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missions, term generally applied to organizations formed for the purpose of extending religious teaching, whether at home or abroad. It also indicates the stations or the fields where such teaching is given. In a more particular sense it designates the efforts to disseminate the Christian religion.

From the first steps taken by the disciples of Jesus to carry out his direction to preach his gospel throughout "all the world," the history of the Christian church has been in great part a history of missions. Christianity rapidly gained converts, spreading through Asia Minor to Alexandria and into Europe by way of Greece and Rome. There were centers of Christian mission in Alexandria by the 2d cent., and at Constantinople by 404. Through his missionary efforts Ulfilas (311–83) converted the Goths to Arian Christianity (also see Arianism). The following centuries were marked by notable missionary labors in Scotland, Ireland, and Central Europe and among the Northmen, reaching even to Iceland and Greenland. St. Patrick, St. Augustine of Canterbury, and St. Boniface are great names of that era. After the Christianization of Europe there was little missionary effort until the 16th cent.

Roman Catholic Missions

Roman Catholic missions were in the past, as now, almost entirely in the hands of the religious orders. The great missionary orders are the Benedictines (which evangelized medieval Germany), Franciscans (especially the Capuchins), Dominicans (founded for missions among the Albigenses), Carmelites, and Jesuits (involved with the education of boys). The Jesuits (see Jesus, Society of) were the great missionaries of the Counter Reformation. They went to East Asia (see Francis Xavier, Saint), to America, and to Protestant N Europe. It was the Jesuits who kept up the English missions in the 16th and 17th cent.

The first Catholic missionaries in Canada were Recollects, who worked in the first part of the 17th cent.; they were soon followed by Jesuits. Notable of these Jesuits were Jerome Lalemant, Jean de Brébeuf, and Isaac Jogues; they may be regarded as a principal factor in the growth of the Canadian frontier and in the exploration of Canada and the upper Mississippi. The Jesuit Relations, the individual journals of these Jesuits, are exceedingly important sources of early American history. In the period of the conquest of Central and South America by Spain the church sent its missionaries with the conquerors. The Franciscans and Jesuits were the most important orders in Mexico. In the late 18th and early 19th cent. there was an extensive Catholic missionary interest in the Mississippi valley, and many Italians and French came to America to teach in the newly opened country. Bardstown, Ky., was the chief center.

Since the 17th cent. practically all Roman Catholic missions have been administered by one of the Roman congregations, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (formerly the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith or Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, often called the Propaganda). This is made up of cardinals, whose office is in Rome. The foreign missions are administered by the religious orders, the missionaries being responsible to the congregation in Rome. A policy adopted in the middle of the 19th cent. emphasized the training of native clergy and the ordination of native bishops. Roman Catholic missions are supported by the congregation, by the religious orders, and by lay missionary societies.

Protestant Missions

Early History

Two unsuccessful attempts were made to establish Protestant missions in the middle of the 16th cent., one by French Protestants for a colony in Brazil and the other a plan of King Gustavus I of Sweden for work among the Laplanders. The Dutch East India Company sent missionaries to the Malaysians early in the 17th cent., and a seminary for the training of missionaries for work among the Native Americans was carried on in New England in the 17th cent. by John Eliot and Roger Williams (see also Stockbridge). The Society of Friends also made converts among Native Americans.

In Great Britain associations were formed to encourage the extension of the faith among the American colonists—the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England (1649), the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (c.1698), and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (1701). The Scottish Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge appointed (1742) David Brainerd as a missionary to the Native Americans. Denmark sent into its colonial fields of the East and West Indies the first Lutheran missionaries—mainly German Pietists—in 1705. Members of the Moravian Church went as missionaries to all continents except Australia before 1760.

Nineteenth Century to the Present

A new missionary spirit was aroused in Great Britain at the end of the 18th cent. by the evangelistic fervor of John Wesley and George Whitefield. The Baptist Missionary Society was formed (1792), and William Carey went to India. Then followed the founding of the London Missionary Society (1795), which in 1797 laid the foundations of missionary work in the South Sea Islands, and, among the Anglicans, the Church Missionary Society for Africa and the East (1799). In 1813 the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society was added.

In Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and France missionary societies were organized. In the United States they sprang up all through the early part of the 19th cent.—the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810), the American Baptist Missionary Union (1814), which supported the mission in Myanmar of Adoniram Judson, the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1819), and the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church (1820). Although its work had started much earlier, the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions was not actually constituted until 1837. American home mission societies began addressing their efforts to Native Americans, Eskimo, blacks, and settlers on the expanding Western frontier, and, later, to immigrants from Europe and Asia and to persons in isolated mountain regions of the South.

