My study over these past few weeks of the early history of the Protestant missionary movement led me to a delightful discovery that I wanted to share in this week’s blog: Christian books were actually best sellers long before The Purpose Driven Life came along.
Contrary to the widely accepted view of the church today that taking the gospel to the ends of the earth is not only “the Great Commission” but a responsibility of every believer, the church in the late 1700s held no such perspective. The standard view of the church at that time was that Jesus had given the original missionary commandment to His apostles and their immediate successors and that it was no longer binding on the contemporary church. This was the reality that an early pioneer like William Carey faced when he proposed “the duty of Christians to attempt the spread of the Gospel among the heathen nations” as a topic of discussion at a local ministers’ gathering. Not surprisingly, in response to this suggestion, John Ryland Sr. is reported to have said the following: “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine.” Interestingly, even Martin Luther held similar views and went on record in 1651 in Wittenberg affirming that Jesus’ command to evangelize the nations had been a special assignment restricted to His apostles accompanied by “special, immediate, extraordinary gifts” that had long since been exhausted in the history of the church.
To their credit many of the early missionary pioneers chose to take the time to pray, reflect and then write down their strongly held views that this was not in fact what the Bible was saying and that there was not a statute of limitations to the Great Commission. This writing coincided with the opportunity of mass producing printed tracts and books inexpensively. God in His providence enabled their missionary zeal to become widely read about through books that were best sellers in their time. Jonathan Edwards is widely credited in starting this explosion of interest in missionary stories with the publication of An Account of the Life of the Late Reverend David Brainerd. This book was one of the few that William Carey took with him on board his ship to India, and it had an impact on missionaries for generations to come.
Some of the books that were written did not have simple titles, and it is hard to believe that they sold as well as they did and were read as widely as they were. One of Jonathan Edwards’ seminal books on the topic of missions was entitled An Humble Attempt to Promote an Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People Through the World, in Extraordinary Prayer, for the Revival of Religion, and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, Pursuant to Scripture-promises and Prophecies Concerning the Last Time. I had take a breath twice while trying to reading this title out loud myself. In spite of these lengthy titles, God moved in the hearts of many of His people and motivated them for lives of foreign missionary service because of these books.
One book that was particularly used of God to motivate others was written by William Carey himself. After ten years of reading, research and study, he produced a book entitled An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of Heathens. The book’s centerpiece was a survey of “the present state of the world” divided by continent, country and religion and was the forerunner of the World Christian Encyclopedia. Carey did not, however, just present cold facts, but he wrote the book in such a way that it was a trumpet call to action. He challenged fellow Christians to “exert themselves to the utmost” in fulfilling the Great Commission. He dealt with many of the common objections to missionary service that are in some cases still issues today like the distance, danger and difficulty of working in a foreign country. He was both idealistic in his absolute commitment and realistic in his practical suggestions for effective missionary service. He took the view that the missionary is not “simply to trust the Lord,” but must also know how to “cultivate a little spot of ground.” He suggested that a missionary should know something about husbandry, fishing and fowling, and that husbands and wives should be sent together so that they would form a community of mutual support and care. Above all, he felt that missionaries should be people “of great piety, prudence, courage, and forbearance.”
As I read about these saints of old who have gone on before me, I am awestruck at their complete commitment to seeing the great commission fulfilled and the way they used the technology of their day—books—to promote this cause so effectively. Though many people were compelled to lives of missionary service by these books, many others were convicted of their need to pray for these ventures, and others were prompted to give financially to make these far-flung adventures possible. What is most striking to me about these people, however, is not just that they were widely read and successful authors, but that in many cases they gave their all for the gospel and died on the mission field. As has been well documented, many packed their belongings in boxes the size of their body so that they could be used as coffins, not expecting to ever return to their home countries. I pray that my missionary zeal and commitment would be one tenth of that of these pioneers—people who paved the way for my generation to share the gospel through tools like the Internet and mobile phones. To God be the glory.