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Mission History, III: Protestant


This entry gives: (1) a brief history of Protestant missions, and (2) a survey of their status as at the beginning of the 21st century.


Protestants were slow in taking up missionary work among non-Christians. This was partly because they were engrossed in consolidating their position in Europe and also because some of their early leaders believed that the obligation to spread the faith did not apply to them. But the delay was chiefly attributable to the fact that Protestants were late in establishing commercial or colonial contacts with non-Christian peoples. When Protestantism was still in its infancy, and even before it had been born, Spanish and Portuguese Catholics had led in the explorations and conquests of the 15th and 16th centuries and under the impulse of Roman Catholic reform had initiated extensive mission in the Americans, Africa, Asia and the East Indies.

The English and the Dutch were the first Protestants to undertake commerce and colonization on a large scale outside of Europe. Wherever they made contact with non-Christian peoples some missionary effort followed, although tardily in some countries. Thus in Virginia and New England, especially the latter, missions to the Indians were inaugurated in the 17th century. Early in the 18th century the (Anglican) society for the propaga tion of the gospel in Foreign Parts (est. 1701) sent missionaries to the indigenous tribes in the 13 colonies. Dutch missionaries went to the East Indies. In the 18th century, under the impulse of Count Zinzendorf, the Moravians had missions in the Danish and British West Indies, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Russia, Central America, Greenland, Labrador, the Gold Coast, and South Africa, as well as among North American peoples. In the 18th century, beginning in 1706 under the auspices of the King of Denmark, German Pietists had missions in India and were aided by the (Anglican) society for the promot ing christian knowledge (est. 1699). Thus, the first Protestant missionaries to Asia were Germans, Bartholomew Ziegenbalg and Henry Plutschau

Missionary Societies. Protestant missions had their main beginning in the closing decade of the 18th and the opening decades of the 19th centuries. In 1792, at the insistence of William carey, the Baptist Missionary Society was founded in England. The following year it sent Carey to India. There he and his colleagues translated the Bible into the languages of India and into Chinese, and founded a college at Serampore that became the chief center for the training of native peoples for the Protestant ministry. Bible translation and educational work would be major concerns of all Protestant missionary work. In 1795 British evangelicals who did not conform to the Church of England organized the London Missionary Society. Four years later evangelicals within the Church of England inaugurated the Church Missionary Society. In 1804 evangelicals, both Nonconformists and Conformist Anglican, organized the British and Foreign Bible Society. In continental Europe Protestant societies emerged also. Among them were the Netherlands Missionary Society (1797) and the Basel Missionary Society (1822). In the U.S. the interdenominational (chiefly Congregational) American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was initiated in 1810, and in 1814 American Baptists founded a missionary society. In the next few years a number of societies were founded, most of them as organs of particular denominations. In 1816 members of several denominations united in the American Bible Society.

Protestant missions were given a major impulse from various revival movements in the English speaking world which culminated in 1886 with the formation of the student volunteer movement for Foreign Missions (SVM). It had as its watchword: "the evangelization of the world in this generation." By this was meant not the conversion of the whole world, but the conveying of a knowledge of the gospel by each generation of Christians to their generation the world over. The SVM was nondenominational. It spread among students in many countries. One of its original members, John R. mott (18651955), was long its chair. Under its influence thousands of students offered themselves to their denominational societies and were sent to many different countries. Mott became an evangelist to students in scores of countries. In one of his widely read books, Strategic Points in the World's Conquest (1897), he outlined a program for winning all people to Christ. The book and the movement reflected the progressive, optimistic Protestant missionary spirit of the age.

Mott became the chief agent also in bringing Protestants together to fulfill the purpose of the evangelization of the world and was chairman of the World Missionary Conference (Edinburgh, 1910). Out of this gathering came, first, the Continuation Committee of the conference and then (1921) the international missionary council (imc). Both had Mott as chairman. The purpose of the IMC was the coordination of Protestant missionary effort the world over. It had as members national and regional bodies. The members in Asia and Africa were called National Christian Councils, and increasingly enlisted the Protestants of these lands. In America and Europe the members were bodies that represented the Protestant missionary organization of their respective countries or regions. The IMC embraced the overwhelming majority of the Protestants of the world. Substantial minorities held aloof, chiefly and increasingly, on doctrinal grounds. By the 1960s the World Evangelical Fellowship (founded 1951) was growing rapidly and in 1974 the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization was formed as alternative Protestant mission organizations.

