Naïve, pious, overly zealous barriers of Western civilization who disrupted the happy lives of peaceful primitive peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific islands: this has long been the stereotype of missionaries. And it is unjust. To be sure, some missionaries were imperious, self-centered, and unresponsive to the concerns of those among whom they ministered, and few could completely throw off the fetters of the Western culture in which they were nurtured. But this does not discredit the whole enterprise.

Many of these heroes of the faith stood for social justice, fought against inhuman practices in traditional societies, and resisted the worst features of advancing European imperialism. A careful survey of their efforts on behalf of suffering people would undoubtedly challenge us to reexamine our own level of commitment and effectiveness. I want to offer some illustrations of this and to suggest possibilities for fruitful research in the area of missions and social concern. The after-effects of the fundamentalist vs. modernist and personal evangelism vs. social gospel controversies have clouded evangelicals’ understanding of their heritage. The rediscovery of the vital roles played by the Methodists in both Britain and America, the Pietists in Germany, and the English evangelicals in confronting and curing societal ills in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has strengthened the self-confidence of modern-day evangelicals. Other examples of faith in action would be likely to continue this healthful process.

In a three-volume study made at the turn of the century, Christian Missions and Social Progress (1897–1906), James S. Dennis declared that Christianity was a “supreme force in the social regeneration and elevation of the human race.” He then singled out no fewer than forty-nine evils and described various ways in which missions were combatting these. Although Dennis’s work is quite dated and greatly overemphasizes Western cultural values, all in all it is an impressive catalogue of the social benefits that the Christian Gospel brought to people in all parts of the world.

Dennis’s approach was that of studying the impact of Christianity on specific social problems. Another way of looking at the matter is to analyze the effect missions had upon a particular geographical area, as is done by Kenneth I. Ingham in Reformers in India, 1793–1833 and by Robert L. Daniel in American Philanthropy in the Near East, 1820–1960. A third option is to concentrate on individual missionaries and evaluate their achievements in meeting human needs. Whatever approach is taken, the investigator will uncover a tremendous record of compassion and concern in the lives of these servants of Christ. Many shortcomings and failures are there, too, of course; these serve to remind us of the pervasiveness of sin and of the need for a continual review of our methods of proclaiming the Gospel.

Article continues below

In the Indian subcontinent the growth of modern nationalism owes more to the formative influences of Christian missions than many people nowadays realize or would care to admit. The Christian achievement prepared the way for the indigenous movement of social progress.

For one thing, missions made possible social and economic advance of lower-caste people. In an article entitled “Christianity and Society in South India 1840–1860” (Journal of Religious History, June 1972), Malcolm Prentis shows that “mission education and Christian norms were calculated to give lowly people a sense of their worth.” The rural lower castes in South India were awakened to an awareness of their own state of subjection, and they were encouraged to seek dignity and to better themselves socially and economically. The missionaries were the first to call the caste system into question by pointing out its manifold evils. They believed that its more harmful effects could be rooted out. By showing that the system was not unassailable, they encouraged the Indian people to develop a critical approach to the implications of caste.

Another problem area was great religious festivals that had a dehumanizing effect on Indian life. The missionary groups pressured the British East India Company to cease permitting the collection of taxes to support Hindu festivals. They drew attention to the barbarous nature of some of these ceremonies and the enormous suffering that resulted when great masses of pilgrims converged on a holy place. In particular they denounced the annual festival at Orissa, where dozens of people would be killed under the wheels of the huge cart carrying the idol of Juggernaut (Jaggannath). Eventually the company’s board of control agreed to dissociate itself from any sort of assistance to the Indian religions.

One of the cruelest practices was that of sati (suttee), burning a widow alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. It was essentially a voluntary act, the woman believing that only by self-immolation could she win eternal happiness and bring blessing to the family. Faced with a company administration that was indifferent to the matter, the missionaries set out first to prove that Hindu law did not require sati and then to develop conclusive grounds for abolishing it. The Baptists collected facts about sati and sent these to their allies in England, while an Anglican, Claudius Buchanan, submitted a sensational report in 1813 asserting that some 10,000 immolations of widows occurred annually. William Wilberforce presented this information to the House of Commons in a speech on the renewal of the East India Company’s charter, and he included in the printed record a gruesome description of sati.

Article continues below

In the next few years the missionary organs continued to publish hair-raising accounts of widow burnings, and it became increasingly a topic of discussion in the Parliament. The governors-general dragged their feet on the issue, but finally in 1829 the company yielded to the sustained pressure of the missionary lobby and formally banned sati in British India. Both in India and England, the missionaries prepared the way for the ban.

