Chapter 1: The Missionary Background of the Modern Ecumenical Movement

Edinburgh to Salvador: Twentieth Century Ecumenical Missiology
by T.V. Philip

Chapter 1: The Missionary Background of the Modern Ecumenical Movement

Evangelical Awakening and the Missionary Movement

The immediate background of the modern Protestant missionary movement was the evangelical awakening in the protestant churches in the West in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The evangelical awakening had its roots in the earlier German Pietism. Pietism was a movement in the Lutheran church in Germany which arose towards the end of the 17th century and continued in the first half of the 18th century as a reaction to the sterility of the then prevailing Lutheran Orthodoxy. Philip Jacob Spener (1635-1705) and Herman Franke (1663-1727) were progenitors of the movement and for them, Christianity was far more a life than an intellectual assent to a doctrine. An insistence upon the personal, individualistic and subjective element in religion was characteristic of their teaching. Because they believed that the much needed reforms of the Lutheran church could not come from those in authority, they recommended that in every congregation those who were earnest about the soul’s salvation should form cells within the church (ecclesiola in ecclesia) for Bible study, for fellowship and Christian experience.

One of the notable features of Pietism was the zeal for mission It aroused. Franke made the University of Halle in Germany the centre for missionary zeal and training. When Frederick IV of Denmark wanted to send the first protestant missionaries to India in 1705, he found them among the students in Halle. The Moravian Brethren provided Pietism’s most effective missionary outreach. The remnants of the persecuted Moravians built a village in Herrenhurt and Zinzendorf (1700-1760), a Lutheran pietist, who was educated at Halle, became their leader. Under his leadership Herrenhurt became a hive of missionary activity. The Moravian church was the first among the protestant churches to accept missionary work as being a responsibility of the church as a whole, instead of leaving it to the societies of especially interested persons.

The Moravians were willing to go to any place in the world in the service of Christ. Their foreign mission was started in 1732. Together with their families, they went abroad as self-supporting units and within a decade the Moravian missionaries could be found from Greenland to the Cape of Good Hope.1

The Moravians were noted not only for their dedication to Christian mission, but also for their concern to foster Christian unity. W. A. Visser’t Hooft points out that it was Zinzendorf who first used the word Oikoumene in the sense of the world-wide Christian church.2 The unity he envisaged was not the organic unity of various denominations, but the spiritual unity of all those who had been "washed in the blood of Christ", and who were dispersed throughout the world. The true church of Christ remains invisible. Unity for him was not a matter of the intellect, creed, ritual, or of order, but of the heart. To be a member of a Christian denomination was not the same thing as being one "of the flock of the lamb".3 Pietism exerted a powerful force in the modern missionary movement and many of the nineteenth century missionaries were pietists. Speaking of the influence of Pietism on the missionary movement, Keith R. Bridston observes:

The Pietist movement, one of the most dynamic and creative movements in modem Church history, with its strong emphasis on the inner life and personal commitment, was the source of renewal in many churches, not least in arousing missionary concern within them. The powerful impact of Pietism on the missionary movement, as both an energizing force and a continuing ideological influence, is well known. In a real sense, Pietism made the protestant missionary enterprise.4

The origins of the evangelical revival differed in different countries. In Germany, as mentioned earlier, the evangelical revival can be traced to Pietism. In Britain, its impulse came largely through the evangelical efforts of the Wesleys and Whitefield, the rise of Methodism and the creation of the evangelical party in the Church of England. The first outstanding leader of the awakening in the USA was Jonathan Edwards. The awakening continued throughout the nineteenth century. The form of Christianity practiced and preached by the founding fathers of the evangelical revival was intensely personal and experiential; they described it as ‘vital religion’. The important characteristics of the religious revival as a whole were a concern for vital religion and a large number of philanthropic and charitable activities. They fought against vices, moral and social, in their efforts to convert the nation. There was also an intense concern for mission to the heathens.

According to Ian Bradley5, most important of the humanitarian ventures of nineteenth century England had evangelical inspiration and leadership. Their evangelizing interest took them naturally into those places where humanity was least regenerate - into prisons, brothels, the factories and slums. The cruelty and misery they saw there angered and appalled them and made them devote themselves to fighting for reforms and improvements. The basis of their response to poverty and suffering was emotional rather than ideological. The sight of a half-starved child brought tears of compassion and led them to dig deep in their pockets, not to ponder over the economic and social order, which had brought it about. Elizabeth Fry’s work in prisons, Josephine Butler’s crusade on behalf of the prostitutes, Barnardo’s mission to deprived children, Edward Rudolf’s establishment of the Society for Waifs and Strays, Shaftesbury’s movement for the reform of factory system, and the efforts to uplift the condition of the working class, all had evangelical inspiration and leadership. It is said that the evangelical movement made philanthropy a major industry in Victorian England.

The Evangelicals were drawn to philanthropic activities by a variety of motives. In part they were simply obeying Christ’s command to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. In part, they also undertook it as preliminary to attempts at conversion. Above all they were devoted to good works because they were profoundly moved by human want and suffering. However, all of them agreed that sin was at the root of human misery and that religion alone offered a lasting remedy to it.6

The Nineteenth Century Missionary Movement

The chief outcome of the evangelical awakening was the rise of the modern missionary movement. The great passion of the Evangelicals was evangelism, both at home and to the ends of the earth. This resulted in the birth of a number of societies, voluntary movements, and organizations in which Christians of different denominations and nations banded together to win the world for Christ. The evangelical awakening both caused, and decisively influenced, the character and course of the missionary movement.