In 1961 the IMC was integrated with the world council of churches (WCC) and became the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism of that body. The WCC (est. 1948) was to a large degree an outgrowth of the Protestant missionary movement. After 1961 the organization of Protestant missions becomes more diverse worldwide. There are three main reasons for the rapid growth and diversification of Protestant mission societies after 1961. First, many churches and individuals felt that the greater dialogue with Roman Catholics and the WCC unit on "Dialog with People of other Living Faiths" were signs of compromise and a change in mission theology. The 1973 call for a moratorium on foreign missions, first by John Gatu, General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, further divided what would be called the "ecumenical" missions from the "evangelical" or "independent" missions. Secondly, the sudden national movements of independence from 19451969 where 71 non-western nations became independent encouraged the diversification of Protestant missions. Many of these new countries identified themselves with a non-Christian religion and restricted Christian missionaries. As a result new indigenous mission societies were founded and new Protestant missionary societies were founded with particular countries, regions or religions in view. On the average over 100 new mission societies have been founded each decade for the past 30 years in North America. More significantly for the diversification and multiplication of mission societies has been the explosion of non-western mission societies in countries like Korea, India, Taiwan and Brazil. Cooperation among societies has been more a matter of relationships and elective participation in umbrella organizations such as the World Evangelical Fellowship or World Pentecostal Fellowship, rather than official membership in an organization such as the WCC. Thirdly, the decline in denominationalism in the West and sudden drop in communications costs has encouraged the formation of mission societies by local churches or groups of churches often by-passing the national church bodies.

Developments. From the beginning of Protestant missionary endeavor there has been a primary interest in translation work and educational work to train future church leaders. Church planting was always related to the production of Bibles in the local language and literacy work. Another aspect was the fostering of efforts to influence wholesomely, from the standpoint of Christians, various aspects of the cultures in which missionaries lived. Protestant missions worked in association with Western enterprises that profoundly influenced non-western portions of the globe. The impact of the West brought about a mounting revolution in these areas. Protestant missionaries endeavored to prepare non-Western peoples for this and to make the resulting changes beneficial rather than harmful. To do so they introduced western medicine and surgery, training physicians and nurses in Western techniques, promoted public health, established schools that combined western and indigenous learning (e.g. "Anglo-Chinese Schools"), pioneered in improved methods of agriculture and forestry, fought famines and such evils as opium and slavery, sought to improve the status and education of women, fostered Christian standards of marriage and family life produced Christian literature, and strove to raise the level of rural life. This revolution in missionary work began before the middle of the 19th century.

In the 20th century, with the emergence of anti-colonialism in the non-western world, Protestant missions sought to deepen the foothold they had won among non-Europeans. In the East Asian Christian Conference, (est. 1954; renamed Christian Conference of Asia), with the aid of missionaries, the Protestants of that part of the world undertook cooperatively to spread the faith among their neighbors.

More and more the direction of the "younger churches" that had sprung up out of Protestant missions was transferred to indigenous leadership. Thus in India after the 1950s all Methodist bishops were men from India, the only Lutheran bishopric was transferred (1962) from a Swede to a native inhabitant, and an increasing proportion of Anglican bishops were native inhabitants. Similar developments were seen in Protestant churches that did not have bishops, not only in India, but also in other non-western countries. In 1958 the Theological Education Fund of U.S. $4 million was created and placed under the direction of the IMC. It had as its purpose the training of an indigenous Protestant clergy in Africa, Asia and Latin America and the islands of the Pacific. In 1963 an all-Africa (Protestant) Christian Conference met under African leadership and created a continuing organization to embrace the continent. Following World War II the Batak Protestants (Sumatra) became completely independent of foreign control and received only that help from missionaries for which they specifically asked.

In order to erase some of the church divisions which had been exported from the West, and to form a more united Christian front, Protestant Christians formed unions of diverse denominational bodies. Thus, in 1934 the Church of Christ in Thailand was formed, in 1941 the Church of Christ in Japan (Koyodan ) was constituted and the Church of South India was formed in 1947. The latter's constituent members were Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and members of the Reformed Church. It had an episcopate which sought apostolic succession through the (Anglican) Church of India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Other unions soon formed in several countries.

