As Christianity has grown around the world over the past century, it has been fascinating to watch the complex and often unexpected interplays between the older and newer churches. In South Africa, for instance, the mighty Zion Christian Church (several million strong, and mainly Zulu) takes its name not from Mount Zion, but from Zion City in Illinois, the former seat of a healing movement led by Scottish evangelist John Alexander Dowie. Sometimes Western churches had their impact, but in nothing like the ways they expected. On occasion, those mission ventures had a transforming impact on the “home” churches. It is a rich and intriguing story.
The process of blowback can now be explored through Jay Riley Case’s impressive new book An Unpredictable Gospel: American Evangelicals and World Christianity, 1812-1920. As he says, this is not a comprehensive account, but rather a series of case-studies (no pun intended) focusing on the Methodist world, and on radical Holiness missions. He also describes some vigorous African-American ventures, including the AME mission in South Africa. Case offers a thoroughly researched study with an abundance of striking stories.
If Case has a central lesson, it is to stress the active and creative role of the people receiving the missions and hearing the Word, who were nothing like the passive folk of older missionary legend. Once they had received the message, they often adapted it in surprising forms, as appropriate to their particular cultural and political settings. Radical evangelicals were particularly likely to spawn such novel forms because they had never been too effective at maintaining strong hierarchies and disciplinary structures at home, and they were unlikely to do much better overseas.
Case’s work also reminds us of the excellent 1997 book by Lian Xi on liberal Protestant missionaries to China, was suggestively titled The Conversion of Missionaries. That’s conversion of – not by. Although the theological framework was very different, the overall lessons were similar.
It would actually be a wonderful project to write a more general history of such influences, such feedback, from the mission fields to home churches, a process that was certainly not confined either to Americans or evangelicals. We see this kind of interaction for instance in early ecumenical endeavors, and in the spread of charismatic/Pentecostal worship styles. It even had its impact on Bible criticism. Nineteenth century missionary J. W. Colenso struggled to convince his African converts of the plausibility of the historical accounts in the Pentateuch until he realized that he could no longer defend them himself. Tim Larsen has described the consequences of his revolutionary insights for Victorian debates over the historicity of the Bible. Plenty of other examples suggest themselves.
When someone does write such a global and cross-denominational book, they will be very grateful to Jay Riley Case.