The History of Missions: 1500-1600

1492. This date is familiar to every one of us, even including our children. This was the year that Christopher Columbus touched on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas, and gave these islands mistakenly the name they have held ever since, the West Indies. In 1494 he is said to have landed in Jamaica. In 1497 Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached the west coast of India at Calicut. The age of exploration had come and new lands were being discovered on the far ends of the globe. New expeditions were undertaken by adventurous sailors who were lured by the attraction of the unknown.

Almost all the Portuguese expeditions carried withthem a number of priests. It is evident that the explorers and those who supported them had at least two things in mind. First, the rulers were interested in commerce, new trade routes, and foreign imports that might fill their coffers. Second, the Roman Catholic Church was eager to gain supremacy over the whole earth, especially over these newly discovered countries and islands, and at the same time to crush the Moslem influence. There seems to have been a legend at that time that somewhere a Christian people would be found, and contact was sought with these people. It has been suggested that this legend took rise in the fact that the queen of Sheba had visited Solomon and had taken her newly found faith back with her to her own country. Whether this is true or not cannot be ascertained. 

Portugal and Spain both became very active in navigation, even in rivalry for supremacy on the seas and in foreign lands. In May of 1493 Pope Alexander VI recognized the exclusive rights of Spain to trade with lands that had been or might be discovered west of the Atlantic, giving them the injunction, “to bring to Christian faith the peoples who inhabit these islands and the mainland . . . and to send to said islands and to the mainland wise, upright, god-fearing, and virtuous men who will be capable of instructing the indigenous peoples in good morals and in the Catholic faith.” (The History of Christian Missions, by Stephen Neill, page 141). The pope entrusted to Portugal everything east of the Atlantic, or more specifically, everything east of the Azores. And to Portugal was given the same injunction that Spain had received. The pope was out to rule the world. One thing the pope did not realize at the time was that ultimately the two would meet and their rights would be brought in question. Nor did the pope figure with the Protestants from England, the Netherlands, France and Denmark, who also would try to establish trade with these newly discovered islands and countries. 

I have no intention of entering into detail on the mission endeavors of the Roman Catholics, particularly because of their entirely wrong motive. And our chief concern, after all, is in the mission work that was accomplished after the Reformation by those who had broken with the Roman Catholic Church to maintain the truth and principles of the Scriptures, and more specifically with those of Calvinistic persuasion. 

But it is almost impossible completely to ignore the efforts of the pope. These efforts were greatly stimulated by the founding of the Jesuit Order. In 1534 Ignatius Loyola had gathered in Paris a small group of six friends who were neither secular priests nor religious, but who bound themselves with vows to be obedient to the church, utterly subject to the pope, and devoted to the cause of bringing the heretics back within the fold of the church, and winning pagans for the Catholic religion. A companion of Ignatius, Francis Xavier went to India in 1542, not as an ordinary missionary, but as a man who had been entrusted with great authority. The king of Portugal had made Xavier his representative in India to speak and act on his authority. And also the pope had furnished him with extensive authority in the name of the Catholic Church. He stopped in Goa, a thriving but wicked city. Europeans had come there before him; men who had left their wives at home, intermingled with the women and then left them with their children and with a smattering of nominal Christianity. Xavier spent months to bring about a reform, but he soon gave up to seek a broader field throughout South India. Many tribes in India had been invaded by the Moslems and now sought the protection of the Portuguese, so that there were wholesale baptisms, at one occasion 10,000 at a time. Xavier made an effort to translate the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostolic Creed and the Ten Commandments, and taught the people to recite these. From India he went to Japan to try to gain a foothold for Catholicism there. To gain success he even adopted the customs of the country, so that the people may have thought that they were being taught another form of Buddhism. He also wanted to reach into China, but never succeeded. 

In this connection it can be mentioned that at a later date the Roman Catholics came up from Mexico into southern California, establishing missions along the way. There are still a chain of missions extending from San Diego to north of San Francisco, a distance of 650 miles. These are mainly a tourist attraction, but give evidence of the fact that these missions were established, about a day’s journey apart, measured either by foot or by horseback, and most of them but a few miles from the coast. These were founded from 1769 to 1823 with the purpose of converting the Indians and exerting their influence in the United States. In these missions may be found evidences of former cemeteries, wineries, paintings, and even candle and soap factories. The walls of these buildings were of adobe with roofs of brush sealed with mud. Later tiles replaced the impractical mud roofs. The fathers of these missions used the Indians often to their own advantage, but did teach them such occupations as agriculture and stock raising. 