Education too was primarily a Christian endeavor in the early days of the British involvement in India. Both in quality and in numbers the missionary schools far surpassed the government schools. In the schools that the government did sponsor (especially in higher education), most of the teachers were missionaries and evangelical clergy.

In their own schools the missionaries strove to provide education at all levels. In some areas they trained not only children but adults also. To insure an adequate supply of textbooks and other reading matter they set up printing presses. The missionaries provided the educational standards and models for the government schools. These grew in number as funds eventually became available; yet in 1852 there were still four times as many pupils in mission schools as in government ones.

In various ways the extension of Christianity undermined the traditional mores of India, created the basis for a more humane social order, and laid the groundwork for an Indian national consciousness. The mission schools were opened to girls despite fierce opposition from their male parents. At first only girls from the lower orders actually attended. But as more women were trained as teachers, the opportunity for higher-caste girls to obtain an education improved.

Bible-translation projects brought about the reduction of vernacular languages to writing and opened the way for the linguistic development of these tongues. Before long, school books, prose literature, and even newspapers became available in the various vernaculars. Those who went to schools of higher education had to learn English; this enabled them to gain an introduction to European knowledge and to political ideas. Moreover, the missionaries brought the rudiments of medical science and helped to improve agriculture. Both of these developments meant a rise in living standards for many Indians.

Article continues below

After surveying the contributions of the mission enterprise to India’s historical development, Kenneth Ingham (Reformers in India, 1793–1833) concludes that this external force provided the impetus for social reform in the subcontinent similar to that supplied in early nineteenth-century England by prominent philanthropists and voluntary societies. In both places the government came to recognize the importance of the new movements and to assume responsibility for their further development. As Indians themselves came to play an increasingly more prominent role in these reform endeavors, says Ingham, the work of the missionaries could be said to have matured.

The second approach to studying the social impact of missions, an investigation of how missionaries coped with a specific social problem, can well be used in the matter of the struggle against the enslavement and exploitation of Negroes. Let us single out two people for closer scrutiny, Dr. John Philip in South Africa and William Knibb in Jamaica. Both were very active on this front in the 1820s and 1830s.

Philip, a Scot, left a successful pastorate to enter the service of the London Missionary Society in South Africa and in 1820 was appointed superintendent of the agency’s work there. Shocked by the mistreatment of the aboriginal population at the Cape of Good Hope, he turned his society’s stations into “cities of refuge” for Hottentots where they could be safe from intimidation and mishandling by white settlers. In addition he worked to obtain acceptance of the so-called treaty system whereby chiefs in the border regions of the Cape Colony would be recognized as independent rulers, and white traders and farmers theoretically would be excluded from these districts.

Philip repeatedly spoke out against white oppression and exploitation of blacks at the Cape. In 1828 he published his landmark work Researches in South Africa, which deeply influenced opinion in Britain as well as in the colony. He portrayed the injustices suffered by the Africans, asserted blacks were by nature equals of whites, and urged that they be given the same opportunities as the Europeans so they could progress normally. His humanitarian agitation finally bore fruit when in 1828 the Cape authorities issued Ordinance 50, which guaranteed people of color the same legal rights as the white colonists and permitted the Hottentots to give or withhold labor as they pleased.

Article continues below

Philip was bitterly accused by his white contemporaries in South Africa of devoting too much attention to political matters and not enough to religious ones, but later historians have judged him more positively. W. M. Macmillan wrote in The Cape Colour Question (1927) that “Dr. Philip was the principal means of vindicating and gaining acceptance for the enlightened principles which underlie the advance towards political and social freedom in the Cape Colony before 1853.”

Similarly, the Baptist missionary William Knibb vigorously championed the rights of blacks in Jamaica. After witnessing the misery of the plantation slaves, he came to regard evangelization and emancipation as inseparable and determined he would never leave until all the slaves were free. The white residents tried to intimidate Knibb by charging him with rebellion and dragging him around in public handcuffed. Angry planters even burned down his churches and in 1832 finally drove him off the island.

When he got back to England, Knibb immediately plunged into the campaign for slave liberation. He traveled about the country lecturing against slavery and stirred the British populace to righteous indignation. He also engaged in a number of public debates with a speaker hired by the proslavery West Indian Committee, and testified before several parliamentary committees about the nature of servitude in the Caribbean colonies. After the Emancipation Act was passed in 1833, Knibb returned to his labors in Jamaica and soon became involved in a successful struggle to eliminate the apprenticeship system, which in effect kept blacks in a modified form of slavery. Both Philip and Knibb had a deep Christian compassion for the black people who were the victims of British imperialism, and they put their faith into action by working to counteract the abuses perpetrated by white colonists.

