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American Foreign Mission Movement, c. 1870–1920s

Summary and Keywords

The American foreign mission movement at the turn of the 20th century adopted as its watchword “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” The rapid expansion of missionary boards and the enthusiasm of volunteers and supporters corresponded with European and US colonial expansion around the world. For many evangelical observers, the opening of the world seemed to offer the greatest opportunity yet to share the gospel with all. “The crisis of missions,” as one prominent author put it, required that Christians recognize the spiritual importance of this moment. Divine providence appeared to be removing obstacles to evangelization. Failure to act decisively would be a form of apostasy, an abandonment of responsibility toward God and the world.

Inspired by a revivalistic spirit, women and men joined a growing list of missionary and moral reform organizations. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions continued the work it had started in the early 19th century. New organizations like the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions and the World Student Christian Federation created networks that linked Christian evangelists and communities around the world. They published magazines, books, and pamphlets and sent inspectors, organizers, and speakers on tours of the United States and Great Britain and on grand transoceanic voyages. In 1910 the movement celebrated progress and planned for next steps at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Steeped in a sense of moral and racial superiority, attendees promised to transform the world.

Women found an increasingly important place in the US foreign missionary movement, especially as evangelical work diversified to include the establishment of schools and medical missions. American women labored in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere and eventually made up the majority of workers in the field. Women brought with them an ideology of domesticity that they hoped to share with their sisters abroad. Women from the US viewed local women in the missions as socially degraded and in desperate need of moral uplift. The moral authority that came with female standing in the home seemed to explain the elevated status and Christian liberty enjoyed by American women. At the same time, as more highly educated single women entered the field, the movement created space for new models of womanhood. These “New Women” lived independent lives out in the world, apart from the confines of the home.

American missionaries at the turn of the century became deeply entangled in the imperial connections of the United States and the world. While it would be a mistake to reduce their work simply to a particular strand of imperialism, it is important to understand their connections to American expansion. Missionaries took advantage of openings created by colonial activity and contributed to the spread of American cultural, political, and economic influence at a critical moment in the development of national power in the international arena.

Keywords: missions, imperialism, Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, World Student Christian Federation, World Missionary Conference, Woman’s Board of Mission, Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, Woman’s Missionary Jubilee

The Mount Hermon One Hundred and the Growth of Foreign Missions

In the summer of 1886, in Northfield, Massachusetts, one hundred young men pledged themselves to foreign mission work in a remarkable covenant. Popular evangelist Dwight Moody and other prominent evangelical figures organized a Christian conference for 251 carefully selected students from eighty-nine colleges in the United States and Canada. Sponsored by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the organizers hoped to inspire a new generation of Christian leaders to take on the challenges of reforming their communities, their nations, and the world. The students participated in bible study, listened to prominent lecturers, prayed in small groups, played sports, and hiked through the beautiful countryside of western Massachusetts. They also asked for spiritual direction, seeking God’s will for their highest calling.

On the evening of July 16, the Reverend Arthur T. Pierson gave an impromptu address on missions that electrified his audience. Using a hand-drawn map of the world, Pierson revealed how God had prepared the way for Christianity to reach every part of the globe. Days later the sons of missionaries and several students of different nationalities, in a “meeting of ten nations,” testified that the people of the world eagerly awaited the arrival of missionaries who could share the gospel. The gathered young men responded favorably to these spiritual provocations, and the Mount Hermon One Hundred formed the vanguard of the largest student missionary movement in United States history. Two years later evangelical organizers formed the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM) to lead an interdenominational recruitment effort to identify and train missionaries for Christian service in foreign lands. Their watchword, “the evangelization of the world in this generation.”1

In the late 19th century, the United States was becoming a more powerful force in world affairs. The nation would soon enter the imperial contest to control territories from the Caribbean to the Pacific. The United States had also been instrumental in creating economic and political ties to East Asia in places like Japan, Korea, and China. Indeed, Pierson and others pointed to such events as demonstrations of Providence and an invitation—a demand really—to missionize the world. The response was enthusiastic. From the 1860s to the turn of the century, the number of missionary organizations in the United States jumped from sixteen to around ninety. The United States, for the first time, took the lead from Britain in both the number of missionaries sent abroad and in providing the theological justification for the labor. However, the link between the missionary movement and US imperialism was not necessarily straightforward. There were continuities from previous eras as well as a number of important changes within evangelical culture that supported the growth of foreign missions. To put it another way, there were both external influences and internal pressures for evangelical communities in the US that created the necessary momentum for the movement. The increase in missions and the expansion of US imperial power occurred in tandem, together at times but also in tension with one another.2

Attitudes toward specific US imperial actions varied widely, from full-throated support to deep concern about the moral implications of international entanglements. Most participants in the foreign missionary enterprise in this era believed their role was to ensure that the nation created the right kind of empire. For them, it seemed the triumph of Western and American civilization was all but inevitable. Their purpose, then, was to guarantee that this empire followed the dictates of God and fulfilled biblical prophecies. The priority for evangelical Americans remained the creation of a Christian empire, even if it would unavoidably take on some of the characteristics of American civilization.

