The Great Century of Mission Expansion

Series: Window on the World

by Bruce McDowell November 28, 1999

As we have been looking at significant events in each of the centuries during the past millennia for the Window on the World, we now come to the nineteenth century. It has been described by church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette as “the great century” in church history. He says, “Never before had Christianity, or any religion, been introduced to so many different peoples and cultures.” “Never before in a period of equal length had Christianity or any other religion penetrated for the first time as large an area as it had in the nineteenth century.” “Never before had so many hundreds of thousands contributed voluntarily of their means to assist the spread of Christianity or any other religion.” The nineteenth century was the greatest one thus far in the history of Christianity in terms of its extent and its effect upon mankind.1

In the eighteenth century there had been an initial movement for world missions by the Moravians in the New World and elsewhere, individuals such as David Brainerd to the Native Americans in New Jersey, and the Danish-Halle Mission in India. But this effort was slowing down with only a meager harvest. They were not impacting a new stream of workers from traditionally Protestant countries.

In 1792 a cobbler and pastor named William Carey (1761-1834) made a remarkable breakthrough in understanding our Lord’s command to bring the gospel to all the world. He challenged the church to action through a simple theological and structural framework, which channeled their effort into church planting. He had made a map of the world with all the latest discoveries of geography and peoples included from the accounts of Captain Cook. He wrote a small book which had a tremendous impact in mobilizing the church towards mission: An Enquiry Into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. People objected to his missions vision saying that if God wanted to save those people he would do it without our help. Their reading of the Great Commission in Matthew 28 was understood to apply only to the apostles who initially heard Jesus’ command. However, Carey was able to win over a group of Baptist ministers in England who formed a mission society, a mission strategy and structure far ahead of his time. William Carey arrived in India in 1793, ending up at Serampore, a Danish colony, since the British East India Company refused to allow him to work in their jurisdiction. In fact, in the pioneering days of mission work it was the trading companies and colonial governments which were most opposed to it.

William Carey was a giant in missions, as the father of the modern missionary movement, which has brought the gospel literally to the ends of the earth. Although employed as a cobbler, he had self-taught himself in his extensive studies after age 14, learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew and world geography. He was a visionary and researcher who motivated many others to mission service. His influence in India, where he stayed the rest of his life, was particularly remarkable. While in India he translated the entire Bible into five languages, partial translations into another five languages, and translated smaller portions into 23 other languages and dialects. He taught Bengali, Sanskrit and Marathi to British foreign service administrators at Fort William College for 30 years, transforming them from moral corruption to having a religious spirit of gentleness and service.

Carey’s influence had a tremendous impact on the development of India for social reform. Through his influence the common practice of sati or widow burning was outlawed in 1829 and widows were legally allowed to remarry through an Act in 1856. Carey worked against the common practice of female infanticide. He wrote a report on the practice of exposing sick infants to death when it was thought they were under the influence of an evil spirit. This report resulted in the practice being made illegal. He also caused the suppression of sacrificing children to the goddess of the ocean and one’s first born in the Ganges River. Through his Bible teaching and education of women Carey sought to undercut child marriage. At the end of the nineteenth century “in and around Calcutta alone, there were 10,000 widows under the age of four, and over 50,000 between the ages of 5-9!” 2 They were the result of child marriages. Carey started free schools for the low castes and outcasts where almost 8,000 children attended. He began Serampore College to offer higher education in the vernacular. Among his other accomplishments were pioneering lending libraries; writing essays on forestry leading to India’s forest management; being a botanist who discovered a variety of Eucalyptus; being the first to publish books on science and natural history in India; being the first to make indigenous paper for the publishing industry; became the father of printing technology in India; established the first newspaper ever printed in any oriental language; the first to introduce the steam engine and its reproduction in India; the first to introduce the concept of a savings bank to India to fight the prevalence of usury, which made economic development impossible. Carey led the campaign for humane treatment of leprosy patients who were often burned or buried alive. He was the first to translate and publish great Indian religious classics into English. He transformed Bengali into the foremost literary language of India, writing gospel ballads in Bengali to bring musical recitation to the Lord’s service. He also wrote the first Sanskrit dictionary. In introducing the study of astronomy Carey undercut the “destructive cultural ramifications of astrology, which are: fatalism, superstitious fears, and the Indian inability to organize and manage time.” 3 Carey was an evangelist, preacher and church planter who revived the idea that ethics and morality were inseparable from religion, in contrast to what had been taught by the contemporary Hindus who believed it was possible to be intensely religious yet at the same time be unashamedly immoral. Carey became the central character in the modernization and reform of India, culminating in Indian nationalism and eventual independence.

At the beginning of the century the Second Great Awakening began in America. This led to the formation of numerous voluntary societies which became national organizations, such as the American Bible Society, the American Sunday School Union, the American Tract Society and others. One of their purposes was to bring the gospel to the American frontier through the printing of tracts, Bibles and Christian literature and the development of Christian education. During this early part of the century numerous institutions and colleges were formed to have a literate laity and an educated leadership. This renewed interest in the gospel spilled over into interest in seeing the gospel spread to the far reaches of the earth. In New England clipper ships were returning from trade and whaling in the Orient with tales of distant people and strange cultures. The religious press was also telling of the pioneering missionary work of William Carey in India. In 1810 a group of students at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts banded together to commit themselves to foreign mission service at a prayer meeting. This led to the founding of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a Congregational agency. In 1812 five of these students set sail from Salem, MA to India. The best known of them, Adoniram Judson, went on to Burma to pioneer the mission work there, despite great opposition and imprisonment for a time. Today the large Baptist movement among the Karen people of Burma traces its beginning to Judson’s work.

“During the whole eighteenth century only one Indian from British controlled areas was baptized.” 4 By the middle of the nineteenth century there were half a million Protestant believers in British India. In 1800 only about 2000 of the nearly 13,000 distinct ethno-linguistic peoples in the countries of the world had been reached with the gospel. From 1850 onwards the proportion of non-Caucasian Christians in the world has grown rapidly. By 1900 over 4100 of these people groups had received the gospel. This was a massive effort through a renewed vision and interest in seeing the gospel go to the ends of the earth. Today there are still about 3,500 people groups among whom there is still pioneer mission work to be done and among these “1,200 to 1,500 peoples have either no indigenous church at all or no residential cross-cultural team of missionaries seeking to reach them.”5 The vision and dedication of those thousands of pioneer missionaries who brought the gospel to Africa, South Asia and the Far East in the nineteenth century is still needed today. Will you be a part of God’s worldwide movement to fulfill his last command in this generation before the end shall come?

1. Quoted in Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America, second edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973), 157 2. Ruth & Vishal Mangalwadi, William Carey: A Tribute by an Indian Woman (New Delhi, India: Good Books, 1993), 22. 3. Ibid., 8. 4. Patrick Johnstone, The Church is Bigger Than You Think (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications/WEC, 1998), 61. 5. Ibid., 107.

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