Chapter Six: The Third Major Recession (A.D. 1750 – A.D. 1815)

The Unquenchable Light
by Kenneth Scott Latourette

Chapter Six: The Third Major Recession (A.D. 1750 – A.D. 1815)

In the eighteenth century came a new recession in the Christian tide. It was neither so prolonged nor so severe as its two predecessors. While the boundary dates, A.D. 1750 and A.D. 1815, are only approximate, it is clear that the period was very much shorter than the other two. Like the other two, it was marked by losses of territory and threats to the continuation of the faith in the chief centers in which the influence of Jesus was strongest.

The actual losses in territory were not great. In Japan the persecution which had commenced late in the sixteenth became more acute in the seventeenth century. The Christians decreased and the survivors were forced to conceal their religion. In China the number of Christians, at best only a minority, remained about stationary in the eighteenth century and the morale of the Christian communities suffered. In Spanish and Portuguese America the rate of advance in winning the frontier slowed down. In Paraguay, once flourishing Christian communities broke up and disappeared. At the close of the eighteenth century and in the opening years of the nineteenth century many of the missions in Spanish America were discontinued. Some of them were turned over to the secular clergy, a step which was usually followed by deterioration. Some were transferred from one order to another or disappeared completely. In Russia here and there reversions to paganism occurred among tribes recently won to the state church. The heroic but futile efforts to establish Christianity in Tibet fell into abeyance. Christianity was introduced into Korea late in the eighteenth century only to meet with recurring persecutions.

The reasons for these territorial misfortunes were numerous and most of them were not interrelated. In part they were due to the decline of the two nations, Spain and Portugal, whose imperial expansion and zealous support had been so largely responsible for the spread of the faith beginning with the close of the fifteenth century. The reasons for that decay are obscure, but seem riot to have arisen from anything inherent in the Christian faith which these peoples professed. Being stagnant, however, Spain and Portugal did not push missions as they had once done. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Society of Jesus, which had been a leader in the propagation of the Roman Catholic form of the faith, was expelled from the domains of Spain, Portugal, and France, the outstanding Roman Catholic colonial powers of the day, and therefore the ones through which most of the Roman Catholic contacts with non-Christian peoples had been made, and then was dissolved by the Pope. This proved a severe blow to missions in several regions. It was responsible for the collapse in Paraguay, where the Jesuits had been in charge, and contributed to the weakening of the Church in some other parts of Latin America and in China and India. In China persecutions had much to do with the stationary nature of the Christian community. These arose partly from the fact that the Manchu Dynasty, then ruling the Empire, was beginning to show the first signs of the disintegration which was to end it over a century later and, as one of these symptoms, was timorous of anything which carried the least flavor of rebellion. It was, therefore, suspicious of all secret or semisecret religious groups and among these classified the Christians. Moreover, a prolonged and bitter controversy among the missionaries over the proper attitude toward some important Chinese customs, or rites, weakened the approach to the Chinese. Widespread skepticism which dealt severe blows to the Church in Europe undercut religious conviction and slowed down the propagation of the faith. This was associated with a rationalism which penetrated the Church itself. Partly as an outgrowth of this rationalism was the Deism which declared its belief in a universal "natural religion," the fruit of human insight and reason, and which decried as untenable the special revelation which was Christianity’s claim to uniqueness. Rationalism affected both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, and Deism originated in Protestant circles, but both made serious inroads upon Roman Catholicism, particularly in the strongest of the Roman Catholic powers of the century, France. Then came a series of wars and revolutions which upset the old political and social order. The British drove the French out of North America and so ended for a time the widely scattered French missions among the Indians. The American Revolution was accompanied by a lowering of the religious vitality of the nascent United States. It was not until late in the 1790’s and early in the 1 800’s that the revivals again broke forth. On the Continent of Europe the French Revolution and the wars which accompanied and followed it dealt the Church, and especially the Roman Catholic Church, severe blows. For a time few new Roman Catholic missionaries could be sent and little financial support could be provided those who were already at work. On top of the American and French Revolutions, and in part as an outgrowth of them and of the Napoleonic Wars, came a series of revolutions which disrupted the established order in Latin America, the area in which the faith had had its largest geographic expansion in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church was largely deprived of its European-born leadership, many of the frontier missions came to an end, and the difficult adjustments to the governments which succeeded the colonial regime weakened the Church. In some sections of Latin America the Church became the strongest bulwark of the old social and economic regime, a guardian of a disappearing society. It was in danger of perishing with the old order with which it was associated. Even though that danger did not fully materialize, weakness and decline in morale overtook the Church in what had seemingly been the scene of some of its greatest triumphs in the preceding period. From this brief rehearsal it must be obvious that no factor common to all underlay these various causes of territorial loss.

