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The Foreign Missionary Movement
in the 19th and early 20th Centuries
Daniel H. Bays
History Dept. and Asian Studies Program, Calvin College
Professor Emeritus, Dept. of History, The University of Kansas
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Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, 1886
Evangelical Bible conference of an invited group of college YMCA leaders, from which grew the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, 1886

This combined Christian-civic confidence was manifested in the dramatic growth of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM), a quintessentially American organization. First established in 1886 by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody, for the better part of the next four decades, under the leadership of the astute and well-connected John R. Mott, the SVM successfully appealed to America's "best and brightest" to enter the foreign mission field. In these decades over 13,000 young Americans, most of them college graduates, sailed abroad as missionaries. Many were affiliated with the YMCA or YWCA, but they staffed dozens of different mission agencies. The nondenominational SVM was singularly successful in promoting its vision, encapsulated by its watchword, "The Evangelization of the World in this Generation." And the promotional successes of Mott and other savvy leaders resulted in several generations of earnest and idealistic young Americans seriously considering the SVM "pledge" of intent to be a foreign missionary. Even if they chose not to go themselves they would be faithful supporters of foreign missions in terms of financial support and public relations for decades to come.

MOA/Univ. of Mich.
"These accounts marked the first acquisition of knowledge about foreign cultures and non-Christian religions for most of their readers."

Full texts in Making of America,
University of Michigan Library

Thus by the end of the century foreign missions had captured the imagination of a great many American Protestants. Individual denominational mission agencies, and nondenominational operations such as the SVM, built up a large resource base and were able to funnel significant funds to foreign missions, including building programs for churches, schools, hospitals and clinics, orphanages, and publishing houses. American businessmen contributed generously through organizations such as the Laymen's Missionary Movement. The number of Americans swelled on the world's mission fields, so that soon after 1900 Americans outstripped their forerunners the British in numbers, and by the late 1920s Americans constituted about 40% of the more than 30,000 Christian missionaries worldwide.

It only remains to be pointed out that foreign missions significantly enriched American domestic culture in the nineteenth century. Almost immediately after the first ABCFM missionaries headed for Burma and Hawaii in the 1810s, and as a number of them perished in their labors, they became the subjects of best-selling hagiographic accounts. These accounts, despite their hyperbole, marked the first acquisition of knowledge about foreign cultures and non-Christian religions for most of their readers. Indeed, the large corpus of writings by and about missionaries throughout the nineteenth century constituted the first learning experience of a great many Americans about the non-West (see Online Resources). Investigations on the ground by curious and academically inclined missionaries (remember that in the nineteenth century a large number of them were college graduates, in an age where a tiny percentage of Americans were) contributed to the development of academic disciplines such as anthropology, linguistics, comparative religions, and even the natural sciences.

Womans State Organizations, October 1889
"Woman's State Organizations, Cooperating with the American Missionary Association," The American Missionary, October 1889

Women's missionary experience impacted the trajectory of gender relations back in the U.S. Religious issues such as that of women's ordination or public preaching, and secular issues such as that of women's suffrage, were alike influenced by the fact of the growing women's missionary movement, which after the 1860s had its own organizations to support women's missions in many denominations. Another result of the domestic appeal of the missionary movement was the formation of Bible schools, which began in the late nineteenth century. For example, Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, as well as many of its later counterparts, was explicitly established to train missionaries for the foreign field. Finally, even in international relations the personal networks of influence formed by some multigenerational U.S. missionary dynasties, such as the Luce family in China and the Bliss and Dodge families in the Middle East, influenced U.S. foreign policy well into the twentieth century.

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The Foreign Missionary Movement | American Jewish Experience through the 19th Century | Mormonism and the American Mainstream | Evangelicalism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening | Evangelicalism as a Social Movement | American Abolitionism and Religion
Religion in the Civil War: The Southern Perspective | Religion in the Civil War: The Northern Perspective
| African American Christianity, Pt. I | African American Christianity, Pt. II |
Roman Catholics and Immigration in 19th Century America |
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