The cooperation and unions among churches that occurred from the 1930s through the 1980s shifted to become cooperation and sharing in mission without the organic unions. With the rapid growth in non-Orthodox and non-Roman Catholic Christianity in the last decades of the 20th century (house churches in China, Africa Independent Churches in Africa, etc.) came the need for new models of cooperation in mission. The largest global cooperation among Protestants for prayer and strategy came in the 1990s as the "ad 2000 and Beyond Movement." This global and grassroots movement was supported mostly by non-western churches and had as its goal, "A church for every people and the gospel for every person by the year 2000." Conferences were held to aid in the sharing of resources and plan cooperative strategies in Singapore (1989), Seoul (1995) and Pretoria (1997). One of the many resources used has been the Jesus Film, shown to over 2 billion people and translated into over 700 languages by 2001.

Five major shifts in Protestant mission have taken place since World War II, the first occurring immediately after the War was over. Independence movements caused a redistribution of missionary personal, and the spread of Communism in Eastern Europe and China reduced the mission activity further. The ascendancy of the United States as a world power paralleled its rapid growth in Protestant mission activity. The predominance of both personnel and financial support shifted from the British Isles and the Continent to the United States. The second major shift occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. With the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe, the collapse of Communism in the Soviet republics and the new openness to the world in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and China came new Protestant mission development in areas that had been "closed." Along with new work, both official and unofficial, came one of the most rapid developments of Protestant work since the "opening" of China in the 1840s. Thousands of missionaries from Europe, the U.S. and Korea moved to the former Soviet republics and hundreds of others found ways to work in China. The third major shift has been taking place since World War II and that is the change from ecumenical to evangelical and independent missions. In 1954 about half of the 19,000 long term missionaries from North America were from mainline churches. Today less than 5% of the long-term missionaries from North America are from the ecumenical sending agencies. Fourth, whereas in 1910 western church bodies and mission agencies were discussing how to evangelize the world, today most of the church planting is being done by non-western missionaries. The fastest growing church in the world is in China and virtually all of the work is being done by Chinese. In Nepal, India and Myanmar and most nations of sub-Saharan Africa, the evangelistic and church planting work of mission are being done by nationals or missionaries from the region. Finally, the fastest growing missionary work in the world is now Pentecostal. Not only in Latin America, but also the missionary work in much of South and East Asia today is from Pentecostal groups both working regionally as well as from the West.

Protestant Mission in the 21st Century

A look at the four major regions of Protestant missions at the beginning of the second millennium shows the extent of the changes that have transpired.

Asia. Although Christianity has been introduced to China in the seventh, 13th, 16th and 19th centuries, it has been the most recent reintroduction, from within, which has had the greatest impact. With the deportation of all missionaries between 1948 and 1952, the Protestant churches suffered from closures, arrests of leaders and relocation of many Christians to work on farms or in factories. Even though the Christian population was estimated to be 1.5 million in 1948, today estimates vary between 15 million (Roman Catholic and China Christian CouncilCCC) and 90 million (inclusive of non-registered churches). Most of this is Protestant Church and, except for some groups who began smuggling Bibles in the early 1980s, has all been done by Chinese. The formation of the Three Self Patriotic Movement (1954) and the CCC (1980) created a "post-denominational" church recognized by the government. However the largest number of Protestants today still meet in unregistered churches. Mission to China is coordinated and directed from the Amity Foundation with offices in Nanjing and Hong Kong. Korean church growth increased dramatically in the South after the Korean War. Thousands of Christians from the North migrated to the South and after the War churches and missions were reestablished with the help of many American missions. Today more than 40% of South Korea is Christian with the largest Christian church in the world (Yoido Full Gospel) and the largest Christian gatherings ever (15 million at Yoido) and many of the largest denominational churches and seminaries found in the world. These churches are very strong in their missionary leadership. For example, in 1996, 60,000 Korean students committed themselves to be missionaries at a gathering at the Seoul Olympic stadium.

