It is far from my intention to write an extensive account of all the mission endeavors performed throughout the world, particularly in the past few centuries. Volumes have been written on only phases of this work, and therefore it would be useless to attempt to summarize it. Moreover, our chief concern is mission endeavor as it served as a background in our own lives, chiefly to see what God has accomplished, often in spite of the errors and weaknesses of sinful men.
As has already become evident to us, a radical change had come about both in Europe and in England through the rapid spread of the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church no longer had control of religious and political affairs in the world, but had to reckon with the protestant churches. These protestant churches have often been accused of failing to fulfill their calling in going out into all the world to preach the Gospel to all nations. The Roman Catholics, as might be expected, continued to spread their error far and wide, especially reaching out to newly discovered areas to make a first claim upon the natives there. And they were not hesitant to brand the protestant churches as apostate, finding new evidence that they were the false church in the very fact that they did not carry out Christ’s Great Commission. The Roman controversialist Robert Bellarmine wrote as follows:
C. 12. The effectiveness of its teaching. Heretics are never said to have. converted either pagans or Jews to the faith, but only to have perverted Christians. But in this one century the Catholics have converted many thousands of heathens in the new world. Every year a certain number of Jews are converted and baptized at Rome by Catholics who adhere in loyalty to the Bishop of Rome; and there are also some Turks who are converted by the Catholics both at Rome and elsewhere. The Lutherans compare themselves to the apostles and the evangelists; yet though they have among them a very large number of Jews, and in Poland and Hungary have the Turks as their near neighbors, they have hardly converted even as much as a handful. (R. Bellanninus, Controversia, Book IV, quoted in “A History of Christian Missions,” by Stephen Neill, page 221.)
Yet it is hardly true that the Protestants were entirely lax in fulfilling the great commission of Christ. Anyone who knows a little about the history of the reformatory churches realizes the bitter struggle they had to become firmly established, and that over against bitter opposition. They not only had to contend with the violent hatred of the Roman Catholics, which branded them as heretics worthy only of death, but they also had the foe within the gate. As might be expected, the devil was doing his utmost to destroy this new and undaunted witness of the truth of the Scriptures. Besides, there was a carnal element also in the protestant churches, as is always the case, and these began to undermine the very foundations of truth. There were the Arminians, the Pietists, and the Anabaptists, all of various sorts contending vehemently against the faith once delivered to the saints.
But in spite of all this, it certainly cannot be said that the protestant churches failed entirely to witness of the truth and to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In previous articles we have already made reference to the efforts of the Netherlands and England in spreading the Gospel throughout their colonies. In this article I shall limit myself to the spread of the Gospel to America soon after its discovery. As imperfect as these efforts were, God did bring the Gospel into this continent through them.
The charter that was granted to Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583 spoke of the compassion of God “for poor infidels, it seeming probably that God hath reserved these Gentiles to be introduced into Christian civility by the English nation.” One already recognizes in this statement the common error of confusing “civilization” with “Christianity” as if the two were synonymous.
The charter of the Virginia Company (1606) provided that the Gospel should be preached in the colonies, but also among the savages. The intent was to establish the Church of England in this new world. The clergy were instructed to use the Book of Common Prayer, penalties were placed upon the failure to attend church, the parishioners were obligated to pay the clergyman 1,500 pounds of tobacco and sixteen barrels of corn.
Also Charles I in granting a charter to the colony of Massachusetts included the statement that the colony must “win and invite the natives of the country to the true knowledge of the only true God and Savior of mankind and the Christian faith.”
Evidently the colonists accomplished very little in attempting to do mission work among the Indians. Yet a serious attempt was made by the Presbyterian John Eliot (1604-90). He is commonly referred to as the “apostle to the Indians,” and was evidently the first missionary on the American continent. He was born in Widford, Hertfordshire, England. He was educated at Cambridge. He went to Boston in 1631. A year later he became “teacher” or pastor of Roxbury in Massachusetts. Immediately he proceeded to learn the language of the Pequot tribe of the Iroquois, so that he could preach to the Indians in Newton, Massachusetts without the aid of an interpreter. Realizing that it was virtually impossible for the converted Indian to live a Christian life in his own community, Eliot began “Praying Towns,” or communities where these converts could live together. It is said that by 1671 he had gathered about 3,600 Christian Indians into sixteen settlements, and had begun to ordain Indian preachers, which reached a total of twenty four by the time that he died. The most outstanding work of John Eliot was the translation of the Bible into the Mohican language. The New Testament was published in 1661, and the Old Testament in 1663. He also published some other writings.
