Protestant Missions Before Carey

William Carey (1761–1834), English shoemaker and cobbler, is usually considered to have been “the father of modern missions.” Were there Protestant missions also prior to Carey’s time? It is to this question that Rev. Timothy M. Monsma addresses himself in this article. After a brief ministry at Chandler, Minnesota, Rev. Monsma served as a CR missionary to Nigeria from 1962 to 1974. Presently he is on leave of absence for study at Fuller Theological Seminary.

There is a popular belief to the effect that the Protestant Reformers were down on missions, and therefore Protestants did very little foreign missionary work before William Carey popularized the idea at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

J. C. Hoekendyk says, for example, “The Reformers presupposed the existence of Christendom . . . Their purpose was, not to create new communities, but to reform those already in existence” (1972, p. 43)

K. S. Latourette writes, “Some of the Protestant Reformers were frankly not interested in missions to non-Christians” (1953, p. 926).

Concerning the definitions of the Church that came out of the Reformation, R. De Ridder says, “The Reformation definitions take little or no account of the New Testament viewpoint which points the Church outside of itself’”(1971: p. 214).

And H. R. Boer has written: “Clearly, Carey was grappling with a view that was powerful and dominant in his day . . . In the conception of the Reformers and of the majority of seventeenth-century theologians the Great Commission was binding only on the apostles. When they died Christ’s command died with them” (1961: p. 18).

Is it true that Protestants did very little missionary work before the nineteenth century and that they learned this inactivity from the Reformers? This article will not attempt to study the Reformation documents in order to know Reformation attitudes toward worldwide missions. It will rather ask whether Protestants did in fact engage in cross-cultural missionary activity in a significant way before the days of Carey. If it is found that they did, we must then ask, What motivated them in those early days?


Early Dutch Missions – Columbus sailed in 1492, twenty-five years before Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. This means that the Catholic countries of Spain and Portugal were deeply involved in sailing and exploration around the world while the Reformation was in progress. The ships that sailed from the Iberian Peninsula also carried Roman Catholic missionaries to the far corners of the world. In those days Spain and Portugal ruled the waves.

But in 1588 the Spanish Armada was defeated off the coast of England and subsequently the English and the Dutch became first-rate sea powers. Just as the explorations of Spain and Portugal during the sixteenth century were accompanied by missionary activity, so the explorations and trade of the Dutch and the English during the seventeenth century were accompanied by missionary activity.

The Dutch East India Company set up a seminary at Leyden for training her own pastors, who were to work with both the Dutch living overseas and the native populations. Mission work was begun in Indonesia, Ceylon, Malaya, and Taiwan. By 1688 the New Testament had been translated into Malay, while during the eighteenth century the entire Bible was published both in Tamil and in Malay.

Just as many of the early converts to the Catholic faith later diminished greatly in numbers, so there was tremendous shrinkage in many of the Churches that were founded by Dutch missionaries during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nonetheless some strong Reformed churches in Indonesia trace their history back to these early days (Neil, 1964, pp. 223, 4).

Early English Missions – Early English missionary work was concentrated in her thirteen colonies in North America although there was also some interest in India during the eighteenth century. As Americans celebrate the bicentennial of their nation, they tend to look upon the colonial period as a short interlude before the Revolutionary War. The colonial period actually covered over a century and a half of time, and significant missionary work among the American Indians took place during this period. Much of the information that follows can be gleaned from Church, State, and the American Indians by R. Pierce Beaver, although I am also indebted to a series of lectures that Dr. Beaver gave at the Fuller School of World Mission.

Did you know that:

1. Practically all the charters written by the British crown for founding the various American colonies mention evangelization of the Indians as one of the reasons for the founding of the colony concerned.

