History of the Modern Protestant Missions Movement

Part 3

Four years after the Edinburg Conference, the world was gripped by the sudden outbreak of one of the worst military conflicts in the history of the earth- the First World War. Protestant missions efforts were interrupted as the world was engulfed in this crisis. By the time the dust cleared in 1918, the entire world was nearly unrecognizable- the old order had been swept away in the conflict.

The era of empires had come crashing down. Gone was the German, Russian and Ottoman Empires and deeply broken were those of the British and French. Besides the immediate infrastructural devastation of Western Europe, the deaths of over 16 million young men in combat and 40 million people from the simultaneous global flu pandemic, a much deeper loss had taken place. The deep sense of optimism in human progress, prosperity and the advancement of Western utopianism that had marked the 19th century was dashed to pieces in the trench warfare of the Great War.

This affected all levels of society across the world. Europe’s prosperity and peace had been understood to be the success of not just Western ideology and culture but of Christianity itself. The Postmillennialism that had marked early Western missions exploits was harnessed to this concept and when it all came crashing down this theology was abandoned- it had been destroyed in the war along with the old order. In the face of such unspeakable suffering, people no longer believed that the Kingdom of God would physically advance unhindered towards greater levels of glory, prosperity and victory in unrelenting progress. Deep pessimism and disillusionment fell upon the modern Western world. More than the failure of Western civilization, the First World War was seen in the eyes of many to be the failure of Christianity.

Many people -both Christian and otherwise- began to question the legitimacy of Christianity itself. If Europe -the beacon of Christianity in the world- could completely destroy itself in such a catastrophe, how could Christianity as a faith be legitimate? This disillusionment affected even the most devout believers; the entire superstructure of Western Christianity felt the shock to the system- including the missions movement.  

The SVM was one of many organizations deeply impacted by the devastation of the war. In their 1919 conference, the former optimistic tone of SVM leaders had been replaced with a need to defend the faith itself in the face of disillusionment among the students present. Robert Speer is quoted in his address to those present at the conference as saying, “I am going to open quite candidly the questions that some of you have been discussing right here in these days as to whether there is worth enough in our Christian faith… There are men here in this conference, women too, who are saying that Christianity here in America, and as expressed by this Student Volunteer Convention, is a failure… No, Jesus hasn’t failed, and He isn’t going to fail. But I tell you men and women that there is a danger here of failure tonight- that we ourselves may fail.” In spite of the pleas of leaders, the disillusionment among SVM students continued. An observer at their conference five years later is quoted as saying, “There was not any expression or conviction on the part of the students that the way of Jesus is the way.” In fact, although the SVM would continue to make a tremendous impact on the missions world for many more years, its terminal end can be traced back to this traumatic post-war period.

This was not exclusive to only SVM. Rather, the events within the ranks of SVM was symptomatic of a broader and more general chagrin within the Protestant missions world. Along with the psychological challenge from the war, the expenses of the war began to effect missions organizations and many of them went into debt. Many people began to stop giving to missions exploits and it is reported that many students interviewed for missions admitted that their main focus was not missions, but was to secure a career to make lots of money. Students, long the bulk of the missionary movement, were now unenthusiastic about missions. Recruitment numbers dropped dramatically and missions agencies began to dwindle. This represented the beginning of a major decline in Western Protestant missions.

The pre-war world and framework that Protestant missions had functioned within had been broken by the conflict in Europe. The financial, cultural, emotional and theological challenges from World War 1 nearly ended the Protestant missions movement. It would not be for another twenty years that it would once again gain momentum. However, when that momentum resumed, it would come back with an incredible shift in global missions strategy- one that has remained with us to this day.


The Third Era- Unreached People Groups (1935- Present)


During the difficult years of the early 20th century, in the midst of great challenges to Protestant missions, two men stood out as significant influential leaders in their generation. Their contributions to the advancement of the Great Commission -comparable to that of Carey and Taylor- have had far reaching effects that are still felt to this day in that they were critical in the initiation of the Third Era of Protestant missions. These men are Cameron Townsend and Donald McGavran.

Cameron Townsend was born in Eastvale, California on July 9, 1896. While attending Occidental College in Los Angeles during his junior year, John Mott of the SVM visited the campus and called the student body to give their lives for missions. Cameron soon responded to the call by meeting with Mott, joining the Student Volunteer Movement and dedicating his life to missions. Although he was part of the armed forces in the war, he was challenged by a friend to honor his commitment to the SVM and made the decision to request to be discharged and pursue missions in Guatemala.

He left for Guatemala in August of 1917 and committed to stay there for one year. Towards the end of his initial commitment, he had an encounter with an indigenous Cakchiquel Indian that approached him as he was distributing Spanish Bibles. The man asked him what the Bible was and Townsend explained what it was God’s very word. The Cakchiquel Indian famously reported to have said, “If your God is so smart, why doesn’t he speak my language?”. Cameron suddenly realized that although the man lived in a predominantly Spanish speaking country, he spoke no Spanish whatsoever.

This encounter marked him in a significant way. He soon met with an older group of missionaries who had already concluded the need to reach indigenous populations in their own languages and then began his work. At the age of 23, he decided to remain in Guatemala for 13 more years, dedicating 10 of those years to translating the Bible into the Cakchiquel language. He realized that although much of the geography of the world was being reached by Protestant missions, there was an entirely new and much more nuanced frontier that was unreached: distinct ethnic peoples.

Cameron founded Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1934. This new mission agency focused on teaching linguistics as a means to reach these new frontiers. Initially, Cameron estimated there were about 500 people groups in the earth. He revised these numbers several times and today they are estimated at over 5000. There are still roughly about 3000 languages without the Bible translated in the earth. Cameron is credited for the initiation of the Third Era of missions. The focus of this new era transcended the traditional geographic focus of missions and instead concentrated on ethnic people groups.

Meanwhile, as Townsend was discovering the linguistic nuances of people groups in Guatemala, Donald McGavran was discovering the social and cultural barriers in India. McGavran was born in Damoh, India in 1897 as a third generation missionary. In 1919, while a student at Butler University, McGavran visited Des Moines, Iowa to attend an SVM convention and was deeply influenced by John Mott. McGavran described the event as, “There is became clear to me that God was calling me to be a missionary, that He was commanding me to carry out the Great Commission”.