Eliot did gain support for his work from a group in England called the “Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Indians,” organized in 1649. This society sent out three hundred and fifty missionaries to America and the West Indies. This may have been the beginning of mission labors in Jamaica. The society adopted the following resolutions:
1. That the design of propagating the Gospel in foreign parts does chiefly and principally relate to the conversion of heathen and infidels, and therefore that branch of it ought to be prosecuted preferably to all others.
2. That, in consequence thereof, immediate care be taken to send itinerant missionaries to preach the Gospel among the six nations of the Indians according to the primary intentions of the late King William of glorious memory.
I refer to this primarily to show that there is a shift toward mission endeavor carried out by a “society” instead of by the instituted church. This is a serious error, entirely contrary to the principle laid down in Acts 13, yet this error has grown in tremendous proportions throughout the years.
One thing that impresses us is the fact that this work among the American Indians has seemingly had no lasting fruit. One reason for this is evidently the great difference between the red race and the white race, which likely has always been a barrier between them. A more serious reason was the strong antipathy that grew between the Indian and the invading white man, even to the extent that the Indians were all but exterminated by the wars between them. But the question also arises whether it is not possible that God has something to say to us in this respect. God did undoubtedly save individuals, possibly families in the red race and does so today, according to His promise that He would gather His church out of every nation, tribe and people upon the face of the earth. But it also appears that God had no intention of gathering His people in the line of continued generations among the red race in America. At least there is very little evidence of a continued line of generations of the covenant among them.
One can hardly speak of the religious life of the early American without referring to the pilgrim fathers, Puritans and Quakers. There were those who came to America not merely for adventure, nor for “political freedom,” nor for economic advancement, but mainly to gain religious freedom. In England arose a group that opposed the dead formalism and the laxity of the Anglican Church. Ever since 1546 they were referred to as Puritans because of their precise, strict and severe way of life. They suffered persecution, except during the reign of Cromwell, 1653-58, for more than a century. Some of them to escape persecution fled to Holland. When emigration to the new world was started these Puritans sought refuge from persecution by going to America. It is said that of the 149 on board the Mayflower there were 35 separatists from the Leyden congregation of the Netherlands. From various reports we glean that from time to time other battle weary Puritans sought refuge here, until the number had grown to some 20,000. Roger Williams; the founder of the State of Rhode Island, studied Indian dialects and is said to have labored among the Indians, even baptizing some of them. For a time he was a Baptist, insisting on the baptism of adults; referred to commonly as the founder of the Baptist Church in America. Later he withdrew from the Baptist sect and maintained his own position, particularly over against the Quakers.
David Brainerd (1718-47) is also mentioned as an American missionary among the Indians. He was born in Haddam, Connecticut, and labored among the natives in Massachusetts. He died in the home of Jonathan Edwards.
That brings up the name of a well-known figure who had considerable influence among the early colonies. He was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, of English Puritan ancestry. He was the only son in a family of eleven children. In his early years he was chiefly instructed at home, beginning the study of Latin at the age of six, and having a good knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew before he entered Yale College at the age of thirteen. He was ordained to the ministry in 1727 as a colleague of his grandfather, the Rev. Solomon Stoddard, in the pastorate of the Congregational Church at Northampton, Massachusetts. After the death of his father two years later, he continued alone in the pastorate of the church. He is often referred to as a staunch Calvinist and at times branded as a “fire and brimstone preacher,” particularly be cause of his well-known sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Later he became president of Yale College. He wrote a book, published in 1847, entitled: “A Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union Among God’s People, in Extraordinary Prayer for Revival of Religion, and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, Pursuant to Scripture Promises, and Prophecies concerning the Last Time.” If nothing else this title expresses a very common view of that day, which also motivated many preachers, namely, that the end of the ages was not far away.
The early colonies did give evidence of the church among them. But that certainly does not mean that all the founders of our country were men of deep religious conviction and strong, pious fervor. Quite the opposite is true, since there were also atheists and agnostics among them. The spirit of the French revolution was as evident as religious conviction. Yet God did bring His church into this new world, as will be evident also from the discussion we hope to carry on in the next issue.