A Mission Ice Age in the Reformation’s Second Century (3rd of 9 Timelines)

1601-1700. I read all 1400 missionary biographies in Gerald Anderson’s Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, then copied the names of every missionary and the date he or she arrived on the mission field. In the second century of the Reformation, Gerald Anderson featured 12 notable Protestant missionaries, or about one every 8 years. Of these 12, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) sent two. One was John Eliot (missionary to New England Indians), the other was named Experience Mayhew (missionary to Indians on what is today Martha’s Vineyard). William Carey will express his admiration for the SPG as an inspiration for his proposal to start a great number of mission agencies. Roger Williams, founder of Providence, Rhode Island, is also among the 12 in Anderson’s Biographical Dictionary. Roger Williams, it should be noted, escaped arrest in Massachusetts, where the Reformation churches had heard that he was baptizing adults. Thankfully, Indians protected Roger Williams and restored him to health. In any case, there were 12 notable Protestant missionaries in the second century of the Reformation. This compares to 70 notable Catholic missionaries, more than five times as many.

What was the Catholic advantage? The Catholic advantage was its missions agencies, administrated by Franciscans, Benedictines, Augustinians, Ursulines, Sisters of Poor Claire, and Dominicans. Rufus Anderson wrote, “The monasteries were Papal forms of missionary societies,” and “it was by means of associations such as these that the Gospel was originally propagated among our ancestors, and over Europe.”[1] Had Lutherans and Calvinists encouraged missionaries to organize a version of the Catholic orders, the “great era of Protestant missions” could have begun in 1600 instead of 1800.

Why Did the Protestant Mission Effort Languish? Were Protestants too poor? Some have suggested that Protestants did not have money to send missionaries. But this is not so. Protestant wealth increased a great deal in the century featured in the timeline above. In fact, Amsterdam became the third largest city in Europe (after Paris and London) and one of the world’s wealthiest city. From Amsterdam’s harbor thirty merchant ships sailed every month to the Dutch East and West Indies, as well as to Brazil and New Amsterdam in America. The Dutch traded for tulips and spices and slaves but did not spread the gospel of the kingdom of God to the regions beyond. Read more about Amsterdam’s Golden Age here. Dutch slave traders trafficked more than 600,000 people; in 2023 the Dutch king apologized for “this horror.” Read his apology here.

What was the Protestant Disadvantage? Did They Have Religious Wars to Fight? It is a shame that Christians slaughtered one another over their differences in belief. That generation served false gods. At least we can be glad that the Peace of Westphalia ended the religious wars in Europe in 1648. Did the Protestants turn their attention, finally, to sending missionaries? It would seem they did not. The Reformed leaders invested considerable energy in deterring Justinian Welz and other missionaries from organizing mission agencies. We will meet Justininan Welz in a later blog. See the Wittenberg Statement on missions, below.

The Wittenberg Statement on Missions.[2] In 1651, three years after the Peace of Westphalia, the highly influential and respected Lutheran faculty of the University of Wittenberg issued a statement denying the continuing validity of the Great Commission. The Wittenberg Statement was widely accepted in the Lutheran Church and in many of the Reformed churches. Sadly, the Wittenberg Statement effectively suppressed all mission initiatives for the next 150 years. The Wittenberg Statement contained three points:

First. Only the apostles were privileged to fulfill the Great Commission. Therefore, missions are not the responsibility of the church.

Second. No non-Christian is excused before God because of ignorance of the gospel. Those who do not believe are presumed to have rejected the gospel when it was preached to them by the apostles during New Testament times. Therefore, European Christians have no need to assume responsibility for the lostness of non-Christians.

Third. Rulers are responsible to propagate the gospel in their own territories alone. The Wittenberg fathers were satisfied that the rulers had faithfully carried out this duty.

Blincoe. What does the reader think about the The Wittenberg Statement? I think it is not biblical and should be rejected. “Luther, where are you when we need you?” Luther would have taken his stand on Scripture and plain Reason. The Wittenberg Statement is a man-made system imposed on the Bible by misguided church administrators. It is an embarrassment. It is a false doctrine. It is a Frankenstein monster. Another century has passed, and still the Reformation churches send only one notable missionary every eight years. What is the cause of the mission ice age? It is not a lack of money; it is not the wars that suppress the sending of missionaries. The mission ice age will come to an end when William Carey repairs the breach between Protestant churches and mission agencies. With every passing century the Reformation churches prove that mission languishes for lack of mission agencies.

The wind of the Spirit was moving on the waters, ready to send missionaries overseas. The sails are the mission agencies, and these the Catholics unfurled to their advantage. But the Reformers could not, or would, not hoist their sails. Sadly, Reformed churches actually suppressed attempts by their own members to establish mission structures. Had Protestants found a way to allow missionaries to organize a Protestant version of the Franciscans and Jesuits, the “great era of Protestant missions” could have begun in the 16th or 17th or 18th century, instead of enduring a delay until the 19th.

[1] R. Pierce Beaver, To Advance the Gospel; Selections from the Writings of Rufus Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967). 64-65

[2] Mulholland, “From Luther to Carey: Pietism and the Modern Missionary Movement.” 90, Welz, Justinian Welz: Essays by an Early Prophet of Mission. 28

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