The World Missionary Conference

by Charles Clayton Morrison

Charles Clayton Morrison was editor of the Christian Century for much of the first half of the twentieth century.

He gives a first hand account of the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh 1910. This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 7, 1910. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


This meeting in Edinburgh was a gathering of missionary specialists, in the main, who come together to exchange views on the ways and means of executing the Lord’s command to preach the gospel to the whole creation. The missionary conscience is assumed here. The church’s duty is taken for granted. Every delegate is already an ardent missionary believer.

Edinburgh, June 20, 1910

"About the biggest thing that ever struck Scotland," said my Edinburgh host as we sat together in his drawing room talking over the conference which had brought me to his city, and on account of which a thousand Edinburgh homes have been thrown open to entertain delegates from all parts of the earth.

Yes, and more than that, was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s response at the session that evening, for, said he, "if men be weighed rather than counted this assemblage has, I suppose, no parallel in the history either of this or other lands."

This assessment of the strategic and prophetic character of the World Missionary Conference is the common judgment of the entire body of 1,200 delegates. Everyone feels the presence in the conference of a power not ourselves, deeper than our own devices, which is making for a triumphant advance of Christianity abroad. And not less are the delegates thrilled by the sense that the conference foreshadows a new era for the church at home.

Indeed one is safe in saying that there is no home problem which the church is today facing which is not forced to the foreground in the consideration of missionary expansion. And it is coming home to many with the force and surprise of a revelation that these home problems the problem of Christian union, the problem of Christian education, the problem of a socialized Christianity, and even the academic problems of criticism and theology -- wait for their solution until they are carried into the white light of missionary passion.

But I must not indulge in this kind of writing now. There will be time enough later on for these reflections. The readers of The Christian Century wish to see the conference itself, and I will try to set it forth as well as I can with my pencil, in a forenoon of self-denying absence from a most tempting session.

The Assembly Hall of the United Free Church is the meeting place. It is not the largest hall in Edinburgh, but it is admirably adapted to the purposes of this conference. It must be remembered that this is a conference. It is not the same sort of a missionary meeting as that held in Chicago in May when 5,000 men gathered to hear great missionary addresses. The purpose of that Laymen’s Congress was to quicken missionary enthusiasm, to develop a missionary conscience, to make the church feel her duty to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth.

This meeting in Edinburgh is a gathering of missionary specialists, in the main, who come together to exchange views on the ways and means of executing the Lord’s command to preach the gospel to the whole creation. The missionary conscience is assumed here. The church’s duty is taken for granted. Every delegate is already an ardent missionary believer.

But the past hundred years of missionary campaigning has brought to light an almost endless number of problems and difficulties about which these missionary workers -- both those at the front and those administering the enterprise at home -- have good reasons to hold divergent opinions. These problems form the subject matter for the discussions of the conference. A large hall like the Museum in Edinburgh or the Auditorium in Chicago is too vast for effective discussion of problems. Hence this Assembly Hall, seating the 1,200 delegates on the main floor, with galleries on four sides for wives of delegates and representative visitors, especially missionaries, is just suited to the purpose.

Let us go in at 9:45 some morning and observe and listen.

They are singing "Crown Him with Many Crowns" as we enter, and then a prayer is offered by Bishop Charles H. Brent of the Philippine Islands. He speaks with God in the simple speech of a child, and one knows whence is the secret of the great faith and enthusiasm that has called him to give his life to the establishment of pure Christianity in America’s new possession in the Orient.

The chairman is Mr. John R. Mott. Of course we should now say "Dr." Mott, since he was thus decorated last Tuesday by the University of Edinburgh. The vice-chancellor characterized his name as one "honored and revered in all the universities and seats of learning throughout the world, for it is the name of a dauntless crusader who has found his mission in the advancement of the spiritual side of university life, of a great leader who has for years exercised an extraordinary ascendancy over the students of all countries." Dr. Mott was elected as the chairman of the conference in committee, which means that he is the real executive chairman of the gathering, governing its sessions from day to day.

Yonder among the delegates to the left is Lord Balfour, former secretary for Scotland in the British Cabinet and a leader in church and state. He is the president of the conference and has led in the two years’ preparation for the great gathering. His presidential address on Tuesday evening sounded a great note for the unity of the church. "The hope has sprung up in my mind," he said, "that unity if it begins on the mission field will not find its ending there. It is a thought not without its grandeur that a unity begun on the mission field may extend its influence and react upon us at home and throughout the older civilizations. Surely there is much more that should unite us than keep us apart."

In a seat halfway down the aisle there sits the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, in his knee breeches and gaiters, democratically taking his place beside a Methodist missionary from Korea. Across the aisle is Professor E.C. Moore of Harvard, whom a daily paper this morning described as "the very antithesis of the typical Yankee," and behind him Lord William Gascoyne-Cecil, son of the late Lord Salisbury.