Despite the determined efforts of American missionary societies, the actual number of converts never matched the ambitious goals that stirred the souls of believers. Nevertheless, the missionary experience left an imprint on evangelical Christianity in the United States in the form of new and expanded organizations and international networks and a large increase in the participation of laypersons, men and women, in missionary work. Overseas, the missionaries planted small Christian communities across the globe, augmented American influence abroad, and installed a string of transplanted American-style institutions, from primary schools and colleges to clinics and hospitals.3

Origins and Context

Evangelical leaders constructed this growing movement on a well-established organizational foundation. Through most of the 19th century the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was the leading missionary society in the United States. The ABCFM was an interdenominational New England–based Protestant missionary society founded with great ambition in 1810. Much like the Student Volunteer Movement later in the century, inspiration for the ABCFM came in part from student interest in evangelization of the world. At Williams College in western Massachusetts, not far from Northfield, a group of students dedicated themselves to foreign missionary work at the so-called Haystack Meeting in 1806. Several of these students joined other interested parties at Andover Theological Seminary in a group called the Brethren to prepare for their ministries abroad. Student petitions at the seminary soon convinced Protestant pastors to form the first American foreign missionary society. During the 19th century, the ABCFM sent hundreds of missionaries to places like the Sandwich Islands (Hawai‘i), the Levant (or Middle East), Burma, and India.4

Even in this era, well before the advent of formal American colonization of overseas possessions, ABCFM missionaries participated in what Emily Conroy-Krutz has explicitly labeled “Christian imperialism.” She cites the dual identities of missionaries as both Christians and Americans who hoped to take advantage of the expansion of the British Empire to convert the world. Few missionaries felt they had to choose between religious and nationalist justifications for their work. The fact that missions staffed by Americans carried American culture to foreign lands only seemed natural and providential, for these citizens acknowledged a special calling for the young nation to become a beacon of Christian liberty for the entire world. A sense of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority also supported these views.5

The ABCFM mission to Hawai‘i is an instructive example of the tandem work of religious conversion and imperial expansion. Founded in 1820, the mission quickly attracted the patronage of the Hawaiian ali’i, or ruling class. After a slow start with the general population, ABCFM missionaries managed to promote a series of revivals that converted several thousand Native Hawaiians by the late 1830s. Their schools produced one of the most highly literate societies in the world. The mission was considered such a success that ABCFM senior secretary Rufus Anderson argued that the missionaries should withdraw in order to allow the formation of a native church.

The foundation of the Hawaiian Evangelical Association in 1863 supposedly represented this important step. However, many missionaries and their families stayed in the islands. Although ABCFM policy admonished missionaries to stay out of politics, it proved almost impossible to do so in practice. The connection to the ali’i politicized the missions early on, and former missionaries and their descendants became deeply involved in Hawaiian politics and economic development. By the end of the 19th century, some of them had become strong advocates for the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, and they emerged as key figures in the annexation of the islands by the United States.

The annexation of Hawai‘i did not happen because of the mission, but no account of the overthrow is complete without addressing the role of missionaries. Titus Munson Coan, son of a prominent missionary, referred to what happened as “a fatal experiment.” Coan described what he viewed as the racial decline of Hawaiians in stark terms. “The Polynesian welcomed the trader and the missionary,” he wrote. “First he was decimated by foreign diseases, and then he succumbed to the foreign civilization itself.”6

The ABCFM continued its work through the 19th century and beyond, even as it lost some of its interdenominational character. The Reformed Dutch and German Reformed Churches and the New School Presbyterians left the organization to form their own mission boards. The ABCFM remained primarily Congregationalist. These changes in the second half of the century contributed to the increase in foreign mission activity in the United States as more institutions entered the field. Ian Tyrrell demonstrates that this growth was closely tied to a major expansion in moral reform movements in general as well as to a growing emphasis in the United States on internationalism. Tyrrell attributes these developments both to desires internal to the movements to go out and change the world and to the external stimulus provided by the emergence of energetic international networks of communication, trade, and travel.7

