silence their message. . . . So it has ever been in the history of Christianity. Had the missionaries waited till all countries were ready and willing to receive them, so that they could go forth without danger or sacrifice, England might still have been the home of barbarians. Livingstone’s footsteps would never have consecrated the African wilderness, there would have been no Carey in India, the South Sea Islanders would still be sunk in their cannibalism, and the thousands of Christians found in pagan lands would still be in the darkness and shadow of death.

Susie C. Rijnhart, With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple, 1901, p. 393–395.

Review: The Star in the East

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Claudius Buchanan (1766-1815) was a minister and missionary in the Church of England. He went to India as a chaplain in 1797, and afterward became very influential in organizing native (i.e., not English) education and translation of Scriptures. He also held great influence in the Mar Thoma church (Kerala, India) and was a key supporter of the first Malayali Bible translation.

Overview:  This little book is a sermon preached in 1809 in Bristol, for the Society for Missions to Africa and Asia, when the author had just returned from India. Buchanan was an inspiration to Adoniram Judson as well as a witness to some fascinating and forgotten history, which is summarized below as an inspiration to the cause of Christian missions.

Meat:

Buchanan’s sermon recounts historical facts which he sees as providential in advancing the cause of Christian missions. Below are the points that he mentions:

  • Danish and German missionaries had arrived in Tamil Nadu (i.e. the Tranquebar colony in south India) in 1706, and their work had brought great results. (Buchanan lived in India for many years and knew firsthand the quality of the church there.)

What then was the effect of giving them the Bible? It was the same as that which followed the giving of the Bible to us. . . . God blessed his own word to the conversion of the heart, and men began to worship him in sincerity and truth. (loc. 367)

  • The spread of the British Empire was providential in the spread of Christianity.
  • The translation of Scriptures into Eastern languages was also providential. Buchanan refers to Henry Martyn and his associates pointedly; Buchanan himself also supported several translation projects.
  • Buchanan promulgated to the West the existence of the “Syrian Christians” in India—the Mar Thoma church, called Syrian because of their use of the Syriac language in liturgy:

We may contemplate the history of this people, existing so long in that dark region, as a type of the inextinguishable Light of Christ’s religion; and, in this sense, it may be truly said, “We have seen his Star in the East.” (loc. 336)

  • Buchanan refers to the strange and interesting tale of an associate of Henry Martyn, an Arab baptized as Nathaniel Sabat, who later left the faith. Robert Murray McCheyne, another important Scottish preacher, has a (not so inspirational!) pamphlet on him and the strange tale of his apostasy and death (Sabat the Arabian, the Apostate (1854)). Buchanan describes “Sabat” and his “vernacular writings” thus:

His first work is entitled Happy News for Arabia [نعمة بشارةٍ للعربي]; written in the Nabuttee [Nabataean?], or common dialect of the country. It contains an eloquent and argumentative elucidation of the truth of the Gospel, with copious authorities admitted by the Mahometans [i.e., Muslims] themselves, and particularly by the Wahabians [Wahhabis].

Note: It doesn’t appear that any of these writings are extant.

Buchanan mentions all these are more as evidences that the time has come to once again announce Christ in the East, as the wise men once did.

In his conclusion, Buchanan also mentions British opponents of missions, saying that “in the future history of our country, it will scarcely be believed that in the present age, an attempt should have been made to prevent the diffusion of the blessed principles of the Christian religion.” (loc. 448) The author then compares naysayers to the pessimistic spies of Israel, who did not believe they should enter the promised land (loc. 469).

In the mean time, while men hold different opinions on the subject here, the great work goes on in the East. . . . And on this point I judge it right to notice a remarkable mistake, which appears to have existed on both sides of the question. It seems to have been assumed on the one side, and conceded on the other, that we have it in our power to prevent the progress of Christianity in India. (loc. 492)

Review: Unoccupied Mission Fields of Asia & Africa

Rating: ★★★

Author: Samuel M. Zwemer was a pioneer missionary among Arabs along the Persian Gulf. His later career was spent writing, teaching and mobilizing for missions among Muslims while he was based in Egypt for many years, and later at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Click here for more on Samuel M. Zwemer’s writings, or read his biography.

