Recalling U.S. missionary beginnings

When America's first ordained foreign missionaries sailed from
Mass­achusetts toward India 200 years ago, they launched a movement to
spread the faith and created America's most potent export: Christianity.

message reverberated through nine "Judson 200" commemorative events in
February in and around Salem. Speakers recalled how the course of
history changed with Adoniram Judson and four other missionaries.

liberals and conservatives,  both of whom lay claim to Judson's legacy,
held separate events. One event celebrated the recent merger of two
evangelical mission societies, CrossGlobal Link and the Mission
Exchange, representing some 35,000 missionaries.

embraced a shared heritage as exporters of American ideas and weighed
its modern-day implications. "The essential idea [in foreign missions]
is that a person born in Pakistan is every bit as human and to be valued
as much as a person born in North America or England," said Rodney
Petersen, executive director of the Boston Theological Institute, a
consortium of nine area theological schools.

Judson's 1812
departure with his wife Ann Hasseltine Judson marked the start of a new
era of American and Christian influence. To support them a
missionary-sending agency was born: the American Board of Commis­sioners
for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Similar organizations soon took root,
sending thousands of missionaries to all corners of the globe. By the
mid-20th century, America was sending more missionaries than any other

America still sends the most: 127,000 of the 400,000
foreign missionaries sent in 2010 came from America, according to the
Center for the Study of Global Chris­tianity at Gordon-Conwell
Theo­logical Seminary, which is based outside of Boston.

Judsons left a giant mark. Denied admission to British India, they
continued on to Burma (modern-day Myanmar), where they created a grammar
system, translated the Bible into Burmese and won converts to the
faith. Christian communities survive to this day in Myanmar; Judson
Sunday is commemorated by Burmese churches every July.

Yet it was
local Burmese, not missionaries, who most effectively spread
Christianity among the villages, according to Todd Johnson, who directs
the center at Gordon-Conwell. That history resonates today, he said, as
mission agencies debate whether Western missionaries are still needed in
developing nations.

"Some mission groups are saying there's no
reason missionaries should ever go [abroad from America anymore],"
Johnson said. "They say you can support hundreds of indigenous
missionaries for the same price as a single Western missionary. That
argument has gained a lot of traction among donors and other people."

are planned at Taber­nacle Con­gre­gational Church—a United Church of
Christ congregation that was the site of the original commissioning—with
officials representing the UCC's Wider Church Ministries division,
which traces its roots to the ABCFM.

The celebrations reflect just
how many strains of Protestantism claim the Judson heritage. The
Judsons started out as Congregationalists, but they became Baptists en
route to Asia.

Scholars, meanwhile, are recalling missionaries'
impact on American culture and foreign policy. Missionaries who went
abroad to start schools and establish hospitals laid the groundwork for a
modern America that sends billions abroad each year in U.S. foreign
aid, Petersen said.

"It's part of the American character to go out
and help people," said Clifford Putney, assistant professor of American
religious history at Bentley University. —RNS

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance journalist, ordained United Church of Christ minister, and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010).

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