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Religion Library: Protestantism

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Ted Vial

Many early converts in some parts of the world became active missionaries to their own people. Some of the first Protestant missionaries to Africa were freed slaves who founded Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa. Samuel Crowther (c. 1809-1891), born in what is today Nigeria, was captured by Muslim slave traders as a child. Before he could be sold, he was freed by the British and released in Sierra Leone. He converted to Christianity under Anglican missionaries, spent years evangelizing among the tribes along the Niger River, translated the Bible into tribal languages, and became the first African Anglican bishop in Nigeria.

The 18th and 19th centuries also saw missionary activity organized both within denominations and along interdenominational lines. For example, the Baptist Missionary Society was founded in 1792, and the London Missionary Society was founded in 1795. Anglicans formed the Church Missionary Society for Africa and the East in 1799. Mission societies were also formed in France, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland in the 19th century. By the 1840s, many churches saw mission work as one of their main focuses.

Robert Thomas (1839-1866), a Welsh missionary sent by the London Missionary Society, became the first Protestant to evangelize in Korea. Today South Korea, by some estimates, is nearly 30 percent Christian, has some of the world's largest Christian congregations (the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul has approximately one million members), and South Korean churches send out more missionaries around the world than anyone else except American churches.

The founding of mission societies across denominational lines provided an opportunity for ecumenical cooperation, and in several cases led later to mergers of denominations. The Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 began with the stated hope that cooperation on the mission field would extend to greater collaboration at home. It was attended by representatives of most major Protestant denominations and inspired generations of Protestant Christians to pursue missionary work around the world.

Missionary work in the last half-century has become quite controversial. It was common practice to interweave colonial conquest and missionary activity in the 19th century. While many missionaries may have worked with the best of intentions, they often served as the vanguard for exploitation of non-European societies. Conservative denominations today continue to pursue missions based on their belief that the gospel is the good news for all people everywhere, and this global vision compels them to preach the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. This work has, however, also included a vast array of humanitarian initiatives—including education, health care, family support, water technology, and engineering.

Liberal Protestants struggle with missionary work, as one can see on the mission tab of the websites of mainline denominations. They tend to focus far more heavily on medical and educational missions rather than explicit attempts to convert. Even here they are open to the charge that in spreading western medical and educational practices they are contributing to the demise of the rich diversity of cultures around the world.


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