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The Roman Catholic theologian and controversialist Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) may well have been the very first author to describe early Protestantism as a theological movement that was missionally deficient. Bellarmine argued that one of the marks of a true church is its continuity with the missionary passion of the Apostles. In his mind, Roman Catholicism’s missionary activity was indisputable, and this supplied a strong support for its claim to stand in solidarity with the Apostles. Bellarmine maintained:

In this one century the Catholics have converted many thousands of heathens in the new world. Every year a certain number of Jews are converted and baptized at Rome by Catholics who adhere in loyalty to the Bishop of Rome. . . . The Lutherans compare themselves to the apostles and the evangelists; yet though they have among them a very large number of Jews, and in Poland and Hungary have the Turks as their near neighbors, they have hardly converted so much as a handful.

This characterization, though, fails to account for the complexity of the historical context of the Reformation. First of all, to answer Bellarmine, in the earliest years of the Reformation none of the major Protestant bodies possessed significant naval and maritime resources to take the gospel outside the bounds of Europe. The kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, on the other hand, who were the acknowledged leaders among missions-sending regions at this time, had such resources aplenty. Moreover, the Roman Catholic missionary endeavors were often indistinguishable from imperialist ventures. It is noteworthy that other Roman Catholic nations of Europe such as Poland and Hungary also lacked seagoing capabilities and evidenced no more crosscultural missionary concern at that time than did Lutheran Saxony or Reformed Zürich. It is thus plainly wrong, Kenneth Stewart argues, to make the simplistic assertion that Roman Catholic nations were committed to overseas missions whereas no Protestant power was so committed.

It is also vital to recognize that, as Scott Hendrix has shown, the Reformation was the attempt to “make European culture more Christian than it had been. It was, if you will, an attempt to re-root faith, to re-christianize Europe.” In the eyes of the Reformers, this program involved two accompanying convictions. First, they considered what passed for Christianity in late-medieval Europe as sub-Christian at best and pagan at worst. John Calvin put it this way in his Reply to Sadoleto (1539):

The light of divine truth had been extinguished, the Word of God buried, the virtue of Christ left in profound oblivion, and the pastoral office subverted. Meanwhile, impiety so stalked abroad that almost no doctrine of religion was pure from admixture, no ceremony free from error, no part, however minute, of divine worship untarnished by superstition.

And in his Institutes of the Christian Religion he commented that in the churches of Europe,

Christ lies hidden, half buried, the gospel overthrown, piety scattered, the worship of God nearly wiped out. In them, briefly, everything is so confused that there we see the face of Babylon rather than that of the Holy City of God.

And so the Reformers did indeed view their task as a missionary one, for they were planting true Christian churches.

puritan missions

If we move into the seventeenth century, we see a similar missionary passion among the Puritans. Consider, for example, John Rogers (c. 1570–1636), whose extraordinary method of preaching earned him the sobriquet “Roaring Rogers” and who had an especially fruitful ministry in the Puritan parish of Dedham, Essex, from 1605 until his death thirty-one years later. Among his few published works was A Treatise of Love, which began as a series of sermons on 1 John 3:3. One of the marks of true love for God, Rogers asserted, is that it longs that others love God as well, and so seeks “to draw as many to God” as it can, “as Philip did Nathanael” (see John 1:44–46) and Andrew did Peter (see vv. 40–42). In fact, Christian love has a global reach, for it “reacheth to all, near and far, strangers, enemies, within and without the pale of the Church, Turks [i.e., Muslims] and pagans, we must pray for them, and do them any good if they come in our way.” In fact, Rogers explicitly urged his readers that

we must pray for the poor pagans, that God would send his light and truth among them, that they in time may be brought into the bosom of the Church, and the sheepfold of Christ Jesus.

Before the sending of God’s “light and truth” to “the poor pagans” came the prayers of countless Puritans like Rogers, prayers that provided the soil out of which the late-eighteenth-century missionary movement emerged.

The Reformers viewed their task as a missionary one, for they were planting true Christian churches.