McGavran returned to India in 1923 and was deeply influenced by the anthropological work of J.W. Pickett who documented mass people movements to Christ in India. McGavran was troubled by the slow growth of his churches while at the same time he saw many “people movements” (thousands of people in groups) scattered across India coming to the Lord. In this time, he began see the distinct cultural and social barriers in India and started to promote the reality of homogenous units of people which are today referred to as “people groups”. McGavran’s missiological work in his book, “Bridges of God” helped to formalize the understanding of distinct boundaries within different regions that constituted unique ethnic “people groups”.

The collective work of Townsend and McGavran (both greatly impacted by the Student Volunteer Mission Movement) framed the new era of missions by calling attention to the various ethnolinguistic people groups in the earth as opposed to the more simplified geographical focus in past generations.

The progressive decline in Protestant missions that had came about after the First World War came to an end after the Second World War in 1945. The missions movement was being revitalized by thousands of veterans who were returning from Europe and the Pacific with a deep burden to bring the gospel to the places they saw that had been ravaged by the war. In 1946, 575 students from 151 different schools gathered at the University of Toronto to dream for a fresh student movement for missions. Two years later, in 1948, they gathered for another missions convention at the University of Illinois, Urbana. Urbana student missions conventions have continued to this day with the expressed purpose of mobilization for the Great Commission.

Out of the Urbana conventions, many veterans from the Second World War who had a desire to return to the foreign lands to bring the gospel were sent back out as missionaries. The experience of the war had prepared many of them so that they went out into the missions field with extraordinary effectivity. Collectively, God used them to rally another massive student-led missions movement. In the late 1940’s through the early 1950’s, more students went overseas for missions than in any other time in history- including the great Student Volunteer Missions Movement which by this time was nearly discontinued. It was this missions thrust that produced such incredible laborers as Jim Elliot, who would be martyred in Ecuador in 1956 for the sake of the gospel of Jesus.

Although the students of the 1960’s embraced more anti-government and liberal activism (thus resulting in a decline of missionaries) the 1970’s witnessed an increase of missions interest through the Urbana student missionary conventions and the Jesus Movement. Within a few years, the amount of students signing up for missions increased by nearly ten times that of 1970.

In July of 1974, one of the most significant missions conferences in history was held in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Lausanne Congress of 1974 (Also known as the First International Congress on World Evangelization) was called together by Billy Graham for a discussion on the present state of missions. With over 150 nations represented, Lausanne sought to follow in succession from the 1910 Edinburgh Conference and strategized for the completion of the Great Commission. Out of the congress the Lausanne Covenant (one of the great manifestos on world missions) was produced and signed by nearly three thousand leaders.

Ralph Winter, one of the most influential men in the history of missions attended the congress. He is widely acknowledged to be just as catalytic in the development of Protestant missions as Carey, Taylor, Townsend, and McGavran. Winter understood that the gospel does not naturally transfer from different cultures or castes even if the people share the same language. It was at the Lausanne Congress that Winter championed the work of Townsend and McGavran and popularized the concept of unreached people groups using an understanding of the biblical word ethnos as a missions strategy. He declared that for the Great Commission to be fulfilled, the gospel had to be planted in each culturally unique ethnolinguistic people group. His speech took Lausanne by storm.

Six years later, in 1980, another missions conference was held in Edinburgh, Scotland known as The Edinburgh- 1980 World Consultation on Frontier Missions. At the time, it was the largest missions conference in the history of Christianity. Remarkably, a third of those present at Edinburgh were indigenous representatives from the Global South representing 57 mission agencies- in 1910 there had been none. In Edinburgh, the strategy of focusing missions to unreached ethnolinguistic people groups became solidified. As a result of these developments, it is generally regarded that the Second Era of missions found its completion in 1980 as the missions world transitioned to a premier focus of unreached and unengaged peoples.

In 1989, at the Second International Congress on World Evangelization (Lausanne II) in Manilla, Christian missionary strategist Luis Bush called for a focused missional thrust into the “Resistant Belt” of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Following the strategy of unreached people groups missions, Bush and his associates understood that the remaining task of the world evangelism could only be accomplished by pushing into this massive “Belt”. The next year, Bush and his wife Doris used software to analyze this “Resistant Belt” region between 10 and 40 degrees north latitude and coined the famous term, “the 10/40 Window”. This region, the world of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism was referred to in 1911 by the great missionary Samuel Zwemer as the, “unoccupied fields” of the earth.


Finishing the Task


Since 1990, the world of missions has continued to evolve. The Toronto and Brownsville revivals in the mid-nineties fueled the fire of world evangelization and served the development of the missional Global South tremendously. Today, the Christian world is no longer Western-led. The Global South is no longer “developing”. In many ways, it has already emerged and has taken the lead in the task of world evangelization.

Today, the church in Africa and Asia represents over 60% of the world’s population of Christians. Meanwhile, the church of Europe is dying out. The church of America has maintained roughly the same growth ratio as the year 1900. In 1900, there were 8 million Christians in Africa; in 2000, there were 351 million. African evangelicals send out approximately 13,000 missionaries a year.

The story is similar in Asia. In 1900 there were around 22 million Christians. In 2005 there are estimated 370 million believers, making Christianity the fastest growing religion in Asia.

In Latin America there were estimated 700,000 evangelicals in 1900. By 2000 the numbers had grown to over 55 million believers.

Today the missions dynamics are no longer primarily west-to-east. The Global South has assumed a significant role in the sending of missionaries There are more African missionaries than European ones. Missionaries from Brazil travel across the earth sharing the good news of Jesus. In China, the “Back to Jerusalem” missionary movement has already begun and endeavors to send hundreds of thousands of missionaries across the 10/40 Window.

The task remains massive. After twenty centuries of missions activity there is still about 27% of the world that remains unreached (comprising over 7000 people groups). Since 1974, the strategy in place is to reach ethnic people groups with the gospel- an effort that transcends geopolitical boundaries and classical missions strategies. Today, the West no longer leads the charge but rather partners shoulder to shoulder with the Global South.

