The history of Christian missions
The Christian mission, the church, and Christianity—each distinguishable, but inseparably related—have experienced four major transitions in their history.
First transition, to AD 500
The new missionary faith made its first major transition as it emerged from Palestine and spread throughout the Mediterranean world. The apostle Paul became the missionary to the Gentile world. With help from St. Barnabas and a local network of coworkers, many of them women, he evangelized Asia Minor and southern Greece and eventually reached Rome. Dominated politically by the Roman Empire, the new religion benefited from the stability the empire provided and the language its elite shared—common, or Koine, Greek. Alexandrian Jews had translated(250 BC) the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek for dispersed Greek-speaking Jews. The New Testament writers also wrote in Koine Greek. In that largely literate empire earlyChristians used and widely distributed the Hebrew Scriptures.
Several factors brought growth to the faith. From the beginning laypeople—both men and women—conducted the largest part of mission. Congregations grew in homes used as churches. Although the house was owned by the husband, the wife was its mistress, and women throughout the empire opened their homes to newly forming churches. Most evangelization occurred in the daily routine as men and women shared their faith with others. Christianity’s monotheism, morality, assurance of eternal life with God, and ancient Scriptures attracted many to the faith.
Christians daily encountered members of other religions—gnosticism and the mystery and philosophical cults. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries external and internal pressures drove the young church to strengthen itself through creating a structured ministry, formulating beliefs in creeds, and producing a canon of Scripture. That process established critical institutions for the early Christian movement. The major thrust of the early church-mission sprang from the conviction that Christians and congregations were fulfilling a mission and ministry begun in Jesus Christ. Baptism provided induction into the vibrant company of “God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9–10), which many in the empire gradually accepted.
Rome, however, declared Christianity an illegal religion, in part because Christians refused to engage in emperor worship, and persecutions ensued. In the persecutions so many Christians bore witness (Greek: martyria) that the word martyr quickly evolved into its current meaning. Christian faith—not least that of young women such as Saints Blandina, Cecilia, Perpetua, and Felicity—made an impact, and many who beheld that witness became Christian. In 313 when the new emperor, Constantine I, declared the persecutions ended, Christians probably constituted 10 percent of the empire’s population.
By 315 many who saw advantage in belonging to Constantine’s new faith poured into the churches. The result was striking: small congregations of convinced Christians serving God’s outreach in the world became large churches with many nominal members whose instruction and needs had to be met. As multitudes entered the churches, the need for outreach to others was much reduced, and most churches shifted from an outward thrust to an inward focus upon themselves. Mission and service became the province of priests, deacons, and, increasingly, monks.
At the same time, mission beyond the frontiers of the empire continued. Ulfilas (c. 311–c. 382), Arian bishop and apostle to the Goths, translated the Bible into their tongue. St. Martin of Tours (c.316–397) served in Gaul, and Patrick (c. 389–c. 461) laboured in Ireland. In Malabar, South India, a church of ancient tradition, demonstrably present since the 3rd century, held the apostle St. Thomas to be its founder. St. Frumentius (died c.380) from Tyre evangelized in Ethiopia and became the first patriarch of its church. In the 5th century Nestorians pushed into Central Asia and began a mission that eventually reached the capital of China.
In its first 500 years Christianity achieved remarkable missionary and theological acculturation. Through the first four ecumenicalcouncils (325–451), and in the Nicene Creed (on the Trinity) and Definition of Chalcedon (on Christology), the church had stated its faith with meaning for the Greek and Latin worlds.
By the close of the period St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, had appeared, and Christianity had become the official religion of the empire. The first great transition of the Christian mission—from Judaic Palestine to the Mediterranean world—had ended.
Second transition, to AD 1500
Rome’s urban and literate world quickly disappeared under the barbarians’ westward onslaught. These conquerors established themselves as the new ruling elite. However, they recognized in missionary monks the bearers of a new faith and preservers of a higher civilization. The mission thrust of these monks contrasted sharply with that of the tiny persecuted church in the first three centuries. Then, except for the conversions of the city-state of Edessa, in AD 200, and Armenia, declared a Christian nation in AD 300, people joined the new faith individually. In this second transition whole peoples followed their sovereigns into the new faith.