The missionary societies, which came into being during this period, sent out a large number of missionaries to different parts of the world. The upsurge of the missionary interest that developed in the latter part of the eighteenth century continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century. The colonial outreach of Protestant European powers broadened the horizons of the people just as the colonial expansion of Spain and Portugal had done for the Roman Catholics of Europe in the sixteenth century. The political and cultural power of European nations aided the missionaries in penetrating all parts of the globe, as did also the development of communication and the relative prevalence of peace.

The missionary movement in its early period was led by a number of famous missionary pioneers who followed the example of William Carey, the first Baptist missionary in India. Carey is often spoken of as the ‘father of modern missions’. His pamphlet, "An enquiry into the obligation of Christians to use the means for conversion of the natives", (1972) is considered to be the ‘charter to modern missions’.

Apart from the evangelical awakenings, there were other forces that influenced the missionary movement. The French Revolution in 1789 had a part in molding the character and outlook of many of the missionaries. The spirit of liberty, fraternity and equality which found expression in the French Revolution had a profound influence on many people in England. William Carey was one of those who watched the French Revolution with sympathy. Pearce Carey, his biographer, points out that William Carey greeted the revolution as "God’s answer to the recent concerted praying of his people". For Carey, the French Revolution was "a glorious door opened, and likely to be opened much wider, for the Gospel, by the spread of civil and religious liberty, and by the diminution of papal power". According to Fuller, the secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society at that time, Carey’s mind was very much pre-occupied with the ideals of the French Revolution. "Indeed, like other young bloods, he hotly became republican - not drinking to the king’s health". Rousseau’s doctrine of the people’s sovereignty and their equal rights had a powerful effect on the missionary conception of other peoples and races who were thought to be backward and barbarous. Max Warren observes that Carey’s world-mission programme was Rousseau ‘made practical’ .7 Convinced about every truth of ‘common and equal rights of all men’, Carey yearned to share with every man his affluent inheritance in Christ. As we noted earlier, the Evangelicals were social reformers, and Carey, like Wilberforce and others of the Clapham sect, was an emancipationist and fought against the slave trade. Among the British Evangelicals there arose a feeling of the moral responsibility of the British towards the people in their colonies and the need to compensate for the wrong done to them by colonial exploitation.

The Separation of Church and Mission

The great missionary enterprise of the twentieth century created its own instruments and organizations. Most of the missionary agencies that developed during this period, with the exception of some societies in the USA, were voluntary societies, independent of the ecclesiastical machinery of the church. Speaking of the separation of Church and Mission in the early period of the missionary movement, Wilhelm Anderson observes:

The missionary enterprise regarded itself as a separate institution concerned with Christian operations overseas within, on the fringe of, in certain cases even outside, the existing Christian bodies; and, in accordance with its understanding of its nature, it developed its own independent organizational structure within or alongside of the organised churches.8

As a result, the missionary movement remained, to a large extent, marginal to the life of most of the churches. How did this separation between church and mission come about? What were the consequences of this separation? Some historians have located the reason in the theology of the evangelical movement which largely disregarded the denominational and ecclesiastical lines and emphasised the salvation of the individuals. For Evangelicals who were really influenced by pietism, the true church of Christ remained invisible; and when they spoke of Christian unity, the unity they envisaged was not the organic unity of the various denominations, but the spiritual unity of all those who had been "washed in the blood of Christ".

The individualist bent in evangelical theology was characteristic of nineteenth century thinking in general. According to K.S. Latourette,

The prominence of private enterprise in the spread of the faith was closely associated with the outstanding features of the nineteenth century private initiative in business, laissez faire economics with a minimum of government control and growth of democracy.9

Protestantism, especially Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, had strong kinship with democratic movements and the individual enterprise of the nineteenth century. It was not surprising, therefore, that the surging new life in Protestantism found expression in multitudes of associations for the propagation of the faith. Latourette points out that the prominence of private enterprise in the propagation of Christianity in the nineteenth century was only a phase of the multiplicity of organizations privately organised to attack the evils of society.10 Evangelical theology and the emphasis on private initiative in the nineteenth century were two contributory factors to the separation of Church and Mission. But they were not the main reasons.

Stephen Neill is certainly right when he says that it was the failure of the established churches to develop a missionary spirit that drove certain missionary societies to adopt positions and policies which were unrelated to the church.11 According to Alec. A. Vidler, in eighteenth century England, the spirit of religion, in general, was one of formality and coldness. Churchmen were more interested in rationalistic thought than in the spiritual life of its members. The principal effect of the French Revolution in the latter part of the century was to stiffen the conservatism of the church and so postpone the pressure for reform within the church. "Bishops rivaled one another in denouncing subversive teaching, the spirit of democracy, and the blasphemous character of the evangelical movement".12 In such a situation, any evangelical movement or missionary enthusiasm was suspect. Moreover, the churches in England and Europe were the immediate heirs of a vast fatigue resulting from the religious conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and had no energy or spiritual resources left for missions.13 In 1796, a speaker in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland said that, "to spread abroad the knowledge of the Gospel among barbarians and the heathen nations seems highly preposterous, so far as it anticipates, it even reverses, the order of nature"14

The evangelical revival when it took place was largely a layman’s movement. The laymen who were awakened by the revival expressed their life and faith in organising voluntary societies for service and mission both at home and abroad. Max Warren points out that the missionaries from England in the first part of the 19th century belonged, in a large measure, to a distinctive class in society, that of the skilled mechanics. They were skilled craftsmen, small traders, shoe makers, printers, shipbuilders and school teachers. Many of them were ‘inner directed’ men. To be inner directed is to feel an overwhelming compulsion to follow some course of action which, to others, seems inappropriate. There was no search for an authority to tell a person what he ought to do. "The LMS sent its first mechanics primarily as evangelists and as such accepted their sending as ordination.15