Since the day that Jesus stood before His disciples and friends and gave them the Great Commision He has guided generations of faithful men and women towards its completion. He promised that the good news of His coming Kingdom would be spread across the earth as a testimony to every ethnos and then He would return to restore all things. If there is one thing that can be drawn from looking back on the last 300 years of Protestant Missions history, it’s that Jesus is alive. He is with us. He is active in His Church in the earth by His Spirit. He has driven and is driving all of our missions efforts to a marvelous conclusion and the gates of hell will never prevail against His Church. As we now turn our eyes ahead to what lies before us and as we seek to finish this Great Commission, we can be certain of His most blessed and profound promise: “Lo I am with you always, even to the very end of the age”.




History of the Modern Protestant Missions Movement

Part 2

Pressing On

The collective force of the first two Great Awakenings transformed the Protestant world from a mere theological and ecclesiological western European movement into a pioneering missional force to be reckoned with, piercing nearly every known nation in the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The 19th century, known as the, “Great Century” of missions, witnessed the spread and advancement of the gospel like no other prior century in history. The outpourings of God’s Spirit in Europe and the Americas had created a mighty force of sacrificial missionaries, most of whom lost their lives as heralds of the message of the cross of Jesus on the coastlands of Asia and Africa.

The era of the Second Great Awakening came to a close in a very turbulent and transitional time in America, most notably with the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 and an unprecedented influx of immigrants from Europe and Asia starting around 1850. In this time it is estimated that over 20 million immigrants moved to America from central and eastern Europe as well as Asia. At the same time, Darwinism and higher criticism were flooding over into the Americas from Europe, challenging much of the old order of Christian thinking and society. It was in this context of transition and crisis that God began to stir hearts of believers once again for a new era of missions.

We will continue to examine the history of Protestant missions starting from the mid 19th century all the way to today. The last 150 years has witnessed an even greater development and diversification of missions across the nations of the earth. This development has dramatically changed the face of world missions so that today the Global South (the non-Western world) has taken the leading role in the task of world evangelisation. Through an examination of the last 150 years of missions history we can begin to understand how a series of interrelated events crescendoed to produce our current missional focus in the nations: missions targeting unreached ethnolinguistic peoples in the predominantly North African, Middle Eastern and Asian world. We pick up our story just one month after the end of the American Civil War in the summer of 1865 on the beaches of southern England.

Transition to The Second Era – Inlands (1865-1980) & Hudson Taylor

The results of the First Era of missions had been remarkable. Although slow to gain momentum and at a tremendous cost, (nearly every missionary succumbed to death in their endeavors on the coastlands) the First Era of missions finally stabilized into a magnificent success as the gospel began to take root in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific. In fact, by 1865, many missionaries of the First Era were beginning to come home due to the overwhelming success of their church planting efforts in the coastlands. Many indigenous people had come to the faith in Christ and the First Era missionaries believed that, in a sense, their job was finished.

This marked a transitional overlapping period from roughly 1865-1910 where First Era, coastlands missions began to slowly decline while the Second Era missions (directed towards penetrating the inlands of the Asian and African continents) began to gain speed. It is important to note that in spite of the numerous missions societies produced out of the Haystack Prayer Meeting of 1806, the First Era of missions was marked by European dominance. It would not be until the beginning of the Second Era in 1865 that America began to assume a premier role in the task of world evangelization. It was in this year that a man named Hudson Taylor took the scene to catalyze a new movement of Protestant missions.

Hudson Taylor was born May 21, 1832 in Yorkshire, England to a Methodist family. His father was a lay preacher and chemist in the Yorkshire area. It is said that at Hudson’s birth, his parents who had a fascination with the Far East, prayed to the Lord, “Grant that he may work for You in China”. After abandoning the faith of his parents for several years as a young man, he had a conversion experience at the age of 17 in the year 1849. Immediately, Hudson had a burden for the gospel to go to China. In preparation to be a missionary, he began to teach himself Mandarin, Latin, Hebrew and Greek while working as a medical assistant. During this time, Taylor interacted with missionaries to Baghdad who were part of the well known Plymouth Brethren, of which George Müller was a member.

During the time Taylor was practicing medicine and preparing to move overseas, much of England’s focus and talk was interestingly enough on China. In the 1850’s the horrific Taiping Civil War broke out across China led by a religious fanatic named Hong Xiuquan. Xiuquan, having interacted with First Era missionaries years prior, adopted a pseudo-Christianity syncretized with Confucianism and Daoism. He soon established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and declared himself to be the actual younger brother of Jesus Christ that could speak on behalf of the Holy Trinity. Xiquan launched a civil war to control all of China that killed upwards of 70 million people before he was finally defeated in 1864. Tragically, the erroneous impression in England was that this was a massive people movement to Christ in China. Out of news of this “people movement”, the Chinese Evangelisation Society was formed in 1853 to prepare for missionaries to be sent into China- Hudson Taylor was sent as their first missionary at the age of 22.

After a difficult five month voyage from England, Taylor landed in Shanghai March 1, 1854 and was met with the astounding horror of the Taiping Civil War. Far from a great people movement to Christ, his first year overseas was marked with the chaos of the war and very little receptivity to his message. Along with the trial of the war, Taylor also experienced challenges in his interactions with the First Era missionaries who were content to remain ministering in the cities on the coastlands. Taylor viewed the missionaries on the coastlands as worldly and lethargic, who spent far too much time with English businessmen. Regardless of whether or not his view was accurate, Taylor intended to push beyond the status quo of the missions of the day and press into the interior of China. During his time, Taylor pioneered some of the earliest and most famous forms of contextualization to the Chinese culture by wearing traditional Chinese clothing and hairstyles instead of the typical Western garb of his contemporaries. While this choice caused great consternation among other Christians both in China and abroad, Taylor began to see an immediate openness among the Chinese people to his gospel message. This pioneering contextualization has transformed the way Protestants approach foreign cultures in missions even to this day.