Tyrrell traces the reform lives of the Leitch sisters, Margaret and Mary, to make his point. “Their journey illustrates,” he writes, “the serendipitous yet cumulative nature of transnational network connections.” The sisters entered service along with their brother with the ABCFM in 1879, traveling to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). They taught Sunday school and bible classes and taught at a boarding school that became a women’s college. The sisters worked with the YMCA on Christian reform issues beginning in 1884. In 1886, Margaret became the vice president for the Ceylon Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and gathered signatures for a “polyglot” petition for the prohibition of drugs. Margaret and Mary returned to the United States but maintained their international connections. They published a book about their experiences, worked for a medical missionary society based in London, and urged the Christian Endeavor movement to internationalize. The latter was intended to strengthen faith communities and inspire Christian service within congregations through intensive spiritual and social activities for young people. The sisters remained actively engaged with the worldwide temperance movement until they retired in the 1920s. Their activities also highlight the mounting influence of women in foreign missions.8

A. T. Pierson, the minister who inspired the Mount Hermon One Hundred, became a major figure in the development of these international evangelical reform movements. Pierson was a charter member of the New York City YMCA and remained connected to the organization for decades. Ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1860, Pierson quickly emerged as a particularly dynamic church leader, speaker, and writer, and a champion of the interdenominational foreign mission movement.

A number of experiences and factors converged to form Pierson’s interest in foreign missions. As the pastor of Fort Street Church in Detroit, he created an urban congregation that thrived on openness and outreach. An enthusiastic evangelical associated with the revivalistic New School Presbyterians, Pierson operated the church as an urban mission in a growing midwestern city. Pierson also urged congregants to support Presbyterian missions abroad. In the late 1870s, he took on a more formal role in the region as a promoter of foreign missions, giving addresses on the subject and serving on various committees and boards. Pierson recognized a connection between the reform efforts of home missions in a rapidly changing nation and foreign missions in a world that seemed to be getting smaller and more interconnected. He was concerned with the salvation of wealthy congregants and the inhabitants of poor neighborhoods, immigrants and native-born Americans, and a large world population that had never been exposed to the gospel. After Detroit, he continued his work in Indianapolis and Philadelphia.9

Pierson’s task received added urgency by his adoption of premillenialism in the early 1880s. Until this time, he had believed that Christ would return after a thousand-year period of peace and prosperity brought on by the efforts of Christian men and women. These beliefs fueled his many reform projects. Inspired by George Müller, the Plymouth Brethren, and others, Pierson came to believe that the Second Coming was, in fact, real and imminent. The problems of the world could only be solved by the direct intervention of God, in the form of Christ’s return to cleanse the earth of sin and initiate the millennium.10

In theological terms, the division represented a significant crack in Protestant unity, one that would eventually lead to the opposition of so-called conservative fundamentalists, generally premillenialists, and liberal mainline churches, which maintained postmillennialist teachings. Historian William Hutchison concludes, however, that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “Opposing forces could collaborate because the principal common enterprise, converting the world to Christ, seemed more compelling than any differences; but also because they shared a vision of the essential rightness of Western civilization and the near-inevitability of its triumph.” Not until the 1920s did the differences really begin to affect the foreign mission movement in the United States.11

The Student Volunteer Movement and International Mission Networks

A. T. Pierson made his most influential contribution to the foreign mission program with the publication of his book, The Crisis of Missions, or, the Voice out of the Cloud, in 1886. The book became an instant bestseller. It circulated widely in evangelical circles in the United States and Great Britain and was translated into French and Dutch. In the book, Pierson argued that never “have such open doors of opportunity, such providential removal of barriers and subsidence of obstacles, such general preparation for the universal and immediate dissemination of the gospel, and such triumphs of grace in the work of missions, supplied such inspiration to angelic zeal and seraphic devotion.” The “crisis” he identified was the potential for failure. He wrote that this moment was “a combination of grand opportunity and great responsibility; the hour when the chance of glorious success and the risk of awful failure confront each other; the turning-point of history and destiny.” It was imperative that Christians walk through these doors and climb over any remaining obstacles to complete the work.12

Pierson took his readers on a grand tour of the world in order to demonstrate how ready it was for a great expansion of the evangelical enterprise. He addressed Islam, Judaism, and Catholicism and considered historical and contemporary conditions in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, and the Pacific. He showed how this work might reinvigorate the churches at home. This moment in history created an opportunity to work alongside the Holy Spirit in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. Failure to respond would represent a form of apostasy, a stubborn refusal to fulfill an “obligation to a lost world.”13

