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missionary activity

missionary activity. Along with evangelical zeal, an element often present in missionary work has been rivalry between Christian sects. Perhaps the first missionary to post-Roman Britain was Germanus, sent over in 429 by Pope Celestine I to combat the Pelagian heresy. Nor was rivalry long in appearing in Augustine's mission of 597 to reinvigorate Christianity: he was soon involved in a dispute with the Celtic church, whose own missionaries had made much progress in Scotland and north and west England. But within a century the English church was well enough established to send out missionaries of its own, Willibrord to the Frisians, Boniface to the Germans. During the Middle Ages, missionary enterprise was to some extent replaced by crusades. A mission from Pope Innocent IV in 1246 to the Mongol great khan was politely received but the message back invited the pope to submit or ‘I shall make you understand’.

The Reformation renewed rivalries by formalizing the divisions of Christianity and the earliest post-Reformation missionaries were the Jesuit priests from Douai who strove to maintain or if possible extend the faith in Elizabethan England. Protestant counter-activity took at first the form of hunting them down, but later in the 17th cent. the considerable success of the Jesuits in America, India, Japan, and China stimulated protestant missions. In 1698 Thomas Bray, an Anglican clergyman, drew up plans for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge to supply libraries and missionaries to the colonies, and three years later the missionary work was handed over to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. In 1710 the SPG gave top priority to converting the American Indians but the other colonists wiped them out so fast that little progress could be made. Bray's links with Oglethorpe were partly instrumental in the foundation of the colony of Georgia as a haven for debtors, where the Wesleys and Whitefield worked in the 1730s. As the methodists gathered strength, they also turned to missionary work, particularly after the French Revolution had encouraged evangelicalism. The Methodist Missionary Society was set up in 1786 and the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792. The first baptist missionary to India was William Carey, victim in 1808 of Sydney Smith's savage ridicule in the Edinburgh Review: missionaries, wrote Smith, an Anglican clergyman, were ‘insane and ungovernable’ and would lose Britain its Indian empire if not stopped. The London Missionary Society was established in 1795, the Church Missionary Society in 1799, and the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804. Later in the century, there was much missionary interest in Africa, partly as a consequence of the fame of David Livingstone, who began working for the LMS in 1841. The LMS was avowedly undenominational, leaving the form of church governments for converts to decide. Elsewhere rivalries persisted. A mission to the Maoris in New Zealand made little immediate progress and when Bishop Selwyn, an Anglican, arrived in mid-century he warned the Maoris that the Wesleyans were to be shunned as schismatics. Slowly the attitude of missionaries and their supporters changed. It was increasingly argued that missions should be self-destroying in the sense that they should lead to a self-governing autonomous local church. An ecumenical landmark was the holding of a World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910 which established an International Missionary Council. This, in 1961, was integrated with the World Council of Churches, started in 1948.

J. A. Cannon

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