Genre:

The genre of this book requires some explanation. Unoccupied Mission Fields, especially the first half, falls into the category of missions survey. Missions survey books sought to compile information from European explorers and pioneer missionaries to explain basic information that we would expect to read today on Wikipedia: geography, demographics, population statistics, religious statistics, as well as other information pertinent for missionaries and intercessors. Missions survey is not well represented today in publishing, but in comprehensive resources and websites such as Operation World, The Joshua Project, and some resources by Voice of the Martyrs. Missions newsletters, biographies, and some large-scale studies (like A Wind in the House of Islam) also may meet the same goals as missions survey.

Overview:

Zwemer writes in the preface:

The purpose of this book is to give a survey of the extent and condition of the wholly unoccupied mission fields in Africa and Asia . . . and to consider the questions that bear on their occupation. (Preface, loc. 18)

This twofold purpose is roughly how the book is divided. After a lengthy rundown of neglected areas (especially Muslim-majority populations), the second half of Unoccupied Fields deals with heart issues and head issues involved with missionary advancement in these pioneer fields.

The book begins with many accounts of geographical areas with no missionaries (as of 1911). These are mildly interesting, since we can clearly see which areas have experienced rapid progress in the past century (mainly sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia), and others that have seemingly changed little since Zwemer’s day.

Zwemer then discusses the obstacles to missionary advancement in each region, the social and religious poverty among the unreached, missionary strategy, and the need for pioneer efforts.

Zwemer’s sources are primarily missions reports and missions biographies, with some explorers’ accounts and travelogues.

Despite many dated quotations, the second half of the book shows what made Zwemer famous. Aside from his very thorough research, the book is dripping with a pioneer spirit for the glory of Christ among the unreached, and that is the book’s chief value. The last few chapters are especially potent, and “The Glory of the Impossible” is worth the price of the book.

Quotes:

“These fields are the enemy’s citadels, the high places of his dominion, flaunting defiance in the face of a militant church.” (ch. 1, loc. 167)

“The first Missionary came unto His own and His own received Him not.” (ch. 1, loc. 169)

“God does not deal with mankind in the mass, but as individuals, nor should we. [sic]” (ch. 1, loc. 678)

“Decentralization in the mission field itself is another pressing problem.” (ch. 2, loc. 855)

“Meanwhile, how slowly move the hosts of God
To claim the crown He hath already won!” (ch. 3, loc. 1099)

“The march of missionary progress throughout the past century of Protestant missions has, with some exceptions, been along the line of least resistance. When the whole non-Christian world was awaiting pioneer effort, the Church sometimes postponed the harder tasks. . . . ” (ch. 3, loc. 1128)

“The gradual breaking down of barriers . . . is a call to greater faith and enterprise.” (ch. 3, loc. 1594)

“Long neglect, trying climates, political barriers, national jealousies and religious intolerance in all the unoccupied fields are only a challenge to faith and intended of God to lead us to prayer. All difficulties can be surmounted by those who have faith in God.” (ch. 3, p. 107, loc. 1630)

“The eyes of the Christian world turn as instinctively toward the lands closed to the Gospel in this missionary age, as do the eyes of a conquering army toward the few remaining outposts of the enemy.” (John Muir, qtd. in ch. 6, p. 166, loc. 2546)

“The pioneer stands in a class by himself, like Paul among the Apostles. His glory and joy is the magnitude and the difficulty of the task. The unknown attracts him. Obstacles allure him, and difficulties only knit his moral fibre and strengthen his purpose.” (ch. 7, p. 198, loc. 3027)

” . . . men who do not know what discouragement means. . . .” (ch. 7, p. 200, loc. 3059)

“God does not put the Polar bear on the Congo, nor the hippopotamus in the heart of Arabia . . . Lambs are provided with wool, and it is untrue that God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb. He does not need to temper the wind, because He does not shear the lamb.” (ch. 7, p. 214, loc. 3267)

“Heap the difficulties together recklessly . . . He is the God of the impossible.” (Lillias Trotter, qtd. in ch. 8, p. 225, loc. 3436).