Many missionaries have specialized in providing medical and educational services as an effective means of opening the way for spiritual ministry. Two of the most famous missionaries to Africa, David Livingstone and Albert Schweitzer, were medical missionaries. Organized medical work in India started in the middle of the 19th cent. under doctors sent by the London Missionary Society and the American Board. With the work of Alexander Duff in India in 1830, a new enterprise in missionary effort on educational lines was launched.

In China a number of Christian colleges and universities were established. Work there was started (1807) by Robert Morrison, representing the London Missionary Society. The China Inland Mission, with funds and personnel drawn from several denominations and countries, was founded (1865) by J. H. Taylor. The opening of Japan by treaties in 1858 offered an opportunity to introduce foreign missionaries. Educational work has been an important part of missionary activity there. A marked trend in missionary work in recent years has been the training of indigenous leadership for church offices and administrative positions in mission enterprises.

In 1921 the International Missionary Council, composed of some 26 national and regional missionary organizations and Christian councils in various parts of the world, was formed. During and after World War II missionary accomplishments in many lands were severely curtailed or destroyed, but as quickly as possible new mission schools, hospitals, orphanages, and churches were built to replace those destroyed (except in China, which was closed to missionaries after 1949). In 1961 the International Missionary Council became part of the World Council of Churches, and there has been a high level of cooperation among Protestant churches in mission work. There continues to be a strong emphasis on medical care and education in mission work throughout the world. By the end of the 20th cent. the number of missionaries was around 400,000 worldwide, an all-time high. Of those, about a quarter were non-Westerners serving in countries other than their native lands. In the 1990s evangelical Christian missionaries were a source of tension and controversy in the Orthodox countries of E Europe and in the Roman Catholic countries of Latin America.


See K. S. Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity (7 vol., 1937–45; repr. 1971); S. C. Niell, Christian Missions (1964) and Colonialism and Christian Missions (1966); D. A. Roozen, Varieties of Religious Presence: Mission in Public Life (1984); T. Hiney, On the Missionary Trail: A Journey through Polynesia, Asia, and Africa with the London Missionary Society (2000). For Roman Catholic missions, see works on the religious orders and the publications (in America) of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

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missionary attitudes and practices
missions and colonialism

Christian missionary activity reached its apex during the long nineteenth century. The movement emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in response to the growing influence of evangelical Protestantism and the expansion of European commercial and political interests around the globe. During this period evangelical Protestants in particular developed a greater sense of urgency about the Christian obligation to spread the knowledge of the gospel. While the suppression of the Jesuits on the Continent throughout the eighteenth century weakened Roman Catholic missions, English and German Protestants initiated the first significant Protestant missionary activity during the early 1700s. German Pietists, especially the Moravians, established mission stations in India, Africa, and the Caribbean. Anglicans, strongly influenced by the Pietist movement, founded the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Promotion of the Gospel to work in British colonies. At the end of the century, the fall of Catholicism during the French Revolution inspired British evangelicals to organize missions to France in the hope of encouraging the growth of Protestantism there. Protestant missionaries were also sent to various parts of Russia.

The most significant factor in the expansion of Protestant missions, however, was the invention of the missionary society, a voluntary organization of ministers and laypersons dedicated to the support of foreign missionary activity. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century these institutions established their missions in India, the South Pacific, Africa, and the Caribbean, and became the defining characteristic of the missionary movement. The first societies appeared in Britain during the 1790s. The Baptist Missionary Society, established in 1792, was quickly followed by the predominantly Congregationalist London Missionary Society (LMS) in 1795, and the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1799. The British example inspired the formation of similar institutions on the Continent, including the Netherlands Missionary Society (1797), and German societies in Basel (1815) and Berlin (1824). Cooperation between the British and Continental societies was common. The Dutchman Johannes Van der Kemp, active in the creation of the Netherlands Missionary Society, eventually established the first LMS mission in the Cape Colony. John Philip, a director of the LMS missions in southern Africa, helped to establish mission stations for the Paris Evangelical Mission during the 1830s in present-day Lesotho. The CMS drew many of its first missionaries from the graduates of Lutheran seminaries in Germany.