Not only were churches indifferent to mission, but in several cases they opposed it. In England, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) was confronted with opposition from the bishops of the Anglican church. There were instances when bishops refused to ordain candidates presented by the society.16 The result was that almost all the early missionaries of the Society were Germans, who had come through the mission houses in Basel or Berlin and who were not sufficiently conscious of the denominational differences to be troubled by working for an Anglican Society. As missionaries they had no connection with the Church of England.17

The separation between the institutional church and its missionary agency was perhaps even greater on the continent of Europe. In Germany, Holland, and Switzerland, the care of missions was left to the circles of ‘ friends of missions’, privately organised missionary societies for which the churches took no responsibility and with which, in many cases, they had little contact. In most cases the missionary had been trained in a special institution which was not officially recognized by the church. He was then ordained, not by the church but by the missionary society. When on leave he could not preach in any church as his ordination did not carry with it any right of ministry in his home country. Stephen Neill observes that such a missionary was simply the employee of a large concern in Europe, submissive to its directors, dependent on it for financial support, responsible to it alone, without direct dependence on, or responsibility to, any church body. Naturally, "the mission filled his thoughts and his horizon, and ‘the Church’ seemed to be a distant and not very important problem of the future."18

The separation of the church and mission was unfortunate and had serious consequences. A built-in mutual suspicion and opposition developed between the two. When, in 1876, Reginald Stephen Copleston arrived in Ceylon as the Anglican bishop, he set himself to re-organise the work of missionaries, chaplains and others in relation to the church. His proposals were immediately resisted by the missionaries; their resistance was so strong that the bishop withdrew from them all the Episcopal license without which they could not officiate as clergy men. This created great problems in the Anglican church in Ceylon till l880.19 This controversy makes clear the kind of difficulties that can arise when a mission is not recognized from the beginning as being an instrument of the church. However it was in the relationship between the missionary societies (and their missionaries) and the churches in the mission field that this separation became a serious issue.

The nineteenth century missionary movement manifested itself not only in the missionary societies, but also in individual missions. The individual mission was represented in two forms. The primary form was an independent missionary, with perhaps a few collaborators who looked to him for leadership; the second form was a number of independent missions banded together. William Norman Heggoy, a missionary scholar who studied the evangelical missionary movement in North Africa from 1881-1931 says that the ‘individual mission’ remained the only type of mission among the Muslims in North Africa until 1908. He points out that the looseness of organization became laxity and cites instances of missionaries who reported converts here and there, and then suddenly packed up and moved away in the hope of finding greener pastures elsewhere, seemingly leaving these converts as lambs among wolves.20 The sad part, of course, was that there was nobody to carry on the abandoned work. Heggoy writes:

It may be questioned whether the fragmentary character of the church of Christ represented by the individual type could convey any correct picture of the church to the Muslim mind. As the individual mission represented the most subjective form of Christianity, it may be questioned whether the Muslims could understand that Christianity was much more than individual salvation. It may further be questioned whether faithfulness in witnessing the Gospel of Christ is faithfulness to the complete Gospel where elements like the Church and the Sacraments are neglected. 21

The question of the relation between church and mission was seriously faced only in the 20th century. This was a central concern in the International Missionary Conferences, especially from Edinburgh 1910 to Madras 1938.

The Ecumenical Results of the Missionary Movement

The separation of church and mission in the thinking of Protestant missionary movement at its beginning led to theological and practical problems in the sending centers as well as in the mission field. However, there were positive results of the evangelical, and resultant, missionary movements. The movements that arose out of the evangelical awakening -- both missionary and lay -- were unconscious pioneers of the movement for Christian unity which was to come.

They were not ecumenical in objective. Each had some specific aim of its own - missionary or social reform - but, though not ecumenical in aim, they were ecumenical in result. They were not called into existence to promote Christian unity as such, they were built on no theory of Christian unity, but they created a consciousness of that unity, ‘a sense of togetherness’ amongst Christians of different Churches. Christians of different nations as well as of different Churches found fellowship with each other in the service of Christ and became conscious of their oneness in him.22

Co-operation in Mission

The missionary movement came out of the evangelical awakening. In its first exhilarating phase, the suddenness of the awakening, the sense of millennial expectation it aroused, the freshness of the evangelical experience, the revival movement, all served to create a powerful sense of fraternity among those who were awakened. Armenians and Calvinists, Churchmen and Dissenters, achieved an unprecedented level of unity. The distinctions between theologies, parties or even between social classes seemed trivial compared to those between the regenerate and damned. As Joseph Miller, the great Evangelical Anglican remarked, "Insignificant indeed are all the distinctions of another kind compared with these, converted or unconverted... heirs of heaven or heirs of hell".23 The ecumenical spirit of the Evangelicals is seen clearly in the following statement of an Anglican priest:

I confess, though a clergy man of the Establishment, I see no evil in joining in public worship or social intercourse, with any of the denominations of Christians. I hear what passes with candor, join where I approve, and reject whatever appears contrary to Scripture, and the plain dictates of sound reason and common sense. I am well aware this comes not up to the full standard of orthodoxy. But if such conduct constitutes a bad churchman, I feel not anxious to be accounted a good one?24

