Missionary Movement

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Time Period
1730  - 1940
The missionary movement is a mobilization primarily of Protestants in the United States to proclaim Christianity and bring material comforts to unchurched peoples.

In the 18th century, Protestant missions focused on evangelizing Native Americans. To fulfill this goal, the Boston-based Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians in North America was founded in 1787, becoming the first U.S. missionary organization.

By the 19th century, Christian missions began expanding into foreign countries thanks in part to convicted college students during the Second Great Awakening. Their efforts helped to form the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in 1810.

The early 20th century experienced theological splits in churches and missions into conservative and liberal camps. After World War II, Mainline Protestant missions de-emphasized religious conversions and prioritized medical, agricultural, and technological aid in foreign missions.

Today, the missionary movement persists despite increasing diversity in approaches.
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The mobilization primarily of Protestants in the United States to proclaim Christianity and bring material comforts to unchurched peoples occurred broadly in three phases: an errand domestically to the wilderness (Native Americans), an errand to the world (proclaiming the gospel message to the foreign unchurched), and a worldly errand (transmitting the "best of western culture and civilization" along with, or sometimes instead of, evangelism).

Early History: "An Errand to the Wilderness"

Such primarily Protestant missions began in earnest in the early 18th and 19th centuries. Born in part from the spiritual revivals of the First Great Awakening (1730s-1770s), the movement had transatlantic precedents. British Protestants had sponsored evangelical missions to Native Americans since colonization. The lives of such missionaries, including that which Jonathan Edwards published of David Brainerd, celebrated one aspect of the colonists’ "errand to the wilderness." Protestants in the United States also followed the example of their English brethren and established sectarian and interdenominational missions societies. The Boston-based Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians in North America was the first U.S. missionary organization (1787).

Expanding Errand: From Wilderness to World

College students who had become spiritually convicted during a second awakening of religious fervor (1800-1830s) focused their attention on spreading the Christian gospel of salvation from sin beyond the country’s shores. Their efforts helped to form the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in 1810. By 1817, the ABCFM faced competition from Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, and Methodist agencies, as well as nondenominational missions that eschewed ecclesiastical structures and embraced ecumenical efforts. These organizations recruited predominantly young men and women and began to focus beyond North America’s wilderness frontier toward a larger "errand to the world."

Protestant Consensus and the Beginning of Progressivism

A broad "Protestant consensus" of missions defined this errand: (1) evangelical preaching to convert souls and establish churches, and (2) attracting converts and spreading western civilization through schools, medicine, and other social services. Missionaries and diverse agencies agreed that God could use both means to bring about his kingdom; however, tensions over the proper balance of the two aspects always existed in denominations and mission boards.

No group went abroad in greater numbers than college students, whom the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) most successfully recruited. It proclaimed as its goal "the evangelization of the world within this generation." The majority of student recruits were men, but women overall comprised nearly 60 percent of missionaries, and likely an even greater percentage of mission supporters. Industrialization, urbanization, and immigration to the United States offered immediate opportunities for both women and men to share the message of Jesus and ideas of justice in what became known as the Social Gospel movement -- one manifestation of the national impulse to eradicate environmental, economic, political, and social problems during the Progressive era (1880s-1920s). Roman Catholics, because of their comparatively small size, saw the United States itself as a mission field and became involved within the Progressive Era’s labor movement and other campaigns.

World War and Theological Battles: An Increasingly "Worldly" Errand

Hopes of Protestant and Catholics missionaries mounted during World War I. President Woodrow Wilson’s proposals for the reconstruction of the world held out the possibility of self-determination and democracy for many foreign peoples whom missionaries had been serving for a century. Organizations like the ABCFM influenced Wilson’s foreign policy before, during, and after the war to protect missionary infrastructure and investments. Such intersections of political power and evangelical projects overseas reflected the increasingly social trajectory of foreign missions.

The subsequent post-war season of national isolation and the growing horror at war’s human costs sobered the previous progressive and evangelical mood. Some organizations (like the SVM) did not survive the Great Depression. Others were forever changed. The realignment of U.S. denominations in the 1920s and 1930s in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies split churches and their mission boards into theologically conservative and liberal camps. Yet the larger missionary movement continued. Mainline Protestant missions after World War I resembled more of a "worldly errand" than ever before as Christians sought to bring medical, agricultural, and technological innovation to a world devastated by warfare and economic downturns.

From the 1930s through the 1980s, established Protestant denominations emerged from years of church reorganizations with mission boards greatly reduced in size. Pentecostal churches, nondenominational ones, and new religions formed and took the old churches’ places of prominence on the global mission field, which included secularized Americans. Parachurch ministries such as InterVarsity and Cru evangelized the very college demographic that originally provided the most numerous missionary recruits. Although the wider missionary movement reached its cultural apex in the United States during the 1910s and 1920s, it continues today, albeit through different players running their respective errands.
Moon, Charlotte "Lottie"
Allen, Horace Newton
Birch, John Morrison
Judson, Adoniram
Life of David Brainerd Published
The First Great Awakening
American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions
Triennial Convention
The Second Great Awakening
First Methodist Missionary Societies Organized
Lottie Moon Sent to China as a Southern Baptist Missionary
Indian Manual Training School Founded in Oregon
Murders of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman

Young People's Missionary Movement Conference at Silver Bay, NV- Internet Archive- from The Decisive Hour of Christian Missions by John R. Mott

Brainerd preaching to the Indians- Hathi Trust- from David Brainerd, the Apostle to the North American Indians by Jesse Page

Ordination of first American foreign missionaries- Internet Archive- from The Immortal Seven by James L. Hill

American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions group- Library of Congress, Panoramic photographs

Methodist Book Concern and Missionary Society building, New York- Hathi Trust- from Missions and Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church by J. M. Reid
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
Kaley M. Carpenter

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