The Views of Rufus Anderson

The Rev. Rufus Anderson (1796-1880), an ordained Congregational minister, was secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions from 1832 to 1866. Prior to this he served for fourteen years as assistant secretary to this board, and after his term in office he continued as an advisor to the board almost until his death. He was both a contemporary and friend of Henry Venn. His views and especially his “three self” formula influenced American missions until the end of World War II. (Cf. Rufus Anderson, R. Pierce Beaver, ed.; To Advance the Gospel, Eerdmans, p. 10.) The fundamental principle of Anderson’s views on missions is this: the aim or goal of mission work must be the gathering of indigenous churches which are self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. We are convinced that if this “three self” formula be understood in biblical terms it remains the correct method of doing mission work. As we examine some of his writings we shall find that Anderson has a great deal to say which is profitable for our own Protestant Reformed mission work. He also is in agreement fundamentally with both John Nevius and Henry Venn. 

In Anderson’s day there was considerable discussion and disagreement concerning the proper aim of missions. The disagreement centered on two words: evangelization and civilization. The former referred to the simple preaching and teaching of the gospel and the latter to a transformation of heathen society. While there was some argument as to which should have the priority it was generally agreed that the two were complementary. Faith and repentance by means of the preaching of the gospel always brought to the heathen (non-European, non-American) the desire to attain “Christian,” i.e., European-American civilization. Likewise it was believed that if civilization were stressed in initial contacts with the heathen it produced understanding and acceptance of the gospel. Anderson believed that “the civilization which the gospel has conferred upon our own New England is the highest and best, in a religious point of view, the world has yet seen” (Beaver, To Advance the Gospel, p. 73). He was also convinced that it was seriously wrong to make the transformation of society the aim of missions. This might come after a long period of time as a by-product of the preaching of the gospel, but it must not be the goal of missions. In a sermon which he preached (Oct. 23, 1845) at the ordination of a missionary, Anderson said, “For the Christian religion is identified in all our conceptions of it from our earliest years, with the almost universal diffusion among its professors of the blessings of education, industry, civil liberty, family government, social order, the means of a respectable livelihood, and a well ordered community. Hence our idea of piety in converts among the heathen very generally involves the acquisition and possession, to a great extent, of these blessings; and our idea of the propagation of the gospel by means of missions, is, to an equal extent, the creation among heathen tribes and nations of a highly improved state of society, such as we ourselves enjoy. And for this vast intellectual, moral and social transformation we allow but a short time. We expect the first generation of converts to Christianity, even among savages, to come into all our fundamental ideas of morals, manners, political economy, social organization, right, justice, equity; although many of these are ideas which our own community has been ages in acquiring. If we discover that converts under the torrid zone go but half clothed, that they are idle on a soil where a small amount of labor will supply their wants, that they sometimes forget the apostle’s cautions to his converts, not to lie one to another, and to steal no more, in communities where the grossest vice scarcely affects the reputation, and that they are slow to adopt our ideas of rights of man; we at once doubt the genuineness of their conversion, and the faithfulness of their missionary instructors” (Beaver, p. 74). Anderson warns: “Unless this influence is guarded against by missionaries and their directors, the result is that the missions have a two-fold object of pursuit; the one, that simple and sublime spiritual object of the ambassador for Christ mentioned in the text, ‘persuading men to be reconciled to God;’ (II Cor. 5:20, R.D.D.) the other, the reorganizing, by various direct means, of the structure of that social system, of which the converts form a part. Thus the object of the missions becomes more or less complicated, leading to a complicated, burdensome, and perhaps expensive course of measures for its attainment. I may be allowed, therefore, to invite attention to what is conceived to be our true and only office and work in missions to the heathen. ‘Now then we are ambassadors for Christ; as though God did beseech you by us, we pray you, in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.”‘ (Beaver, pp. 74, 75; emphasis in the above quotations is Anderson’s.) 

The point Anderson is making is twofold: 1) The singular task of missions is to preach the gospel among the heathen in order that by this means and only this means Christ may gather the elect into the fellowship of His Body, the church. 2) In this work neither the missionary nor the church which sends him must expect the heathen among which he works to conform to the life-style and culture, the “civilization” of his own people. This transformation may very well come, at least to a certain extent, over a long period of time, but it must not be the object of the missionary’s work nor the expectation of the church which sends him in the name of Christ. 

Anderson’s point, made over one hundred years ago, is well taken. We must not expect those people to whom we send our Foreign Missionaries to become like us culturally, politically, socially, etc. To be sure, all Christians, all new converts must not be conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:2). All Christians, regardless of their race, culture, or level of civilization must live in harmony with the will of God revealed in Holy Scripture. There are not two standards of right and wrong: one for the home church and the other for the mission field. But it must be remembered that the sole. aim of missions is to preach the gospel to the nations in order that the elect may be gathered into the church, a witness may be left, and the end of all things may come (Matthew 24:14). It is not the business of the church through its missionaries to attempt to transform the society of the people among whom it preaches. Nor must the church expect to see such transformation occur within two or three or four years of labor. Let us be specific. We must not expect the Jamaicans among whom the Lord has given us an open door to become like us. They are not white. They are not “middle class.” They are not Dutch-Americans. They are black, poor, and Jamaican. Nothing is going to change that. Preaching the gospel to them is not going to change that. We must recognize this. We must also recognize that God has His people in every nation under heaven, Jamaica too! The same is true of any mission field. The brothers and sisters in Singapore are educated, articulate, industrious, and in many ways like us. But they too are of a different race and culture. We must not attempt to change that. 

The result of failing to recognize this may very well be as Anderson said: “. . . the missions have a two-fold object of pursuit; the one . . . persuading men to be reconciled to God; the other, the reorganizing, by various direct means, of the structure of that social system, of which the converts form a part. Thus the object of the missions becomes more or less complicated, leading to a complicated, burdensome, and perhaps expensive course of measures for its attainment” (Beaver, pp. 74, 75). Another result is possible and this is that no work at all is done among people who are very much different from us. Because people live in very primitive huts and worship in equally primitive church buildings; because people do not live in suburban English colonials and walkout ranches or high rise apartments; because people eke out a simple living and do not wear three-piece suits to an office; these are not reasons for not sending them missionaries. These and other similar factors must not be the criteria by which we judge a field to be a viable mission. We must listen to and learn from men like Nevius, Venn, and Anderson. They and others with them are pioneers in missions. Long before we were born they faced and dealt with many of the same problems we face today. It is interesting to note in this connection that some twelve hundred missionaries were ordained and sent to various parts of the world (Africa, India, Jamaica, et. al.) during Anderson’s tenure with the American Board. 

Wherever Christ opens the doors and provides the means, let us send missionaries. Let these missionaries preach Christ crucified and nothing else. Let them call all peoples to repentance and faith in order that through the power of the Holy Spirit the elect may call upon the Lord and be saved, and in order that all unbelievers may stand condemned. Let this be our aim in all our mission work. This is the biblical way.