Evangelicals realized that they shared an experience that marked them off decisively from all others and gathered them together in the fellowship of an invisible church of Christ to which all ‘vital’ Christians belonged. The evangelical experience was not a matter of theological reflection, but rather a general experiential crisis rooted in a deep seated sense of sinfulness and spiritual insufficiency and a thirst for assurance of personal salvation. Non-conformists and churchmen alike rejoiced to find that others had fought through the same spiritual and temporal conflicts as themselves. For them, "If the theologies could divide, experience could unite". 25

Even in doctrine, the Evangelicals sensed that they were chosen together. They held in common not only the Bible but also the leading doctrine they believed it contained, including original sin, justification by faith, and illumination and sanctification by the Holy Spirit. The central doctrine that transcended in importance all the others, was justification by faith. Here the Anglican Evangelicals felt more in common with the Methodists or the Dissenters than with the High Church Anglicans. They had experienced the same salvation as the others. Though Episcopalians, they did not hold with the high church Anglicans that episcopacy was the esse of the church. It was ancient, apostolical and beneficial, but not of dominical authority. Many of the Evangelical Anglicans experienced a conflict of mind and heart. They knew in their hearts and minds that they were respectable and loyal members of the national church; but they also knew in their hearts that they were Evangelicals sharing with other Evangelicals a common faith and experience that transcended denominational boundaries and theological parties.

The most important area in which the Evangelicals co-operated was in the area of mission. For the Evangelicals, the principal task was to preach the Gospel to the heathen; and one of the greatest evils of the time was denominational bigotry that needed to be destroyed. Roger Martin mentions that in 1794, Melville Home, in his letter on Missions addressed to the Protestant ministers of British churches, observed that a missionary should be far removed from narrow bigotry and possess a spirit that was truly catholic. He said:

It is not Calvinism, it is not Arminianism, but Christianity that he is to teach. It is not the hierarchy of the Church of England, it is not the principle of Protestant Dissenters that he has in view to propagate. His object is to serve the Church Universal.26

Unfortunately, this dream of the Evangelicals did not materialize in the mission field and hence, a major concern of the ecumenical movement today remains the issues of faith and order.

The protestant missionary enterprise was characterized in the beginning by co-operation across national and denominational lines. In certain cases people from different denominations co-operated in founding missionary societies. The London Missionary Society (LMS) was a common effort of British Evangelicals from four or more denominations. At the general meeting of the Society in 1795, David Bogue declared:

We have now before us a pleasing spectacle. Christians of different denominations, although differing in points of Church government, united in forming a society for propagating the Gospel among the heathen. This is a new thing in the Christian Church ... Here are Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Independents all united in one society, all going to form its law, to regulate its institutions, and manage its various concerns. Behold us here assembled with one accord to attend the funeral of bigotry. And may she be buried so deep that a particle of her dust may ever be thrown up on the face of the earth. 27

In the ‘fundamental principles’ of the society, adopted in 1796, it was stated:

That its design is not to send Presbyterianism, Independency, Episcopacy, or any other forms of Church order and government (about which there may be difference of opinion among senior persons), but the glorious Gospel of the blessed God, to the heathen; and that it shall be left (as it ought to be left) to the minds of the persons whom God may call into the fellowship of 1-us Son for them, to assume for themselves such forms of Church government as to them shall appear most acceptable to the word of God. 28

There was also co-operation between different societies in the early period of the missionary movement. R. Pierce Beaver in his book, The Ecumenical Beginnings, gives a detailed account of the early efforts in co-operation.29 The Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the London Missionary Society (LMS) employed Germans, Swiss and Swedes, both Lutheran and Reformed. Janikes’ Seminary in Germany supplied missionaries for British and Dutch societies. The Basel Missionary Society (1815) not only sent its people directly, but also supplied missionaries for the CMS and LMS and pastors for Reformed, Lutheran and Evangelical Churches in the USA. The Swedish Missionary Society despite its solidly Lutheran constituency, appointed Moravian and English Wesleyans to its governing board and for more than a decade made grants to the Basel, London, Wesleyan and Moravian societies. 30 The SPCK (the Anglican society) supported German Lutheran clergy in several missions in India.31 Each missionary society published news about the activities of others in its magazine.

Thus according to Beaver, the early Protestant missionary enterprise was drawn together, influenced and supported one another, and felt a sense of unity and fellowship not known to many in the Church in a time of denominational loyalty and exclusiveness. The very battle against indifference, inertia, and official opposition, which they had to wage for the recognition of missionary privilege and obligation, sharpened their sense of unity and common purpose.32

But as years passed, as mission boards grew in strength, and as denominationalism asserted itself, this noteworthy development almost wholly disappeared. The LMS, which was started as a non-denominational society, eventually became principally a Congregationalist Board. Similarly, in America. the American Board of Commissonaries for Foreign Missions, at first a non-denominational agency, later became an organ of the Congregational Church.33 Questions were raised in the mission field regarding the creed, ministry and order that should be given to a congregation in Africa or Asia. The answer was the creed or the ministry of the missionary’s ‘home church’. Thus denominational churches arose in the mission field. In several instances, this slowed down the early co-operation in mission. The period between 1820 and 1830 was to be a turning point for Anglo-Lutheran collaboration in India. In those years an almost full anglicanization was carried out throughout the South Indian missions of the SPCK and CMS. Bishop Middleton of Calcutta insisted that Anglican societies should send out to India only men with Anglican ordination. In 1825, Bishop Heber in India re-ordained three German Lutheran missionaries.34 From the history of the missionary movement of this period we must note that mission certainly raises the question of unity, but unity cannot avoid serious consideration of ecclesiological issues. That is, unity, if it is to last, cannot be kept at the pragmatic and practical level of co-operation and comity in missions.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Protestant missionary organizations in most countries were pursuing their own courses independently of other societies. Earlier examples of co-operation largely disappeared as each missionary society advanced its own program and sent its own denominational missionaries. The missionaries in the field were the first to feel the tragedy of division among the churches.