Trials continued to follow him. At one point, all of his medical supplies were destroyed in a fire in Shanghai. Another time he was robbed of almost everything he owned while traveling across China. The next year in 1857, Taylor experienced great difficulty with his missions agency who could no longer continue to pay him and his fellow workers. After an encouraging letter from George Müller to live by faith, Taylor resigned from the Chinese Evangelisation Society and continued independently. The next year he married Maria Dyer (a fellow missionary who at the time was serving under Mary Aldersey, reputed to be the first woman missionary to China) and continued to serve in Ningpo with a new church plant of 21 people until 1861, when he was forced to temporarily return to England due to health problems.

It was on this furlough in England that the Second Era of missions was officially born. He spent his time on furlough traveling the nation to mobilize missions to China and the unreached world. On this trip he became friends with Charles Spurgeon, who would become a lifelong supporter of Taylor’s mission. During this time, Taylor was invited by a friend to take a break from traveling and come to the beaches of Brighton in southern England.

While walking the beaches of Brighton, he felt the overwhelming burden of the Lord for the millions of lost in China and had a dramatic encounter with the Jesus that changed the course of history. In that moment, Hudson Taylor dedicated his life in an even greater measure to the advancement of the gospel in the unreached inland provinces of China. June 25, 1865, on the sands of Brighton Beach, China Inland Mission was born as an expression of his dedication to this advancement.

Immediately Taylor asked the Lord for 24 more missionaries for all of the unreached provinces in China and Mongolia- a massive 25% increase from what was already present on the field. In the next few years, over 100 missionaries would go to the missions field through China Inland Mission. Over half of those missionaries would be martyred years later in the infamous Boxer Rebellion of 1900, much to the agony of Taylor who received reports of their deaths while visiting England on a separate furlough.

He returned to China in 1866 and would dedicate the rest of his life ministering there as a missionary in the interior of the nation. Through many difficult years, and through the loss of two wives and several children to infirmity, he paid a tremendous price to carry out God’s will in his generation. On June 3, 1905, Hudson Taylor died in Changsha, China. He was buried in Zhenjiang along the Yangtze River next to the love of his life, his first wife Maria, who had been buried there 35 years before.

Taylor’s decision on the sands of Brighton Beach to give himself entirely into the grace of God for the advancement of world missions opened the way for the birth of China Inland Mission, which would become the largest Protestant missions agency in the world by the time of his death and would fling wide the doors for the Second Era of missions. The legacy of CIM (now Overseas Missionary Fellowship International) is still felt to this day and the work of Hudson Taylor will be spoken of for ages to come.

The Student Volunteer Missions Movement

While Hudson Taylor was pioneering missions in China, God was raising up a mighty missions movement in the United States. The Student Volunteer Missions (SVM) Movement was beginning to form in the hearts and minds of young believers across the country. This movement became perhaps the single greatest missions force in North American history and accelerated the sending and going of laborers far beyond anything that Protestantism had witnessed up to that point.

The SVM had its origins in the famous Haystack Prayer Meeting of 1806. Out of that prayer meeting at Williams College numerous missions societies and organizations were born, including the Society of Brethren at Andover Theological Seminary in Newton, Massachusetts. One of its members, a man by the name of Royal Wilder, left for India as a missionary in 1846 and returned with his family in 1877. Royal’s son, Robert was to become a premier leader in the upcoming missions movement.

Robert Wilder was born in India in 1863 and returned to America at age 14. He joined Princeton University and began to pray with several students on campus for missions and revival in Princeton. During that time he founded the “Princeton Foreign Mission Society” and continued to pray fervently with fellow students and his sister Grace on a weekly basis for God to raise up 1000 missionaries to be sent overseas. Their society declared of themselves, “willing and desirous, God permitting, to go to the unevangelized portions of the world”.

In the same year, Luther Wishard became the first secretary of the new intercollegiate YMCA division. Luther’s desire was not only for the gospel to impact college campuses through the YMCA, but also for it to impact the nations through world missions. In 1879, Wishard helped to organize the first missions department of the intercollegiate YMCA. He was deeply inspired by the events at the Haystack Prayer Meeting and the life of Samuel Mills and traveled to Williams College to pray for a missions movement. At the site of the old prayer meeting, along the river, Luther prayed, “Lord, do it again. Where water once flowed, let it flow again.” Although he greatly desired to be a missionary, he felt the burden of the Lord to mobilize a generation of students for the task of world evangelization. After his trip to Williams College, he sought to host a summer conference for college students and left to seek out revivalist D.L. Moody to help in this endeavor.

D.L. Moody, the great American evangelist, had visited Britain in 1882 to tour the country and preach the gospel. During this year, he visited the university of Cambridge and shared the gospel and mobilized for world missions. The results were staggering. Many Cambridge students began to sign up for local missions societies to go overseas. During this time, there was an increasing interest among the students in the recently formed China Inland Mission.

Out of Moody’s meetings in Cambridge, the Holy Spirit began to move across the hearts of seven brilliant young students in particular for missions overseas. After graduation, they traveled throughout England and Scotland visiting colleges and churches mobilizing for world missions. These became known as the Cambridge Seven. In February of 1885, after several months of traveling, the Cambridge Seven sailed to China to give their lives for missions. One of the seven, a man named Charles Thomas, would later become the successor to Hudson Taylor as the director of CIM. The news of the Cambridge Seven began to sweep through American colleges and many students became deeply inspired by their example to pursue missions.  It was out of these events that Luther Wishard sought out the help of D.L Moody and others for the mobilization of missionaries from the American college campuses.

In 1886, Wishard approached Moody about hosting a month long summer Bible conference at his Mount Hermon School for Boys in Massachusetts. Moody, although uncertain that students would want to take a month of their summer for the conference, finally agreed to host it. Beginning July 7, 1886, the conference continued until August 1. Although Wishard desired for students to be raised up for world missions, the conference itself did not have a specific agenda. 251 young men from 89 colleges across America attended and numerous speakers and professors came to speak and share during the duration of the conference. Remarkably, in spite of Wishard’s missions zeal, there was no real missional emphasis present during the conference initially. This emphasis would come from the student body itself, led by Robert Wilder.