“We are not to choose conditions, but to meet them. The early apostles did not wait until the Roman Empire was ‘opened.'” (S. C. Rijnhart, qtd. in ch. 8, p. 227, loc. 3467)

Zwemer cites Bishop French’s tale, adding that MacKay had called for six young men and only French responded (ch. 8, p. 233, loc. 3572)

Livingstone challenged Cambridge men: “Do you carry out the work which I have begun. I leave it with you.” (ch. 8, p. 240, loc. 3674)

Selected quotes on Arabia and Islam:

“But in its native Arabian soil, the tree planted by the Prophet has grown up with wild freedom and brought forth fruit of its own kind. As regards morality, Arabia is on a low plane . . . ” (p. 142, loc. 2171)

“A religion that does not purify the home cannot regenerate the race.” (Fairbairn, qtd. p. 136, loc. 2085)

“The Gospel is the only hope for the social uplift of the world.” (p. 135, loc. 2061)

Zwemer cites amulet use (p. 118, loc. 1801); open slavery (p. 113, loc. 1729-1730); prostitution in Mecca veiled as ‘temporary marriage’ and the like.

“The chief barrier is that of Moslem political authority and not primarily religious fanaticism.” (p. 94, loc. 1437)

“Northern Oman together with the coast along the western side of the Persian Gulf has a large number of villages and cities. Only the coast towns thus far have been visited by missionaries and colporteurs and the people would welcome medical missions, yet there is no station in the entire area of the map.” (p. 45, loc. 675)

“Missionary work in Arabia so far has been largely preliminary.” (p. 34, loc. 518)

“The eastern tribes . . . are pagan . . . Their dialect is distinct . . . their customs are peculiar and primitive.” (p. 33)

Sources cited with recommendations:

In the Torrid Sudan
With Tibetans in Tent and Temple
Across the Sahara 
(Vischer)
Fighting the Slave-Hunters in Central Africa (Swann, 1910)
The Lower Niger & Its Tribes (Leonard, 1906)
Leaves from an Afghan Scrapbook
Six Months in Meccah
(Keane, 1881)

The Danger of an Exalted Mission

An exalted mission is an ever-present tonic to the Christian. The mission will brook no lazy or chicken-hearted missionary. He stands up straight and checks his pulse at the tug of the apostolic chain. She who once neglected her body will now bring it under submission, for she is not shadow-boxing.

The mission demands much; it demands God. It puts us in immediate need of the Holy Spirit. The seven sons of Sceva find themselves out of their depth; hearsay has no power over the usurping devils in the human heart. We must have personal knowledge of him we preach.

The mission demands much—sometimes too much. It must not demand all. Then it becomes like a proud mustard tree, inviting foul birds to infest its branches. Mission may outstrip calling. Mission may outfly faith. Then we find ourselves, like Sceva’s sons, unable to provide the very power that our mission demands.

The apostolic missionary must take care that mission always submits to calling. Calling encompasses all of Christian life; mission, only a part. Calling is an expression of our relation to our Creator; mission is how we join him in rectifying a broken Creation. Mission is work; calling is not primarily work. We are called to:

  • The fellowship of his Son (1 Cor. 1:9)
  • Peace (1 Cor. 7:15)
  • The grace of Christ (Gal. 1:6)
  • Freedom (Gal. 5:13)
  • His kingdom and glory (1 Th. 2:12)
  • Holiness (1 Th. 4:7)
  • Marvellous light (1 Pet. 2:9)
  • Suffering (1 Pet. 2:21)
  • Blessing (1 Pet. 3:9)
  • Glory and virtue (2 Pet. 1:3)

Never let the mission become more important than your calling. Don’t let being a hero become more important than being a Christian. Answer your Creator’s call with your waking breath, and let the mission be your response to that infant helplessness of prayer.

The Call of God

God’s call is not just about missions. Os Guinness explains that “calling” in Scripture begins with and includes salvation; it is as much a calling to a person as it is a calling to a work or a place. We are called first into a relationship and a new identity in Christ, and any discussion of a “missionary calling” is incomplete without mentioning this first. (1)

God’s call is both repeated and prolonged. Paul and his group experience a variety of “callings” in the book of Acts. The call of God is not a one- time event. It is a complex, life-long driving force leading us to and through salvation and service. It is the “due north” by which we set our compass and take our bearings every day. The call of God is the general direction for all our specific obedience to God.

God’s call is multifaceted. Paul had a long road between the vision on the Damascus road, and the prophetic call in Antioch. He is called first to salvation (Acts 9), then to a work (Acts 13:1-3), followed by a variety of locations and ministries. Sills writes:

God seems to call some to a particular kind of missions service, others to a people group, others to a region, others to a country, others to a city, and others to a life purpose (such as rescuing young girls from prostitution) or some combination of these. (2)

God’s call is not about location. We tend to focus on all of the visible aspects of calling: where we will go, what we will do, who we will marry, and who we will work with. God focuses on the invisible aspects: spiritual preparation, the burden of prayer, the willingness to proclaim, and the stubborn ability to plod on without stopping.


