Defining the Boundaries of Christendom: The Two Worlds of the World Missionary Conference, 1910

Article excerpt

"Edinburgh 1910" is remembered as the conference that set the course of the twentieth-century ecumenical movement. Its delegates spanned the theological spectrum of the non-Roman Catholic Western missionary enterprise. Catholic Anglicans and those who would soon be known as fundamentalists sat together in apparent harmony. But this united front had been created only after a period of intense controversy in the preparations for the conference. The arguments rehearsed in this controversy raised fundamental questions of enduring relevance: Is there any theological validity to concepts such as "Christendom" or "the Christian world," and, conversely, "the non-Christian world"? What are the goals of Christian mission when it is conducted within a traditionally Christian society? Most fundamental of all, how do we define Christian identity? Just what is a Christian?

The Edinburgh conference was originally designated as the Third Ecumenical Missionary Conference (the first two being in London in 1888 and New York in 1900). It would be "ecumenical" in the sense that it would include the whole human race in its scope and discuss "problems of supreme moment for the missionary future of the world." (1) The first of the eight preparatory commissions set up in July 1908 originally bore the title "Carrying the Gospel to all the World." (2) In September 1908 the title of the conference itself was changed to "World Missionary Conference, 1910" to avoid any misunderstanding arising from the fact that "the word 'Ecumenical' has acquired a technical meaning"--in other words, its modern meaning, associated with the very movement for church unity to which Edinburgh gave birth. (3)

Statistics: the Source of the Controversy

Formally, therefore, Edinburgh 1910 was originally summoned to discuss how the Gospel could be proclaimed to the whole world. In reality its scope was limited from the outset by a decision that representation should be confined to "Societies and Boards administering funds and sending out missionaries for the propagation of the Gospel among non-Christian peoples." In the case of societies that worked in part in "professedly Christian countries," only that portion of their income "expended on work among non-Christians" could be counted. (4) In September 1908 the first (American) meeting of Commission I, entrusted with the topic "Carrying the Gospel to All the World," accordingly ruled that its subcommittee on statistics should exclude "missionary work carried on on the Continent of Europe, with the exception of the Turkish Empire and southeastern Europe." (5) Even before the geographic scope of the conference became a bone of contention, the principle had been conceded that most of Europe should be excluded from its purview as being "Christian" territory. In practice, therefore, the conference was not to be about mission to the world but about mission from "Christendom" to "heathendom." There was no dispute that the two worlds could be differentiated on a territorial basis: the issue was where to draw the boundary.

On February 3, 1909, the British section of Commission I, known as the British Advisory Council, considered a letter from the American chairman of the commission, John R. Mott, to the British vice-chairman, George Robson. (6) At the meeting Bishop H. H. Montgomery, secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, asked a question regarding the brief that the commission had given to James S. Dennis's subcommittee on statistical survey, maps, and charts. Mott had written that Dennis would compile statistics on the same basis as for the New York Conference of 1900, which included South America, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey as Protestant mission fields. (7) Montgomery asked the meeting "whether missions of Protestant Bodies among Roman and Greek Churchmen were to be considered as coming within the province of the Conference, as Foreign Missions." No clear answer was forthcoming. …