Pierson acknowledged that the workers were too few and the resources insufficient, but he also noticed that some of the necessary networks and institutions were beginning to form. He called for a great ecumenical council of Protestant leaders to accomplish three things. First, bring together representatives from across the world’s mission fields to bear witness to the openings that had been made in the past fifty years. Second, map the entire world so that it could be divided and distributed to the evangelical denominations best suited to work in each region. Third, agree to distribute people and resources efficiently around the globe. Inspired by what he had seen at Northfield, Massachusetts that summer, Pierson proclaimed, “the prayers which for a year have been ascending to God from disciples of every name, for a new effusion of the Holy Ghost, are beginning to be visibly and gloriously answered.”14

The Student Volunteer Movement united youthful enthusiasm with the opportunity and the need to produce what some observers referred to as the “gusher.” In the academic year after the formation of the Mount Hermon One Hundred, more than 2000 students from 162 colleges and universities signed pledge cards to become foreign missionaries. Not all of these volunteers followed through on their pledges to serve abroad, but the growth was significant. Transnational in its outlook from the beginning, the SVM recruited eight hundred American and three hundred British missionaries for various mission boards in its first eight years of operation. The numbers increased rapidly from there. There were 13,789 signed intention cards by 1904, and 8,742 volunteers had actually sailed by 1920.15

American missionaries in this era developed a global orientation that encouraged cooperation with their Anglo-Saxon allies in Canada and Britain and a willingness to coordinate with other European supporters of the movement. As Pierson suggested in The Crisis of Missions, doing so required effective communication and the creation of organizations and institutions to address the massive scale of the work. Pierson himself never served as a missionary overseas, but as a speaker, author, editor, and organizer he became one of the most important promoters of missions. He took over as editor of The Missionary Review of the World in the late 1880s. This popular publication championed the missions and provided a venue for the exchange of information and ideas.16

John R. Mott emerged as another critical organizational figure in this period. Mott was one of the Mount Hermon One Hundred, but he never served as a traditional missionary abroad. In 1888 he was designated national secretary of the Inter-Collegiate YMCA and chairman of the SVM executive committee. These positions gave him enormous influence over the growth and development of the foreign mission movement. Mott eventually gained access to wealthy industrialists and powerful politicians as he solicited support for the missions and their work. He traveled incessantly. He helped found the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) in Sweden in 1895. The WSCF gathered Christian student movements from around the world in the first truly interdenominational and interracial Protestant fellowship. The group had its first meeting in Tokyo in 1907, bringing student leaders from around the world to discuss strategies for evangelization.17

Not all Christians supported this new wave of missionary activity, at least in the form that it took. Some critics warned that the tendency to associate Western civilization with Christianity was too strong and interfered with the proper delivery of the gospel. Opponents also criticized the millenarian views of missionary leadership and the overrepresentation of missionaries from the United States.18

Nevertheless, the movement continued to gain momentum. In 1910 Christians gathered in Edinburgh, Scotland for the World Missionary Conference. Many of the student volunteers from the 1880s and 1890s had become experienced leaders of global organizations. John Mott presided, an American mission organizer leading a meeting in Britain, again demonstrating the transnational nature of the movement. Pierson was unable to attend so his son went in his place, but the meeting represented the fulfillment of his challenge to Protestant churches some twenty-five years earlier to hold a great ecumenical council on worldwide evangelization. A decade later, in 1921, many of the same leaders formed the International Missionary Council. The council organized international meetings every ten years or so to support the ongoing work of the many mission boards that now had representatives in almost every part of the world.19

“The World in this Generation”: Women and Men in Mission

The foreign mission movement adopted as its watchword, “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” John Mott used it as the title for an influential book published in 1900, a bestseller in the United States and Europe. Mott argued that Christians had an opportunity and an obligation to evangelize the world in that time. He did not claim that every person in the world would be converted or that every nation would be Christianized. Rather, he suggested that every person must have a chance to learn about the gospel and to become a true disciple of Christ. Mott wrote, “The unevangelized for whom we as Christians are responsible live in this generation; and the Christians whose duty it is to present Christ to them live in this generation.” Every person must be confronted with the choice. Whether they accepted the invitation was up to the effectiveness of the missionary and, most importantly, the spirit of God. According to Mott, the preaching of the gospel would not be superficial. It did not require a particular view on eschatological matters. Women and men from many Protestant denominations would cooperate in the endeavor, and the work would take many forms. “These,” he wrote, “are educational, literary, medical, and evangelistic.” Mott regarded the establishment of schools, the translation of the Bible, the extension of Western medicine, and the more traditional work of missions as equally indispensable in getting the job done.20

