To Advance the Gospel. A Biography of Rufus Anderson

To Advance the Gospel, by R. Pierce Beaver—a Biography of Rufus Anderson

Rufus Anderson (1796-1880) graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1818. The son of a pastor, Anderson expressed his desire to sell his possessions and sail for India as a missionary, but in his journal recorded a sense of his unworthiness. In the end he accepted an appointment to direct the recently organized American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM). When he retired at age 70, more than 1200 ABCFM missionaries were serving overseas and in rural America.[1]

Rufus Anderson’s strategy of financing indigenous pastors seemed sensible at the time, but in my opinion, it turned them into paid envoys of a foreign religion. Anderson wrote:

“The native pastor is the key to the development of the indigenous church. The use which the Apostles made of native pastors is one of the grand principles of their missions and provides a continuing principle for mission theory and practice—simple, economical, practical, scriptural, mighty through God.”

Anderson expressed his desire to pay local pastors to reduce the cost for the American mission agency. This is a mistake; the mission agency should not pay pastors at all. Anderson writes:

The hope of realizing the goal of mission rests in native pastors, because the mission agency can hope that the cost of support will be infinitesimal in comparison with the cost of maintaining a missionary and they can be stationed far and wide in great numbers over churches engaged in evangelism. Native pastors overcome the obstacles of distance, expense and climate inherent in a foreign mission.[2]

Blincoe: We have made the pastor a CEO in America, with command and control that has no basis in the New Testament. Alas, we have done the same around the world. There is nothing about paying church staff in the Bible. The word “pastor” appears only one time in the entire New Testament. Household churches cost nothing. In my opinion, Anderson was mistaken to make the “native pastor” the central figure in the plan to advance the gospel. This pattern has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. An accumulation of bias prevented Anderson from patterning his missionary methods on the New Testament.

Rufus Anderson’s most famous and admirable essay was The Time for the World’s Conversion Come; it was first published in 1837-1838 in “The Religious Magazine” in Boston. It was republished in 1851. It is a masterpiece.  I commend his insights on the purpose of voluntary associations. Every sentence of Anderson’s wonderful essay arrives to the mind like morning thunder:

The Church was never before organized for the conversion of the world as it is today. Not until the present century were evangelical churches really organized with a view to this great end. What are called voluntary associations for religious purposes, as distinct from local churches, are not indeed a new thing on the earth. They have existed, in some form, from an early period of the Christian church. It was probably through such that the gospel has ever been propagated by the church beyond the voices of its own immediate pastors. Monasteries were voluntary societies; and so were the different orders of monks. It was by means of associations such as these that the gospel was originally propagated among our ancestors and over Europe. These are the Papal forms of missionary societies and missions.[3]

The Protestant form is what we see in Missionary, Bible, Tract and other kindred societies; not restricted to ecclesiastics, nor to any one profession, but combining all classes, embracing the masses of the people; and all free, open and responsible. These are voluntary associations of Christians formed expressly for the purpose, or by means of particular ecclesiastical bodies. Our age is singular and remarkable for its disposition to associate in action. It associates for the accomplishments of almost every object; and this disposition may be so extended, for an object of great interest, that the society shall embrace even thousands of churches, belonging to several kindred denominations. We see such wonders in our times, in Bible and Tract societies, and even in Missionary societies. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions is itself an instance. But whatever the name, constitution or religious object of the association, the action put forth is as much that of churches as it can be on so large a scale, or perhaps as it ought to be when involving the receipt and disbursement of large sums of money.[4]

This Protestant form of association—free, open, responsible—embracing all classes, both sexes, all ages, the masses of the people—is peculiar to modern times, and almost to our age. In our own country, indeed, fifty years ago, there was not one foreign Missionary society, properly so called; nor a Bible, Tract, Education, or Seamen’s society.[5] Like our own form of government working with perfect freedom over a broad continent, it is among the great results of the progress of Christian civilization and this “fullness of the time” for the world’s conversion. Such great and extended associations could not possibly have been worked, they could not have been created, or kept in existence, without the present degree of civil and religious liberty and social security, or without the present extended habits of reading and the consequently wide-spread intelligence among the people; nor could they exist on a sufficiently broad scale, nor act with sufficient energy for the conversion of the world, under despotic governments, or without the present amazing facilities for communication on the land, and the world-wide commerce on the seas.[6]

A great man, perhaps the greatest mission administrator of the 19th century. But he assumed that we would pay pastors to be CEOs of overseas churches. This came to be the norm, stifling the expansion of churches and establishing command and control centers of power and money. Once you pay your overseas leaders, you enter the dark world of the patron-client loyal relationship in which loyalty is purchased and will last only as long as the money lasts.

[1] R. Pierce Beaver, To Advance the Gospel; Selections from the Writings of Rufus Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967). 12

[2] Ibid. 35

[3] Ibid. 64-65

[4] Ibid. 65

[5] Ibid. 66

[6] Ibid. 65-66