Wilder sent word during the conference that any students who were interested in missions should join in a special meeting. Out of that meeting, 21 students joined the Princeton Foreign Mission Society. Soon the 21 students began to spread the word to the broader student body about the need of missionaries. They approached several leaders to share on missions but in particular they asked a well known pastor present named A.T. Pierson to share on the Great Commission at one of the main sessions. Pierson’s call to evangelize the world in their generation shook the conference with a missions spirit and by the end of the conference 100 students signed up to give their lives as missionaries. They became known as the “Mount Hermon 100” and with this the SVM was born.

The next year, Wilder and an associate John Forman traveled across America preaching at almost 200 college campuses mobilizing for world missions. Within two years over 5000 students had signed the pledge to give their lives as missionaries. In 1888, the “Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions” was officially established and John Mott, one of the original 100, was chosen to serve as chairman. Within five years of Mount Hermon there were 6200 student volunteers from 352 schools in the United States and Canada, encompassing a vast array of denominations and social backgrounds. Their watchword, officially adopted in 1889, was, “The Evangelisation of the World in This Generation”. The leaders of this movement truly believed that the completion of the Great Commission was possible in their generation and they proved it by the incredible thrust of missionaries into the unreached, inland world.

Over 40% of the students went to China, Japan, Korea and other parts of Southeast Asia. 21% went to India, Burma and Sri Lanka. The rest went to Africa, Iran, the Ottoman Empire, Arabia and many other unreached places. In 1890, there were only 934 Protestant missionaries on the field. By the end of the 1920’s, there were over 14,000 missionaries-  half of whom had signed on through the SVM.

The powerful Student Volunteer Movement pierced into the darkness of the unreached inland world for decades. It is undisputed that the Protestant missions thrust was spearheaded for years by college students. To this day, the SVM represents the single greatest movement of missionaries to the nations in American history.

Although the First World War caused the movement to go into terminal decline, by 1945 the SVM in total had rallied over 100,000 volunteers with over 20,500 actually sent as missionaries (the rest remained to mobilize). Because of the unimaginably wild success of the Student Volunteer Missions Movement, the United States took the leading role in the advancement of world missions, which it would maintain for the better part of a century.

Turbulence & Transition of the Early 20th Century

As the “Great Century” of world missions came to a close so did the era of relatively unchallenged progress in Protestant missions. Although there were always challenges to the objective of world evangelisation, (such as theological opposition, the daunting task of mobilization and martyrdom to name a few) the 19th century witnessed a steady overwhelming progress of missions efforts.

This progress is to be understood within the framework of the broader 19th century social and theological optimism. The Western world of the mid to late 19th century was deeply optimistic due to the social and cultural expansion of Westernism through colonial influence. The Industrial Revolution had ushered in a new era of technological and economic growth; It seemed that anything was possible.

Even in the Protestant missions world, the continued prevalence of Postmillennial theology and the increased expansion of the gospel on the earth through the enormous missions exploits crystalized this sense of mirthful optimism. In the last few decades of the 19th century it seemed that no matter where one looked, societal progress was everywhere. All of this began to come crashing down at the turn of the century through a series of events culminating in the outbreak of the First World War. In the midst of this turbulence there was a deep undercurrent of transition running through the Protestant missions world; the balance of global mission leadership was beginning to shift away from the West.

In April and May of 1900, Protestant missions leaders from various denominations gathered from across the nation in New York to strategize for the advancement of world missions. They discussed the need to mobilize more Christian congregations and turn the public support towards missions in a greater measure. This became known as the New York 1900 Ecumenical Missionary Conference. The leaders present shared on the testimony of the magnificent expansion of Christianity during the 19th century as well as to cast vision and discuss strategy for the new century that was upon them. The sense at the conference was one of great triumph and joyful expectation of what was to come.

The very next month, in June 1900, the Boxer Rebellion in China took a tragic turn after one of the governors of northern China declared war against Western powers and Christians in particular. In July, 44 Christians from missionary families were massacred after being promised shelter in a provincial capital in the infamous Taiyuan Massacre.

By the end of the rebellion, 136 Protestant missionaries, 53 of their children (many of them served with China Inland Mission) and 2,000 Chinese Protestants were martyred by the rebels. These Protestants became known as the China Martyrs of 1900. Along with Protestant martyrs, 47 Catholic priests and nuns, over 30,000 Chinese Catholics and several hundred Russian Orthodox believers were murdered.

The sum impact of the Boxer Rebellion was a withdrawal of European influence in Chinese affairs and a shock to the system of Western missionary efforts. The optimism present during the New York 1900 Ecumenical Mission Conference was deeply challenged with the news of mass martyrdom of the Boxer Rebellion. Indeed the effects were felt all across the Western world. This juxtapositional shock would characterize the next few decades of the 20th century.

Six years later, the Holy Spirit visited Los Angeles, California with an incredible revival that transformed the face of missions forever. The Azusa Street Revival, led by the African American preacher William J. Seymour, birthed the modern Pentecostal/ Charismatic movement in the earth. Thousands flocked to Azusa Street to receive a baptism in the Holy Spirit during the years of the revival.

One of the most marked characteristics of Azusa was that it was not contained  geographically in the same way that the two Great Awakenings were. While the Great Awakenings mostly impacted America and Western Europe, Azusa was unique in its near global impact seemingly at the outset of the revival- in particular, its impact on the birthing of missions movements in the non-Western world.

In just over a century, Pentecostalism has exploded across the earth and now comprises over 25% of all Christians on the planet. Much of this population is indigenous to the Global South. The expansion of Pentecostalism has far surpassed every other denominational exploit in the non-Western world for the last hundred years. In Chile for example, Methodism has grown to 5000 believers while Pentecostalism grew to 2,371,000. In Brazil, the Baptist denomination grew to 1,050,000 while Pentecostalism grew to over 21 million believers! Pentecostalism is currently the fastest growing denomination in numerous parts of Africa. Within just two years of Azusa the movement had spread into over 50 nations including: Britain, Botswana, Scandinavia, Egypt, Holland, Syria, Germany, South Africa, China, Hong Kong, Ceylon and India.