missionary attitudes and practices

The missionary impulse sprang from more than a mere concern for the salvation of so-called heathen souls. Evangelical Protestants understood human history as the unfolding of divine ordinances and the fulfillment of God's purposes, chief among them the spread of Christianity throughout the world. The providential expansion of European commercial power added to the obligation of Christians to evangelize the far corners of the globe. Commerce and Christianity became increasingly linked as necessary elements of the process of civilization and were celebrated by prominent missionaries such as David Livingstone.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, missionaries approached their work with a strong belief in the divine purpose and in the Enlightenment ideal of human progress. They assumed that introducing non-Christians to the gospel would lead them to convert, and set them on the path toward civilization. They believed that with salvation came civility and respectability. The adoption of Western manners and styles of dress by converts were taken as outward signs of the authenticity of their Christian faith. Missionaries also focused intensely on the translation of the Bible into indigenous languages, and in many cases the training of indigenous evangelists to assist their work. The missionary societies encouraged the creation of self-sustaining, indigenous, Christian communities, which might free missionaries and resources to be directed into new unevangelized areas of the globe. These communities, however, were slow to develop, and the societies remained dependent on the continued support of the religious public in Europe to finance their work.

The second half of the century saw the emergence of new attitudes, and important changes. In the 1860s, J. Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, argued that missionaries should do more to appreciate and to assimilate themselves to indigenous cultures. Taylor created controversy by dressing himself in Chinese style clothing, but his mission converted more than one hundred thousand Chinese by the end of the century. The relative lack of success in other mission fields, especially Africa, increased skepticism within the missionary movement about the potential for large-scale conversions before non-Christians had been exposed to all of the benefits of Western civilization. Missionary activity shifted away from merely proselytizing, and placed greater emphasis on medical care, education, social welfare, and even industrial training. Most significantly, women began to play a much greater role in missionary work after 1850. Unmarried women, in particular, entered the mission field in large numbers as evangelists, doctors, and teachers. So much so that by the end of the century women missionaries outnumbered men by two to one.

The dramatic expansion of Protestant missions during the first half of the nineteenth century also sparked a resurgence of interest in Roman Catholic missions. In Restoration France, mission crosses planted throughout the countryside were symbolic of the renewed efforts of Catholic missionaries to revive the French church. Foreign missions were also revived, especially during the second half of the century. Among the most prominent organizations was the Society of Missionaries of Africa, more commonly known as the White Fathers, founded in 1868 by the archbishop of Algiers, Charles-Martial-Allemand Lavigerie. Beginning its work in northern Africa, the society eventually sent missionaries south of the Sahara by the later 1870s. Lavigerie instructed his missionaries to also concentrate their efforts on establishing Christian communities among orphans and emancipated slaves, while developing good relations with local indigenous authorities. Additionally, missionaries focused on training indigenous catechists to aid their work. The White Fathers suffered severely from the persecution of Christians in Uganda during the late 1880s, but by the twentieth century had made significant progress in Central Africa developing parishes and diocese under the leadership of African clergy.

missions and colonialism

Historians frequently interpret the surge of missionary activity as a central component of nineteenth-century European colonial expansion. Missionaries appear in

these accounts as advance forces of colonial authority, transporting the values of bourgeois society and paving the way for European domination. Others, more sympathetic to the missionary movement, emphasize the positive contributions of the humanitarian and educational efforts of the missionaries. The relationship between missions and colonial authorities was complex. Colonial governments tended to support missions wherever they felt religious expansion might strengthen their influence, and missions sometimes opened the doors through which colonial authority followed. Supporters of the missionary movement celebrated the use of force to open China to Western trade in 1850s, because it also opened China to the gospel. In other instances, however, missionaries' concerns for the well-being of indigenous or slave populations directly conflicted with the interests of settlers, slave owners, and colonial officials. The popularity of missionary work, especially in Britain, gave the movement considerable political clout, as in the early-nineteenth-century debates over the abolition of slavery. Over time, the relationship between missions and colonial government became less antagonistic and more cooperative. Another of the most powerful legacies of the missionary movement, however, was its tendency to cultivate resistance among indigenous populations. For all of the missionary movement's contributions to the expansion of European culture and colonial power, it made an equally significant contribution to the development of opposition to colonial rule.

See alsoCatholicism; Imperialism; Protestantism; Religion.


Ajayi, J. F. A. Christian Missions in Nigeria, 1841–1891: The Making of a New élite. London, 1965.

Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa. Vols. 1 and 2. Chicago, 1991 and 1997.

LaTourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity. Vol.2. New York, 1975.

Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions. New York, 1986.

Stanley, Brian, ed. Christian Missions and the Enlightenment. Grand Rapids, Mich., 2001.

Walls, Andrew. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Edinburgh, 1996.

Michael A. Rutz

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This entry consists of the following articles:

missionary activity
buddhist missions
christian missions
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This entry includes the following articles:


Jesuit Missions (Reducciones)...629

Spanish America...632

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MISSIONS. SeeIndian Missions .

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