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Beginning at Jerusalem

by Samuel McCrea Cavert

Samuel McCrea Cavert as a Presbyterian minister was later to serve as an executive of the Federal, National and World councils of churches. He reports here on the International Missionary Conference held in Jerusalem in 1928. This article was published in the Christian Century, May 10, 1928. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


No one could have attended the meeting of the International Missionary Council at Jerusalem during the two weeks ending on Easter Day without discerning that momentous changes are taking place in foreign missions. To one whose eyes are riveted on the past or even on the present these changes may seem confusing; to one who looks down the future they must appear to be fraught with the richest promise. For him ceaseless change is no occasion for alarm but an evidence of vitality. Misgiving would rather be in order if missions remained static, uninfluenced by the new currents of life and thought that are flowing through the world.

For one thing, the Jerusalem meeting made it clear that the missionary enterprise is coming to be not something that we do for other peoples but something that we do with them. Gone was the note of condescending superiority.

As one sat day by day with great personalities from China, Japan, India, Africa, South America and other quarters of the earth, one realized that the final meaning of the missionary movement is the development of a world-wide fellowship in which every race will make its own indispensable contribution to the building of a Christian world. It was a high-water mark in the history of foreign missions when the council declared that the churches of the West need to receive Christian missionaries as well as send them.

In the second place, there was manifest at the Jerusalem meeting a greater desire to understand other religions sympathetically and to appreciate the things that high-minded non-Christians live by. Prior to the meeting a series of stimulating papers had been prepared by competent scholars, setting forth the values in Islam, in Hinduism, in Buddhism and in Confucianism. Criticism of some of the papers was heard on the ground that they were too extravagantly favorable in their estimate of non-Christian faiths, but the very fact that such an impression could be made shows how far missionary thinking has advanced since the days when all religions except Christianity were regarded as evil. At one point at least it was agreed at Jerusalem that other religions can be regarded as allies of Christianity quite as truly as rivals; for a new enemy of all religion, Christian or non-Christian alike, was recognized in the materialism now rampant in all lands. In the face of sheer secularism and atheism all religions, however inadequate as a final fulfillment of the quest of the soul, are at any rate an assertion of spiritual realities and of the value of those things which are unseen and eternal.

Joined with this new attitude of glad appreciation of non-Christian religions was an unshakable assurance of the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ. Indeed it was felt that the more clearly one discerns the value in other faiths, the more certainly will it be seen that Christ is the one overtowering personality in whom all those values, found elsewhere in partial and fragmentary form, come to such complete realization as to make him the Lord and Savior of all mankind. The message frankly admitted that in the past the missionary movement had not "sufficiently sought out the good and noble elements in the non-Christian beliefs," and in a generous spirit went on to call attention to some of the worthy things in non-Christian systems.

In the third place, the Jerusalem meeting furnished us most encouraging evidence that the Christianizing of our social relationships is coming to be regarded not as a mere by-product but as part and parcel of the missionary task. "Winning the world for Christ" was no longer synonymous with occupying all geographical areas with missions and churches; that there are vast unevangelized regions was beyond all dispute, but the missionary responsibility was equally seen to mean the bringing of all areas of human activity and social life under the sway of Christ. In thinking of medical missions, the emphasis was not upon the hospital as opening up channels for evangelism. Caring for the bodies of men was rather regarded as in itself a spiritual ministry, as in itself a form of Christian witness, revealing the spirit of Christ and indicating what a Christian society is like. No longer were "souls" thought of as entities that could be saved apart from their social environment. Man was treated as a unity, with his spiritual life related to all his surrounding conditions. Easily three-quarters of the agenda, as a result, was directly occupied with great social and international issues which found no more than incidental mention at even so recent a missionary gathering as the great world conference held in Edinburgh in 1910!

At Edinburgh who thought of economic and industrial problems as of more than peripheral interest to missions? At Jerusalem no topic was more prominent. At Edinburgh few perceived how close to the marrow of the missionary movement is the substitution of interracial understanding and good will for the prevailing prejudices and discriminations. At Jerusalem no one could get far away from this overshadowing concern. At Edinburgh it would have been regarded as a side issue to study the organization of the rural community. At Jerusalem even rather technical phases of the problem were of such urgency that a detailed survey had been made of rural life in one oriental country, Korea, and the council declared that "experts" on rural life must be included on missionary staffs. At Edinburgh the strongest accent was on evangelism; at Jerusalem the ideal was the same but a new emphasis had entered in, an emphasis on religious education as the great means for effecting the transformation both of personal character and of social life which the gospel demands.

In the discussion of industrial problems, the enlarging horizon of missions was disclosed most luminously. The report on this subject frankly acknowledged that "the missionary enterprise, coming as it does out of an economic order dominated almost entirely by the profit motive," has not been "so sensitive to those aspects of the Christian message as would have been necessary sensibly to mitigate the evils which advancing industrialization has brought in its train," and then proceeded to scrutinize mercilessly the exploitation of backward peoples as the result of the economic penetration of Africa and Asia by the West. Public loans for the development of undeveloped areas, it was declared, "should be made only with the knowledge and approval of a properly constituted international authority and subject to such conditions as it may prescribe,’’ and "private investments should in no case carry with them the right of political control." (Somebody please page Nicaragua!) Concrete attention was given to the protection of the more primitive races from forced labor, the alienation of their land and other economic injustices. A set of industrial standards which missions should hold up before governments in their dealing with so-called backward peoples was adopted, paralleling in many ways the "social creed" of the American churches.