With the gradual opening for travel to Vietnam and Cambodia, some educational and church missionary work has begun in these two countries. Most of the Protestant missionary work to these countries is also done by Asians. The largest number of missionaries is from Korea and diaspora Chinese communities working out of Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia. A number of refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam (as well as China) have returned to work with Christians in their home countries or have organized missions in the West to reach their home countries. Although after the Pacific War it looked like both Thailand and Japan would have rapidly growing Christian communities, this never happened. Both countries, with a fairly large Protestant missionary presence, are still between 2 and 3.5% Christian. Nepal, until 1980, had less than 10,000 Christians. Today, mostly from the work of Indians and other Asians, plus the long-term service work of the United Mission to Nepal, there are over 500,000 Christians (2.4%) in Nepal. These are nearly all Protestant. Missionary work in Indonesia is mostly educational and medical now, but Indonesians are very active in missionary work within their own nation. Protestant Christianity is one of the five recognized religions in Indonesia (also Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam) and it continues to grow in the midst of the largest Muslim population in the world. In Malaysia large numbers of Chinese and Indians have become Christians. However, except for tribal groups in East Malaysia (North Borneo) the bumiputra (indigenous Malay) are still mostly Muslim. India has one of the largest numbers of cross-cultural missionary groups in the world (after the United States), although most of their missionaries work within the sub-continent. Close to 40,000 Protestant Indian missionaries work full-time, mostly in church planting, literacy, educational and medical work. Northeast India (Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya) is predominantly a Christian area sending out missionaries throughout the sub-continent. In many areas of India large movements of Dalits (untouchables) are turning to Christianity. In the Philippines, the dominance of missionaries from North America is now being challenged by missionaries from Korea. The Philippines now send out more missionaries (some to unreached areas within the Philippines) than it receives.

Africa. The 20th century in Africa, especially since the independence of most of the African nations, has marked one of the greatest religious changes in the history of Christianity. In 1900 Africa was less than 10% Christian. By 2000 it was nearly 46% Christian. Some of the fastest growing churches are not technically speaking Protestant, since they don't trace their lineage to a Protestant denomination or split. Many of these African Initiated (or Independent) Churches have been started by local prophetsoften resisting western dominationwith a vision for planting churches in different regions in Africa. Two of the main streams of AICs are the Ethiopian stream (looking to Ethiopia for their Christian heritage) and the Zionist churches (which tend to be more Pentecostal in worship and mission). South Africa has had the largest number of AICs which, after the collapse of apartheid in 1991 continued to multiply and divide. Today there are nearly as many African missionaries serving cross-culturally as there are foreign (western and Asian) missionaries working in Africa. Political struggles in countries like Uganda, Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, tribal conflicts in countries like Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone and Liberia and religious conflict between Islam and Christianity have all affected the missionary work in Africa. The attempt to impose Islam on southern Sudan, for example has led to the longest running civil war of the century; over three million people displaced from their homes, over two million deaths and yet a church growth in the south from 5% in 1960 to over 70% in 2001. Northern Africa is still mostly all Muslim with only small Christian communities scattered across the Sahara.

Eastern Europe, West and Central Asia. With the independence of nations of the Middle East came a rise in Islamic consciousness. Countries like Lebanon and Syria have had a marked decline of Protestant Christians with mission work increasingly difficult to maintain. Islamic regimes in places like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan have all but stopped ongoing Protestant missionary work except in small "tentmaking" operations. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Republics in 1991 missionary work suddenly took off in countries like Russia, Albania, Yugoslavia and Romania, largely with Americans, Western Europeans and Koreans. The response has been mixed with large rallies and media events in countries like Albania and Romania having a great impact, but in areas like Eastern Germany and Poland there have not been large Protestant movements. In most of the central Asian republics there has been a large influx of Protestant missionaries since 1991, although the overall impact is minimal. In countries like Uzbekistan the rising tide of Islam has caused a great exodus of Christians from the country.

Latin America. A century ago nearly all of Latin America was Roman Catholic. The twentieth century has been marked by a decline in religious belief in general, but also a growth in Protestantism. Brazil is the largest country with over 170 million people, 22 million who are now Protestant. Brazil sends more missionaries out of the country today than they receive. As with most of Latin America, the fastest growing churches in Brazil are Pentecostal or Charismatic in theology and worship. In all of Latin America and the Caribbean Protestant and Independent churches are growing at a rate of about 4% per year, compared to the annual population growth rate of only1.6%. Still, in most countries of Latin America, the Protestant population is only between five and 15% of the total population. As with much of Africa, the missionary work in these countries will be related to poverty, disease and political stability, since most of the poorest countries of the world are found in Africa and Latin America.

Bibliography: k. s. latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, 7 v. (New York, 193745); Christianity in a Revolutionary Age, 5 v. (New York, 195862); s. w. sunquist, ed. A Dictionary of Asian Christianity (Grand Rapids, 2001); barrett, kurian and johnson, World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford, 2000).

[k. s. latourette/

s. w. sunquist]

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