2. Thomas Mayhew purchased sixteen islands off the coast of Massachusetts in 1641, including Martha‘s Vineyard and Nantucket, and his son began evangelistic work among the Indians living there in their language. 3. The first Indian convert was baptized by Thomas Mayhew, Jr. in 1643, and many more converts were added within a decade. 4. John Eliot translated the entire Bible into the Massachusetts tribal language, and this was the first Bible to be published in the American colonies. 5. By 1674 there were 14 towns of Christian Indians in Massachusetts with a total population of about 4,000. 6. By 1700 there were 37 ordained Indian pastors in Massachusetts. 7. Several Indian schools were established in New England and an attempt was made to train In· dians for the ministry at Harvard. 8. In addition to New England there was also work in the other colonies. Dutch pastors were working with Indians at Albany and Schenectady at the time that New Amsterdam was taken by the British in 1664. The Anglicans picked up where the Dutch left off. 9. Various missionary societies were established at that time in the British Isles to support the work in the colonies. 10. The work of the English in America during the seventeenth and eighteenth century became the example for mission work around the world during the nineteenth century.

The Aftermath – Much more could be said. The more one studies these early missionary efforts the more he realizes that they were not a fly-by-night movement. They were a concerted effort extending over the entire colonial period, and there were tangible results in numbers converted and churches formed.

The tragedy is that the children of these early Indian converts can hardly be found today. The Christians Indians suffered along with all the other American Indians of those days because of disease, warfare. and anomie. The European settlers brought with them diseases to with the Indians had little resistance, and many died. Not only were there frequent fights between the settlers and the Indians, but whenever the settlers fought each other they tried to get the Indians to fight with them and for them. This happened both during the French and Indian War as well as the Revolutionary War. Furthermore the Indians were mainly hunters and gatherers while the colonists were farmers. When the Indians were forced by the farmers to move to other areas they became discouraged and lanquished away—a condition called “anomie” by many anthropologists.

Of those Indians who remained, some intermarried with the colonists, some moved to Canada, and some have indeed survived as a separate people to this day. Stephen Neill ministered to some of these surviving Christian Indians (of the Onondaga tribe) near Syracuse, New York, a few years ago (Neill 1964, p. 227, footnote). Canadian readers will be interested to know that the Christian Mohawks moved to Brampton, Ontario, after the American Revolution because they were loyal to the British crown! (Lydekker, 1938)

We have seen so far that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before William Carey, there were two considerable efforts at Protestant missionary work. One other effort must be mentioned: that of the Pietists of Germany and Denmark, especially the Moravians. They sent missionaries to India, Greenland, the Middle Colonies in America, and Dutch Guiana. But the first Pietist missionaries sailed from Denmark in 1705. The English and the Dutch had already done considerable cross-cultural missionary work during the previous century.

There can be no doubt that in the nineteenth century there was a great flowering of foreign missionary effort, especially in the English speaking world. But it would not be right to suppose that all previous Protestant efforts were haphazard or produced no results. It is not surprising therefore that the well-known mission historian, Stephen Neill, writes as follows:

Books written in English have frequently spoken of William Carey (1761.1834) as ‘the father of modern missions,’ and of the work that he brought into being as the first Protestant mission of modern times. Our earlier chapters have shown that this is a misunderstanding; Carey stood, and was conscious of standing, in a noble succession, as the heir of many pioneers in the past”(1964, p. 261).

A Question – And that leads us to a final question: What motivated the Protestant missionary pioneers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? The Reformation had taken place in the sixteenth century. The religious wars on the continent of Europe did not end until the Peace of Westphalia in the middle of the seventeenth century. But by this time the seminary for missionaries of the Dutch East India Company had already run its course and the first Indian converts had already been baptized in Massachusetts.

And why is it that the Dutch Reformed and the English Puritans, both of whom claimed to follow Calvin, were the leaders in these early Protestant cHarts? If the writings of Calvin tend to discourage miSSions, why were at least some of his followers so busily engaged in missions less than a century after he died?

I dont have the full answer. But I do know that some French Calvinists attempted a mission to Brazil already during Calvin‘s lifetime and with his encouragement (Muller 1975, p. 101). I also know that the English Calvinists had real concern for missions.