But we are actually much more interested in the mission endeavors of the Protestants, since they are the children of the Reformation. And then it must be granted at once that also these endeavors left much to be desired. Both the Dutch and the English were interested in foreign trade, particularly with these newly discovered countries and islands. And they also wanted to carry out mission work, but this was considered to be the calling of the Magistrate. Evidently they still had the wrong conception of the relationship between the church and the State. The calling of the church and the calling of the State were not clearly defined. Besides, circumstances also played a role in this venture, which, however, does not condone the wrong. The Dutch East Indies Company was founded in 1602. It received authority from the homeland to exercise administrative powers over all foreign territory east of the Cape of Good Hope. It was authorized to “wage war, draw up contracts, support troops, appoint officers, etc.” They had practically full authority over all the colonies in Indonesia and Ceylon. And the Danish and English Companies had a like authority over all of their colonies. But this authority also applied to religious matters and mission work. 

The ministers who accompanied the sailors on these trips were servants of their own government whose first responsibility was the spiritual care of their own countrymen. But they were also expected to work among the natives, receiving a cash bonus for every baptism that was given. It is not surprising that in time many thousands were baptized, but their sincerity is more than questionable. 

It was not as if the church entirely ignored all this. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) wrote an outline of the Christian faith for the use of the Dutch sailors traveling to the Far East. A seminary was set up in Leyden for the purpose of training missionaries for the field. There were twelve men why were instructed especially in languages and the religions of the colonies. Yet this seminary had but a brief existence; in fact, it lasted only about ten years. The cost was one objection, but the Company also raised objection because the trained ministers refused to be bound by their wishes. 

In the credentials given along with the ministers by the various classes and consistories the mandate was given to care for the spiritual needs of the Christians in foreign lands, and also to “instruct the peoples that are there sitting in darkness in the true Christian religion.” Voetius especially pleaded for mission labors carried out by the church rather than by the government. In his mission views concerning “planting of churches” he wrote that the calling of the church is to do mission work, while the magistrate should only support these causes. Voetius tried, be it in vain, to free the church from the Company. Since these efforts failed, the mission labors in the true sense of the word languished. Often the natives considered the Company to be interested in their own profits, rather than in the welfare of the, others. And that can well be understood. For if the Company considered the gains too small in a certain area, or if the profits dropped off, they would leave without any further consideration. And this made it impossible for the church to continue labors there. For example, one of the islands had produced a goodly supply of sandalwood, but when the supply fell off the Company left and both the natives and the missionaries were given over to their lot. What was even worse was the fact that if the preaching of the gospel threatened in any way to interfere with their business, the missionaries were prohibited from preaching. The remark is well made: “The Company was more interested in spices than in the spread of the Gospel.” 

There are even evidences of corruptions perpetrated by the East Indies Company. It is said that in 1607 a contract was drawn up with the Sultan of Temate in regard to the trade in nutmeg. This Moslem ruler insisted that if any of his people turned Christian they should be turned over to him. Since apostasy from the Moslem religion was penalized with the death sentence, this meant that the Hollanders agreed to surrender a man to death for adopting the Christian faith. Since the Portuguese Roman Catholics had insisted on the right to propagate their religion among the people, the Sultan was only too ready to draw up a contract with the East Indies Company and thus drive out the undesired Roman Catholics. The churches of the fatherland, hearing of these atrocities, decided in 1614: “The brethren, regarding this as a terrible contract, causing great shame and disadvantage to the Christian religion, decide that these contracts must be broken.” (Geschiedenis Van De Zending, Ds. H.A. Wiersinga). Although the Company consented to follow this demand, two years later they did almost the same thing elsewhere by agreeing that it was just as wrong for a Moslem to turn to Christianity as it was for a Christian to become a Moslem. 

In 1648 the “Edict Japan” was drawn up, in which the ship crew was advised not to give evidence among the Japanese of their religion. They were prohibited from using the Bible, or their Psalm Book, from keeping the Sabbath, and from praying at their meals. In spite of all this the Company did run into difficulty with the rulers of Japan. On their business house and many of their homes they had inscribed: Anno Christi 1640. This reference to Christ brought the wrath of the king upon them, and they were forced to break down their houses from the newest down to the oldest. In the West Indies and in West Africa similar incidents are recorded. 

Yet in spite of all this an effort was put forth to translate the Bible, the Heidelberg Catechism and the versification of the Psalms into various languages. The Company supplied Christian instruction where possible to the natives as well as to their own children. Large congregations were established in various places. 

But when the Company dissolved, the mission labors came to a standstill. Many western customs were forced upon the people, so that many natives were referred to as “Dutch-dressed Christian.” Since the churches in the Netherlands were but poorly informed of the work that was carried out, very little interest was shown in trying to improve conditions or carry on the work. Much of this work never was fully established and soon faded out.