The First Globalization: The Internationalization of the Protestant Missionary Movement between the World Wars

By Robert, Dana L. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2002 | Go to article overview

The First Globalization: The Internationalization of the Protestant Missionary Movement between the World Wars


Robert, Dana L., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


The global vision intrinsic to Christianity--one world, one kingdom of God under Jesus Christ--has been the motive and purpose behind much missionary fervor. Driven by this idealistic vision, the mission of the church nevertheless has been conducted within human history. Modern missions emerged in the context of the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and the subsequent expansion of capitalism and modernization. With its internal logic of universalism, or catholicity, (1) Christian mission of necessity finds itself in dialogue with the secular globalizing tendency of the historical moment--whether European expansionism, Western capitalism, or the World Wide Web. (2)

The Anglo-American Protestant missionary movement of the 1920s and 1930s functioned within the globalizing discourse of "internationalism"--a moral vision of one world that emerged after the horrors of World War I and stemmed from the idealism of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. Internationalism launched a massive pacifist movement, brought into being the League of Nations and the World Court, and established the idea of the right of self-determination for all peoples. (3) Important sectors of the Protestant missionary movement embraced internationalism--they helped shape it, participated in it, and defended and critiqued it at a grassroots level. In their most optimistic phase during the 1920s, mission advocates were accused of confusing internationalism with the kingdom of God. Particularly in North American mainline Protestant churches it became difficult to distinguish internationalism from the mission impulse itself.

Although internationalism was central to mainline Protestant missions in the 1920s and 1930s, scholars have not used it as an interpretive framework for the missionary issues of the era. Many have preferred to interpret the interwar period in light of the Kraemer/Hocking debate or in relation to the tension between evangelistic and social gospel approaches to missions. This essay explores the relationship between internationalism and indigenization in the mission movement between the world wars, with primary reference to a North American conversation. I hope to demonstrate that internationalism and indigenization were two sides of the same coin.

The globalizing vision of one world stood in tension with the cultural particularities that emerged in relationship to the global context itself. Internationalism demonstrated all the complexity that bedevils globalization in the early twenty-first century--a shifting set of both secular and religious definitions, and assumptions of universality both challenged and affirmed by nationalistic or particular ethnic identities. In this study I place the mission thought of the 1920s and 1930s in the larger context of internationalism, and then explore briefly the parallels with globalization today. (4)

Missions and the Development of Christian Internationalism

The internationalist agenda emerged quickly among young adults, many of them university students, whose generational cohorts died by the millions in the trenches of Europe from 1914 to 1918. On January 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson of the United States put forth the Fourteen Points as a basis for ending the war. Among the points was the idea of the self-determination of minority peoples, the end of the Ottoman Empire, the return of European territory under the imperial control of the Axis powers, and the founding of the League of Nations as a forum for resolving international disputes. In May 1919 the terms of the Treaty of Versailles became public, revealing that instead of reconciliation among nations, there would be economic punishment of the Central powers so severe that a new basis for continued conflict was created. Then the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which coupled with the decision of the United States not to join the League of Nations, set in motion a widespread intern ationalist movement among young adults determined to achieve lasting peace based upon Wilson's Fourteen Points.

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