Calvinism and the Roots of the Missionary Movement

Calvinism and the Roots of the Missionary Movement July 9, 2013

Over at Kevin DeYoung’s blog, Jason Helopoulos asks “Does Calvinism Kill Missions?” and answers with a resounding historical ‘no.’  I agree, and want to put a little finer point on it: from the perspective of Baptist history, Calvinists birthed the missions movement. (For background on Calvinism/Arminianism in the Baptist context, see links below.)

I’ve recently been reading Jason Duesing’s fascinating volume Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary, which has a great deal of fresh information on the celebrated Baptist missionary Judson and his context. I was particularly intrigued by Robert Caldwell’s essay on the “New Divinity” theology and Judson’s preparation as a missionary. The New Divinity theologians, heirs of Jonathan Edwards such as Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins, argued that a right understanding of Calvinism would prompt activism for the gospel. The New Divinity helped to birth important reform movements such as antislavery advocacy and the American missions movement. (English Calvinist Baptists such as William Carey also spearheaded the British missionary initiative.)

Although Baptists in America were overwhelmingly Calvinist in the early national period, it is still surprising to note how much the Congregationalist-dominated New Divinity influenced key Baptist missions organizers, including Judson, his first wife Ann Hasseltine, and Mary Webb, the founder of Boston’s Female Society for Missionary Purposes (1800), America’s first women’s missionary organization. Judson, Hasseltine, and Webb all grew up in Congregationalist families but eventually converted to Baptist principles. (The Judsons’ journey to Baptist convictions is described powerfully in Gregory Wills’s essay in Duesing’s Adoniram Judson.)

Adoniram Judson

Judson, his father, Hasseltine, and Webb were especially influenced by Nathanael Emmons, perhaps the most popular New Divinity preacher of the early national period, who is largely forgotten today. Theologians regard Emmons’ Calvinism as somewhat eccentric, combining features that seemed at times hyper-Calvinist, at other times quasi-Arminian. But there was no doubt for Emmons that salvation depended on God’s eternal decree, not human decision. Emmons was also one of the era’ s greatest promoters of missions. Webb resolved to start her society after hearing Emmons preach on 2 Chronicles 15:7, “Be ye strong therefore, and let not your hands be weak: for your work shall be rewarded.”

Many Arminians have also served courageously as missionaries, and still do today – that is beyond question. But history belies some Arminians’ (including a number of Southern Baptist Arminians’) contention that, when followed logically, Calvinism undercuts missions and evangelism. If God has decreed who will be saved, they say, and that decree is irresistible, then why bother to obey Christ’s Great Commission and bring the gospel to all the world? This critique may make logical sense, from an Arminian perspective. But from a historical perspective, it is simply false.

Background links:

Calvinism vs. Arminianism – Comparison Chart, Grace Online Library

my “‘Traditional Baptists’ and Calvinism”, Anxious Bench

Southern Baptist Convention’s Statement from the Calvinism Advisory Committee

@ThomasSKidd on Twitter


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  • TexasRangersFan

    Tom, excellent post – as usual – I believe that the notion of irresistible grace has been distorted by some to mean more than it does. Also, several Calvinist writers from the late 18th and early 19th Century believed part of the mystery of salvation was the believer’s obedience to the command to evangelize. Simply put: God’s grace was dispensed via evangelism not in spite of it.

  • Thomas Kidd

    yes, these are good points!

  • Thanks for sharing this valuable insight with us!

    So much of this overarching epic debate has shifted focus from debating what the Calvinist and Arminian actually believe to crass caricatures that do not truly represent either side. This is one of those almost sacred cow Arminian arguments that unfortunately probably endures because doctrinal Calvinist statements (that attempt to elucidate and adhere to Calvinist belief) perhaps can be construed to mean that evangelization does not matter. However, in praxis the reality is different, as this post clearly illustrates in the Baptist tradition.

  • In Britain in the 1790s, the Baptist Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Religious Tract Society, etc., all were either led by Calvinists or included large contingents of Calvinist ministers. Calvinist Congregationalists were absolutely at the forefront of domestic and foreign missions. Chapter 1 of my book (forthcoming in a few years, hopefully!) will address eighteenth-century Calvinism, missions, and understandings of the individual believer’s agency as part of God’s providence. Mainstream Calvinism at the beginning of the great age of missions in the late eighteenth century was certainly “moderate” – in the footsteps of Jonathan Edwards rather than the hyper-Calvinism of Brine or Gill. However, it was combined with post-millennial optimism. The missionary societies were founded in the expectation that they would be the instruments of God’s plan for humanity, which would culminate in the successful Christianization of the entire world. Thus, while God’s plan was fore-ordained, individual believers and organizations would be God’s designated means of bringing it about.

  • Thomas Kidd

    excellent points, Joe.

  • Thomas Kidd

    I agree re: “crass caricatures”!

  • Douglas C

    What about the opposition to world missions raised by many of the British Calvinists? I seem to remember from biographies of Carey and Judson that they faced serious resistance to the idea of taking the Gospel message to foreign lands for precisely the reasons you raise – “If God has sovereignly chosen for them to be saved, they will be saved!” Correct me if I’m wrong.
    Plus, I agree with some of the respondents to the “Calvinism/Arminianism Chart” that you link us to. The chart’s explanation of the evangelical Arminian view of total depravity is flawed. See Roger Olson’s Arminian Theology.

  • Chad Arneson

    Does Calvinism kill missions? Calvinism kills souls:

  • Randy

    Off topic – did you see that Edmund Morgan passed away on Monday?

  • Brian Abasciano

    The Calvinism vs. Arminianism – Comparison Chart you give as a resource is terribly inaccurate regarding Arminian theology, filled with what one assumes are supposed to be objective descriptions of the view but are critical Calvinist conclusions about the implications of the view stated as if it is the Arminian position. Sadly, many Calvinist descriptions of the Arminian position are of this sort. We have a chart on the Society of Evangelical Arminians (SEA) website that actually describes *both* positions objectively and fairly: There is just one spot at which the chart gives an evaluative comment on a Calvinist position, and it is marked as such, keeping the objective description of Calvinism clear and distinct from that one evaluative comment. I may be biased, but this chart is the best one I have seen available on the internet for comparing/contrasting the two positions, and that is because of its accuracy and objectivity. That is especially needed for the Arminian position, which is so often misrepresented, as in the chart you linked to. So I would urge you to drop the link to the chart you used and use the one I am recommending. But if you don’t want to use that one, then please find another one that is accurate, though you would be hard pressed to find one that is more accurate than the one on SEA.

    Respectfully in Christ,

    Brian Abasciano,
    President of the Society of Evangelical Arminians

  • Dean Dickens

    This is a no-sleep-6am-off-the-top-of-my-head comment, but to the objection (I know that the writer isn’t making this himself and is only presenting it), “If God has decreed who will be saved, they say, and that decree is irresistible, then why bother to obey Christ’s Great Commission and bring the gospel to all the world?”
    Because He’s father, I love Him, and He says to.

  • David Lewis Negley

    Here is a question in response that famous Arminian rhetorical question to Calvinists: “If it is the Father who draws people to himself, then why do you evangelize?” And Cs and As should agree on the same answer: “It is through the hearing of faith in the Gospel of Christ that one is saved.”