VI. History of Missions5



Early Church

Many early Christians were persecuted under Roman rule. But the faith and witness of these Christians so impressed the Romans that in A.D. 325, the Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea and made Christianity the religion of the State6. Missionaries today can learn from the example of the early Christians who were persecuted. Faithfulness even in times of persecution results in church growth.


Roman Catholic Church

At some point in the early history of the church, the church became organized as the Roman Catholic Church. Catholics and Protestants disagree regarding the beginning date for the Catholic Church. Catholics hold that the line of bishops overseeing the Catholic Church can be traced to the Apostle Peter. Protestants oppose that view, and claim that the church was placed under the authority of Roman Catholic Popes much later. These opposing claims are addressed in more detail on the website below. At the website, see “The Complete Listing of Popes” and “The Papacy: Its History, Dogmas, Genius, and Prospects.”


The Catholic Church was the one official Church until the Eastern Orthodox Church split from the Catholic Church in A.D. 1054. Tension within the Catholic Church culminated with the filioque controversy (see “Nicene Creed” in the training module “Theology”), resulting in the split.

According to Ralph Winter, the Roman Catholic Church officially did little from A. D. 400 to 1200 to promote missions. However, informal missionary efforts, notably Irish evangelists and their Anglo-Saxon followers, spread the Gospel throughout Europe. Monks established mission compounds that played a key role in keeping the Christian faith alive during times of warfare. Conquering tribes, first the Barbarians and later the Vikings, swept across Europe and were converted to Christianity by their captive population. During this war, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (a small kingdom that in the southern and southwestern portion of what is now England), allowed worship in the Anglo-Saxon language of the local people. Changing worship from a foreign language (Latin) to the language of the local culture promoted mission efforts. 7

Winter writes that from A.D. 1200 to 1600, two mission efforts stand out. First, the Crusades, led by descendants of the Vikings, were an attempt to capture the Holy Land of Palestine by military force from the Muslim rulers. This was disastrous both for Christians and Muslims8. Christ always invites people to follow him voluntarily. He does not try to force people to believe in him. And if a person chooses to convert from Christianity to another faith, that person is free to do so. In contrast, people of some other faith may persecute, disown, or even kill people who convert to Christianity.

Second, the Franciscans (Friars) were faithful missionaries that advanced the Gospel. Sadly, a large portion of the Franciscans died as one-third to one-half of the European population was killed by the Bubonic Plague during the fourteenth century. From A.D. 1600 to 2000, Catholic missionaries traveled outside of Europe to various other parts of the world9. Roman Catholic Women’s Orders have played a role in mission work around the globe.


Eastern Orthodox Church

The Eastern Orthodox Church is a compilation of churches in eastern countries. The Eastern Orthodox Churches are the predominant Christian Churches in the countries of Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, and Serbia. To see the number of adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and Protestant Churches, go to the following website:


For a summary of missions outreach in Eastern Orthodox Churches, search for “missionary, ” then see “Orthodox Missions” at the following website:




Protestant Churches

Ralph Winter describes three eras in Protestant missions. The first era was from 1792-1910, in which missions were conducted on the coastlands of Africa and Asia and islands of the Pacific. The second era was from 1865-1980 in which missions were conducted in the inland areas in a thousand areas of the world.The third era began in 1934, and is focused on reaching the unreached peoples of the world. There are some 10,000 people groups in the world. Unreached peoples differ so dramatically in ethnicity, language, or sociological traits from cultures in existing churches that missions efforts are needed to reach them.10 Churches may be planted throughout a country, and yet fail to reach certain peoples. Existing churches in an area may be reaching the poor, and failing to reach the rich. Existing churches may include people of one dialect, and excluding people of another dialect. Existing churches may include one tribe, and exclude a tribe that has a history of animosity toward the first tribe.

Winter writes that prior to 1792, Protestant missions were negligible. Since then, four men played key roles in advancing Protestant missions outreach. First, William Carey, an Englishman in his twenties, wrote “An Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens.” This analysis, published in 1792, inspired a few of Carey’s friends to join with him in forming a tiny mission organization that later became known as the Baptist Mission Society. Carey then had the financial means to serve as a missionary near Calcutta, India. His little book quickly inspired others to form mission societies in London, Scotland, Holland, England, and the United States. Protestants learned from Carey that mission organizations are necessary to accomplish the Great Commission. Just as Catholic Missions during Medieval times were accomplished primarily not by local parishes, but by monastic orders, so Protestant mission groups, rather than local churches, became the primary means of international missions. Both local churches and international mission organizations are necessary to accomplish the work of the Christian Church.11

Second, Hudson Taylor, another Englishman in his twenties, founded China Inland Mission in 1865. He served as a missionary to China and encouraged others to form mission organizations. As a result of his influence, over 40 new faith mission organizations were started. Taylor was responsible for initiating the second era of Protestant Missions—inland missions.12

Third, Cameron Townsend, missionary to Guatemala, was impressed with the need for Bibles in the languages of peoples of the world. Forming Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1942, Townsend was able to produce Bibles in the languages of many frontier tribes.13

Fourth, Donald McGavran, missionary to India beginning in 1923, wrote about overcoming social barriers to the Gospel. McGavran discovered “homogeneous units” of people, which today are known as “people groups14.” McGavran founded the Fuller School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary.15 Students played an important role in missions of the nineteen and twentieth centuries. Inspired by William Carey’s writings, five American college students met in 1806 for what became known as the “Haystack Prayer Meeting.” From this grew a mission organization—the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. In the 1880’s and 1890’s, the Student Volunteer MovementFor Foreign Missions produced 20,000 international missionaries, and 80,000 volunteers in missions at home.16

often have led in mission organizations. By 1865, unmarried American women organized to send out single women as Protestant missionaries.17 The largest Protestant mission organization for women in the world was formed in 1888 as the Women’s Missionary Union, Auxiliary to Southern Baptist Convention.18 The Women’s Missionary Union encouraged both men and women to serve as missionaries. Lottie Moon was a prominent Southern Baptist missionary, who gave her life to missionary work in China. Moon began the work in China in 1873, and spent 41 years on the field. She shared her food with the Chinese, and eventually died of hunger related causes.

5 Reference material on church history from the perspective of different branches of the church and from the erroneous perspective of cults is given on the website: http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/hall.htm

The American People’s Encyclopedia
, s.v. “Constantine I or Constantine The Great.”

7 Ralph D. Winter, “The Kingdom Strikes Back: Ten Epochs of Redemptive History,” in Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, The Notebook, (Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 1999) 154-158.

8 Winter, “The Kingdom Strikes Back,” 158-162.

Winter, “The Kingdom Strikes Back,” 158-162.

10 Ralph D. Winter, “Four Men, Three Eras, Two Transitions: Modern Missions,” in Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, The Notebook, (Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 1999) 180-186.

11 Ralph D. Winter, “Four Men,” 180-186. See also Ralph D. Winter, “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission, in Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, The Notebook, (Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 1999) 170-176.

12 Ralph D. Winter, “Four Men,” 182-183.

13 Ralph D. Winter, “Four Men,” 184.

14 Ralph D. Winter, “Four Men,” 184.

15 Donald A. McGavran, “The Bridges of God,” , in Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, The Notebook, (Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 1999) 365.

16 Ralph D. Winter, “Four Men,” 181,183.

17 Ralph D. Winter, “Four Men,” 181.

18 See the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_Missionary_Union