The Azusa Street Revival poured the life of the gospel into the Global South to such a degree that the balance of leadership in global missions has shifted away from the West in recent decades. This shift can be traced back to Azusa.

In June of 1910, the World Missionary Conference was hosted in Edinburgh, Scotland with the expressed purpose of discussing the advancement of missions in the Protestant world. The SVM watchword, “The Evangelization of the World in this Generation” was adopted by the conference. In fact, John R. Mott, who served as its chairman described it as, “the most notable gathering in the interest of the world-wide expansion of Christianity ever held, not only in missionary annals, but in all Christian annals”.

Among the agenda items at the conference was a desire to see a genuine ecumenical movement of unity between the various denominations in the task of world evangelization. It was at this conference that a truly global church was envisioned. Another agenda item was the discussion of the transition of leadership and evangelism in foreign churches from Western missionaries to the indigenous believers in those nations. This was an unprecedented pursuit and demonstrated just how successful the missions movements in the East had been in the establishment of thriving indigenous churches.

Significantly, Edinburgh is understood to be the formal close of the First Era of Protestant Missions. The era of pioneering into the coastlands had concluded. The coastlands were reached and their indigenous believers were ready to begin to assume leadership in the place of Western workers. The prominence of “Kingdom Mission” (the holistic missions efforts of the William Carey era that sought to transform and “civilize” mission fields along Western cultural lines) was over and had given way to the Second Era of missions. The Second Era was marked by a “Church Mission”, with the emphasis off of societal gospel impact and on evangelism and personal salvation.

The legacy of the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference was that it marked a crescendo in Western missionary efforts to the unreached. It is seen by many as the highest point of Western leadership in world missions and the beginning of a truly global church. Andrew Walls said it well, “The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910, has passed into Christian legend. It was a landmark in the history of mission; the starting point of the modern theology of mission; the high point of the Western missionary movement and the point from which it declined; the launch pad of the modern ecumenical movement; the point at which Christians first begin to glimpse something of what a world church would be like.


History of the Modern Protestant Missions Movement

Part 1

The history of Christian missions is vast and deep, stretching across nearly two millennia. From the moment Jesus commanded the disciples to, “Go into all the world…” so His Church has gone. Leaving all behind, they have gone out to follow the Lamb’s call for the rescue of the nations. Across continents and cultures, languages and generations His gospel has sounded forth through the earth rushing towards its eventual climactic conclusion- a conclusion of which we are privileged to be partakers. While all of missions history from the last two thousand years is important and is worthy of study, the following notes will examine the history of Protestant missions on a cursory level- specifically the era between 1722-1850. Most Protestant missionaries live life and serve overseas completely unaware of the magnitude of change and acceleration that has taken place in missions in the last 300 years of history. This acceleration has only continued into the present day with no signs of slowing down. For the modern missions movement to be fully appreciated, it must be contextualized within the broader history of missional Protestantism that began in 18th century Germany. It is only from understanding where we have come from, and the shoulders and foundation on which we are standing, that we can truly appreciate with inexplicable wonder the phenomenon that is the missions and prayer movement in the modern world.


After the birth of the Reformation in 1517 European Christianity experienced unprecedented transformation, particularly in the central and northern part of the continent. The influence of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and other reformers changed the entire theological landscape of Europe in one generation. However, the outward missional focus that was true of the historic Catholic European church was largely void in this new expression of Reformed Christianity, and for nearly 200 years there was no missional movement within in Protestant Christianity.


This was partly due to the fact that much of the new Protestant churches were focused on the expansion of Protestantism on a theological and ecclesiological level. During this time, the only two superpowers who were really interacting with the unreached world, Portugal and Spain, had remained staunchly Catholic and thus Protestantism could not expand through their transatlantic colonial influence. It is also important to realize that as a result of Reformation theology and ecclesiology, widespread dissolution of monastic sodalic orders in Protestant spheres wiped out the only sociological group that had historically been able to accomplish the task of world evangelization: The monks who lived lives fully devoted to prayer, worship and mission. Thus in this new expression of Christianity, the ancient driving force of old Catholic mission -communities of day and night prayer and vocational laborers- were largely absent due to backlash against monasticism. The net result was that for nearly two centuries there was very little Protestant missionary activity outside of Europe.


All of this began to change in the late 17th century through the early 18th century. During this time, four separate movements began to arise nearly in unison, each that contributed to the birth of Protestant missions. They were the: Puritans, Pietists, Wesleyans, and the Moravians. All of these movements paved the way for and contributed to the first wave of Protestant missions. Let’s examine them briefly:


The Puritans focused on conversion and the authentic simplicity of the Christian life. They also developed the first Protestant mission theology. The Puritans produced men like John Eliot (1604-1690) who traveled to New England and ministered as a missionary to the Algonquin Indians, established a number of Christian villages through converts and translated the Bible into their language.


The next group, the Pietists, further laid the foundation of Protestant missions. Arising out of the desolation from the Thirty Years War in central Europe, Pietism was a purist expression of Christianity that sought to return to the simple teachings of Jesus lived out in the daily lives of believers. The first Protestant missionaries to Asia came from the Pietist movement. In 1706, Frederick IV of Denmark sent Pietist missionaries to Tranquebar, India. Soon, over sixty Pietist missionaries had been sent to Asia. Some have regarded Pietism as, “The parent of missions to the heathen… also of all those saving agencies which have arisen within Christendom.”  


The Wesleyans, led by John & Charles Wesley, significantly helped to pave the way for the first Protestant missions movement. The impact of Wesleyanism, particularly in the American colonies during the years of the Great Awakening, cannot be overstated. We will discuss their impact more in the next section.


The final group represents one of the most remarkable and unique movements in history: the Moravians. The Moravian church, known officially as Unitas Fratum (Unity of the Brethren) began with a band of religious refugees from Moravia who made their way to the estate of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf in Berthelsdorf, Germany. Zinzendorf, brought up in the traditions of Pietism, allowed the believers to settle in his land in Upper Lusatia (modern Saxony). The village that was established by the refugees was called Hernhutt.