In order to make certain that such statements as these should have more than ephemeral significance, it was proposed that the International Missionary Council should establish, as a part of its organization, a "bureau of social and economic research and information" on problems arising from the contact between Western civilization and undeveloped countries. This plan for helping mission agencies to be more competent to meet the terrific problems confronting the peoples for whom the missionaries work was adopted only after warm debate, and not with entire unanimity. One member of the council was heard to remark to his neighbor, "If this is the kind of program that missionary councils are interested in, we had better withdraw from them and devote ourselves to spiritual work!" The fact that the proposal for a research bureau was definitely approved, subject to concurrence by the National Christian Councils of the various countries, is a noteworthy indication of progress.

In facing the baffling issues involved in the contacts between the races the council was relentlessly candid and honest, but the final report was somewhat disappointing to those who had hoped that the marvelous fellowship between the races throughout the fortnight on the Mount of Olives might eventuate in an epoch-making declaration. To be sure, there were many admirable statements confessing how far short the churches have fallen from measuring up to the Christian ideal and calling for equal treatment of all races in policies having to do with immigration, citizenship and economic opportunity. But the general effect was marred by the disposition of a handful of delegates to infer that intermarriage might somehow be implied in every reference to "social equality." As a matter of fact, no statement on intermarriage was at any time put before the council, but a sudden cautiousness laid hold of some of the white members at the point where the proposed report said:

In lands where the races live side by side the fullest participation of all in racial intermingling for social, cultural and above all religious fellowship, and the development of friendship which such intercourse engenders, is the natural expression of our common Christianity.

Even though the statement was not substantially modified as the result of the debate, one could not help feeling in some of the discussions an atmosphere too suggestive of halfhearted compromise. One member was heard to make the comment in private conversation that a favorable reference to anything that could be called "social equality" would cost his mission board $100,000. But surely the Christian cause would have derived an incalculable gain if, at the loss of even millions of dollars, it were to bring about a day when the bogey of intermarriage could no longer serve as an excuse for perpetuating our unjust social discrimination against our colored brothers.

In international affairs it was the question of using military or naval forces to protect missionaries that occupied the center of attention. It must be added that the interest in this issue’ so far as the mission boards were concerned, seemed confined chiefly to the Americans, but they were re-enforced by the Orientals and the missionaries. An outspoken resolution which had been drafted, designed to put the council unequivocally on record as opposing any resort to military protection, was effectively shelved for a time by the protest of British delegates that their agencies had not yet given any consideration to the matter. Indeed, the council was on the very point of final adjournment without having taken any positive action. This eleventh hour sidetracking was prevented by the insistence of one American member. It is only simple justice to mention his name; it was Bishop Francis J. McConnell. E. Stanley Jones, of India, followed him by declaring: "If no action is taken on this matter, much of the rest of what we have said and done will be rendered fruitless." After the issue was thus squarely reopened, just as the clock was striking midnight and ushering in Easter Day, a clear-cut resolution was adopted which said, in part:

Inasmuch as the use or the threat of use of armed forces by the country from which they come for the protection of the missionary and missionary property not only creates widespread misunderstanding as to the underlying motive of missionary work, but also gravely hinders the acceptance of the Christian message, the International Missionary Council

(1) places on record its conviction that the protection of missionaries should only be by such methods as will promote good will in personal and official relations and (2) urges on all missionary societies that they make no claim on their governments for the armed defense of their missionaries and their property.

From all the addresses and discussions, reports and resolutions of the two weeks’ gathering one comes back with two impressions that overtop everything else like mountain peaks among low-lying ridges.

The first is the glorious realization that there exists today a Christian movement which has become really conscious of its world-wide character and able to function as a world-wide unit. To point out conditions that limit this universal fellowship would be easy -- as, for example, the fact that the ancient Orthodox churches of the Near East are not included in it. In that respect, Stockholm and Lausanne were ahead of Jerusalem. Still, it remains true that in the International Missionary Council we have the most definitely organized and articulate world organization of Christian forces today. United in it, under its new constitution adopted at Jerusalem and under the farseeing chairmanship of Dr. John R. Mott, are not only all the Protestant missionary forces of the West, but also the National Christian Councils which in recent years have come into being in China, Japan, India and many other parts of what is commonly called the missionary field. To have achieved even this measure of unity across our divisive national boundaries is a notable achievement for which no thoughtful person who feels deeply the inadequacies of a merely national Christianity can be too thankful. One hopes it may be a prophecy of an international council of churches which may soon bind together the total life and work of the churches throughout the world.

The second outstanding impression that one carries away from Jerusalem is the spiritual greatness and power of the foreign missionary movement. All the criticisms of it are dwarfed into pettiness in comparison with the majestic moral meaning of this enterprise of building a Christian world. The closing paragraph of the message adopted by the council is one that will long abide in the memory of those who were at Jerusalem and truly expresses the call which they heard to a fresh and courageous commitment to the world-wide cause of Christ:

We are persuaded that we and all Christian people must seek a more heroic practice of the gospel. It cannot be that our present complacency and moderation are a faithful expression of the mind of Christ and of the meaning of his cross in the midst of the wrong and want and sin of our modern world. As we contemplate the work which Christ has laid upon his church, we who are met here on the Mount of Olives, in sight of Calvary, would take up for ourselves and summon those from whom we come, and to whom we return, to take up with us the cross of Christ, and all that for which it stands, and to go forth into the world to live in the fellowship of his sufferings and by the power of his resurrection.


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