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.  

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