In the days after the restoration of the British monarchy under Charles II, Puritan spirituality especially placed great emphasis on seeking the salvation of the lost. John Janeway (d. 1657) was, in the words of Dewey Wallace, “a paragon of soul winning.” Not long after his own conversion, he was earnestly seeking that of unsaved family members and fellow students at Cambridge, “desiring to carry as many of them as possibly he could along with him to Heaven.” Joseph Alleine (1634–68), whose Alarm to Unconverted Sinners (1672) was a best seller, considered going to China to preach the gospel. John Bunyan (1628–88), one of the great Puritan evangelists of the Restoration era, could describe his passion for the salvation of the lost in terms that both George Whitefield and John Wesley would have gladly owned:

My great desire in fulfilling my ministry, was, to get into the darkest places in the country, even amongst those people that were furthest off of profession; yet not because I could not endure the light (for I feared not to show my Gospel to any) but because I found my spirit learned most after awakening and converting work, and the Word that I carried did lean itself most that way; yea, so have I strived to preach the Gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man’s foundation, Rom. 15.20.

In my preaching I have really been in pain, and have as it were travelled [i.e., travailed] to bring forth children to God; neither could I be satisfied unless some fruits did appear in my work: if I were fruitless it matter’d not who commended me; but if I were fruitful, I cared not who did condemn. I have thought of that, He that winneth souls is wise, Prov. 11.30.

It pleased me nothing to see people drink in opinions if they seemed ignorant of Jesus Christ, and the worth of their own salvation, sound conviction for Sin, especially for unbelief, and an heart set on fire to be saved by Christ, with strong breathings after a truly sanctified soul: that was it that delighted me; those were the souls I counted blessed.

And the New England Puritan Cotton Mather (1663–1728) was convinced that prayer is vital for the advance of the gospel throughout the world. He stated in The Nets of Salvation (1704):

Praying for souls is a main stroke in the winning of souls. If once the Spirit of grace be poured out upon a soul, that soul is won immediately. . . . Yea, who can tell, how far the prayers of the saints, and of a few saints, may prevail with heaven to obtain that grace, that shall win whole peoples and kingdoms to serve the Lord? . . . It may be, the nations of the world, would quickly be won from the idolatries of paganism, and the impostures of Mahomet, if a Spirit of prayer, were at work among the people of God.

Granted, there were none in the Puritan era with an itinerant ministry comparable to that of George Whitefield, but this does not mean that the Puritans lacked a sense of mission.

“surely irish zion demands our prayers”

Of course, the great century for the explosion of Reformed missions was the late eighteenth century, when, in the wake of the evangelical revivals of that era, a number of crosscultural missionary societies were created. Among them was what came to be called the Baptist Missionary Society, whose very first missionary was the Calvinistic Baptist William Carey (1761–1834). Among Carey’s closest friends and supporters was Samuel Pearce (1766–99), not well known today but who in that day was regarded as a model of Reformed missionary piety.

Pearce longed to join Carey in India, but his usefulness in kindling missionary zeal among the English churches was deemed too significant, and so his friends encouraged him to stay in the British Isles. Pearce’s passion for the lost found outlet in other ways, though. In July 1795 he received an invitation from the General Evangelical Society in Dublin to come over and preach at a number of venues. He was not able to go until the following year, when he left Birmingham at 8 a.m. May 31. After traveling through Wales and taking passage on a ship from Holyhead, he landed in Dublin on Saturday afternoon, June 4. Pearce stayed with a Presbyterian elder by the name of Hutton, who was a member of a congregation pastored by a Dr. McDowell. Pearce preached for this congregation on a number of occasions, as well as for other congregations in the city, including the Baptists.

Baptist witness in Dublin went back to the Cromwellian era to 1653, when through the ministry of Thomas Patient (d. 1666), the first Calvinistic Baptist meetinghouse was built in Swift’s Alley. The church grew rapidly at first, and by 1725 this church had between 150 and 200 members. A new meetinghouse was put up in the 1730s. By the time that Pearce came to Ireland in 1796, though, the membership had declined to roughly forty members. Pearce’s impressions of the congregation were not too positive. In a letter he wrote to William Carey in August 1796, the month after his return to England, he told the missionary:

There were 10 Baptist societies in Ireland. They are now reduced to 6 and bid fair soon to be perfectly extinct. When I came to Dublin they had no meeting of any kind for religious purposes. . . . Indeed they were so dead to piety that, tho’ of their own denomination, I saw and knew less of them than of every other professors in the place.