Mott’s book reflected and amplified emerging trends in the foreign mission movement at the turn of the 20th century. There were 351 Protestant mission societies in operation in 1915, with around 24,000 missionaries in the field working alongside another 109,000 indigenous staff members. These missionaries and their successors ran thousands of local schools and opened more than one hundred colleges. Within another generation, in the 1930s, the movement maintained over one thousand hospitals and employed 1350 doctors and some 13,000 missionary nurses. The proportion of workers from the United States increased dramatically, from around 25 percent in 1900 to nearly half by 1925.21

The most remarkable development in this era was the growing presence of women in mission work. Mission boards through much of the 19th century did not recognize women as missionaries because they were not ordained to teach the gospel. Mission ideology in the ABCFM emphasized Christ over culture, at least in ideal terms, which limited internal recognition of their contributions. Women primarily served as “missionary wives,” often for very long periods, providing valuable service as teachers and in other forms of outreach. By the end of the 19th century, American women were better educated and better positioned for leadership roles in the missions. They gained with the increasing emphasis on the work of laity in the missions and with the extension of mission work into education and health care. Women often had the only dependable access to indigenous women in these settings. By the early 20th century, women were the majority in the mission workforce.22

As early as 1868, Congregationalist women tried to initiate an ecumenical mission board for women. They eventually settled into the Woman’s Board of Mission, a Congregationalist organization that directly supported the ABCFM through outreach to women and children in the mission fields, sharing knowledge about missions with women at home, and preparing children to enter missionary service when they reached adulthood. Other denominations followed, such as the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Not content to serve merely as auxiliaries to the male dominated mission boards, these societies advocated for a radical expansion of the female role in mission work. By 1900, there were at least forty denominational women’s missionary societies in the United States, with around three million active women. They published their own magazines, raised money to build schools and clinics, and supported women in the field. The most significant development in increasing women’s participation in the mission movement was the growing emphasis on creating opportunities for educated single women to serve as evangelists, doctors and nurses, and teachers.23

Women added their own guiding principle to the broader watchword for the foreign mission movement, adopting “woman’s work for woman” as their fundamental missiological theory. As a practical matter, this concept meant that women would focus on bringing other women to Christ, an objective that missionary men often could not pursue effectively. Although salvation remained the stated goal, bringing “civilization” to foreign lands was an almost inescapable element of this evangelical work. Christian missionaries were never able to separate Christianization and civilization even when they claimed that the first did not require the latter. However, for women, it seemed even more central to their labors because they generally believed that non-Christian religions and local cultures kept foreign women in a degraded condition. Foreign women required both to raise their status to that of the missionaries themselves and to allow for the full flourishing of Christianity. American women often argued that Christianity and American traditions and values were together responsible for their elevated status and their liberty, limited as it was.24

This Christian liberty was rooted in domesticity, but the experience of serving as missionaries contributed to changes in gender ideology by the end of the 19th century. The culture of domesticity idealized the moral function of white middle-class women within the home. Women took on the burden of instilling and maintaining high moral character in their husbands and children. They were the true guardians of home and hearth. Women missionaries transferred these ideals to the mission field, fretting over the perceived disorder they discovered in the homes and lives of non-Christians. Married missionary women were in a position to model this idealized domestic life, but as more single women entered the field the dynamic changed in ways that mirrored stateside developments. More women, especially educated women, declared their intention to live outside the confines of the kitchen and the parlor. These “New Women” fashioned active and independent lives out in the world. They celebrated their professional and personal accomplishments. Historian Jane Hunter writes, “The mission field both attracted and trained New Women, women defined not by their domestic subordination, but by their confidence that they had something of their own to offer their fellows.”25

In China, for example, the demand for missionaries increased rapidly at the turn of the century, and women answered the call. The number of American missionaries in China doubled twice between 1890 and 1919 to 3300 workers. Around one-half of these missionaries were teachers, a response both to the desire on the part of Chinese for Western education and the shift toward a more diverse approach to missionization. The missionaries trained local converts to serve in village primary schools, but for further education Chinese girls traveled to boarding schools run by American women. American missionaries also opened the first three Chinese colleges for women in the early 20th century. These schools served 50,000 Chinese girls from grade school through college. Women were less well represented in the medical mission in China, especially as doctors. However, around three percent of the women from the United States serving in China worked as medical doctors. Many more were nurses. By 1919, the Methodists had more than twice as many women as men in China and the ABCFM had almost as many single women there as men.26