(1) See Os Guinness’ book The Call. Chapters 4 and 5.

(2) M. David Sills. The Missionary Call. Kindle edition. Location 364.

New Compilation on Women in Missions!

“And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.”
Joel 2:28-30, NIV

March is Women’s History Month! And today we are pleased to announce that we haven’t missed our chance to brag on a few women in missions history. Our newest book is Sixteen Pioneer Women in Early Modern Missions. We love to bring to light biographies that have gone out of print, including stories of women in missions and indigenous peoples participating in missions. If you only believed the popular books on the topic, you would think that Protestant missions only involved white, English or American men until around 1960. We hope in time to restore some balance to the narrative of God’s glorious and global enterprise of building his church.

Thomas Timpson (author of The Angels of God) arranged this book in 1841 based mostly on previous memoirs, letters and journals of British women who had been missionaries. Of the sixteen women in the compilation, only eight of them reached the age of 35. In an era that preceded the steam engine, the telegraph, or modern medicine, these women “forsook all” to follow Christ to the ends of the earth. Timpson shows the height of their consecration and the depths of their humility through their personal letters and journal entries.

The narratives are challenging and profound. When Jesus taught in Capernaum, his disciples said, literally, “That’s a tough word.” (John 6:60, my translation) That is exactly how I felt reading these simple and frank narratives of triumph and tragedy on the mission field.

These memoirs focus on having a heart for missions. Each of these ladies is unknown today, but they had a chance to play a significant role in Protestant missions, and they took it. The time period extends from the late 1600s to 1840, and the scope of the book is global. Missionaries in this book reached out in the American colonies, Malta, Guyana, Jamaica, many parts of India, Sierra Leone, eastern Siberia, and many Pacific islands.

There is an introductory chapter—probably worth the price of the book—that surveys the conditions of gender inequality on a global scale, especially where Christianity had little or no influence. This chapter was arranged by Jemima Luke (née Thompson)—author of the hymn “I think when I read that sweet story of old”—when she was 28 years old. It conveys some sense of the influence of the gospel on gender relations in the past 200 years.

The entire book has been proofread, updated, and re-typeset into a new edition, released March 2018.

Now available in paperback: $11.99
Kindle edition: $5.99
(The Kindle download will be free with the paperback.)

Review:  Candle in the Dark: The Story of Ion Keith-Falconer

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Robert Sinker.

Who: Ion Keith-Falconer, Arabic scholar, prominent cyclist, and pioneer missionary to Yemen.

When: 1856-1887.

Where: The book covers his training and travels in Scotland, England, Germany, Egypt, and Yemen.

Overview: This is the authorized biography of Ion Keith-Falconer, published within a year of his unexpected death by a friend who knew him at Cambridge. It is still the most complete biography of him available.

Keith-Falconer came from a noble Scottish bloodline. He was definitely a son of privilege; but to his credit, he used this privilege to support Gospel work. He liberally supported urban evangelistic work, not only with money, but with his own sweat.

He was an exemplary academic and excelled in Arabic and other Semitic languages at Cambridge. Before he went to Yemen as a missionary with the Free Church of Scotland, he was offered a lectureship in Arabic by Cambridge, and accepted, if only because the requirements were so light, and the benefits so obvious—he would only have to lecture once annually at the minimum.

He also exemplifies “muscular Christianity.” He stumbled into fame as a cyclist when the sport was just budding into existence on college campuses.

He began to seriously consider missions in late 1884, and left for Yemen in November 1885 for a trial visit. He returned with his family a year later, in November 1886, but within just a few short months, he succumbed to several bouts of malaria, and died at the age of 31.

Meat: Keith-Falconer is in many ways the prototypical missionary of the Arabian Peninsula. He taught that hospitals and academic work were an appropriate avenue for missionaries there, and many followed in his wake.

The announcement of his death coincided closely with the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, and as a result, many were moved to consider the mission field after he died.

Bones: The author, Sinker, was an academic and sometimes gives too much detail on Keith-Falconer’s academic life at the expense of his personal life. An ideal biography would give a better sense of Keith-Falconer’s habits and daily life.

