Exploration and Conquest
Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
Catholic missionary efforts in Africa in the 16th-18th centuries withered from the difficulty of obtaining support from Europe, and many Protestant efforts at evangelization in the early 19th century suffered a similar fate. One major exception was found in Sierra Leone, where in 1787 an emancipationist group sponsored the return of Africans from London. The resulting community in Freetown became the source for a growing network of West African Christian communities. But these communities did not take root in the rural populations.
Missionary efforts in Africa increased dramatically after 1870, and while the missionaries were not notably successful in winning converts, they were spectacularly successful in learning local languages, teaching, and developing hospitals and health care systems. They translated the Bible into dozens of African languages, which brought Biblical Christianity into the heart of African communities.
Christian missionaries first reached western China in the 7th century, where it is believed the church survived for about two centuries. Franciscan missionaries reached China in the 14th century, but the distance from Europe was too great to obtain the necessary support to sustain the mission. A Jesuit mission in the 16th century survived for about a century and a half. Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries arrived in China in the middle of the 19th century, and when the Boxer Rebellion failed at the end of the 19th century, many young people turned to Christianity for fresh moral and social resources. The establishment of Communist rule in 1949 officially suppressed, sometimes violently, all religions, forcing Christians to go underground.
Spaniards arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century, and in the three and a half centuries of Christian rule, most of the population was converted. Protestant missionaries arrived after the Americans defeated the Spanish in 1898, and almost all mainline Protestant denominations are established there. The Philippine Republic is the only Christian nation in Asia.
Jesuit missionaries arrived in Japan in 1549 and experienced resounding success, converting hundreds of thousands by the close of the 16th century. But a wave of persecution put an end to this missionary enterprise, and missionaries were not allowed back into Japan until 1858. Protestant missionaries arrived in the Korean peninsula in the second half of the 19th century, and Christian life in South Korea became especially vibrant after World War II.
During these centuries, Christian denominations were often divided over important issues. Many churches, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries, were in favor of enslaving Africans and the Indians of the Americas. Although many slaveholders were Christian, important opponents of slavery were also Christian, including the Society of Friends (Quakers) who opposed slavery as early as 1688. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was a passionate opponent of slavery. The abolitionist movement in Western Europe and the Americas was rooted in Christian evangelicalism, organizing and directing the efforts of various 18th- and 19th-century Christian communities dedicated to ending the slave trade. William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a member of the British parliament and an English evangelical, worked tirelessly to pass legislation banning the slave trade within the British empire.