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Religion Library: Protestantism

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Ted Vial

David Brainerd (1718-1747) exemplifies the colonists' interest in missions among the Native Americans. He worked with the Delaware tribe in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and inspired many others to move west with the gospel. More sustained efforts to send missionaries were inspired by the revival movements of John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitefield (1714-1770). John Wesley himself came to Georgia in 1736, intending to preach to the Indians. He ended up preaching mostly to European colonists, and considered his trip to be largely a failure. George Whitefield preached in the colonies repeatedly, visiting the New World seven times. Wesley and Whitefield, both Anglicans and evangelists, demonstrate the reality that by the 18th century, piety and faith had eroded, both in the colonies and throughout England; thus much of their mission was directed to re-evangelization of the backslidden rather than to the acquisition of new converts.

There were, however, many efforts among Protestants to evangelize among the Native Americans as the frontier moved west. Missionaries often set up boarding schools for Indian children in an effort to save them from the extermination that was being visited upon so many Indian nations, and to create in them European-like citizens. While founded with good intentions, these schools separated these children from extended families, the structure of which Europeans did not fully understand. In some instances, these schools turned out to be cruel places with subsequent histories of physical and mental abuse. Not only were children taken away from extended families who, in Native American societies, were legitimate guardians (Europeans often saw these children as "orphans"), the schools taught the children that they had to reject their original cultures and become European.

This approach was not universal. Some Protestant missionaries adopted the culture of their mission—learning the languages and translating the Bible into them, dressing like indigenous peoples, and even using the religious traditions of the natives to demonstrate the ways they believed God had already reached out to them. William Carey (1761-1834), an English Baptist, is often called the father of modern missions. He and his family moved to India in 1793, and there translated the Bible into a variety of languages, including Bengali and Sanskrit. He ministered there for 41 years, and inspired many others to cross cultures for the sake of the gospel, including Adoniram Judson (1788-1850), an American Baptist who went to Burma for four decades, and Hudson Taylor (1832-1905), a British missionary who spent nearly 51 years in China. Mary Slessor (1848-1915), a Scottish Presbyterian, also took up the challenge, and demonstrates the growing freedom of women in the 19th century to travel and minister without a husband. Slessor spent forty years in Nigeria, spreading the gospel, advocating rights for women, and caring for abandoned children.


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