A member of the Yemen mission, James Robson, later produced a bite-sized biography, Ion Keith-Falconer of Arabia (1923), which essentially abridges the material found here.

Quotes: “Still, it seemed as if some scheme ought to present itself in which Christian zeal and linguistic power might work hand in hand, or rather, shall I say, in which his intellectual attainments and his learning might be to him something more than a mere parallel interest, existing side by side with, but having no connection with, work for Christ.” (loc. 2116)

“The efforts already made to Christianize Mohammedan countries have produced commensurate results.” (loc. 2724)

“The heathen are in darkness, and we are asleep. . . . While vast continents are shrouded in almost utter darkness, and hundreds of millions suffer the horrors of heathenism or of Islam, the burden of proof lies upon you to show that the circumstances in which God gas placed you were meant by Him to keep you out of the foreign mission-field.” (loc. 2797)

Meet the Moravians

Two Moravians didn’t volunteer to be slaves for the Gospel—three did. But none of them actually became slaves.

You may have heard a story passed on in many sermons about two Moravians. A former slave comes to the Moravians and tells them that his people are longing to hear the Gospel—but no one has access to them except for slaves. “Fine,” respond the undaunted Moravians. “We will sell ourselves into slavery.”

Then we fade into a shot of the two Moravians on the deck of a slave barge, headed to the West Indies, shouting at their weeping families, “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of his suffering!” And that is the last that their flesh and blood ever heard from them.

——

This story has taken on legendary proportions in the modern evangelical church, probably because of Paris Reidhead’s erstwhile viral sermon, “Ten Shekels and a Shirt,” and its reincarnation as the “Revival Hymn.”⁠1 But of the two scenes that pass before your mind’s eye, only one of them is true.

Fortunately for the two Moravians, the second scene is either somewhat mythical, or it is someone else’s story. The two Moravians did go to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas as missionaries, and they did preach the gospel to many slaves, but they did not become slaves themselves. Here it is worthwhile to unpack the full story of these remarkable men. I think you will agree with me that the truth of this story is just as inspiring as the legend—or more so.

Revival

The story starts with a widespread revival in the Moravian community, dated to August 13, 1727.⁠⁠2 There was a great stirring among the immigrants who had sought asylum in Count Zinzendorf’s estate, and many spoke about the claims of Christ in unknown lands.

According to Hutton’s account, many Moravians were longing to spread the Gospel abroad during the years that followed, but without any precedent, they were unsure how to move forward. On February 11, 1728, several of them made a covenant that they would go overseas once the way forward was made clear. No Protestant church was sending its own missionaries at that time, although the Danish government had supported a few in its colonies.⁠⁠3

In 1731, that changed. Antony Ulrich, a former slave from the Danish colony of St. Thomas, visited Copenhagen. He told the Danish king that the residents of the island and its slaves were primed to respond to the Gospel. He especially pleaded on behalf of his family members.

On July 24, 1731, Count Zinzendorf shared Antony’s story with his Moravian brothers. The shocking Macedonian call was passed on from ear to ear among the Moravians. A few were quietly contemplating the possibility of going to St. Thomas, but no one spoke up publicly or immediately.

Volunteers

In time, Johann Leonard Dober brought the matter up with his friend, Tobias Leupold, and they wrote a letter to Zinzendorf, declaring their intent to go. Zinzendorf shared the news of the letter with the congregation, but did not disclose their names.

Antony Ulrich, the Caribbean freedman, was still in Europe, and he followed up with Zinzendorf around this time (in present-day Germany). He spoke to the Moravians in Dutch. When Zinzendorf asked Ulrich about sending two men right away, Ulrich—mistakenly—told him that they could only come as slaves.

Both Leonard Dober and Tobias Leupold repeated without hesitation their willingness to go to St. Thomas, even as slaves. Dober wrote the congregation as he had earlier written their leader. It was a heroic declaration of sacrifice that shocked and stirred the Moravian settlement, and inspired many others to consider a commitment to preach abroad. In the end, though, such a sacrifice of freedom was both inadmissible and unnecessary.

Changed Plans

Eventually, the church decided that only Dober should go.⁠⁠4 Dober then chose another Moravian named David Nitschman to accompany him. Just like Tobias Leupold, whom he replaced, Nitschman fully expected to become a slave for the Gospel. Thus, at that point, three men had publicly and enthusiastically declared that they would be enslaved in exchange for the opportunity to preach to the unreachable.