Many missionaries could be singled out as examples of selfless service on behalf of others. One of the most inspiring stories is that of Mary Slessor, a devout woman from Scotland who spent her adult life in the district of Calabar in Nigeria. From the moment she arrived on the field in 1876, her passion was to preach the love of Christ. By brilliantly mastering the local language, she was able to establish a remarkable relationship with the people, and her biographer notes that they found her to be different from other missionaries.

Article continues below

“She would enter their townships as one of themselves, show them in a moment that she was mistress of their thoughts and ways, and get right into their confidence. Always carrying medicine, she attended the sick, and so many maimed and diseased crowded to her that she would lose the tide twice over. In her opinion no preaching surpassed these patient, intimate interviews on the banks of the river and by the wayside, when she listened to tales of suffering and sorrow and gave sympathy and practical help” (W. P. Livingstone, Mary Slessor of Calabar, 1916, Hodder and Stoughton, p. 38).

Her accomplishments were legendary. She strove to eliminate the superstitions and inhuman practices engendered by traditional religious beliefs, such as the murder of twins, trial by ordeal, and human sacrifice to atone for accidents that had befallen the community. Some of the strong-willed chiefs in the region used her to arbitrate disputes. To help the local inhabitants in economic development she worked to arrange more extensive trading connections between the interior and coastal areas.

When British rule finally was imposed upon the territory, she convinced the colonial authorities that the Calabar people were not ready for the sudden introduction of the new order and that serious difficulties would arise if an outside administrative official was appointed. Accordingly, in 1891 she was named to the position of vice-counsul, the first woman in the history of the British Empire to hold that rank. In a quiet, unobtrusive manner she organized an African court and coordinated the tribal customs with the new British law. Livingstone remarks in his biography of her, “although she rendered great services in this way, creating public opinion, establishing just laws, and protecting the poor, it was a work she did not like, and she accepted it because she thought it in line with her allegiance to Christ.”

Although Mary Slessor was the person who set in motion the long process of modernization, she regarded her real task as winning the people for Christ, and all her efforts were directed toward that end. Her tender sense of concern for the people among whom she ministered made her a winsome person, and her tough constitution, cool nerve, and utter disregard of personal comfort enabled her to be a powerful influence in the advance of Christianity in that part of Africa.

Article continues below

Another remarkable personality was Timothy Richard, a Welshman who went to China in 1869 and served under the Baptist Missionary Society. He was convinced that the Chinese would be won only if the Christian message was tailored to their cultural context, and so he adopted a Chinese life-style and entered into dialogue with prominent figures from the scholar-official elite.

In 1876 the worst famine in modern Chinese history set in. Within three years it had claimed over nine million lives in North China. Richard realized that neither voluntary philanthropy nor the minimal relief efforts being carried out by the regime could cope with the situation. He devised a more systematic approach to famine relief that involved the immediate funneling of aid from distant sources and a long-range program of economic development to eliminate the causes of such disasters. He personally supervised aid efforts in Shantung and Shansi provinces and worked with colleagues in the other mission societies to secure help from other parts of China and abroad. It has been estimated that he personally rescued as many as 70,000 people from death by starvation in 1876–77.

Richard inseparably linked evangelism with his relief operations; through humanitarian good works Christianity was convincingly presented as superior to the traditional Chinese religious views. He distributed Scripture portions and Christian literature, conducted Bible classes, and organized Christian communities in those places where he labored. Historian Paul Bohr accurately gauges the motivation of Richard and other missionaries in North China when he says:

“Missionary participation in the relief of the Great Famine was motivated by a deep sense of Christian love and disinterested benevolence for the Chinese neighbor. Compassion for the physical wretchedness wrought by the famine catastrophe inspired a broad ecumenical effort on the part of Protestant missionaries in North China to perform good works aimed at assisting the starving populace at great risk to their own lives” (Famine in China and the Missionary, Harvard University, 1972, p. 119).

Richard did not stop here. Because he felt the causes of famine were primarily economic, he suggested some innovations that clearly required basic structural change. In effect he provided the Chinese authorities with a full-fledged program of modernization. While his goal continued to be the spiritual rebirth of the Chinese, Richard regarded political, economic, and educational reform as vital. His view was that the blessings of modern technology undergirded by the moral regeneration that only Christianity could produce would bring genuine progress to China. He spent his later years publicizing these reform ideas and striving to sell them to Chinese officials and intellectuals. Unfortunately, the vision of modernization was to be picked up by a later generation of Chinese who discarded the Christian dimension so forcefully articulated by Timothy Richard and adopted instead a new spiritual framework—Marxism.

Article continues below

Christian missions rightly understood minister to the totality of human existence, and the history of the modern missionary movement abounds with accounts of servants of Christ who acted upon that premise. Let us give thanks for them and be encouraged by their achievements as we seek to do our Father’s business in the world today.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.