It might be tempting, on this 200th commissioning anniversary of the first ordained American foreign missionaries, to directly attribute the current status of global Christianity to their courageous obedience to the Great Commission. Even limiting the scope of their influence to Burma - their primary place of overseas service- the commendable work of these missionaries would produce a very incomplete explanation for the growth of Christianity around the world from 1812 to 2012. In fact, between the Judsons then and us today lay a vast assemblage of unsung local believers around the world who spread the gospel without fanfare or recognition. Ironically, this development would likely not surprise the Judsons.
New England in 1812
Born August 9, 1788 in Malden, Massachusetts, Adoniram Judson entered the world as the son of a pastor. Though his parents hoped he would become a minister, Judson had other plans. While attending what would later become Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, he became a practical deist, turned his back on expectations that he would join the ministry, and later went to New York City to work in theater. This proved less than practical, and while on the journey back to Massachusetts, he experienced a crisis of faith. He providentially spent the night in an inn where he overheard a man dying in agony and hopelessness in the next room. When he inquired in the morning, the cadaver turned out to be his deist mentor from Brown. He set himself back on the journey to ministry and was admitted to the new Andover Seminary.
Judson continued to develop his love for distant places at seminary. While ridiculed there for his new-found desire to be a foreign missionary, Judson read everything he could get his hands on related to Asia. It was on a snowy day in February of 1810 that Judson finally resolved to be a foreign missionary.
Judson would not have to face his uncertain future alone. Unknown to him, there were several other students at Andover Seminary who were privately committed to foreign missions as he was. They eventually founded a secret group called "The Brethren," whose stated goal was that "each member shall keep himself absolutely free from every engagement which, after his prayerful attention, and after consultation with his brethren, shall be deemed incompatible with the object of this society, and shall hold himself in readiness to go on a mission when and where duty may call."
The next step for these young enthusiasts was the formation of a mission-sending society, for which the young men needed the support of their elders. One key figure was Samuel Worchester, the pastor of Tabernacle Church in Salem. He had delivered a historic missionary sermon the previous year to the Massachusetts Missionary Society. After hearing the appeal of the students to create a missionary-sending society in 1810, Worchester and others argued among themselves as to whether the idea was feasible. In the end they decided, "We had better not attempt to stop God." This marked the founding of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the first foreign missionary-sending institution in the United States.
A cascade of events transpired in February 1812. The young missionaries were scheduled to leave on February 10. Adoniram Judson and Ann Hasseltine were married on Wednesday, February 5 in Haverhill, Massachusetts. On Thursday, February 6, 1,500 people attended the ordination service of the missionaries at Tabernacle Church in Salem. Their sailing was delayed until Wednesday, February 19, due to bad weather. The trip to India took almost four months, and as they arrived they saw what they thought was their first Hindu, who turned out to be a Muslim. Another year would pass before the Judsons finally arrived in Burma.
The World in 2012
Events over the past two hundred years have transported us to a world radically different than that of the Judsons. When they sailed out of Salem Harbor in 1812, 20% of the world was Christian and over 90% of all Christians were Europeans. In 2012, the world is about 33% Christian and only about 25% of all Christians worldwide are Europeans. In the intervening period, Christianity grew rapidly in Africa (mainly through conversions) and Latin America (mainly because of high birth rates), while declining in Europe (mainly through defections and low birth rates).
While Christianity had taken firm root in Asia, including significant minorities in China and India, the continent remains home to large non-Christian populations. In the past one hundred years, unexpected stories of church growth have been found in the Korean peninsula (1907 to present), China (1970s), Nepal (1990s), and Mongolia and Cambodia (2000s). Burma itself saw a significant increase of Christians. In 1812 there were very few Christians in Burma, but today there are over four million Christians there (about 8% of the population).
Asians were unprepared for the wave of atheism and agnosticism that accompanied the rise of Communism in the 20th century. But 60 years on, a resurgence of religion is pushing down the number of atheists and agnostics, and traditionally Asian religions, such as Buddhism, Daoism and Chinese folk-religion, are experiencing a revival in both numbers and influence. In 1812 over 99% of the world's population was religious, but by 2012 this had fallen to below 89%. Such a general analysis hides the fact that the high point for the world's nonreligious population was around 1970, when almost 20% of the world's population was either agnostic or atheist. The collapse of Communism in the late 20th century means that the world is more religious in 2012 than in 1970. In this way, our world closely resembles that of the Judsons.
The question remains, how did we get from 1812 to 2012? From the Judsons to global Christianity?
