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In a 1739 sermon, published posthumously as A History of the Work of Redemption, Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) wrote:

It may be hoped that then many of the[m] will be divines, and that excellent books will be published in Africa, in Ethiopia, in Turkey—and not only very learned men, but others that are more ordinary men, shall then be very knowing in religion, Isaiah 32:3–4.

In this passage, Edwards clearly demonstrates a global interest in the “propagation of the gospel,” turning his attention to China, the East Indies, and South America as well. Edwards could not have foreseen the fulfillment of these words in the next century—the great century of Protestant missions. In fact, Edwards’ words and works would be carried around the globe to the encouragement of many missionaries, missionary societies, and mission publications endeavors.

Missionaries of the nineteenth century include well-known men and women, such as William Carey (1761–1834), the British missionary, Particular Baptist minister, translator, and social reformer who spent decades serving in India; Adoniram Judson (1788–1850), the American Congregationalist and later Baptist missionary who served in Burma for thirty-seven years; Hudson Taylor (1832–1905), the British missionary to China for more than fifty years and founder of the China Inland Mission (1865); Lottie Moon (1840–1912), the Southern Baptist missionary to China with the Foreign Mission Board who spent nearly forty years of her life working in China; and Amy Carmichael (1867–1951), Presbyterian evangelical missionary for the Anglican Church Missionary Society to India who opened an orphanage and founded a mission in Dohnavur, serving India for fifty-five years. Their commitment to the gospel, missions work, and the countries they served is moving, and it has motivated many to follow in their footsteps.

But what about the hundreds of missionaries whose names haven been forgotten? These include men such as the Frenchmen Eugène Casalis (1812–91), Thomas Arbousset (1810–77), and Adolphe Mabille (1836–94) in the service of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society (PEMS) to Basutoland, today the Kingdom of Lesotho. They worked tiresomely for more than sixty years combined as translators of the first Bible in the Sesotho language, writing the first English-Sesotho Oxford-published dictionary. They were founders of elementary schools, a theological seminary (Morija Theological Seminary), a newspaper (Leselinyana la Basotho, “The Small Light of the Basotho”), a book press, an indigenous church (Lesotho Evangelical Church), and a self-propagating movement, and ultimately they laid the groundwork for a nation, which is still going strong today. There is Mary Slessor (1848–1915), the Scottish Presbyterian missionary to Nigeria who promoted women’s rights and protected native children while spreading the gospel. There is William Whiting Borden (1887–1913), a Yale graduate who studied under J. Gresham Machen at Princeton Theological Seminary. Borden was a wealthy philanthropist and missionary candidate who died in Egypt en route to the Gansu province in China to work among the Muslims. He is interred at the American Cemetery in Cairo, next to Dr. Andrew Watson, who served for more than fifty years at the American Presbyterian mission station in the Middle East, alongside the more well-known Samuel Zwemer (1867–1952), the “Apostle to Islam.” Furthermore, what about the many neglected educators, administrators, and organizers of local mission stations? These include men such as Christian Wallmann (1811–65) of the Rhenish Missionary Society (1799) and Hans Peter Hallbeck (1784–1840), the Swedish-born Moravian missionary who worked in the Valley of Grace of the Cape region in South Africa.

It is important to note that nineteenth-century evangelical missionary societies were major disseminators of gospel missions work and religious literature.

In one way or another, these men and women followed God’s call through prayer, revival, and missionary societies. For example, the Scottish awakenings of the 1790s were partially prompted when John Erskine (1720–1803) republished in 1784 Edwards’ Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom (1747) to promote revival prayer. The Scottish evangelical revival, furthermore, was the impetus not only to the founding of Scottish Missionary Society (1796), but it also showed the important coexistence of missionary societies and publications of religious works in the service of missions work at home and abroad. As such, it is important to note that nineteenth-century evangelical missionary societies were major disseminators of gospel missions work and religious literature.

Illustrative is the republication, translation, and distribution of Edwards’ A History of the Work of Redemption. The British-based Religious Tract Society (1799) reprinted the book multiple times. The organizers of this tract society belonged to the same group of evangelicals that founded the London Missionary Society (1795). The latter provided book allowances to their overseas missionaries, such as the catechist George Gogerly, who established a library with ten books in India, three of which were works by Edwards and included A History of the Work of Redemption. Moreover, the American Tract Society (1825) published and distributed between 1838 and 1875 more than sixty thousand copies of the book. The society supported missionary printing houses such as the American Mission Press in Beirut. The translation of the book in Dutch (1776), furthermore, reflected the growing mission consciousness in the Dutch Republic that contributed to the founding of the Dutch Missionary Society (1797). As the First Great Awakening of the eighteenth century gave rise to missions endeavors, so the revivals in Scotland and the Second Great Awakening in America gave rise to the founding of numerous voluntary societies in the service of missions. Finally, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (1810) contributed to the Arabic edition of A History of the Work of Redemption (1863), published in Beirut and distributed throughout the Middle East from Cairo.


These missions endeavors of the English-speaking world were mirrored by their French counterparts. The founders of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society became involved in establishing the Religious Society of Books (1836) for the distribution of religious publications. Works by Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, John Calvin, J.C. Ryle, and Charles Spurgeon were translated into French, published, and distributed in France and in places such as Lesotho and Oceania. As such, the Religious Society of Books was solely responsible for the translation of A History of the Work of Redemption in French (1854). Its publication, though, was in the context of the French revival movement and the founding of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society (1821), whose motto and aim was “Not where Christ was named” (Rom. 15:20). Edwards’ works were not unfamiliar to missionaries and missionary societies in early nineteenth-century France. The preface of the 1823 French translation of Humble Attempt demonstrates a historical awareness of the Scottish revival of the late 1800s, so influential to the rise of missions work and missionary societies.

These endeavors of gospel proclamation and publication of many works of “evangelical revival” by missionary societies, and through its practice of Bible translation, characteristically makes “the recipient culture the true and final locus of the proclamation, so that the religion arrives without the presumption of cultural rejection,” as Lamin Sanneh said. The ambiguous relationship to European colonialism of these missionary societies—and missionaries, thereby—must not be overlooked, however. And so, the adventurous character of the missionaries cannot go unnoticed. For instance,Carey’s reading of Edwards’ The Life of David Brainerd, together with the journals of the explorer James Cook gave rise to his deep concern of gospel propagation and proclamation. This deep concern was ecumenical, as expressed in an inaugural sermon at the founding ceremony of the London Missionary Society: “Our design is not to send Presbyterianism, Independency, Episcopacy, or any other form of Church Order and Government . . . but [to send] the Glorious Gospel of the blessed God [abroad].” Many missionary societies would echo this sentiment, which at times created strenuous relationships with the established church.

While Carey shared his burden for missions work, he was reminded by Dr. John Ryland, “Young man, sit down; when God is pleased to convert the heathen world, He will do it without your help or mine.” It was Andrew Fuller (1754–1815), a fervent promoter of missionary work and cofounder of the Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Heathen (1792), however, who encouraged Carey and recommended him to pursue his calling, with the result that the “father of modern missions” was convinced to say: “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” When the Reformed Church in America was initially reluctant to support the seminarians Zwemer and James Cantine (1861–1940), they founded the American Arabian Mission, “organized 1889, undenominational.” However, the driving force of Zwemer’s missiology was his all-encompassing vision of God, that God has created the entire world that it should be, as John Calvin said, the “theater of his glory by the spread of his Gospel,” and “the chief end of missions is not the salvation of men but the glory of God”—a thought shared by many in the heyday of nineteenth-century Protestant missions.

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From the May 2019 Issue
May 2019 Issue