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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.

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