A Protestant Mission Ice Age Begins to End (5th of 9 Timelines)

An Amazing 80-Year Timeline, 1752-1832

A mission ice age descended on the Reformation and continued for three centuries, but today that ice age begins to come to an end. Heeding Rodney Stark’s advice, “Historians who don’t count, shouldn’t,” I counted the number of notable missionaries in an 80-year period, 1752 to 1832, and created a timeline to show how the number of missionaries increased suddenly after 1792, when William Carey published his easy-to-assemble mission agency instruction booklet, An Enquiry.

There are 17 notable missionaries in the 40 year period prior to 1792, about one every two years. Carey admired these missionaries—he mentions the Moravians and he mentions John Wesley, David Brainerd, and John Eliot, all of whom were sent by mission agencies. Three missionaries in the 40 year period prior to 1792 were sent without a mission agency. They were:

  • Jacobus Capitein, a African freed slave who returned to Ghana as a chaplain to a Dutch merchant colony;
  • Samuel Occam, a Mohegan Native American who undertook his own mission to the Native Americans of Connecticut
  • David George, born a slave on a plantation in Virginia. He escaped to Canada, and from there sailed to Sierra Leone as a missionary.

Seventeen missionaries in the forty years prior to 1752 compares to 147 sent in the 40 years after 1792. All 147 missionaries were sent by mission agencies, except Robert McDowell, who was a Canadian church planter among the English-speaking settlers in Canada.

A Modest Prediction. How effectively were missionaries sent without a mission agency? In our timeline, one missionary was sent without a mission agency every twenty years. In the second half of the timeline, mission agencies sent 147 missionaries, about one every four months. A modest prediction can be suggested: Had Reformation church administrators continued to suppress the establishment of mission agencies, the ice age would have continued. The mission ice age began to end with the rise of what Andrew Walls called “The fortunate subversion of the church.” Walls wrote:

The Catholic [mission] movement had been able to develop on the basis of the religious orders, but, the Reformation had slain the goose that laid that particular golden egg.” Fortunately Carey finally came along, Walls says, to invent “the organizational and the logistical” technology, that “most potent instrument of the Protestant missionary movement: the voluntary society.”

“The Missionary Movement: A Lay Fiefdom?” In The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History Maryknoll: Orbis, 2002. 223

Looking at the timeline, we are able to answer a question that comes up in my conversations: Prior to William Carey’s book, was the number of missionaries already increasing? David Bosch thought so. Bosch wrote:

Carey was only one of many similar figures from this period and as much a product as a shaper of the spirit of the time. Church renewal and mission were simply in the air.”[1]

Blincoe: David Bosch said that Mission was “In the air.” Yes, I conceded the point. For a long time the wind had been blowing the Catholic missionaries out to sea; not so from the Reformation Church. Calvinists and Lutherans such as Justinian Welz had been feeling called as missionaries since the beginning of the Reformation. But feeling the call is not the same as going, and “in the air” is not the same as hoisting the missionary sails. For three hundred years Reformation Churches had arrogated to themselves the sole authority to send missionaries. The result? One missionary sent every 20 years. That was about to change. The Protestant missionary sails were hoisted and hundreds of missionaries sailed to Asia, Africa and the New World when Carey “supposed” that a company of serious Christians could form themselves into a missionary society. You can read Carey’s entire 92 page here. The most important page in An Enquiry is this:

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. 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]

The most glorious works of grace that have ever took place, have been in answer to prayer; and it is in this way, we have the greatest reason to suppose that the glorious out-pouring of the Spirit, which we expect at last, will be bestowed.

Many can do nothing but pray, and prayer is perhaps the only thing in which Christians of all denominations can cordially, and unreservedly unite; but in this we may all be one, and in this the strictest unanimity ought to prevail.

We must not be contented however with praying, without exerting ourselves in the use of means for the obtaining of those things we pray for. Were the children of light but as wise in their generation as the children of this world they would stretch every nerve to gain so glorious a prize, nor ever imagine that it was to be obtained in any other way.

William Carey had devised a reproducible operating system, the mission society. The effect on English and American Christians was immediate. A great century of Protestant missions had begun. William Carey changed the world before he sailed to India. “The Protestant missionary movement that arose,” Andrew Walls wrote, “became possible only by means of these new structures.”[3] In Europe and America alike “effective overseas missions began not with the official machinery of the churches, but with voluntary societies.”[4] Lyle Vander Werff called it “the great breakthrough.”[5] Ralph D. Winter hailed Carey’s Enquiry as “probably the most influential single document in the history of Protestant missions”[6] and “the Magna Carta of the Protestant missions movement.”[7]

[1] David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991). 280.

[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), 81-82.

[3] Andrew F. Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 17.

[4] Andrew Walls, “The American Dimension of the Missionary Movement,” The Missionary Movement in Christian History (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996), 229.

[5] Lyle L. Vander Werff, Christian Mission to Muslims: The Record: Anglican and Reformed Approaches in India and the near East, 1800-1938 (South Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1977), 25.

[6] Ralph D. Winter, “Paul and the Regions Beyond,” Asia Missions Advance  (1979 July 11-15). 6. Also “Protestant Mission Societies and the ‘Other Protestant Schism’.” 199

[7] Four Men, Three Eras, Two Transitions: Modern Missions, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1999)