Even as early as 1906, Gustav Warneck, the German mission historian had suggested that instead of establishing new missionary societies, an endeavor should be made towards the union of missionary societies. "We have diffusion more than enough," he wrote, "If it is still carried further upon principle, it must ultimately lead to the breaking up of the evangelical missions to atoms ... separation is weakness, conciliation is strength."35

The Serampore missionaries in India were strict Baptists. When the Baptist society was formed in England, it was a denominational society; William Carey himself felt that it should be so considering the denominational situation of the time. They had kept the non-Baptist away from the Lord’s table. However, in India, under the insistence of William Ward who was one of the three original missionaries, they resolved to be ‘Catholic’. "We could not doubt," wrote Ward, "that Watts, Edwards, Brainard, Dodridge, and Whitefield, although not Baptists, had been welcomed to His table by our Lord. On what grounds should we exclude such? Rather than engage in a furious controversy about baptism, to the gratification of Satan, while people perish, we rejoice to shake off this apparent moroseness that has made us unlovely to our fellow Christians."36

Thus, the resolution of the Serampore missionaries was to be ‘Catholic’. The word ‘Catholic’ is very often a misunderstood and misused term. Unfortunately it has been claimed and used by racial, denominational and sectarian churches. The word really speaks of openness, wholeness and ecumenism rather than a quality of separation. It has nothing to do with the structure of ministry in the church, or the practice of baptism. The Serampore missionaries also raised a very fundamental question. What right have we to prevent people from the Lord’s table, when the Lord welcomes them. It must be stressed that in the history of the Church, it has been the people engaged in mission in the world who have often raised fundamental questions about the nature of the church, its catholicity and unity. This was so in the case of the early church. It is in this sense that mission was the originator of the modern ecumenical movement.

Conferences in the Mission Fields

In 1806, William Carey proposed to the Baptist Missionary Society in England that a World Missionary Conference be held in the Cape of Good Hope in 1810, to be repeated every ten years. He pointed out that, "We should understand better in two hours than by two years of letters". To this proposal, Fuller, the Secretary of the society replied:

I admire Carey’s proposal, though I can not say that I approve. It shows an enlarged mind, and, I have heard them say that great men dream differently from others. This is one of Carey’s pleasing dreams. But, seriously, I see no important object to be attained by such a meeting, which might not quite well be realized without. And in the gatherings of all denominations there would be no unity, without which we had better stay at home.37

If William Carey’s dream was not realized immediately on a world scale, it found partial and significant fulfillment on a national, regional and /or local basis. From 1825 onwards gatherings of missionaries of various nationalities and denominational allegiances were held in India, Japan, China and Latin America. They were concerned with the needs and problems of the missionary enterprise in their particular areas. They did much to foster, as well as express, a unity which over arched denominational differences.38 Japan’s first Missionary Conference was held in 1872 in Yokohama. Recognizing that denominational divisions ‘obscure the oneness of the church’, the Conference unanimously resolved to work for the advent in Japan of a United Church of Christ. There were several missionary conferences in Shanghai, China, from 1877. At the third conference held in Shanghai in 1907, Christian Unity was an important consideration. The missionaries urged that the most immediate pressing step was the unification of the Chinese churches holding the same ecclesiastical order.

The most prominent motif running through all these regional and national conferences was co-operation in mission. Theirs was a pragmatic approach to Christian co-operation for the sake of evangelistic efficiency. The central purpose of such meetings was the exposition and discussions of the facts and problems of missionary work. The meetings also provided opportunity for special fellowship and social intercourse. It helped dissipate suspicion, prevent misunderstandings and create an atmosphere of friendliness and co-operation. There was no questioning of denominational ecclesiology as such, instead they felt that there was sufficient spiritual unity among them to co-operate in missions. However in grappling with missions and co-operation, it began to dawn on many of them that disunity was a source of weakness for the spread of the Gospel and some expressed the need for church unity. The result of such conferences was the establishment of several union institutions such as colleges and hospitals. Another result was the acceptance of ‘comity’ in missionary work. Comity meant basically the division of territory and assignment of spheres of occupation including delineation of boundaries on the one hand, and non-interference in another mission’s affairs on the other. Non-interference involved more than avoidance of competition; it also involved mutual recognition and common agreement in the employment of workers, their salaries, standards of membership in the churches, transfer of membership, the adoption of similar standards of discipline and respect for each other’s discipline.