Hutton describes the two men, waiting outside Zinzendorf’s house in the pre-dawn hours on August 21st, 1732. The Count spent the night in prayer, and then he drove them part of the way to Copenhagen. They received a prayer of blessing, and departed on foot to Denmark to secure their passage to the Caribbean.

They had a few belongings and very little money. Although the idea may have been naive, both of them—Dober and Nitschman—fully intended to sell themselves into slavery.

In the end, however, the Danish king deemed this impossible. Dober and Tobias met with Von Plesz,  the chamberlain of King Frederick VI. Here is the dialogue given in Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church:

Von Plesz, the king’s chamberlain, asked them how they would live.

“We shall work,” replied Nitschman, “as slaves among the slaves.”

“But,” said Von Plesz, “that is impossible. It will not be allowed. No white man ever works as a slave.”

“Very well,” replied Nitschman, “I am a carpenter, and will ply my trade.”

“But what will the potter do?”

“He will help me in my work.”

“If you go on like that,” exclaimed the Chamberlain, “you will stand your ground the wide world over.”⁠⁠5

Twenty-five years earlier, in 1706, King Frederick IV of Denmark had sent the first Protestant missionaries to his colonies. But Dober and Nitschman went without royal support. They were not even offered passage by the Danes.

The Rest of the Story

The ‘tall tale’ of two Moravians says that they never saw their families again.  In fact, Leonard Dober only stayed for about two years, until he was called to Herrnhut to take office as General Elder of the church there. Amazingly, Tobias Leupold—who had been turned down as his companion—broke the news to Dober in person in June 1734.⁠⁠6 This was not the end of the mission, however. The Moravians would send 18 more missionaries to those islands in the next two years.

Dober arrived in Europe February 5th, 1735 and held the office of General Elder for six years, travelling often to Holland and England during the remainder of his life. He spent the last few months of his life in Herrnhut.

David Nitschman only went to St. Thomas as an assistant to Dober in his travels, and so he left St. Thomas after just four months.⁠⁠7 Nitschman later took passage to Georgia in 1736, where he met John Wesley, and spent the later years of his life in the Moravian colony at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Forerunners in Protestant Missions

Today, Moravians are little known in America; we tout them as a missionary powerhouse, but that’s where the story ends—at least at missions conferences. But in the 18th century, many Europeans viewed the Moravians as a cult, an uneducated church for spiritual outcasts and fanatics.

They had strange and unique customs, some gleaned from Zinzendorf’s leadership. The original settlement had a rote discipleship system which would sound today like a drug rehab program. They were passionate, committed, communal, innovative, and evangelistic.

When John and Charles Wesley sailed to Georgia with twenty-six Moravian shipmates, they were greatly impressed by their no-nonsense attitudes and the way they returned blessing for insult. John Wesley feared for his life during day after day of violent Atlantic storms, but he wrote in his journal of the Moravians:

“In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces. … A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’

He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’

I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’

He replied mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.'”⁠8

The Moravians’ historian takes great pride in the fact that many English Moravians preceded William Carey to the mission field. When they left for St. Thomas, Dober and Nitschman preceded William Carey by sixty years. There is no doubt that they were the first Protestant church, as far as we know, to send missionaries with no worldly or political ties.

Careers

Why, then, does the modern legend transform Nitschman and Dober into slaves? It betrays a deep confusion in modern American missiology. Maybe deep down, we believe that going overseas is pointless unless the sacrifices are tangible, irreversible, and impressive.

But it was not their romantic sacrifice that gave them access to the unreached—it was their flexibility. They did not hang on to some heroic vision of missionary life, but showed that they would undergo any hardship—even pursuing a secular vocation!

“For over one hundred years no missionary in the West Indies received from the Moravian Church one penny of salary for his services. Each man, during all the period, had first to earn his own living.”⁠9

Maybe we should also think about where the legend ends: “They went overseas.” But that is where the preface ends, and we reach page one. Leonard Dober and David Nitschman, in fact, preached the gospel to numerous slaves. They worked hard, maintained careers, baptized disciples, and preached the Gospel in the Caribbean. And their impact outlasted them.