That eager-looking, bold-browed man on the other side of the area watching the speaker and listening to him with an intentness bordering on fascination, is the Hon. William J. Bryan of the United States. He spoke yesterday on the significance of the educational ideal in mission work. People were glad to hear him. He spoke well -- splendidly, indeed. He said that Christianity’s character was nowhere better revealed than in its willingness to run the risk of educating the inferior people of the world. Our religion does not fear the light. Mr. Bryan is speaking many times in Edinburgh. He is announced to speak in Glasgow in a day or two and will visit other cities, bearing the inspiration of this great meeting to those who have not been able to attend it.

Just two more rows in front of us is the Hon. Seth Low, former mayor of New York City and formerly president of Columbia University. He is highly regarded in the conference. Sitting beside President A. McLean of the Disciples’ Foreign Missionary Society is Missions-Inspector Pastor J. Warneck of Germany, world-wide authority on the animistic religions. Behind Editor J.H. Garrison of St. Louis is Dr. Robert E. Speer, Presbyterian missionary secretary in the United States, whom the University of Edinburgh honored with the degree of D.D. last Tuesday, in company with the Archbishop of Canterbury and President T. Harada of the great Christian Doshisha University, in Japan, who is sitting near the front.

There is George Sherwood Eddy, a young man of wealth who is supporting himself in mission work in India, speaking as effective a message to this conference as he did to the Chicago Laymen’s Congress a few weeks ago. The familiar face of S.B. Capen, president of the American Board, calls our attention to Dr. J.M. Buckley, "the bishop of Methodist bishops," S.M. Zwemer, Presbyterian missionary to Arabia, Bishop W.H. Tottie of the Church of Sweden and President W. Douglas MacKenzie of Hartford Seminary, who sit in a row.

To the right of that post, a bit under the gallery, sits Bishop Anderson of Chicago, and two seats away is the saintly face of the Rev. Alexander Whyte of First St. George’s Church, Edinburgh, whom more American preachers love than any other living pulpiteer.

It is a great assemblage of the church’s greatest men. But all are on the same level. Germans, French, Americans, Englishmen, Scandinavians, Japanese, Chinese, Hindus, Africans -- all are here and mingle together in an easy equality. Missionaries, preachers, teachers, editors, statesmen, business men -- all come into the hall and sit where they happen to find a place, with no scale of precedence arranged for. It is an unparalleled confluence of the big men of the kingdom of God.

The most admirable feature of the conference is the thoroughness of the preparation that has been made by its leaders. A vast deal of thinking was done before the delegates assembled. You will note that many of the members hold in their hands a rather unwieldy document as the president rises to announce the work of the day. That document is the proof sheet report of a commission of experts who have been at work for two years gathering materials on the problem which is to be the subject of discussion today.

There are eight of these commissions. To each of them the conference devotes one day, taking as the basis for its discussions the report prepared by the commission, the proof sheets of which were put into the hands of some of the delegates some time before they left their homes for Edinburgh. Note the subjects with which the commissions deal: "Carrying the Gospel to All the Non-Christian World"; "The Church in the Mission Field"; "Education in Religion to the Christianization of National Life"; "The Missionary Message in Relation to Non-Christian Religions"; "The Preparation of Missionaries"; "The Home Base of Missions"; "Missions and Governments"; "Co-operation and the Promotion of Unity."

The very titles show the vastness and sweep of the missionary enterprise. And some conception of the work of these commissions may be gained if we look at the report of one of them in some detail as revealing and illustrating the character and method of the other seven. Commission I, under the chairmanship of Dr. John R. Mott, has as its subject the evangelization of the world. Dr. Robson of the United Free Church of Scotland and Dr. Julius Richter are vice-chairmen. Associated with them are missionary experts such as Dr. Dennis of New York, Dr. Eugene Stock of London, and Bishop Montgomery, secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel of the Church of England. In addition to these are missionaries in active service and representatives of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Student Missionary Movement and the YMCA.

Three sections of this commission have been at work one in London, one in New York, one on the Continent. After agreement upon certain questions dealing with vital missionary problems, these questions were sent to over two hundred representative missionaries and leading native Christians all over the world for their deliberate replies. So large was the response to these that for this one commission thirty clerks were kept busy for three weeks in order that one set of replies might be sent to each member of the commission. Each member reported to the chairman, who had a draft report of the whole prepared and sent for revision to the sections of the commission sitting in Great Britain and America and on the Continent. After full and careful criticism the draft report has been revised, and it is this carefully prepared report which is now published as a paper of the conference.

Let us assume that we are visiting the conference on Saturday. The subject for the day’s consideration is "The Missionary Message in Relation to Non-Christian Religions." It is a live question to every missionary. And since the science of comparative religion has grown up in the past quarter-century, it is a live question to every thoughtful person. We will hear some interesting talking. Let us hope that it may lead to fuller light!