The missionary conferences in the mission field not only acknowledged that disunity was a source of weakness for the spread of the Gospel, but also asked whether or not it was the aim of all missionary work to plant, in each non-Christian nation, one undivided Church of Christ. The World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh stated that throughout the mission field there was an earnest and growing desire for closer fellowship, and for the unity of the broken Church of Christ. It said:

While we may differ from one another in our conception of what unity involves and requires, we agree in believing that our Lord intended that we should be one in a visible fellowship, and we desire to express our whole hearted agreement with those who took part in the great conference of Shanghai, in holding that the ideal object of missionary work is to plant in every non-Christian nation one united Church of Christ. ... The Church in Western lands will reap a glorious reward from its missionary labours, if the church in the mission field points the way to a healing of its divisions and to the attainment of that unity for which our Lord prayed.39

Behind all practical schemes of union in the mission field, there were two divergent approaches to union. One approach emphasized the things which are common to all Christians. Those who believed in God the Father of Jesus Christ, who worshiped and obeyed Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, who believed in the Holy Spirit, in the forgiveness of sins, and the life everlasting, and who accepted the Christian Scriptures as their authority and guide, appeared to be already united by their own faith and experience in a fellowship so intimate and real that the matters on which they differed must sink to a subordinate place. In the face of non-Christian systems of life and thought, the things which separated Christians from one another were nothing when compared with those which separated Christians from those who had not apprehended God in Christ. Those who held this view were inclined towards forming a federation of Christian churches. The other approach placed greater emphasis on those things which divided Christians. According to them some of the things which divided Christians were essential aspects of divine revelation or essential means of Grace. To surrender them would equate with being unfaithful to a sacred trust, a failure to pass on unimpaired to future generation of Christians, great necessaries of faith and life which have been committed to their safekeeping. Their approach was one of organic unity of the church. To achieve such a unity, agreement on ecclesiological issues would be necessary.40 The discussions of unity in the missionary conferences in the mission fields rightly anticipated the future discussions in the Faith and Order Movement in the twentieth century.

There were also efforts to unite, in a close and organic union, churches belonging to the same ecclesiastical polity. The first instance of a union of Presbyterian churches in the mission field took place in Japan in 1877. Similar unions took place in China, India, Korea, British Central Africa and several other countries. In 1907, the Congregational and Presbyterian churches in South India came together to form the South India United Church. and the Centenary Missionary Conference in Shanghai in 1907 resolved to work towards the formation of a Christian Federation of China.

Contribution of ‘Younger’ Churches

Although the missionary conferences were mainly concerned with the co-operation of missionaries and societies in the mission field, their discussions led to the wider question of the unity of the church. One of the most important reasons for such a development was the pressure exerted by ‘younger’ churches for unity. The Edinburgh report made this clear.

Not only is the ideal of a United Church taking more and more definite shape and color in the minds of foreign missionaries at work in non-Christian lands, but it is also beginning under the influence of the growing national consciousness in some of these countries, to capture the imagination of the indigenous Christian communities; for whom the sense of a common national life and a common Christianity is stronger than the appreciation of the differences which had their origin in controversies remote from the circumstances of the Church in mission lands. The influence of the national feeling is most powerful in China. 41

The Edinburgh Conference was certainly right when it said that it was under the instigation of the national movement that Christians from the younger churches, especially Christians from Asia, began to develop a sense of a common national life and a common Christianity. "The first impulse for ecumenism in Asia had its origin in Asian nationalism in the second half of the 19th century. In its origin, the Asian ecumenical movement arose as a protest movement against missionary paternalism and Western denominationalism."42 From the middle of the 19th century, when nationalism developed in China, India, and in other places in Asia, Christianity came to be suspected as a denationalizing influence and the acceptance of Christianity as a surrender to colonialism. Under the impact of nationalism there was a growth of several indigenous movements within the churches protesting against western denominationalism and trying to build up indigenous and united churches.

With regard to the unity of the church, the Chinese Christians were much ahead of the foreign missionaries. "The best and most intelligent Chinese leaders are ahead of the average missionary in desiring one Church of Christ in China", wrote E. W. Bert of the English Baptist Mission in China.43 J.C. Garritt of the American Presbyterian Mission in Nanking pointed out, "If the missionaries fail to come up to the mark, I believe the Chinese will speak out for union with no uncertain sound."44 Bishop Roots, who, after referring to the resolution of the Shanghai Conference regarding the desire to plant on Chinese soil one undivided Church, wrote:

The alternative to this requirement seems to be that we forfeit our position of leadership among the Christian faces of China; because the rising national spirit is largely imbued with a kind of religious enthusiasm, and the most serious patriots among the Chinese undoubtedly look to the Christians of China as furnishing a strong support to their efforts for the development of the Chinese national unity. On the other hand, the leading Christians of China undoubtedly believe that one reason why they should be Christians and propagate Christianity in China is that they will thereby render the greatest service to their country; and therefore Christian zeal has come to many as a matter of patriotic obligation. These two forces work together irresistibly, demanding one Church for China which the missionaries of the Centenary Conference declared it their purpose to establish. And if the missionaries can not supply this demand for leadership in the practical development of Christian unity amongst the Chinese Christians, that leadership will undoubtedly arise outside the rank of the missionaries, and perhaps even outside the ranks of the duly authorised ministers of the Christian Church in China.45

What is said of China is also true of India. About the situation in India, J.N. Faraquhar wrote in 1906, that "the rise of national feeling throughout India and the desire to prove the capacity of the Indians as such is one of the most remarkable features of public life today. Passions and convictions are quite as strong within the Church as outside."46 It was not surprising that the initiative for church union in India came from Bengal where national stirrings were felt more strongly than in other places. In Bengal, a group of Christians, under the leadership of Kali Charan Banerjea (who was very active in the Indian National Congress) formed the Christo Samaj in 1887. The purpose of Christo Samaj was to propagate Christian truth and promote Christian unity. They hoped to gather all Indian Christians within it, thereby eliminating denominationalism. They accepted only the Apostle’s creed as a doctrinal basis, which for the organizers provided the broadest basis possible. They were critical of the Western missions for transplanting the theological and ecclesiastical differences of the West to India, thereby dividing the Indian Christians into numerous groups. At the Bombay Missionary Conference in 1892, K.C. Banerjea said that the Indian Church should be one, not divided, native not foreign. He made a distinction between substantive and adjective Christianity. Substantive Christianity consisted of the essentials of Christian faith as expressed in the Apostle’s creed. The essential should never be changed. Adjective Christianity was all that developed in the course of time for the purpose of protecting and conserving the basic truths such as confessional statements and organizational forms. It could change from place to place.47