In Europe itself Christianity met with reverses. The morale of the Church did not sink to so low a level as in the previous two eras of recession, but it suffered severely. Rationalism brought a numbing of religious zeal. The University of Halle, which had been a center of Pietism and of missionary impulse in Lutheranism, was captured by rationalism, at the cost of some of the limited Protestant enterprise for spreading the faith. The romanticism which was a reaction against cold rationalism did not always work a return to the Christian faith. Usually the skeptics continued a formal connection with one or another of the churches. However, in the extreme stage of the French Revolution there was open repudiation of Christianity. Many with whom the French Revolution was popular were inclined to scoff at Christianity as an outworn superstition from which man was to be freed in the new day. Napoleon Bonaparte, while retaining an outward allegiance to the Church, dealt most cavalierly with the Pope. The wars associated with his name were not conducive to warm religious life.

However, in this period of seeming decline, as in those before it, Christianity was putting forth new movements which in succeeding years were to issue in an unprecedented strengthening of the influence of Jesus. This was particularly apparent in Protestantism.

In the seventeenth century, shortly after the deep suffering and prolonged devastation wrought in Germany by the Thirty Years’ War, new vigor had appeared in German Protestantism and had taken the form of Pietism. Out of Pietism and refugee remnants which survived the near erasure of Protestantism in Bohemia and Moravia during the Thirty Years’ War came the Moravians. Although never a large group, in the first half of the eighteenth century the Moravians inaugurated missions in widely scattered sections of the globe and contributed to what was eventually the much more extensive Wesleyan movement. The revival associated with the name of John Wesley was growing in strength in the second half of the eighteenth century and was making a profound impression in the British Isles, the British West Indies, and the United States. The awakening in British Protestantism was much broader than Wesley and the Methodists. It was becoming apparent in some of the older Nonconformist bodies. In the Church of England it was represented by the Evangelicals, a strain which owed much to John Wesley but was not solely the outcome of his labors. About the turn of the century, revivals broke out in the United States, especially along the frontier, and were the means of gro~tly strengthening the Protestantism of that country and of planting and reinforcing the faith in the new settlements of the West and North.

Moreover, these years of revolutions and wars witnessed the inception of so great an expansion of Protestant Christianity that they are sometimes said, although inaccurately, to mark the beginning of Protestant missions. It was in 1792, when the French Revolution was upsetting the monarchy in France and threatening the Roman Catholic Church, that William Carey stimulated the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society in England. It was in the period of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, when England was threatened by the conflagration on the Continent, that such organizations as the London Missionary Society, the Church Missionary Society, and the British and Foreign Bible Society came into being. In 1797, while Holland was under the French heel, the Netherlands Missionary Society was formed. In New England, when the economic life of that section was suffering from the Napoleonic Wars and almost on the eve of the Second War with Great Britain, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions came into existence, the oldest large society in the United States for foreign missions. While that war with Great Britain was being waged, the Baptists of the United States organized for the conduct of foreign missions. When England was engaged in her life-and-death struggle with Napoleon, Carey, now in India, was proposing periodical interdenominational and international gatherings for co-operative planning for the world-wide preaching of the Christian Gospel. This dream did not then come to fruition, but it anticipated by a little more than a century the formation, shortly after the next general European war, of the International Missionary Council, which was to undertake this very function.

Here, then, was further evidence of that vitality within Christianity which so often has broken out in the darkest days in unexpected places and later has carried the influence of Jesus to a new high-water mark.

Had we lived between A.D. 1750 and A.D. 1815, however, we might have had no such confident or cheerful picture of the future. Again an old order was passing in connection with which Christianity had enjoyed a great expansion. That particular stage of expansion had slowed down and in places had become a recession. It was from a wing of Christianity, Protestantism, which thus far had been fairly limited geographically and, with some exceptions, had not been especially active in propagating its faith among non-Christian peoples, that an advance was beginning which in the following period was to take on dimensions of unprecedented magnitude.