Women celebrated their achievements and looked to the future with the Woman’s Missionary Jubilee of 1910–1911. Helen Barrett Montgomery led the ecumenical effort. She would later become president of the Woman’s American Baptist Foreign Mission Society and the American Baptist Convention. Montgomery’s popular study manual, Western Women in Eastern Lands, inspired the jubilee. A prominent lineup of ecumenical speakers traveled the United States on behalf of the movement. Thousands of women in forty-eight major cities and many smaller towns gathered to listen to the speakers and to attend missionary teas, elaborate pageants, prayer meetings, and luncheons. The jubilee represented recognition of progress in the last fifty years and an attempt to gain even more momentum at the beginning of the 20th century. Unlike the Edinburgh meeting in 1910, the Woman’s Missionary Jubilee was organized entirely by women for women. Despite women making the majority of missionaries by this time, all of the members of the executive committee of the World Missionary Conference were men and around three in four official delegates were men.27

The feminization of the missionary force from the United States did not occur without controversy. For some male observers, it prompted a crisis of masculinity. As women started their own mission boards and became more involved in direct evangelization, men worried that they would divert precious resources away from the many boards already in operation. Men also agonized over the theological principles at stake in the missions. As one male missionary said, “Woman’s work in the foreign field must be careful to recognize the headship of man in ordering the affairs of the kingdom of God.” Even as the proportion of women and men shifted, these male leaders attempted to limit women’s service to other women. Yet another fear was that these changes would reduce the prestige of mission work for men as in other professions that became associated primarily with women. SVM leaders like John Mott cultivated relationships with wealthy businessmen to support the missions financially and to promote the masculinity of the labor involved. Mott and businessmen like John D. Rockefeller Jr. emphasized an active muscular Christianity and the development of Christian manhood as essential to evangelical efforts. Businessmen organized the Laymen’s Missionary Movement in 1907 to advance an image of virility and to attract more men to missionary work, all as part of the plan to evangelize the world in the current generation.28

Mission and Empire

The foreign mission movement at the turn of the century was closely linked to European and US colonization of the world. Missionaries traveled the same sea routes, rail lines, and roads as colonial officials. They benefitted directly from the expansion of imperial power throughout the world and celebrated the new opportunities as part of God’s grand plan. Sometimes participants in the movement critiqued the worst features of imperialism, but they generally failed to question the underlying assumptions of racial and cultural superiority that animated imperial ideologies. Although it would be simplistic to say that missionaries were only a proxy for colonization by expansionist nation-states, it would be equally naïve to conclude that one program had little to do with the other.

Missionaries and their supporters at home dreamed of creating an American Protestant empire that would transform the world and, for some, bring about the return of Christ. As the editors of an important collection of essays on women and mission write, “This perspective was most evident in the American colonization of the Philippines, where American missionaries followed the flag. Yet even when American missionaries operated in environments in which overt American political power was absent, as was typically the case, missionary goals usually supported US political goals.” Missionary organizations from the ABCFM and the SVM to the Women’s Board of Mission and the YMCA concentrated and carried US cultural, social, and economic influences around the world. Historian Ian Tyrrell argues that “America’s moral empire” was not limited by territory nor confined to a specific place. Instead, “its influence was to be felt everywhere.” The appearance of sustained criticism and the emergence of local and national resistance movements reveals some of the ways people responded to the growing strength of the US foreign missionary movement and the creation of powerful imperial formations.29

Women in mission had always been engaged in work that went well beyond evangelizing and teaching the Bible. Their moral concerns about the family and the household, women and children, education and social conditions, sustained an impulse to criticize imperialism when it seemed to be going wrong in their view. Single female missionaries were in an especially good position for such interventions through the process of adopting the world’s peoples—their “children”—as “family.” The missionary experience and the dynamism of the women’s moral crusade created a foundation for the development of a respectable and, at times, socially acceptable antiwar, anti-imperial racial progressivism. These women were primarily middle class, unlike their radical immigrant working-class sisters silenced in the Red Scare of the 1920s. Still, the emphasis on domesticity implied the superiority of Western culture. There was always ambiguity in these relationships across culture, but missionaries were quite comfortable with these tensions if their larger objectives were in sight. The ultimate goal was always the development of “right” civilization rooted in Christian domesticity.30

Some continental Europeans also criticized the growing American and Anglo-Saxon domination of missionary work around the world. These critics attacked the millenarian enthusiasm of leaders like A. T. Pierson. They questioned the connection between Christianity and Anglo-American civilization, and they feared the proliferation of “sects” represented by the increasing denominational diversity of Protestant Christianity in the United States.31

