The men who pioneered the modern missions movement were mainly postmillennial Calvinists who held the Word of God in such high esteem that they saw Jesus command to “Go into all the world and make disciples of the nations” (Matthew 28:19) as an order to be obeyed.
They took their marching orders from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, in which the Swiss Reformer wrote, “Our doctrine must tower unvanquished above all the glory and above all the might of the world, for it is not of us, but of the living God and His Christ who will rule from sea to sea and from the river even to the ends of the earth.”
Calvin’s missionary zeal is attested to by the fact that within 25 years – from the time John Calvin began his ministry – there were 2000 Calvinist churches and about half a million Calvinists, in France alone Calvin sponsored missions throughout Europe and even as far afield as Poland, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Iceland and even to Brazil.
The passion to preach the Gospel in every nation and to win heathen tribes to Christ sprang from those Reformed churches, in England and America, which had been most deeply influenced by the Great Evangelical Awakening of the 18th century. These revivals were based upon the study and proclamation of the Reformed teachings of the Puritans. The two primary human instruments whom God was pleased to use in the 18th century revivals were Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.
Edwards was a Calvinist whose books reasserted the faith and conduct of the Puritans. His sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was used by God to spark the Great Awakening. In 1749, Edwards’ published The Life and Diary of Rev. David Brainerd, which was based on the memoirs of his son-in-law-to be as he established a missionary effort among the Algonquins. This book was mightily used to inspire the 19th century missionary movement. Jonathan Edwards himself invested the last seven years of his life as a missionary amongst these same Native American tribes at a frontier settlement in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
All the founders and missionaries of the original prototype Baptist mission launched by William Carey in 1792 were Reformed Christians who came under criticism for their “strict Calvinism” and being “followers of Jonathan Edwards” (Life of Andrew Fuller, John Ryland).
The Calvinistic missionaries of the 19th century were without exception initially derided as “dangerous madmen.” Even within their own churches skeptics laughed at the audacity of their ideas discounting any possibility of theirs success. The view of the public was even worse. The British East India Company’s attitude was published in these words:
The sending out of missionaries into our Eastern possessions (is) the maddest, most extravagant, most costly, most indefensible project which has ever been suggested by a moon struck fanatic! Such a scheme is pernicious, imprudent, useless, harmful, dangerous, profitless, fantastic (20 Centuries of Christianity, p. 279).
Pioneer missionary, William Carey, and his co-workers, were belittled as “fools, madmen, tinkers, Calvinists and schismatics!” Their preaching was stereotyped as “puritanical rant of the worst kind.” (William Carey, S. Pearce Carey, 1923). The Edinburgh Review editorialized: “We see not the slightest prospect of success; we see much danger in making the attempt.”
The nineteenth century missionary movement in particular had an incalculable impact on human history. The rapid advance of Christianity throughout Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands introduced hundreds of illiterate languages to writing; produced libraries of books and pioneered thousands of schools; provided medicine to save millions of lives from tropical diseases; introduced modern methods of agriculture to provide for millions of previously malnourished people. They put an end to cannibalism, human sacrifice, infanticide, the euthanasia of leprosy patients, widow burnings, slavery and numerous other social evils.
Adapted from A World to Win.