Mark 13:10 – And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.
There isn’t a lot of data when it comes to missionaries from America in the early stages of our country. The majority of Christian missions occurred internally before moving overseas. The majority of “missions” work came from denominations such as Methodists and Baptists scrambling to find enough pastors and leaders to go west. In 1790, there were only 13 states in America. The west was largely unknown.
The primary task was to build a nation while, at the same time, evangelizing the culture. Methodist circuit riders were very successful in this as they could cover large areas quickly and “plant churches” in areas that others couldn’t.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, much of the missionary work had been done by the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. After the war, the Anglican church pulled out of America and we were left to our own leaders. Francis Asbury, for example, was a missionary to America and he traveled and preached across the country until his death in 1816.
What started in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, which would double the size of our country, was the first big move into missions for many evangelical Protestants. For a few hundred years already, Protestants were on mission to the Native Americans.
Many Christians believed they were in the last times after the Revolutionary War. Many believed it was important to convert as many people as possible before the coming of Christ. Missionary work fit well with this new dynamic in the young country.
By 1810, small group of men attending Andover Seminary banded together to follow the path that English Baptists were doing since 1792, evangelizing Asia. Men like Adoniram Judson and Samuel Mills created the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, supported by the Congregationalist denomination. They began raising money and creating resources and, by 1812, Judson and his wife left for India with a few other families. Eventually they reached Burma where they ministered for 38 years. Judson’s group was the first
Throughout the early 1800s, there were only a few hundred American missionaries throughout the world. By the turn of the century, there would still be very few missionaries worldwide. If you totaled all of the missionaries from both Europe and America throughout the 1800s, they would total no more than 15,000 and many of those died within their first 2 years in the field.
The main issue with missions throughout the 1800s was twofold:
- With much of the young America in need of both evangelizing and social missions, many of the churches focused their missions efforts at home.
- The War of 1812 caused Americans to lose their international spirit. This time of isolationism would last until just after the Civil War.
In 1800 only 1% of all Protestant Christians lived in Asia, Africa or Central/South America. Today that number totals 67% of all Protestants live there.
But this brings up a very interesting point. With regard to immigration reform, the problems with England caused an isolationist view, not just for missionaries, but for all of America. The isolationist views caused denominations and religious leaders to withhold much of their international missions activity.
The majority of missions happened at home.
But when the century changed from the 1800s to 1900, there was a large missions conference in New York City called the Ecumenical Missionary Conference. Over 162 different mission organizations were represented. Much of the reason mission organizations became interested in overseas missions again is that after the Civil War, the United States was experiencing a labor shortage and opened up immigration to allow people to come in to offset that shortage. The influx of new cultures into America gave churches a taste of what else was outside of America.
All the major denominations formed their own missionary societies.
But the 1900s would not be without their share of problems, much of it tied to both immigration reform and the American dream. For much of the early 1900s we had significantly restrictive immigration policies against those of Asian descent. This led to many missionary agencies in Asia and eastern countries shutting down.
World War 1 ended in in 1918 and a few short years afterward America realized that we needed to protect our borders.
While American Protestants worked their way into Central and South America at the turn of the 20th century, the majority of cultural understanding didn’t start until soon after the signing of Bracero Agreement in 1942.
With many of the special allowances for Mexico and other countries, especially those from Europe, Asian countries started to remove American missionaries. Many missionaries in the 1950s were removed from China. This was partially due to Marxist ideology taking hold in China at the time, but the lack of deference for Asian, and primarily Chinese, immigrants led to China closing much of their opportunities for American missionaries during the 50s.
Another interesting parallel happened in the late 1960s. We passed preference system which replaced the quota system in 1965. Over the next few years, there would be an increase in missionary attacks and countries, like Guinea, for example, who would close their borders to all missionaries. Thousands of churches internationally would be destroyed. Coincidentally, the preference system that America adopted to help with immigration would prefer European countries and skilled workers but place a cap on the countries those countries that eventually expelled missionaries or started persecuting them.
Then in 1980, the Refugee Act opened up emergency immigration relief to those who were persecuted and then in 1986, the Simpson-Mazolli Act gave amnesty to over 2.7 million illegal immigrants. Also at the same time, there was a significant increase in the number of missions organizations throughout America. There were also some very large conferences on missions throughout the world. As a matter of fact, Time Magazine ran a cover article on missionaries in 1982.
These are just a few of the parallels that can be derived from the information. Honestly, I wish I had taken much more time in the research of this.
I wish I had taken this beyond just parallels.
There is no research out there at all about this topic. And it is something that perplexes me. With all of the missions organizations out there who make their livelihoods from ensuring the safety and growth of their missional communities, why would there not be any research done about this topic?
In all honesty, the research would be somewhat easy, although very time-consuming:
- Contact every missions organization in the world (and there are thousands) and get their missionary information since their inception. Find out how many missionaries they had each year since they started, find out their low and high points on their organizational life cycle, and incorporate the number of missionaries that were commissioned and the number of churches that were planted versus the number of missionaries that either died or came out of the field as well as the number of churches that were closed/destroyed.
- Consolidate the information from those organizations on a chart by year.
- Overlay the highlights in American immigration reform.
- That alone would be enough to give better data than simple parallels.
- If you want to take it further, then reach out to the State Department for their take on the question.
- Then reach out to countries that have traditionally been for and been against having missionaries in their countries. Speak to someone at the leadership level in those countries and get whatever information possible. This could be done through a simple questionnaire that would be standard for all countries contacted.
- Plot their information on the combined yearly missionary chart to get key points along the timeline.
While that would get us enough for a published book on the topic, it would definitely not be enough to provide scientific evidence.
I would love to speak further with missions experts about this topic. I am sure that there is something there, I just can’t officially put my finger on it. If anyone would like to work together on a project like this, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Isaiah 6:8 – And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”