Within a few years, Hernhutt grew rapidly but by 1727 there erupted theological division in the community. Through the mediation of Zinzendorf, the community resolved their conflict and then, in August 13, 1727 a massive outpouring of the Holy Spirit took place in Hernhutt that changed the course of history. This outpouring transformed the little community of brethren in Hernhutt into a renewal center for the world. The renewal movement produced 100 years of 24 hour continuous prayer and worship in Hernhutt. When the Moravians sent out their first missionaries, there were only about 300 people living in the community. Within 30 years, several hundred missionaries were sent out from Hernhutt across the Caribbean, Africa, East Asia, the New World, and even to the Arctic.


The Moravians were the first Protestant denomination to minister to slaves. There are stories of Moravians selling themselves into slavery in the Caribbean to reach slaves with the gospel. Out of these years came the “Moravian Anthem”, “May the Lamb receive the reward of His suffering!”. They were the first to send out laymen as opposed to clergy. The first Moravian mission center was established in 1732 in St. Thomas. By the time Zinzendorf died in 1760, the movement had sent 220 missionaries to every known nation on earth except Australia. Their emblem is a lamb with a flag of victory. It reads, “Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow Him”. The monumental revival that broke out in Hernhutt in 1727 transformed missions across the globe forever. The Moravian movement was ignited, and with it the the birth of Protestant missions.

“May the Lamb receive the reward of His suffering!”


The wave of renewal through the Moravians also had a broad ranging effect in England as well as the American colonies that would directly affect the nascent missions movement. Years of Pietism had prepared England and the colonies for revival and the Hernhutt outpouring was just the beginning of the awakening that was about to sweep the English speaking world.


In 1735, the First Great Awakening concretely exploded in Wales and, sweeping the British Isles and the American colonies, resulted in one of the largest revivals in history. Some of the most instrumental leaders of the First Great Awakening were directly impacted by the Moravians. Most notably John Wesley, who attributed his 1734 conversion experience directly to his interaction and fellowship with Moravian brothers from Germany. Wesley would later visit Hernhutt and stay with the Moravians for a time.


Wesley’s ministry in the colonies was no doubt directly influenced by the Moravians and would affect the New World dramatically in the years to come. The Great Awakening deeply impacted the colonies with the gospel and the influence of the Moravians on some of the greatest voices of the Awakening (John & Charles Wesley and George Whitfield) cannot be overstated. While it did not directly produce a wide scale missions movement, the First Great Awakening produced a missions spirit in the colonies that would last for generations. The immediate result was an increase in domestic missional activity towards the Native Americans. David Brainerd’s diary, (as published posthumously by his father-in-law Jonathan Edwards) which described his missional exploits to the Native Americans at the eventual cost of his life, spurred this missions spirit even more. Edwards, a major leader in the awakening, was even known to host prayer meetings for the advancement of world missions.


The collective impact of the Moravians and the First Great Awakening prepared the way for what missiologists refer to as, “The First Era”, of Protestant missions- the era of coastland oriented missions in the Far East. This era was ignited by two simultaneous events that have forever transformed Protestant missions: The Second Great Awakening and the advent of the ministry of William Carey.


By the end of the 1700’s, the new nation of America quickly found itself in severe spiritual decline. Universities were almost entirely secular, church attendance was dropping, and the morality of the nation was in decline. Yet, in the midst of the spiritual decay there were rumblings of awakening. Small camp meetings were beginning to be engulfed in revival and hunger for the Holy Spirit was returning to remnant groups of praying believers. Suddenly, on August 6, 1801, a torrent of revival broke out across America starting in Cane Ridge, Kentucky resulting in one of the mightiest revivals in American history. Incredible demonstrations of the Holy Spirit, conviction of sin and mass conversions were sweeping the nation- the Second Great Awakening had begun.


Anointed leaders like Charles Finney, Lyman Beecher, Barton Stone, Peter Cartwright and James Finley were used mightily by the Lord to bring the nation back to Himself. The spirit of missions that had been deposited through the First Great Awakening was now being fanned into flame through the Second. Many denominations that had been in severe decline were now filling up with new members as thousands entered the Kingdom and were saved through the ministry of the Holy Spirit across New England and the Midwest. Suddenly, numerous independent Christian societies began to emerge alongside accelerated local church growth. The atmosphere was electric with awakening and the nation was being prepared to send out her first missions movement to the ends of the earth.


Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic Wars had devastated Europe. Much of the European infrastructure was decimated and the continent was in shambles. The wars had cut the roots of the European overseas commercial network and thus the Catholic missions routes had been severed. It was in this context of awakening and shaking that God launched the First Era of Protestant missions- referred to by some as the “William Carey Era”.


William Carey was born in Northamptonshire, England in August 17, 1761. He was raised in the Anglican church and was married at the age of 20 to Dorothy Plackett. Although Carey came from humble beginnings (leaving school at the age of 12 and working as a shoe cobbler in his youth) he demonstrated tremendous brilliance, teaching himself Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Dutch, and French. At the age of 22, Carey was baptized and committed himself to the Baptist denomination.


In 1785, while pastoring a local Baptist church, he read Jonathan Edwards’ publishing of David Brainerd’s diary detailing his life and eventual death on the missions field. Upon reading his story, Carey was struck with a burden to see the gospel reach the very ends of the earth. Brainerd was so influential to William that he became one of his “canonized heroes” along with the apostle Paul himself! Carey was also deeply impressed with the example of the Moravians from the generation prior.


Although his heart was burning for missions, Carey found himself in a religious environment that was nearly hostile to the notion of cross cultural missions. The theological landscape of the time was almost entirely hyper-Calvinist and many Protestants believed that the advancement of the gospel to the ends of the earth had been only the duty of the apostles and now it was entirely up to God to save the lost. In 1787, Carey joined a Baptist ministerial meeting to inquire about the legitimacy of spreading the gospel across the earth. Shockingly, baptist minister John Collett Ryland is famously said to have responded to Carey: Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid and mine!. It is no coincidence that the vibrancy of hyper-Calvinism in the late 18th century created an environment that directly inhibited the advancement of world missions.