Christianity expanded in the Byzantine Empire as well as in the remnants of the Western Empire, but it experienced a widening breach, and a split of the Eastern and Western churches occurred in 1054. Yet the major result of this 1,000-year mission was the creation of European civilization. Its emergence marked the second great transition of the faith.
The medieval mission began with the baptism of Clovis I, king of the Franks, and his soldiers, traditionally dated to 496 though it may have occurred as late as 508. The first Germanic king to be baptized by a Catholic bishop rather than an Arian one (through the influence of St. Clotilda, Clovis’s Catholic wife, according to St. Gregory of Tours), he helped to turn the tide against the Arians.
Irish Celtic Christianity differed from that on the Continent. It was organized into communalized groups under an abbot and nurtured intense missionary conviction and outreach. It did not recognize Rome’s authority. The abbot Columba (c. 521–597) built a monastery on Iona, off Scotland’swestern coast, as a base for mission to Scotland and northern England. From it Aidan (died 651) traveled to Lindisfarne, off England’s northern coast, where he and a successor, Cuthbert (634/635–687), helped evangelize Northumbria. Moving southward, the Celtic monks might have evangelized all of Britain, but midway they met Roman missionaries. Other Celtic peregrini, or “wanderers,” evangelized on the Continent.
Pope Gregory the Great (reigned 590–604), who possessed the mind of both a statesman and a theologian, greatly magnified papal spiritual power and temporal involvement. In 596 he sent St. Augustine of Canterbury and some 40 monks on a mission to England—the first papally sponsored mission. Augustine’s missionaries reached England’s southern coast in 597. King Aethelberht of Kent and his wife, Bertha, a Christian, enabled them to make their base at Canterbury. Within the year the king and 10,000 subjects had received baptism. Roman missionaries moving northward met the Celts, and at the Synod of Whitby in 664 the Celts accepted Roman jurisdiction and religious practices, including the method of determining the date of Easter each year.
Inspired by Irish missionary enthusiasm, the English Christians evangelized northern Europe. Outstanding in this effort were St. Willibrord (658?–739), “Apostle to the Frisians” (Friesland, Holland, and Belgium), and Wynfrid, renamed St. Boniface (c. 675–754), one of the greatest of all Roman missionaries. In central and southern Germany Boniface established Benedictine monasteries for evangelization. With full papal trust and Carolingian support he strengthened and reformed the Frankish church.
Boniface also saw the need for women in mission. From England he recruited Lioba (died 782) and entrusted her with developing Benedictine monasteries for women. Despite her outstanding and unique achievements, the movement ended with her death, and Roman Catholic women reentered mission service only in the 19th century. But the Christian wives of pagan kings, who led their husbands into the faith and through them hastened the Christianizing of whole peoples, also contributed to its spread.
In the 8th and 9th centuries, Carolingian rulers mixed military conquest and missionary activity, establishing the faith in pagan territories as they expanded the boundaries of their empire. Charlemagne imposed Christianity and his political authority over numerous peoples, including the Avars and Saxons. His son, Louis the Pious, sent a mission to the Danes in 826, and later emperors built upon this precedent.
In 955 the Holy Roman emperor Otto I defeated the Magyars and brought them to Christian faith. Later, Hungary’s first king, Stephen(reigned 1000–38), made the country a Christian land. From the Holy Roman Empire, Catholic outreach into Bohemia took root under King Wenceslas I (c. 907–929), with evangelization complete by about AD 1000. In Poland, Mieszko I, under the influence of his wife, accepted baptism in 966 or 967. His reign saw the beginning of the evangelization of the country, which continued under his able son, Boleslaw.
Early attempts at evangelization in Denmark and Sweden were made by a German monk, Ansgar (801–865). Canute I (died 1035), Danish king of England, of Denmark, and of Norway, was probably raised as a Christian and determined that Denmark should become a Christian country. The archbishop of Canterbury consecrated bishops for him, and he saw his goal realized before he died. Olaf I Tryggvason(reigned 995–c. 1000) was baptized by a Christian hermit, returned to Norway and was accepted as king, and sought to make his realm Christian—a task completed by King Olaf II Haraldsson (reigned 1016–30), later St. Olaf. Olaf I also presented Christianity to a receptive Iceland. Leif Eriksson took the faith to Greenland’s Viking settlers, who quickly accepted it. After several efforts Sweden became Christian during the reign of Sverker (c. 1130–56). Sweden’s Eric IX controlled Finland and in 1155 required the Finns to be baptized, but only in 1291, with the appointment of Magnus, the first Finnish bishop, was evangelization completed.
