A Timeline of American Missionaries Since 1800 (1st of 2)

The Proportion of American Missionaries Under Voluntary Societies and Under Denominational Boards since 1800.

In Ralph D. Winter’s paper, “The Other Protestant Schism,” researched the reporting relationship of 1100 missionaries, to determine the percentage of missionaries serving overseas under voluntary societies and under denominational boards since 1800. Winter writes:

This timeline impressionistically portrays this longstanding trend away from the nearly universal use of voluntary societies, toward the use of denominational boards and then the reversal of that trend.”

Thus, prior to 1837, all missionaries (100 on a scale of 0 to 100, above) were under the administration of voluntary societies. There were no denominational missionaries. This changed when the Presbyterian Church recalled all of its missionaries from the ABCFM and the American Home Society, with the idea that the denomination itself is a missionary society. Baptists adopted this idea as well, and by 1900 just over half of all missionaries were sent by their denominations. The era of the denominational mission board began to wane after 1950. Ralph D. Winter’s timeline ends in 1975. Winter writes:

This curious transition back is due in part to the rapid increase of new voluntary societies. The fact is that new work, has always been begun mostly by independent voluntary societies. One example will suffice: The Reformed Church in America as a “church in mission” directly sponsors mission work in 24 countries. In not a single case were these locations pioneered by denominational board initiatives. In every case, informal initiative spearheaded the initial activity and then the denominational board later shouldered ongoing responsibility. This is not to be considered ominous but does underscore the crucial importance of allowing breathing space for initiatives too small to gain a 51% approval in a democratic church body.

Administrators of denominational missions tend assign new missionaries to established locations where generations of missionaries have been at work for many years. It is easier for independent mission agencies to pioneer new work in new locations, among unreached peoples.