History of the Modern Missions Movement

Author’s Note: This is the first post in a short series about the History of the Modern Missions Movement.


IMG_3063Missions during the 18th century and the enlightenment period faced opposition in many corners of the world. Missionary effort was opposed by those who saw religion as a crutch due to the “powerful philosophical movement” known as the enlightenment.[1]

With this opposition came also foreign opposition to missions from Western civilization. China resisted allowing western missionaries from entering their country, as did India, until they were pressured by “British Parliament” in 1813.[2] These two countries were joined by Japan in the resistance to western influence.[3]

The birth of the modern missions movement came out of a Spirit-led desire to see the lost saved. Christ’s mandate to His disciples was to go out into the world and to make disciples, teaching them all that they have learned from Him, and to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Ever since He gave His disciples His mandate, missionaries throughout history have been spreading all over the world in obedience to the call of the Great Commission.

The “modern missionary movement” began with the creation of the Baptist Missionary Society in England in 1792.[4] In England, Baptist churches grew to 300 churches under persecution, but by 1750 that number declined by 50% because Europe had grown tired of 150 years of religious battles. In turn, “[s]ocial, economic, and political matters took center stage. Religious indifference enveloped the nation.”[5]

By 1750 hyper-Calvinism had infiltrated many of the particular Baptist churches. Hyper-Calvinists believed that since God has ordained who will be saved, then there is no need to evangelize. The most famous hyper-Calvinist during this time was John Gill. John Gill “was a learned scholarly man who served as pastor of the Particular Baptist Church at Horsley-Down for sixty-two years.”[6]

Andrew Fuller at age 22 became the pastor of a Particular Baptist Church at Soham, England where he served for seven years. After this, he became the pastor of a “Particular Baptist Church at Kettering where he served for over thirty-three years,” and he served during this time as the secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society.[7]

Andrew Fuller studied hyper-Calvinism, and when he compared what he had learned to what he read in the Bible, he came to a much different conclusion than Gill. Fuller remained a Calvinist, but came to understand, “Man does not know upon whom God will bestow the gift of faith, so he is to invite all men to faith and be assured that all who will believe will be saved.”[8]

“Fuller’s ‘new’ theology won wide circulation among English Christians. In fact, the new theological movement emphasizing the preaching of the gospel to all men and the duty of all men to believe was called ‘Fullerism’ and undoubtedly laid the theological foundation for a renewed endeavor in evangelism and missions.”[9]

The famous missionary William Carey was influenced by Fuller and his new theology. Carey pushed and pushed for the formation of a missionary society to take the Gospel to the heathen. After much convincing, the Baptist Missionary Society was formed in 1792. This marked the beginning of the modern mission movement. January 10, 1793, “John Thomas and William Carey were appointed missionaries. On June 13, 1793, they sailed for India. As Fuller noted the great ‘adventure’ was underway.” [10]

William Carey’s tract An Inquiry Into The Obligation Of Christians To Use Means For The Conversion Of The Heathens was published in 1792 and is seen as somewhat of a “symbolic significance and furnishes a convenient starting point for a movement and an era.”[11]

Carey wrote that God’s plan is “the establishment of His kingdom through humankind,” which is still unfulfilled.[12]According to Carey, “Christians are to pray for the coming of Christ’s kingdom to the conclusion that its establishment should be expedited through missionary outreach” by those who are saved in the church.[13]

Carey further wrote that the delay in the establishment of God’s kingdom is the result of a lack of zeal by the saints in “promoting the kingdom through evangelistic endeavor.”[14] Carey argued that although small efforts were being made by missionaries, a bigger impact can be realized if every Christian would commit themselves to the Great Commission.[15]

From 1792 to 1910 the world saw the publication of William Carey’s book Enquiry, the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society in 1793, the haystack prayer meeting in America, and the founding of The China Inland Mission in 1865 by Hudson Taylor.[16]

The haystack prayer meeting gave birth to the “American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions” and “a student mission movement which became the example and forerunner of other student movements in missions to this day.”[17]

Along with these transitions, unfortunately, up until 1775 “all missions outreach to Africa had failed.”[18] Nearly all missionaries that went to Africa died within two years of arriving on the field from various reasons.[19] It is hard to imagine that missionaries today would go to such a mission field knowing that they would die in two years.

The Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions had 100,000 volunteers, of which 20,000 went overseas for missions because it seems that the remainder “had to stay home to rebuild the foundations of the missions endeavor.”[20] By 1925, “the largest missions movement in history was in full swing.”[21]

From 1865 to present the world saw missions transition from reaching the inland areas with Hudson Taylor, to missions to unreached people groups, with Cameron Townsend and Donald McGravan.[22]

Townsend went on to found Wycliffe Bible Translators in order to translate the Bible into the language of indigenous Indian tribes, after other mission societies ignored his call for them to make efforts to reach these people.[23]


[1] Shenk, Wilbert R. “Reflections on the modern missionary movement : 1792-1992.” Mission Studies 9 no 1 1992, 63.

[2] Ibid., 64.

[3] Ibid., 64.

[4] Young, Doyle L. “Andrew Fuller and the modern mission movement.” Baptist History and Heritage 17 no 4 O 1982, 17.

[5] Ibid., 17.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] Ibid., 18.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Ibid., 19.

[11] Ibid., 62.

[12] Alban, Donald, Jr; Woods, Robert H, Jr; Daigle-Williamson, Marsha “The writings of William Carey: journalism as mission in a modern age.” Mission Studies 22 no 1 2005, 91.

[13] Ibid., 91.

[14] Ibid., 91.

[15] Ibid., 91.

[16] Winter, Ralph D. “Four Men, Three Eras, Two Transitions: Modern Missions.” Perspectives: On The World Christian Movement, edited by Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorn, 253-262. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1999, 259.

[17] Ibid., 255.

[18] Ibid., 255.

[19] Ibid., 255.

[20] Ibid., 258.

[21] Ibid., 258.

[22] Ibid., 260.

[23] Ibid., 260.

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About Peter van Brussel

Peter is the Director of For His Glory Prison Ministry. Peter holds a BA in Pastoral Studies from Southwestern College, a MA in Theological Studies, and a M.Div. from Liberty University. Peter is married to Niki, and has two children. He has been saved by grace and seeks to share the Gospel with those who have been forgotten.
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