Not only in Bengal but also in other places there were protest movements against Western denominationalism. A Western India Native Christian Alliance was founded in Bombay in 1871, with the same objective in view as Christo Samaj. In 1886. a group of Christians in Madras, under the leadership of Parani Andy formed a Native Church of India. Their intention was to build up a national church comprising all Christian denominations and sects. For them, since Christianity was Asiatic in origin, it was unreasonable for Indian Christians to adhere to different Western denominations which were the products of political revolution and dissentions in Europe. The extent to which the tragedy of Western denominationalism occupied the minds of the Indian Christians was shown in 1879 when the Synods of the Church Missionary Society and the American Presbyterian Church in India met in Amritsar and Lahore respectively. At both these Synods, the Indian clergy frankly expressed the opinion that the difficulties which stood in the way of the establishment of a national church, were caused solely by Western missionaries.

The Western missionary historians have often forgotten the contributions made by the ‘younger churches’ in Asia to unity movements. They speak almost exclusively of the Western missionary movement in the 19th century as the originator of the modern ecumenical movement and ignore, or forget, the contributions made by Asian Christians. As noted earlier, the missionary conferences in the mission field were concerned mainly with the co-operation in mission for the sake of evangelistic efficiency and not with unity as such. The real impetus for unity came from the Asian Christians who, under the inspiration of the national movement, took the Initiative for Christian unity and for the building up of indigenous churches. In fact it was the protest of the Asian Christians against Western denominationalism and missionary paternalism which led to church unity discussions in some of the missionary conferences. The Asians not only initiated ecumenical ventures in Asia, but also contributed, through the missionary movement, to the ecumenical developments in the West. It is this contribution of Asian Christians to the emergence of the 20th century ecumenical movement that is often ignored by western ecumenical historians. About this Kaj Baago writes:

It has often been pointed out that it was first and foremost the situation in the ‘mission fields’ in Asia and Africa which gave rise to the ecumenical movement, also in the West. Transplanted to another soil outside Europe, the denominational differences suddenly seemed not only absurd, but harmful. Generally the missionaries at the end of the 19th century have been given credit for seeing this and having started the discussion which led to the Ecumenical Movement. It is a question, however, whether the credit should not go to the Indian, Chinese, and Japanese Christians who started the protest movements against western denominationalism. Seen in that perspective, the Christo Samaj in Calcutta and the National Church in Madras are not without historical significance.48

The Chinese and the Indian Christians were eager to establish one united indigenous Church in their respective countries, but not in opposition to the Western Churches. Nor were they interested in the unity of the church for its own sake. Their ecumenical efforts were directed towards two objectives: to help in the unity of their nation and to help in the spread of the Gospel. As we noted earlier, many Chinese undoubtedly looked to the Christians of China to furnish support for their efforts in developing Chinese national unity. Many Christians in China wanted to propagate Christianity because that would render the greatest service to their country. Ecumenism in Asia, in its origin, was a search to discover Asia and the Christian Gospel for each other.

Missionary Conferences In The West

The conferences in the mission field, the criticism raised against western denominationalism, and the attempts made to organize united churches by the Christians of ‘younger churches’, had their repercussions on the missionary societies and churches in the West. The Edinburgh Conference noted:

It is evident that the growth of the Christian Church in Japan and China and India and Africa is producing a profound change in the religious situation, and is presenting problems of great complexity and gravity. The burden of these problems presses with special weight on those who are in the most immediate contact with the new situation. But they are problems which deeply concern also the Home Church. ...The Churches in the mission field may lead the way to unity; but they cannot move far and move safely without the co-operation of the Church at home. The great issues which confront us in the modern situation are the concern of the whole Church of Christ; the spiritual resources of the whole Church will be required to deal with them. 49

The missionary societies and the churches in the West were frightened of the new developments for unity in the mission field. They saw the possibility of churches in the mission field cutting off relations with the sending societies and churches in the West. They were also afraid of the possibility of younger churches rejecting the ecclesiastical traditions and polity of the western churches. The World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh expressed it thus:

It is true that, in the matter of unity, the mission field is leading the way; but it does not seem that the movement can advance far with safety, apart from the co-operation of the Church at home. It is undesirable that the links that bind the Churches in the mission field to their parent Churches should be severed at too early a date, or that a Church should grow up in Japan or China or India that has not intimate relations with the Church at home, to which it owes its origin. It is surely the duty of the home Church to study carefully the developments that are taking place in the mission field, to guard jealously against placing any obstacle in the way of attaining that unity which is being sought, and to watch carefully that it does not fall too far behind in leading the way It is hardly possible to secure these results unless the societies having their head quarters in Europe and America are more closely linked together than they are at present. It is essential, therefore, that there should be hearty and effective cooperation between Missionary societies at home. 50

This fear of the developments in the younger churches was a strong factor in pushing the missionary societies in the West to consider the question of co-operation and unity. Thus, as a result of the criticism of western denominations by the younger churches, their efforts to organize united churches, the discussions of church unity at missionary conferences in the mission field and the fear of the missionary societies and the churches in the West of the possibility of younger churches breaking away from the western traditions and western control, led the way to a number of conferences in the West to discuss ‘hearty and effective co-operation between missionary societies’. These conferences were forerunners of the first World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh, 1910.51

There was a series of international conferences and consultations on missions in the United States, England and Europe, beginning in Germany in 1846 and culminating in New York in 1900. Questions such as the scriptural basis of mission, co-operation and unity in the mission field and missionary training were discussed at these meetings. The Conference in New York in 1900 was called an ecumenical conference, thus introducing the term ‘ecumenical’ to its contemporary usage.