Across the oceans, nationalist and anticolonial movements pressed back against continued missionization and Christian conversion throughout this period and beyond. In China, the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century represented an attempt to reject outside influences, including Christianity. After the rebellion failed to expel the Christian missionaries, among other targets, Chinese reformers and officials turned toward efforts to shape and exploit the influences of Western civilization. There was an especially strong desire for education among the Chinese. However, resistance never disappeared entirely even as the country labored to “modernize.” Only two decades later, in 1922, the World Student Christian Federation met in China, seemingly a triumphant celebration of success in a major mission field. In response, the Anti-Christian Student Federation issued a manifesto that condemned imperialism in the form of Christianity and intrusive capitalism and denounced the growing influence of Americans in China. Even Chinese Christians became uncomfortable with the paternalistic and maternalistic supervision of their congregations. From the 1920s onward, second- and third-generation Christians in particular asserted their independence from the denominational boards. Well-educated and well-trained preachers and revivalists founded their own independent churches and made Christianity their own. Similar movements to reject Christianity and the presence of missionaries or to mold or make selective use of what the missionaries offered could be found almost any place these evangelical laborers stepped off the boat.32

Review of Literature

It should be clear from a glance at the Notes that Dana Robert has been enormously influential in the scholarship on missions generally and on American foreign missions specifically. She provides an essential overview of mission history from biblical times to the present in Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion. Wilbert Shenk offers a brief survey of missions in a North American context in an essay in The Blackwell Companion to Religion in America, edited by Philip Goff. In Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, Andrew Preston delivers a masterful study of the relationship between religion and US foreign policy. An older and underappreciated survey of American Protestantism and its relationship to American empire is Martin Marty, Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America. On millennial themes and the emergence of American fundamentalism, see Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism.

Two important works on the ABCFM are William Hutchison’s Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions and Emily Conroy-Krutz’s Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early Republic. Hutchison concentrates on ideological concerns and follows the story into the 20th century, while Conroy-Krutz engages recent questions about the link between Christianity and American expansionism in the 19th century.

Along with Hutchison, the best analysis of the foreign mission movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is Ian Tyrrell, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire. Like Conroy-Krutz, Tyrrell makes a convincing case that religion and the US empire must be considered together.

There is a growing literature on the history of US imperialism more generally. Among the best are two edited collections: Cultures of United States Imperialism, edited by Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease; and Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State, edited by Alfred W. McCoy and Francisco A. Scarano. Neither book has much to say about religion, a major oversight considering the influence of foreign missionaries at home and abroad for the last two hundred years. Nevertheless, they provide insights into a number of important issues, including the US military, law and policing, race and gender, education and public health, and more.

Key figures like Arthur Pierson and John Mott are the subjects of scholarly biographies. Dana Robert produced Occupy until I Come: A. T. Pierson and the Evangelization of the World, which is both a thorough life history and a study of mission theory at the turn of the century. With Hutchison, she shows how the ecumenical mission movement avoided the split between so-called conservative evangelicals and liberal mainline churches until the 1920s. Howard Hopkins offers an incredibly detailed biography of John R. Mott that covers his many journeys around the world on behalf of missions in John R. Mott, 1865–1955: A Biography.

The appearance of several works about missionary women has transformed the field in recent decades. Dana Robert considers both Protestant and Catholic women in American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice. Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812–1960, edited by Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Connie A. Shemo, is essential. Jane Hunter and Ian Tyrrell present important introductory essays about women in mission in this volume. Hunter also produced an influential early study on women missionaries in China at the turn of the century, The Gospel of Gentility.

Stimulated in part by the impact of 9/11, a number of talented scholars have started to look at the largely failed missions to the Middle East. These include Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East33; Hans-Lukas Kieser, Nearest East: American Millennialism and Mission to the Middle East34; and American Missionaries and the Middle East: Foundational Encounters,35 edited by Mehmet Ali Dogan and Heather J. Sharkey.

Primary sources for the study of missions in this era are widely available in libraries, archives, and online collections, including the ABCFM archives, which are housed in Houghton Library at Harvard University, and the Yale Divinity Library, which has preserved 673 boxes of archival materials on the Student Volunteer Movement. Both collections have detailed online research guides. Researchers can find the papers of specific people in libraries and archives across the United States and abroad. A major collection of papers related to A. T. Pierson, for example, is located in the Speer Library at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Some of the most important periodicals are now available online. The Hathi Trust Digital Library provides access to The Missionary Herald (ABCFM) and to The Missionary Review of the World. Also available are the periodicals of women’s missionary boards, such as The Heathen Woman’s Friend of the Methodist Women’s Foreign Missionary Society. Influential books are also accessible online: The Hathi Trust search function will locate digital copies of such books as Seven Years in Ceylon: Stories of Mission Life, by Mary and Margaret Leitch (1890), A. T. Pierson’s The Crisis of Missions (1886), John R. Mott’s The Evangelization of the World in This Generation (1900), Helen Barrett Montgomery’s Western Women in Eastern Lands (1910), and the published proceedings of the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh (1910).

