This week I began teaching a five-part Sunday school class on the history of the Protestant missionary movement. In preparing for this class, I came across the book The Great Commission: Evangelicals and the History of World Missions by Martin Klauber and Scott Mantsch. The book is written in layman’s terms and combines the best of evangelical scholarship with stories that captivate both the heart and the head (not something many history books accomplish). As usual, I am learning a lot and am enjoying the prep time almost as much as I am enjoying teaching the class. For the next few weeks, I thought that I would share some of these great stories, anecdotes and interesting facts. As a person dedicated to using the written word to spread the truth of the gospel around the world, I am fascinated by the many times that documents, books, tracts and of course the Bible played a crucial role in the history of missions. This week I will focus on events from the Puritan and Pietist Era.
People have been motivated by many things over the years to serve as missionaries and to take the good news of the gospel to other lands. Among the many motives for colonizing New England, the Puritans included the following statement in the Massachusetts Bay Charter: “To wynn and incite the Natives of that Country to the Knowledge and Obedience of the onlie true God and Savior of Mankinde as the principall Ende of this plantation.” Given the living conditions that the Puritans faced during their first years in the new world, this intention ended up taking somewhat of a back seat. Some even preferred a “simply shine” strategy to draw the natives to the gospel by the settlers’ godly comportment. Not until others in the 1640s repented of this approach did any real work of intentionally sharing the gospel with the native Americans really start.
John Elliott (1604–1690)
John Elliott was reported to have received his first sense of calling to missionary work among the Native Americans from the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Company (see above), which had an image of a native echoing the Macedonian’s plea to “come over and help us.” Elliott’s zeal for the work led to his learning the Algonquin language and eventually translating the Bible into what was until that time an unwritten language. This was the first time that the Bible had been translated into an unwritten language since the fourth century. The work took him fourteen years and was completed in 1663. John was criticized for many things, including his promotion and establishment of praying towns in which the Native Americans could be civilized before they were Christianized and for his failure to insist that settlers actually live in the new praying towns alongside these new converts to Christianity. With that said, his work to learn the Algonquin language, translate the Bible into that language and then teach the people to read the Scripture was admirable. It was the precursor to many modern missionary efforts, especially those of Wycliffe Bible Translators.
David Brainerd (1718 –1747)
David was the inspiration for generations of future missionaries. He was a promising student at Yale and not far from graduation when he was expelled for making the indiscreet remark that “his tutor had no more grace than a chair.” Having been expelled, his hopes for a pastoral post were lost, and he turned to work with the Native Americans in Western Massachusetts and New Jersey. Preaching during the era of the First Great Awakening, he approached his task from the perspective of the oft quoted statement from his diary, that he “wanted to burn out in one continual flame for God.” Unfortunately, he died at the very young age of twenty-nine in the home of Jonathan Edwards and left very little behind except his diary. This diary detailed Brainerd’s work and his philosophy that living a faithful and sacrificial life was more important than living a “fruitful” life. In a great irony, the publication of that diary led to many other young people committing to a life of sacrifice that ultimately led to much fruit in the centuries after. It is said that many a novice missionary of that era left for service overseas with a Bible and Brainerd (referring to the diary).
The Moravians were arguably the most successful missionary organization of the eighteenth century. Founded by Count Zinzendorf on his estate in Saxony, Germany, the settlement that soon came to be known as Herrnhut sent out more missionaries to various parts of the world than any other entity at that time, with the possible exception of the Catholic church. Before William Carey ever set sail for India in 1792, the Moravians saw nearly fifteen thousand people come to faith in Christ around the world in far-flung places, many of them difficult to reach. One part of their strategy evolved almost by accident and is best told in the words of the authors of the book I recommended above:
The practices of the Moravian missionaries did not always conform to Moravian mission strategy, however. Many missionaries demonstrated remarkable perseverance even when ready-ripened fruit was not apparent. This was the case in their mission to Greenland, which began in 1733. The icy climate seemed mirrored in the Eskimo hearts, and in five years the missionaries still had not a single sheaf of first fruits to show for their troubles. A final breakthrough did come, and in a manner that helped clarify what became the distinctive of the Moravian way. One of the missionaries was busily translating a passage from the Gospels when some Eskimos asked him what he was doing. He proceeded to explain, but then stopped, picked up the manuscript and began to read aloud—it was Matthew’s account of Christ’s agony upon the cross. The Greenlanders listened transfixed. Previously, the missionaries had discoursed about the fall of man and the plan of salvation, and their hearers had merely wondered, but through the bare recounting of Gethsemane and Golgotha, they wept. It was the first fruits of Greenland. “Henceforth,” concluded the missionaries, “we shall preach nothing but the love of the slaughtered lamb.” (p. 43)
As I think about the legacy of those who have gone before me in this great missionary adventure, I am more convicted than ever that written words change lives. Time and time again God has used the feeble efforts of sacrificial and imperfect people to translate, print, publish and distribute His Word. These efforts have resulted in untold millions of people coming into the kingdom and having their lives transformed. As a small link in this chain, I look forward to seeing how God will use the written word in printed and digital forms to draw people to Himself and transform lives in my generation.