The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910: Challenges for Church and Theology in the Twenty-First Century

By Phan, Peter C. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2010 | Go to article overview

The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910: Challenges for Church and Theology in the Twenty-First Century


Phan, Peter C., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


What follows is neither a detailed review of Brian Stanley's The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910 nor a full assessment of the legacy of the same conference. (1) Rather, highlighting some of the more notable achievements of Stanley's book and taking a cue from it, I discuss some of the issues debated at the Edinburgh conference that in my judgment continue to present enormous challenges to Christian mission and theology, especially in Asia, a hundred years later.

The centenary of the World Missionary Conference has spawned a plethora of research and commemorative celebrations in both church and academy. (2) Among historical studies, Stanley's volume unquestionably stands out as preeminent, with its comprehensive scope, painstaking scholarship, and elegant style. Without burdensome details, it offers a rich and fascinating account of the origins, preparations, and proceedings of the conference, which was held June 14-23, 1910, in the Assembly Hall of the United Free Church of Scotland on the Mound, Edinburgh (chaps. 2 and 4). The narrative unveils the behind-the-scenes ecclesiastical maneuvering by the conference's secretary, Joseph H. Oldham, in his effort to secure the participation of the Church of England, thereby lending a measure of ecumenicity to the conference (chap. 3). It also foregrounds the superb managerial skills of the conference chairman, John R. Mott, in his successful effort to win the delegates' approval for the establishment of the Continuation Committee (chap. 10). In Stanley's hands the conference participants come alive, brimming with boundless optimism, infectious enthusiasm, and deep spirituality, confident that they were making history as they laid the foundations for the imminent conversion of the heathen world by means of Christian mission. In addition to being a treasure trove of fascinating historical information, Stanley's book also deftly blends historical scholarship with wide theological knowledge to offer an astute theological interpretation of the Protestant missionary movement. In so doing, he paints an enlightening panorama of the nineteenth-century Protestant missiology that undergirded Protestant mission at its apex.

The stated aim of the World Missionary Conference was, in W. H. Findlay's words, "to be a Grand Council for the Advancement of Missionary Science" (p. 4). The conference's intent was thus deeply, albeit not exclusively, theological, or more precisely, missiological. This theology of mission was elaborated in the plenary discussions of the written reports of the eight commissions, each with a distinct theme, during the ten-day conference. Stanley has wisely decided not to write a commentary on each of the commissions--that would be unbearably tedious. Instead he focuses on some of the most challenging issues raised by the questionnaire responses and the eight commission reports. These include the building up of the churches in mission fields (chap. 6), mission education (chap. 7), the relationship between Christian mission and non-Christian religions (chap. 8), relations between Western missionaries and colonial governments (chap. 9), and missionary cooperation (chap. 10). Stanley concludes his book with a discussion of the legacy of Edinburgh 1910 and its impact on subsequent missionary practice, especially through the work of its Continuation Committee, in seven areas: the geographic division of the world into Christian and non-Christian, the concept of race and culture, the pursuit of church union, the role of women in mission, missionary study and training, cooperation among mission organizations, and ecumenical unity (chap. 11).

All of these seven themes have of course received extensive attention since the World Missionary Conference. Even after a century of lively debate, however, a consensus on any of these issues has yet to emerge. Indeed, controversies and sharp theological differences seem to be the order of the day, perhaps much more so now than in the days of the Edinburgh conference, often within the same church.

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