Missionaries are individuals sent out as representatives of their particular religious group to proselytize, teach, and preach among nonadherents. Though often associated specifically with Christian missions, throughout history a wide variety of religious traditions have utilized missionaries to spread their religious visions and religious practices. Although missionaries usually attempt to attract converts by means of persuasion and through philanthropic endeavors, coercive methods have also been used at times. Criticism of traditional missionary practices has grown especially since the early twentieth century, leading some religious leaders to redefine missionary activity solely in terms of social service or political activity.
Though not frequently associated with missionary activity, Eastern religious traditions produced some of the earliest known missionaries. Ancient tradition holds that the Buddha himself instructed his followers to spread the Noble Truths of Buddhism. By the beginning of the Common Era, Buddhist missionaries entered China and spread their message through the efforts of figures such as Bodhidharma (c. early fifth century) and Kumárajíva (350–409/413). During this same period, Hindus accompanied traders and merchants and helped spread Hinduism to Southeast Asia. Buddhism in particular possessed key traits that aided missionary efforts. For example, Buddhism moved away from Hinduism’s emphasis on the caste system, which in turn gave its followers greater freedom in their interactions with others from different social classes.
Since the late nineteenth century, Hindu and Buddhist missionary activity has increased. Hindu missionaries have gained a significant number of converts in Western nations, especially the United States. Swami Vivekananda, for example, established the Ramakrishna Mission and famously introduced many Americans to Hindu beliefs and practices at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Other key Hindu mission movements during the twentieth century include the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) as well as Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self Realization Fellowship, which combined Hindu beliefs and practices with scientific and psychological concepts. Nichiren Shōshū, a particularly mission-oriented form of Buddhism, developed during the thirteenth century and has been reinvigorated during the twentieth century through the Sōka Gakkai organization. Similarly, in the mid-twentieth century the Indian politician BhĪmrāo Rām Ambedkar (1891–1956) established the Bharatiya Buddha Mahasabha organization in order to encourage Hindus to convert to Buddhism. Ambedkar viewed Buddhism as a solution to the social inequality associated with the Hindu caste system, and he gained a large following among fellow Dalits (“untouchables”) who represented the lowest stratum of the caste system.
Judaism also is not usually associated with proselytism, yet there is evidence to suggest extensive Jewish missionary activity in the Roman Empire, especially during the first century CE. Following the Jewish revolts in 66–73 and 132–135, however, laws were passed prohibiting conversion to Judaism, which greatly diminished the number of converts. Since that time converts have entered Judaism mainly through marriage, though there is significant debate within contemporary Judaism over whether or not active proselytism should be encouraged to counter the impact of the increasing number of marriages of Jews to non-Jews.
From its inception, Christianity has demonstrated a strong missionary impulse based on Jesus’ command that his disciples spread the Christian message to nonbelievers. Carried out initially by figures such as Saint Paul, missionary activity eventually was linked to territorial expansion and official state policy beginning in the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Throughout the next several centuries church leaders of the Roman West and the Orthodox East encouraged missionary activity throughout Europe among Germanic and Slavic peoples. These efforts eventually reached as far east as China, and often were led by monks such as Boniface and members of religious orders such as the Dominicans and the Franciscans beginning in the thirteenth century.
Beginning in the sixteenth century Christian missionary activity spread rapidly with the colonial expansion of modern nation-states into the Americas, Africa, and Asia; during this same period missionary efforts were reinitiated in regions including China, Persia, India, and parts of Africa. Among Catholics, the Jesuits were especially well known for their missionary zeal and discipline. The Jesuits often adapted their message to the cultural symbols and practices of the host culture (inculturation ); the efforts of Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) in China are a good example. This contrasted sharply with the mission practices of other groups, such as the Spanish Franciscans in the Americas, who saw Christianity as inexorably tied to Spanish customs and civilization. Missionary activity by Protestants accelerated beginning in the eighteenth century with the spread of evangelical forms of piety in Britain and the American colonies. Women also began to play a much more visible role by the 1800s, accounting for half of the U.S. missionaries by the mid-nineteenth century.
Protestant and Catholic missionaries often brought with them knowledge of modern technical innovations and Western educational and medical ideas. By the twentieth century, in fact, some mission endeavors took on a solely philanthropic function as various twentieth-century religious leaders linked previous missionary efforts with cultural imperialism. But more conservative approaches that emphasized conversion continued to grow, as seen in the rapid global spread of Pentecostal forms of Christianity beginning in the twentieth century, as well as the growth of new religious movements such as Mormonism.
Historically, Islam also has had a strong missionary impulse. Although few Muslims throughout history have identified themselves specifically as missionaries, traditional Islam calls for the steady expansion of Islamic rule into non-Muslim regions, and indeed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 it spread rapidly across the Arabian Peninsula, Northern Africa, Spain, Persia, and Central Asia. Nevertheless, non-Muslims who are “peoples of the Book” (i.e., Jews and Christians) often have been allowed to maintain their faiths within Muslim societies, as was frequently the case during the Middle Ages—this despite the fact that Muslims believe the Jewish and Christian scriptures to have been corrupted over the years. Whereas traditional Islamic teachings enjoin Muslims to help spread Islam for the benefit of humanity, the Prophet Muhammad specifically repudiated conversion by force. Pagan groups usually did not have the same protected status as Jews and Christians in Muslim societies during the Middle Ages, and all non-Muslim subjects were expected to recognize Muslims’ final authority in society.
In general, missionary activity has been criticized for its sometimes complicit role in the oppression of subjugated peoples and for its contribution to religious conflict. A sharp delineation between religious believers and non-believers, for example, often has served as an underlying justification for imperialistic colonial endeavors. Other critics insist that a focus on conversion distracts from the need for more practical reforms in social and political spheres, but missionaries often have often been at the forefront of educational and philanthropic efforts, and have sought to alleviate human suffering. Furthermore, their cross-cultural endeavors have initiated contact between different religious traditions and helped generate religious change and innovation.
SEE ALSO Protestantism; Roman Catholic Church
Feldman, Louis H. 1993. Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hodgson, Marshall G. S. 1977. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Walls, Andrew F. 1996. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
Joseph W. Williams