Seven minutes is the limit for a speech. Chairman Mott is inexorable in enforcing the rule. Professor D.S. Cairns of the University of Aberdeen, chairman of the commission dealing with this subject, opens the discussion by calling attention to the salient features of the report. What attitude shall the messenger of Christianity take toward the religion of the people with whom he works? That is the point of the whole problem. Concluding, he says that the situation which the non-Christian nations present at the present moment is something like the spiritual situation which confronted Israel in the days of the rise of the great prophets. Israel had been getting on comfortably enough with the traditional religion and the inherited faith, until suddenly a shadow fell upon the whole Israelitish life. It was instinctively felt by her spiritual leaders that in the traditional religion there must be more than they had already attained, a reserve spiritual force which would enable the nation to meet the new and formidable emergency which had risen; and in the long and illustrious succession of Hebrew prophecy they saw the endeavor of the spiritual leaders to meet that new emergency by the broadening and intensifying of the nation’s sense of the living God. Did not the evidence disclose that today the Christian Church was face to face with a formidable situation? As one read the reports one seemed to be looking into the great workshop of history. One saw the forces that were making nations, that were making religions, and those who had eyes to see saw the forming of something very vast, very formidable, and full of promise. The inevitable question arose: Is the church at this moment fit and spiritually ready for this great emergency? Is it equal to the providential calling?

Pricked by this question, delegates from all over the house sent up their cards to the chairman, asking to speak.

The first group of speakers talk on the animistic religions, the backward and childlike sort of religion possessed by such peoples as those who inhabit parts of Africa. Dr. Wardlaw Thompson, missionary to Africa, contrasts the attitude of high-caste, cultured Hindus toward the missionary with that of the primitive or barbarous peoples, where the missionary is admittedly one of a "superior" race. This docility of the "inferior" race is at once the missionary’s opportunity and peril.

As an illustration of the diverse ways in which the animistic peoples approach Christianity, a speaker tells of one who became a Christian, moved at first by the desire to secure a decent burial for his body. All the speakers make vivid, however, what the gospel means to the animistic tribes -- that it breaks for them the spell of terror and introduces them to a life which is a jubilee of liberty and joy.

From the animistic the conference goes with a leap to the problem of Chinese religions. There the life of the nation has been molded by ancestor-worship to a cohesion which has outlived the changes of 5,000 years; and Christianity, when it demands that a man surrender that, demands that he become an outlaw from his own nation.

Dong King-en, a Chinaman in picturesque, flowing native garb, urges the necessity of Christianity’s making itself more indigenous to China by making its converts study their own language and literature. This theme -- the necessity of Christianity’s making its contact with a heathen people at such points as to insure its becoming an indigenous religion and not just an accidental importation -- becomes the thesis of the day.

A striking contribution is made by Dr. K. Chatterji, a converted Hindu. With his patriarchal gray beard, a benign expression and a complexion which might be of the West, he states in beautiful and soft English what difficulties a Hindu experiences in becoming a Christian. He had long stumbled at the doctrine of Atonement. The Hindus have a vivid sense of punishment due each individual for his wrongdoing, and it is inconceivable to them that another should suffer for their sins. At a previous session a speaker had called for the preaching of the "old-fashioned gospel in the old-fashioned way." Dr. Chatterji gives the effective reply. He makes the conference realize the great harm done by unethical representations of the doctrine of the Atonement, and how pathetically missionaries are handicapped who do not appreciate the inner life of the people whose religion they wish to supplant.

Dr. Campbell Gibson, Presbyterian missionary to China, a master spirit in the conference, testifies to the responsiveness of the Chinese mind to spiritual truth. The Rev. Mr. Lloyd of Foochow gives it as his opinion that the idea of God as Father presented the most natural point of contact with the Chinese mind because filial piety was the highest of all the graces in China.

Dr. Mackichan, principal of the Wilson College, Bombay, emphasizes the importance of approaching the mind of India along the avenues of its own thought. This does not mean that they are to adapt the content of their message to suit Indian thought. Their philosophy is based on metaphysical thinking of the highest order, yet it has not reached a saving conclusion. They have had to tell the Indians that they sympathize with their failure, and that Christ satisfies their unfulfilled longings.

So the discussion runs on during the whole day. Probably forty persons speak. Yet Chairman Mott announces at the end that he had in his hand forty-two names which time would not permit him to call upon. Dr. Robert E. Speer is given fifteen minutes to make the closing speech, as vice-chairman of the commission. He fearlessly counsels the frankest comparison of Christianity with other religions. This because we are sure -- absolutely sure -- that such a comparison can result only in the enhancement of the glory of our holy faith.

Many other things are said. What I can write is but a sip of the overflowing cup of good things. The theme of Christian unity is running through the whole conference like a subterranean stream. It breaks through the ground of any subject the conference may be considering, and bubbles on the surface for a time. It is almost the exception for a speaker to sit down without deploring our divisions. The missionaries are literally plaintive in their appeal that the church of Christ reestablish her long lost unity. But tomorrow is to be given over to a discussion of the whole subject, and my heart thrills with expectancy and eagerness to hear the great words that I cannot doubt will surely be spoken.

And my first impulse, of course, will be to tell The Christian Century readers all about it.