Results

An important point to this story is that these two were not just two among a centuries-long stream of missionaries out of Herrnhut. They were the first. Immediately inspired by their commitment, a trio of Moravians joined Hans Egede in his apostolic work in Greenland.⁠⁠10

Many of the workers that followed our wayfaring pair to the Caribbean died of tropical diseases. After they left, 18 Moravian missionaries began work in St. Croix, and within two years, half of them had died. In fact, Moravian missionaries had to take their own headstone across the Atlantic with them, because the Caribbean islands couldn’t supply them with stones.

By the time Leonard Dober died, there were more than 5,000 former slaves in the Moravian congregations of the West Indies.⁠11 The Moravian Brethren still have disciples in the Caribbean today, and it started with those two young men volunteering.

Takeaways

There are a few things that stick out about this story.

First, they didn’t sell themselves into slavery; they did something much less heroic—they plied their trade. No one wants to share a story of two volunteer missionaries saying: we will do anything to reach people, even manual labor.

Second, volunteering was not enough. After they declared their intent to go to the mission field, they had to find a way to support their work. They had to be sent. The church decided one of them shouldn’t go. When they got there, real life had to happen. Willingness was only one ingredient.

Third, the story didn’t end when their ship weighed anchor from Denmark; then their work had only begun. They only contributed to the work for a couple of years, but they paved the way for the Moravian missionaries that followed them—both in the West Indies, and globally.

In the end, the mythical version says more about our generation than theirs. We would not pass on the story if it did not have a ring of romance to it. The legendary retelling certainly appeals to our heartstrings. But the heroes this generation needs are not going to be those one or two who give it all, forsake their families, and cross the seas to become slaves. We need an army of workers willing to scrap their way, by any means, to the unreached and the inconvenient lost, whether or not they have to use a university degree to do so.

Share the true story and help restore our generation’s understanding of missions. As A. W. Tozer said, you don’t become a missionary by crossing the sea; you become a missionary by seeing the cross.


1 The audio of Reidhead’s famous sermon is available here.

2 You can read about this revival, for example, in John Greenfield’s book, Power from on High, or The History of the Moravians by J. E. Hutton.

3 See, for example:

Helen H. Holcomb, Men of Might in India Missions. 1901.

J. Ferd. Fenger. History of the Tranquebar Mission. 1842. Translated from the Danish in 1863.

Jesse Page. Amid Greenland Snows: The Early History of Arctic Missions. 1904.

4 Remarkably, this decision was made using a system of casting lots for Scriptures, a practice that the Moravian Brethren have since given up, for obvious reasons.

5 J. E. Hutton. History of the Moravian Church. Book II, Chapter VI. “The Foreign Missions and Their Influence.”

The story is also told by J. E. Hutton in his History of Moravian Missions. 1922.

6 J. E. Hutton. A History of Moravian Missions. p. 37-38. 1922.

7 “Memoir of Leonard Dober.” Periodical Accounts Relating to the Missions of the Church of the United Brethren Established Among the Heathen, vol. 12. p. 241-246.

8 Richard Watson. The Life of John Wesley, p. 43. 1857.

9 J. E. Hutton. A History of Moravian Missions. p. 38-39. 1922.

10 Jesse Page. Amid Greenland Snows: The Early History of Arctic Missions. Ch. 6.

11 “Memoir of Leonard Dober.” Periodical Accounts Relating to the Missions of the Church of the United Brethren Established Among the Heathen, vol. 12. p. 241-246.

Review: Who Really Sends the Missionary?

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Michael Griffiths, former director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. Before becoming director of OMF, Griffiths did student work in the UK, and served as a missionary in Japan for several years. (He has a number of paperbacks on missions, but this is the first I’ve read. You can read more about his story here.)

Overview: Griffiths has practical experience in vetting missionaries, and has profound biblical insights about missions. Griffiths desired to see  The first half of this book deals primarily with the missionary call, dispelling the idea that only missionary candidates can hear from God and know if they are “called.”

The second half of the book explains how he believes pastors should be ministering to missionaries who are on furlough, by giving them space and continuity to practice ministry. This part of the book is less applicable to non-traditional missionaries or those who are not doing directly pastoral work, but it is nonetheless interesting.

Meat: Griffiths says that the missionary call in the Bible is not a command issued directly to one person. Nor is “volunteering” on its own sufficient grounds to leave for the mission field. According to the New Testament, the church shares in choosing and sending the missionary, and in some ways, should be more responsible for this than the missionary himself.