American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) archives.

Yale University Library. “Student Volunteer Movement.”

Hathi Trust Digital Library.


(1.) Dana L. Robert, Occupy until I Come: A. T. Pierson and the Evangelization of the World (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), 145–150; and Ian Tyrell, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 49–67.

(2.) William R. Hutchison, Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 91; and Robert, Occupy until I Come, 140–144.

(3.) Hutchison, Errand to the World, 91–124.

(4.) Emily Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), xv and 25; Hutchison, Errand to the World, 45–46; and Wilbert R. Shenk, “Missions,” in The Blackwell Companion to Religion in America, ed. Philip Goff (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 234.

(5.) Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism, 1–18; and Hutchison, Errand to the World, 44 and 52–53.

(6.) Hutchison, Errand to the World, 69–90; Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism, 120–129; Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Anchor, 2012), 197; Tom Coffman, Nation Within: The History of the American Occupation of Hawai‘i, rev. ed. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); and Titus Munson Coan, “The Hawaiian Islands: Their Geography, Their Volcanoes, Their People,” in Bulletin of the American Geographical Society 21, no. 2 (1889): 166.

(7.) Hutchison, Errand to the World, 95–97; and Ian Tyrrell, Reforming the World, 13–27.

(8.) Tyrrell, Reforming the World, 28–34; and Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 56–60.

(9.) Robert, Occupy until I Come, 52–92.

(10.) Occupy, 103–139; Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014), 8–46; and Stephen J. Stein, “Millennialism,” in The Blackwell Companion to Religion in America, ed. Philip Goff (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 215–227.

(11.) Hutchison, Errand to the World, 95.

(12.) Arthur T. Pierson, The Crisis of Missions; or, The Voice out of the Cloud (New York: Robert Carter and Bros., 1886), 273–274; and Robert, Occupy until I Come, 140–144.

(13.) Pierson, The Crisis of Missions, 273–274.

(14.) Missions, 349–364.

(15.) Robert, Christian Mission, 58; and Tyrrell, Reforming the World, 50 and 62.

(16.) Robert, Occupy until I Come, 156–161; and Tyrrell, Reforming the World, 59–60.

(17.) Tyrrell, Reforming the World, 60–67; Robert, Christian Mission, 59–60; and C. Howard Hopkins, John R. Mott, 1865–1955: A Biography (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1979).

(18.) Tyrrell, Reforming the World, 90–91.

(19.) Robert, Christian Missions, 60; and Robert, Occupy until I Come, 294.

(20.) John R. Mott, The Evangelization of the World in This Generation (New York: Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, 1900), 1–16.

(21.) Robert, Christian Missions, 50–51; and Tyrrell, Reforming the World, 67.

(22.) Hutchison, Errand to the World, 62–101; Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Connie A. Shemo, eds., Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812–1960 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); and Dana L. Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997).

(23.) Robert, American Women in Mission, 128–130.

(24.) American Women, 130–137; and Jane Hunter, The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), xiii–xv and 12–13.

(25.) Hunter, The Gospel of Gentility, xiv; and Jane H. Hunter, “Women’s Mission in Historical Perspective: American Identity and Christian Internationalism,” in Reeves-Ellington, et al., eds., Competing Kingdoms, 22–28.

(26.) Hunter, The Gospel of Gentility, ch. 1.

(27.) Robert, American Women in Mission, 255–272.

(28.) Hunter, The Gospel of Gentility, 13–14; and Tyrrell, Reforming the World, 64–71.

(29.) Reeves-Ellington, et al., Competing Kingdoms, 4–5; Martin Marty, Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America (New York: The Dial Press, 1970); Ian Tyrrell, “Empire and American History,” in Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State, eds. Alfred W. McCoy and Francisco A. Scarano (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), 541–556; and Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Anchor Books, 2012), 175–197.

(30.) Hunter, “Women’s Mission in Historical Perspective,” 29–38; and Robert, American Women in Mission, 269–272.

(31.) Tyrrell, Reforming the World, 90–91.

(32.) Brian Stanley, ed., Missions, Nationalism, and the End of Empire (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003); Hunter, The Gospel of Gentility, 3–5; and Robert, Christian Mission, 63.

(33.) Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven : American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

(34.) Hans-Lukas Kieser, Nearest East: American Millennialism and Mission to the Middle East (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012).

(35.) Mehmet Ali Dogan and Heather J. Sharkey, eds., American Missionaries and the Middle East: Foundational Encounters (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011).