Carey, however would not be discouraged and five years later, in 1792, he published his magnificent missions treatise, “An Inquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens”. This five part book opened up a new discussion on the “means” by which Christians were obligated to advance the gospel to the ends of the earth. One of Carey’s greatest accomplishments was the initiation of real conversation around the nature of the church’s role in the advancement of world missions.


In October of that same year, Carey experienced breakthrough. In spite of much resistance, he and several colleagues founded the Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Amongst the Heathen (known today as BMS World Mission)- the first Protestant missionary agency in history. The significance of the establishment of this agency cannot be overstated. Since the dissolution of the monasteries in the Reformation, there had been no sodalic missional expression in Protestantism. For nearly 300 years there were only local church modalities. Carey’s simple book turned the conversation of missions towards the “means” by which the church was to participate. Carey and his colleagues understood that for the accomplishment of the task of the Great Commission there needed to be a subsequent means to do so that was beyond the local church and thus the Protestant mission sending agencies were born. This is one of the reasons that William Carey is known as the “Father of Modern Missions”. Carey’s vision for a new type of society transformed the Protestant understanding of missions forever. Gustav Warneck rightly described this year when he said, “Thus, the year 1792 may be considered the true birthday of modern missions”.


They began to quickly raise funds for the new society and in April of 1793, the new agency sent Carey, his family and Dr. John Thomas and his family to Calcutta in West Bengal, India, landing in October of the same year. While this was not the first Protestant missions team sent out (the Moravians and Pietists had sent out missionaries a generation prior), this team was unique in that it signaled a new era of missions specifically through the means of missions sending agencies. Thus the coastlands era was born.


The next hundred years marked the greatest acceleration in missions in the history of the world. This has come to be known as the, “Great Century of Missions”. Never before in history had such opportunity been presented to the church for the expansion of the Great Commission. Colonialism had opened up avenues to nations and peoples that generations in the past could never have dreamed of reaching. In the words of church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette, “Never before in history had Christianity, or any religion, been introduced to so many different peoples and cultures. Never before in a period of equal length had Christianity or any other religion penetrated for the first time as large an area as it had in the nineteenth century. Never before had so many hundreds of thousands contributed voluntarily of their means to assist the spread of Christianity or any other religion.” More was accomplished in span and scope for the gospel in the nineteenth century than in all of the previous centuries combined. If Martin Luther was the reformer of theology and ecclesiology, then William Carey was the reformer of missions.


Just as the gospel had spread rapidly in the early years of the church through the Roman roads, so the gospel was spreading rapidly through the colonial straits of European powers. The pioneering work of William Carey began a hundred year missions movement targeting the coastlands of Asia and Africa. Much of the interior of the continents were too dangerous and this first era of Protestant missions activity focused on bringing the gospel to the coastlands.


Despite the danger and risk, Carey was soon followed by hundreds of Protestant missionaries. The first North American missionary, Adoniram Judson, arrived in Calcutta in 1812 and was baptized by an associate of Carey’s. Carey urged the Baptist denomination in America to support Judson’s ministry, resulting in the establishment of the American Baptist Mission board in 1814. Departing from Calcutta, Judson and his family moved to Burma where he would live the rest of his life serving the Burmese peoples as a missionary. He died on a ship in the Bay of Bengal April 12, 1850 and was buried at sea.


This would be the story of almost all of the early Protestant missionaries. Nearly every Christian who landed on the coastlands of Africa and Asia died. In fact, no missionary efforts in Africa had been successful or survived whatsoever- including those of the Catholics and the Moravians. For the first sixty years of the First Era nearly every missionary sent to the coastlands of Africa died within the first two years in a near successive stream of certain death and loss for the sake of Christ’s name. Carey himself lost several friends, children and wives (he remarried several times) to foreign disease. It took him seven years to see his first Hindu convert. One need not look further than the early Protestant missionaries to see the true cost of the missions field. William Carey died in India June 9, 1834 at the age of 72. His motto, Expect great things from God and attempt great things for God” has inspired missionaries from every generation since.


A final look at the development of the First Era of Protestant missions is at the famous 1806 prayer gathering in Williamstown, Massachusetts that later became known as the Haystack Prayer Meeting held by five college students from Williams College.


The students, due to the religious hostility from secular peers, would gather off campus several times a week on the banks of the Hoosac River for prayer and discussion of the theology of missions in a place called Sloan’s Meadow. The students were Samuel Mills, James Richards, Francis LeBaron Robbins, Harvey Loomis, and Byram Green.


One day, in the summer of 1806- in the throes of the Second Great Awakening- after reading William Carey’s Inquiries, the five students were caught in a torrential downpour and thunderstorm while discussing the need of foreign missions to China. As the storm hit, they took shelter underneath a haystack and began to pray fervently together for God to raise up a student missions movement to the unreached of Asia. Sam Mill is supposed to have shouted to his friends in the midst of the storm, “We can do this, if we will!”. In that moment something happened in their hearts and their lives were changed- they afterwards dedicated their lives to the advancement of the Great Commission on the earth.


Two years later, as more students joined them, they began to call themselves, “The Brethren”, with a singular focus of giving their lives for the completion of the Great Commission. Word began to spread all over about the Haystack Prayer Movement and many college students began to be gripped for missions all across the nation. Many missions societies and agencies began to spring up on campuses across America out of this little prayer meeting.


Under the conviction that churches of America should sponsor the sending of laborers, the students requested for the establishment of a missions agency that would accomplish that task. In response, two years later in 1810, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was established: The first American missions sending agency. Adoniram Judson was among the first five students that they would send to India just a couple years later.


The legacy of the Haystack Prayer Meeting, just one of the many precious moments of the magnificent Second Great Awakening, would span well beyond the First Era of the Coastlands. Dozens of missions agencies were formed and countless lives impacted by a simple prayer meeting underneath a stack of hay in a summer storm. America can look back at her introduction to world missions through this little prayer meeting in Massachusetts in the summer of 1806. The Haystack Prayer meeting would directly influence both the formation of the Second Era, where missionaries would brave the interior of foreign continents for the sake of Christ and also the beginning of the mighty Student Volunteer Missions Movement.