MISSIONS, FOREIGN, were the primary means by which American Christians spread their religion and worldview across cultures in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In sending missionaries, denominations and parachurch organizations sought at various times to convert people to Christianity, found churches, translate the Bible into vernaculars, establish schools and hospitals, dispense relief and development aid, and support human rights. Missionaries were the first scholars to study other religions and to conduct ethnographic studies of tribal peoples. As bridges between American Christians and non-Western cultures, missionaries also worked to shape government policy, for example through defending Asians' rights to American citizenship in the early twentieth century or opposing military aid to Central America in the late twentieth century. Views of missions often reflected popular opinions about projections of American power abroad. They therefore received widespread support in the decades before World War Ibut were accused of imperialism during the Vietnam War era.
In 1812 the American Board (Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Reformed) sent the first American foreign missionaries to India. Other Protestant denominations soon organized for mission activity and selected their own "mission fields." By 1870 approximately two thousand Americans had gone as missionaries to India, Burma, the South Pacific, Liberia, Oregon, the Near East, China, and other locations. In the late nineteenth century women founded over forty denominational societies to send unmarried women as teachers, doctors, and evangelists to women in other cultures, and female missionaries began to outnumber males. With the United States itself a Catholic "mission field" until 1908, American Catholics only began supporting significant numbers of foreign missionaries after World War I. Priests and sisters planted churches, ran schools and orphanages, and founded Native religious congregations. During the 1960s
Catholics responded to a call by Pope John XXIII to send 10 percent of church personnel to Latin America. Subsequent missionary experiences living among the poor of the continent were a major factor behind the spread of liberation theology.
Until the 1950s, when Communists conquered China and India and Pakistan broke from British rule, China and South Asia were the largest sites of American mission activity. By the late 1960s a decline in denominational vitality, relativism and self-criticism, and a commitment to partnerships with non-Western churches caused the number of missionaries to drop among older Protestant denominations like Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, and Methodists. Simultaneously the center of the world Christian population shifted from the Northern Hemisphere to sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia. Churches in former "mission fields" began sending missionaries to the United States to accompany their own immigrant groups. Yet interest in sending missionaries remained high among conservative evangelicals, Pentecostals, and nontraditional groups like Mormons, whose combined personnel outnumbered those from older denominations from the late 1960s. In 1980 roughly thirty-five thousand American career missionaries were in service. As the end of the millennium neared, evangelistic missions around the world organized the "a.d. 2000 and Beyond" movement to begin churches among every "people group" by the year 2000. The largest American Protestant mission-sending agencies by the 1990s were the Southern Baptist Convention and the Wycliffe Bible Translators.
Dries, Angelyn. The Missionary Movement in American Catholic History. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1998.
Hutchison, William R. Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Robert, Dana L. American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997.
See alsoReligion and Religious Affiliation .