In 1796 the Church of Scotland Made its Mission Concerns Known. Brace yourself.

It is quite extraordinary for a Christian denomination to suppress the missionary effort of its members.

Consider the policy of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, adopted by the General Assembly in 1796:

“To spread abroad among barbarians and heathen natives the knowledge of the Gospel seems to be highly preposterous, in so far as it anticipates, nay even reverses, the order of Nature.”[1]

This policy was aimed at any members who might consider starting or joining a mission agency.  Four years earlier, in 1792, William Carey had set in motion the Protestant mission era when he wrote “An Enquiry,” his instruction booklet on how to establish mission agencies. Carey wrote:

Suppose a company of serious Christians, ministers and private persons, were to form themselves into a society, and make a number of rules respecting the regulation of the plan, and the persons who are to be employed as missionaries, the means of defraying the expense, etc., etc. This society must consist of persons whose hearts are in the work, men of serious religion, and possessing a spirit of perseverance; there must be a determination not to admit any person who is not of this description, or to retain him longer than he answers to it.[2]

Carey’s Enquiry had a considerable and immediate effect on Christians in America and England. Before Carey, nothing. After Carey, everything:

From 1792 onward, dozens of innovators were organizing themselves into mission agencies. In a short time, Americans organized the New York Missionary Society (1796), the Northern Missionary Society and the Berkshire and Columbia Missionary Society (1797), the Missi onary Society of Connecticut (1798), the Massachusetts Missionary Society (1799), and the Boston Female Society for Missionary Purposes (1800).[3] Students attending Williams College in Massachusetts organized themselves as the “Society of the Brethren” in 1808. In Scotland, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Missionary Society formed in 1795. The next year, in 1796, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland made clear that its members were not to join or support any such mission efforts. Behind the strident language of the General Assembly pronouncement was its genuine concern for the peace, unity, and purity of the church. All was lost if the church yielded its God-given authority to a rival. Or so it seemed to church administrators who assumed the single administration of church and mission in the New Testament. Actually, there are two administrative structures, one where the church already exists; the other administrated by missionaries where the church does not yet exist. Read about the separate administrative structures here and here.

[1] R. A. Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, 1st American ed. (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1998). 1

[2] William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, Pre-1801 Imprint Collection (Library of Congress), ed. (Leicester: Baptist Missionary Society London; reprinted by Ann Ireland, 1792); ibid. 81-82. Note that a member could be ousted from the society for failing to qualify, even after he had joined. In other words Carey foresees a screening process to get in, and if a member fails to keep his pledge, he or she can be removed from the group. All mission societies organize themselves in this way.

[3] Arthur Judson Brown, One Hundred Years: A History of the Foreign Missionary Work of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (New York: Revell, 1936); ibid. 14. Brown was a secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. A. from 1895 until his retirement at the age of seventy-two in 1929. He lived 34 more years, until 1963, when he died at the age of 106. See R. Park Johnson, “The Legacy of Arthur Judson Brown,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 10, no. 2 (1986). 71ff