The World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh 1910 was the logical conclusion of missionary conferences in the mission field and in the West. It was also a new beginning. The Edinburgh Conference was of decisive importance in the coming into being of the modern ecumenical movement. Historians often speak of Edinburgh as the beginning of the ecumenical movement. The period after Edinburgh saw the development of three major streams of the 20th century ecumenical movement, which later joined to form the World Council of Churches: The International Missionary Council, the Life and Work Movement, and the Faith and Order Movement. If the 19th century is known as the missionary century, then the 20th century must be called the ecumenical century.



1. See A.J. Lewis, Zinzendorf, The Ecumenical Pioneer, London, SCM Press, 1962 p. 79.

2. W.A. Vissert Hooft, The Meaning of the Ecumenical Movement, London, SCM Press, 1953. p. 18.

3. A.J. Lewis, Op. cit., p.99

4. Keith R. Bridston, Mission, Myth and Reality, New York, Friendship Press, 1965. p.43.

5. Ian Bradley, The Call to Seriousness, London, 1976.

6. Ibid. p. 120.

7. S.P.Carey, William Carey, London 1926, p.7.

8. Wilhelm Andersen, Towards a Theology of Mission, London, SCM Press, 1955. p. 15.

9. K.S. Latorette, The Unquenchable Light, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1941. p. 118.

10. Ibid., p.119.

11. Stephen Neill, Creative Tension, London, Edinburgh House Press, 1959. p. 84.

12. Alec H. Vidler, The Church in the Age of Revolution, Baltimore, Penguin Books. 1965. p. 34.

13. M.A.C. Warren, "Why Missionary Societies and not Missionary Churches"?. History’s Lessons for Tomorrow’s Mission, Geneva, WSCF, 1960. p. 152.

14. Vidler, Op. cit., p. 248.

15. Max Warren, Op. cit., p. 37.

16. Eugene Stock, The History of the Church Missionary Society, London, Church Missionary Society, 1899, vol.1. p.90. At an earlier period, John Wesley was compelled to ordain ministers for the mission field in America, when the Anglican bishop of England refused to ordain candidates presented by him..

17. Stephen Neill, Op. cit., p. 84.

18. Ibid., p. 84.

19. One Hundred Years: Short History of the Church Missionary Society, London, CMS, 1899. pp. 122-123.

20. William Norman Hoggoy, Fifty Years of Evangelical Missionary Movement in North Africa 1881-1931. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Hartford Seminary Foundation, pp. 273-274.

21. Ibid., p. 151.

22. Ruth Rouse, "Voluntary Movements and the Changing Ecumenical Climate" in A History of the Ecumenical Movement, p. 310.

23. Roger H. Martin, Evangelicals United: Ecumenical Stirrings in Pre-Victorian Britain 1775-1830.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Roger H. Martin, Op. cit., p. 31.

27. Richard Lovett, The History of London Missionary Society, London, Oxford University Press 1899 vol. 1. p. 35.

28. Ibid. Vol. II. pp. 747-748.

29. Pierce Beaver, The Ecumenical Beginnings in Protestant World Mission, New York, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1962.

30. Ibid., p. 51.

31. Richy Hogg, Ecumenical Foundation, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1952, p.3.

32. Beaver, Op. cit., p. 22.

33. See Fred Field Goodsell, You Shall be My Witness, Boston, American Commissioners for Foreign Mission, 1959. The denominations who had co-operated with the Congregationalists established their own missionary societies.

34. Hans Cnattingus, Bishops and Societies, London, SPCK, 1952, pp. 122-130.

35. Gustav Warneck, Outline of a History of Protestant Missions, New York, Flemington H. Revell Co., 1906. p. 151.

36. S.P. Carey, William Carey, p. 249.

37. Ibid..

38. Not all missions co-operated in these meetings. From most of these conferences the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel remained aloof. Similarly some of the so-called ‘faith missions’ and strongly individualistic societies did not join.

39. The Report of the Commission VIII on Co-operation and Promotion of Unity of the Edinburgh Conference 1910. p. 131.

40. Ibid., pp. 133-137.

41. Ibid.. p. 84.

42. T.V. Philip, Ecumenism in Asia, Delhi ISPCK 1994, p. 139.

43. Report of the Commission VIII, Op. cit., p. 84.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid., pp. 84-85.

46. Harvest Field (New series), 17, 1906. p. 59.

47. Kaj Baago, Pioneers of Indigenous Christianity, Madras, CLS, 1960. pp. 1-12.

48. Kaj Baago, "First Independence Movements", Indian Church History Review, 1 (1967), p. 78.

49. Report of the Commission VIII., Op. cit. p. 138.

50. Ibid., p. 143.

51. Apart from missionary movement, there were other areas of Christian activity in which a sense of unity in fellowship and purpose was being experienced, such as the Evangelical Alliance(formed in 1846), the Bible Society, the YMCA, the YWCA and the Student Christian Movement. The youth movements not only supplied future missionaries but they also provided a training ground for the leaders of the ecumenical movement.