Eastern and Nestorian missions
The gradual disappearance of Roman political authority from the Western Empire strengthened the temporal power of the bishop of Rome. In the Byzantine Empire the patriarch of Constantinople remained under the political control of the Christian emperor. Cultural, political, philosophical, and theological differences strained relations between the two cities, and in 1054 the papal legate and the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other.
One reflection of growing difficulties lay in counterclaims to pursue mission in and hold the allegiance of border areas between the two jurisdictions. Rostislav of Great Moravia sought help from the emperor, who (presumably through the patriarch) in about 862 sent two brothers, Constantine (later called Cyril; c. 827–869) and Methodius (c.825–884), from Constantinople to Moravia. They provided Scriptures and liturgy in the mother tongue of each people evangelized and trained others in their methods. This missionary competition was repeated in Bulgaria when its khan, Boris I, sought to convert to Christianity. Receiving missionaries from both Rome and Constantinople, Boris ultimately accepted the jurisdiction of the patriarch in Constantinople for the church in Bulgaria.
Constantinople’s greatest mission outreach was to areas that later became Russia. In the 10th century the Scandinavian Rus controlled the areas around Kiev. Undoubtedly influenced by his Christian grandmother Olga and by a proposed marriage alliance with the Byzantine imperial family, Vladimir I (c. 956–1015) of Kiev, from among several options, chose the Byzantine rite. Baptized in 988, he led the Kievans to Christianity. His son Yaroslav encouraged translations and built monasteries.
From 1240, and for the next 200 years, the Mongol Golden Hordewas suzerain over Russia but generally allowed freedom to the church. For Russians the church proved to be the one means through which they could express national unity. They moved the metropolitanate from Kiev to Moscow, and their church became and remained the largest of the Orthodox bodies, protector and leader for the others. When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Moscow became “the third Rome” and accepted for itself the mystique, dynamism, and messianic destiny of the first Rome—a reality essential to understanding Russian Orthodoxy and nationalism.
East of the Euphrates River, Nestorians and Jacobitesmaintained headquarters in Persia for eastern outreach. The more numerous Nestorians developed a far-flung mission network throughout Central Asia. The Persian bishop A-lo-pen reached China’s capital, Ch’ang-an (modern Xi’an), in 635 and founded monasteries to spread the Christian faith. By the end of the Tang dynasty (618–907), however, the Nestorian community had disappeared.
In 1289 the pope—responding to a request made 20 years earlier by Kublai Khan that 100 Christian scholars be brought by the Polo brothers to China—sent one Franciscan, Giovanni da Montecorvino (1247–1328). He reached Dadu (modern Beijing) in 1294 and launched a small but successful mission. In 1342 Giovanni dei Marignolli arrived with 32 other missionaries, but their work flourished for less than 25 years because the succeeding Ming dynasty excluded foreigners. Twice Christianity had entered and disappeared from China.
The rise of Islam
Between Muhammad’s death in 632 and the defeat of Muslim forces at Poitiers by Charles Martel’sFranks in 732, Arab Muslims had taken the Middle East and Egypt, then swept across North Africa, turned northward through Spain, and ventured briefly into southwestern France. Within a century Islam had taken control of more than half of Christendom.
The Iberian reconquest, which began as a traditional war of conquest, became a crusade against Islam and fused an Iberian Catholicism that Spain and Portugal later transplanted around the globe. In the early 21st century its members represented nearly half the world’s Roman Catholics. The Crusades (1095–1396) produced among many Christians an adversarial approach to those of other faiths. Ramon Llull (c. 1235–1316) pursued a different way. He studied Arabic and sought through dialogue and reason the conversion of Muslims and Jews.
As a result of the second great transition the faith of the Mediterranean world had become that of all Europe and had largely created its civilization. Christendom had lost half of its territory to Islam, but Europe had become the new centre of the Christians.