This opinion does not appear to have dampened his zeal in preaching. A Dublin deacon wrote to a friend: “We have had a Jubilee for weeks. That blessed man of God, Samuel Pearce, has preached amongst us with great sweetness and much power.” And in a letter to a close friend in London, Pearce acknowledged:

Never have I been more deeply taught my own nothingness; never has the power of God more evidently rested upon me. The harvest here is great indeed; and the Lord of the harvest has enabled me to labor in it with delight.

This passionate concern for the advance of the gospel in Ireland is well captured in a sentence from one of his letters to his wife, Sarah. “Surely,” he wrote to her on June 24, “Irish Zion demands our prayers.”

“who can tell what god might do”

In the three remaining years of Pearce’s earthly life, he expended much of his energy in raising support for the cause of foreign missions. He informed Carey in the fall of 1797:

I can hardly refrain from repeating what I have so often told you before, that I long to meet you on earth and to join you in your labors of love among the poor dear heathens. Yes, would my Lord bid me so, I should with transport obey the summons and take a joyful farewell of the land that bare me, though it were for ever. But I must confess that the path of duty appears to me clearer than before to be at home, at least for the present. Not that I think my connexions in England a sufficient argument, but that I am somewhat necessary to the Mission itself, and shall be as long as money is wanted and our number of active friends does not increase. Brother Fuller and myself have the whole of the collecting business on our hands, and though there are many others about us who exceed me in grace and gifts, yet their other engagements forbid or their peculiar turn of mind disqualifies them for that kind of service. I wish, however, to be thankful if our dear Lord will but employ me as a foot in the body. I consider myself as united to the hands and eyes, and mouth, and heart, and all; and when the body rejoices, I have my share of gladness with the other members.

One of the meetings at which Pearce preached was the one that saw William Ward (1769–1823)—later to be an invaluable coworker of William Carey in India—accepted as a missionary with the Baptist Missionary Society. Those attending the meeting, which took place at Kettering on October 16, 1798, were deeply stirred by Pearce’s passion and concern for the advance of the gospel. When Ward wrote to Carey about the meeting, he told his future colleague that Pearce had “set the whole meeting in a flame. Had missionaries been needed, we might have had a cargo immediately.”

Returning to Birmingham from this meeting, Pearce was caught in a heavy downpour, was drenched to the skin, and subsequently developed a severe chill. Neglecting to rest and foolishly thinking what he called “pulpit sweats” would effect a cure, he continued a rigorous schedule of preaching at Cannon Street as well as in villages around Birmingham. His lungs became so inflamed that Pearce had to ask Ward to supply the Cannon Street pulpit for a few months during the winter of 1798–99. By mid-December 1798, Pearce could not converse for more than a few minutes without losing his breath. Yet still he was thinking of the salvation of the lost.

At this time, Great Britain and France were locked in the titanic Napoleonic War, which would last into the middle of the second decade of the next century. This war was the final and climactic episode in a struggle that had dominated the eighteenth century. France and Great Britain had fought each other in wars in every decade but one since the 1680s. Not surprisingly, there was little love lost between the British and the French. For example, Samuel Carter Hall (1800–1889), a man of letters, recalled one of his earliest memories as a young boy when his father would put him on his knee and give him three pieces of advice: “Be a good boy, love your mother, and hate the French!”

But Pearce was gripped by a far different passion from those that gripped many in Britain and France—his was the priority of the kingdom of Christ. Although Pearce was desperately ill, he wrote a letter to Carey telling him of his plans for a missionary journey to France. “I have been endeavouring for some years,” he wrote,

to get five of our Ministers to agree that they will apply themselves to the French language, . . . then we [for he was obviously intending to be one of the five] might spend two months annually in that country, and at least satisfy ourselves that Christianity was not lost in France for want of a fair experiment in its favor: and who can tell what God might do!

God would use British evangelicals, notably Pearce’s Baptist contemporary Robert Haldane (1764–1842), to take the gospel to French speakers on the Continent when peace eventually came, but Pearce’s anointed preaching would play no part in that great work. Yet his ardent prayers on behalf of the French could not have been without some effect. Prayers for the conversion of the unsaved are never lost.

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From the April 2022 Issue
Apr 2022 Issue