We focus on an individual sense of call, but at the same time we realize that many who claim to be called are not fit or ready for life on the mission field. Griffiths’ little book is a much-needed corrective for a naive, individualistic view of missions and the missionary call. (See the quoted section below from pages 12 and 13.)

He adds later in the book that, instead of running themselves ragged on a deputation trail, missionaries should spend furloughs ministering continually to one or a few churches, and the church should reciprocate by supporting them on their furlough. “Here is another ministry for pastors and congregations—retreading tired missionaries!” (p. 33)

Bones: As mentioned, the second half of the book primarily targets church pastors; it was interesting and biblical, but mostly irrelevant to me.

Quotes: “Ministers and congregations have the chief responsibility for the selecting and sending of new missionaries.” (p. 11)

“In practice, we recognize that the subjective conviction of a call is not in itself sufficient.” (p. 15)

“… The emphasis made by Scripture is never upon an individual volunteering or upon his own subjective sense of call, but always upon the initiative of others. Saul goes to Antioch because Barnabas takes him there (Acts. 11:25-26). It is the whole group of prophets and teachers in Antioch to whom the Holy Spirit says ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’ (Acts 13:1-4). Later, when Barnabas and Paul parted company, we are told that Barnabas ‘took Mark’ (Acts 15:39) and Paul ‘chose Silas’ (Acts 15:40) ‘and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.’ Subsequently, Paul ‘wanted’ Timothy ‘to go with him’ (Acts 16:3), though we are pointedly reminded that ‘he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium,’ so that the congregations were consulted and involved in his going out. …

“Whereas we seem to have emphasized exclusively the individual’s subjective sense of a highly personal call of God, and often reinforced this by emotional appeals for individuals to volunteer, the New Testament by contrast stresses either the corporate initiative of congregations or the informed initiative of missionaries in selecting suitable people.” (p. 12-13)

“The call of an Old Testament prophet should not be regarded as normative for a New Testament missionary.” (p. 13)

“… Both the Bible and common sense, therefore, suggest that the best method is not to call for volunteers but to set up a draft! The most that an individual can do is express his willingness. Others must determine his worthiness. The individual may be free to go, but only his church knows if he is really fitted to go.” (p. 15-16)

“We all want to see a vital and exciting relationship restored between churches and mission societies, and this can be effected practically where there is increased living contact between individual Christians and individual missionaries.” (p. 6)

Review: Memoir of Mrs. Stallybrass

Rating: ★★★

Who: A memoir of Sarah Stallybrass, wife of Edward Stallybrass and British Congregational missionary to Siberia. Sarah taught (Mongolian) Buryat children while Edward worked on the translation of the Bible into Mongolian with a few colleagues.

When: 1789-1832.

Overview: This memoir is composed mostly of Sarah’s letters and journal entries, many of which focus on the trials that she went through and her lessons in submission to the Lord’s will in hard times. We follow the Stallybrasses as they sail through the Baltic Sea to St. Petersburg, where they trained in Russian, then thousands of miles overland across Russia to the far reaches of Siberia. After receiving the blessing of the Russian Emperor Alexander I, the Stallybrasses settled at Novoselenginsk near Lake Baikal. They later resettled even further out in Siberia. Sarah struggled with many medical problems, but toiled in raising her children and educating young Buryat children. Four months after they had resettled on the Khodon River with five children, their house burned down in the Siberian winter.

Meat: This biography focuses on Stallybrass’ personal thoughts and walk with the Lord during her travels to Siberia, and her stay there. Under the shadow of health issues and the toil of raising a family in one of the remotest parts of the earth, she maintained her life of prayer and her walk of faith.

Bones: Sarah Stallybrass quotes a wealth of hymns and draws on the richness of Christian tradition; but her view of Providence is one-sided, and makes no mention of spiritual warfare. For example, if we acknowledge that Jesus was sovereign over the weather, and commanded a storm to be calm, we should also admit that other forces had imposed upon this weather before Jesus commanded it.

Quotes: “The danger lies in confounding our success with the success of the great object we professedly regard.” (Joseph Fletcher, p. viii)

“If I have learnt anything more in the past year than in former ones, it has been that happiness dwells not in the throng; my happiest moments I find to be those spent in the [prayer] closet.” (p. 24)

“The Christian must not expect a cessation of his trials till he rests in the bosom of his God. The life of the Son of God was one of sufferings, from the manger to the grave.” (p. 64)