From Foreign Foreign Missions to Mission to beyond Missions: The Historiography of American Protestant Foreign Missions since World War II

By Robert, Dana L. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October 1994 | Go to article overview

From Foreign Foreign Missions to Mission to beyond Missions: The Historiography of American Protestant Foreign Missions since World War II


Robert, Dana L., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


42. Grant Wacker, "Second Thoughts on the Great Commission: Liberal Protestants and Foreign Missions, 1890-1940," in Earthen Vessels, ed. Carpenter and Shenk, pp. 281-300.

43. See, for example, Allen V. Koop, American Evangelical Missionaries in France, 1945-1975 (Lanham, Md.: Univ. Press of America, 1986). Ralph Covell's Mission Impossible: The Unreached Nosu on China's Frontier (Pasadena, Calif.: Hope Publishing House, 1990) reflects one aspect of the work of Conservative Baptists in the 1940s.

44. David Sandgren, Christianity and the Kikuyu: Religious Divisions and In 1964, R. Pierce Beaver, professor of history of missions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, wrote From Missions to Mission. In his book, this eminent American mission historian reviewed the early part of the twentieth century and saw a Christianity that had ridden to success on the coattails of Euro-American imperialism and prestige. Two world wars, however, had demonstrated to growing nationalist movements in the developing world that Christianity was not part of a superior culture and that, furthermore, it was an agent of colonialism-Beaver went on to analyze the current climate for world missions, which included militant nationalism, urbanization, secularization, repudiation of the West, and revivals of non-Christian religions. To move forward in such a context, he said, missions must begin to cooperate among themselves and with younger, non-Western churches on behalf of Christ's mission. Beaver saw embodied in the World Council of Churches the beginning of new approaches to mission that would stress reconciliation over competition, and peace and justice issues alongside proclamation. Missions from the West should become a common worldwide enterprise; pluralism must give way to unity.

Beaver's small volume, its prescience notwithstanding, illustrates the danger of historians drawing on the past in order to predict the future. The ecumenical movement that Beaver touted as the source of new forms of mission had within ten years so modified the definition of mission that confusion over its meaning was widespread in mainline churches. When Beaver retired from the University of Chicago in 1971, his post was eliminated, a practice followed in numerous mainline institutions during the 1970s. "Foreign missions" had become "universal mission," only to evaporate into generalizations. Oddly enough, the North American evangelical missionaries whom Beaver described in 1964 as "sectarian and partisan," and as disrupting the unity of mission "for the first time in three hundred years", surpassed mainline missionaries in number and vigor. Today, with pluralism celebrated and competition among religions fierce, with nondenominational missions dwarfing the efforts of the old mainline, with indigenous Pentecostalism exploding in nooks and crannies around the world, the prospect for mission in the twenty-first century is dynamic and diverse but bears little resemblance to the top-down, unified witness Beaver envisioned in 1964. It is the thesis of this essay that we have moved from "mission" to "beyond missions."

The road from "missions" to "mission" and "beyond missions," traveled so painfully by American Protestantism since World War II, has been trod as well by the historians of North American missions. Mission history prior to World War II was largely a denominational affair, told from the perspective of efforts by individual denominations to spread their form of Christianity around the globe.(1) Beaver and other mission historians of the post-World War II generation envisioned the Protestant foreign mission enterprise through the lens of ecumenical unity. Similarly, American secular historians were captivated by an interpretation of Protestant missions as a symbol of American identity. Important to both secular and church historians was the transition from missions to mission, from a pluralistic enterprise to the symbol of either national or ecclesiastical cooperation.

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