Looking at the history of Christianity in Burma provides some important clues. The gospel was effectively spread by what is now termed "indigenous agency." This method emerged in Judson's lifetime, but was largely unrecognized at the time. The primary carriers of the gospel message were to a great extent unknown individual converts from among the indigenous people the missionaries set out to reach. In Judson's case, it was an untrustworthy thief who was most effective in spreading the gospel beyond the narrow confines of the missionary community, who largely focused on evangelizing the majority power holders, the Burmese. Instead, it was the "wild" Karen who responded to the gospel, a jungle tribe that had to incessantly knock on the missionaries' door to get their attention.
The missionaries did make some important strategic decisions in their approach that set the stage for later indigenization of Christianity. In Burma they took a very different approach to "primitive" tribes than their fellow missionaries did to Native Americans in America. Bible translations were slow to appear among Native Americans, but within a few decades there were already two full Bible translations in Burma, including Judson's Burmese Bible. As Christian mission scholars Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls have shown, this principle of translation eventually changed the balance of power among peoples who embraced Christianity. Between the "translation principle" and "indigenous agency," the kind of Christianity that spread in Burma quickly differentiated itself from that of the colonial missionaries. In essence, foreign missionaries in Burma provided the necessary spark while local evangelists did the work on the ground, producing a culturally relevant version of the Christian faith.
Some Things Are the Same
Today we face many similar issues as the Judsons, such as decisions about how to engage the world. A central characteristic of both ages is courage. No matter where you live, deciding to live among peoples previously unreached with the gospel requires courage and faith. In fact, it is a rare individual who is willing to give up life, home and liberty for the sake of others. Surprisingly, friends and family often greet such aspirations with incredulity and ridicule.
The struggle between Christians with differing theological and social perspectives has intensified. Hundreds of Christian denominations in 1812 have split into tens of thousands in 2012. Today, more than ever, we are challenged to work together, rather than to compete. In particular, Protestants face the proliferation of independent churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as in the Western world.
Recent research reveals that as many as 86% of all Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists do not personally know a Christian. This has to be viewed negatively in light of the strong biblical theme of incarnation that is at the heart of Christian witness. Christians should know and love their neighbors! In the 21st century it is important to realize that the responsibility for reaching other religionists is too large for the missionary enterprise. While missionaries will always be at the forefront of innovative strategies, the whole church needs to participate in inviting people of other faiths to consider Jesus Christ.
Many Things are Different
The greatest difference, 200 years on, is that Christian missionaries are sent out from all over the world. Burmese today are more likely to encounter Christ from Karen, Kachin or Thai hill tribesmen, Filipinos, South Asians, Chinese, or even Brazilians or Nigerians, than they are from British or American missionaries. Nonetheless, even today there are Western Christians who are engaged in reaching the Burmese. It is ironic that the Burmese people the Judsons went to reach with the gospel 200 years ago are still unreached today. It should be noted that even if Karen Christians in Burma decide to reach out to their (ethnically) Burmese countrymen, they would be performing the work of cross-cultural missionaries, not of local evangelists. This is important not only in who is doing the witnessing, but in what this signifies: the gospel is not Western in origins or characteristics.
In the past two hundred years Americans have experienced a rise and fall of their global influence. In 1812, the British Empire was on the rise, and many considered the twentieth century the "American Century." But today, a changing balance of power means that Americans engaging the world find themselves on equal footing with missionaries from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Americans still have a significant role in the world, but that role is played out on a stage of many characters, each with his own valuable voice and perspective. Ironically, this assemblage is more representative of global Christianity than any single ethnic group, Western or non-Western.
The Judsons had trouble identifying the religion of the first person they encountered in Asia. In this sense, things haven't changed much. A recent Pew survey shows that Americans still understand very little about other religions. Evangelicals, in particular, score poorly compared to atheists and Jews. But the difference today is the likelihood that one will encounter someone of another faith, no matter where one lives. There is much greater diversity right here in New England, where a substantial Burmese community resides. This includes the Overseas Burmese Christian Fellowship, celebrating this momentous occasion with us.
Two hundred years ago the challenge for American missions was to channel the enthusiasm of eager students to provide a way for them to express their vocation in a colonial world dominated by Europeans. Today, American Christian students still have their vocations, but now operate in a multi-polar world where they continue to need encouragement and organizational genius. The challenge for mission agencies today is to adapt to these changing times while retaining the core values of commitment to the Scriptures, to evangelism, and to alleviating human need that have made them successful for the past two centuries. In doing so, the task of world evangelization will be more collaborative (across denominations, ethnicities, and languages), more integrated (vocationally and holistically) and more informed (religiously and culturally). Yet, in the end, it is likely true that if the Judsons were alive today, they would be the first in line to embark once again on a lifetime of service in Asia.
Article based on a transcript for the address presented at the February 6, 2012 Bicentennial Celebration in Salem, MA.