As missionary movement turns 200, questions for the future - Word&Way

As missionary movement turns 200, questions for the future

SALEM, Mass. (RNS)—When America's first ordained missionaries sailed to India 200 years ago, they kicked off a movement to spread the faith and created America's most potent export—Christianity.

That's the message that will reverberate across nine Judson 200 commemorative events, running Feb. 5-20 in and around Salem. Speakers—evangelicals, mainline Protestants and scholars—will recall how the course of history changed with Adoniram Judson and four other missionaries.

Religious liberals and conservatives, who both lay claim to Judson's legacy, will hold separate events. One includes unveiling a new name to reflect the recent merger of two evangelical mission societies, CrossGlobal Link and The Mission Exchange, representing 35,000 missionaries.

But participants will embrace a shared heritage as exporters of American ideas and weigh 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 theological schools. "That was the message carried around the world."

Judson's 1812 departure with his wife, Ann Hasseltine, marked the start of a new era of American and Christian influence.

To support them, the first of many missionary-sending agencies was born—the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. 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 country.

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, based outside of Boston.

The 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 still are 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."

Events kick off at Tabernacle Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation that was the site of the original commissioning. On hand will be officials representing the UCC's Wider Church Ministries division, which traces its roots to the 1812 mission board.

The schedule reflects just how many strains of Protestantism claim the Judson heritage. The Judsons started out as Congregationalists, but they became Baptists en route to Asia. Heads of the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Alliance will be at Tabernacle. American Baptists, including Burmese pastors, will lead other services.

Organizers plan to emphasize virtues associated with the early missionaries, such as courage and self-sacrifice for a higher purpose. Participants can expect to hear challenges to follow in the Judsons' footsteps, if not literally, then at least spiritually.

Churches can begin by welcoming refugees and immigrant congregations, according to Maung Maung Htwe, pastor of Overseas Burmese Christian Fellowship, an American Baptist congregation in Allston, Mass.

"We're still reluctant to receive those people as our brothers and sisters," said Htwe, who will co-lead a worship service in Judson's hometown of Malden, Mass. But "Judson gave us the example that without a sacrificial spirit, the gospel that we talk is nothing."

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. "We go (out) saying we have all these great ideas and (people abroad) would be better off following them."

Judson 200 ends with a Feb. 20 re-enactment of the Judsons' launch from the port of Salem. Events marking the Judsons' 1813 arrival in Burma will be scheduled next year.