Engage & Learn

19th Century Missionaries

William Carey (PD-US).

Missionary work has always been deeply ingrained in the Christian faith. Christians are asked to go out into the world and teach the Word of God, inviting others into the fold. As the world view of Europeans expanded in the 15th and 16th centuries, they encountered new peoples and cultures strange and different from their Christian faiths. They believed this to be a form of Satanism and these cultures to be uncivilized and unintelligent versions of themselves. Thus, the intent of missionaries was to bring these new people civilization and salvation. However, political and economic powers in these Europeans understood that they could use missionaries as a tool to help colonize and expand their power in the world. The missionaries created bonds with the local natives and the political power would manipulate those bonds for trade and rights to natural resources to the benefit of the ruler and mother country. In the 19th century, the world saw a boom in missionaries and colonization.

David Livingstone, by Frederick Havill, given to the National Portrait Gallery, London (via Wikimedia Commons).

The 19th century foreign missionary movement began with William Carey in England. Inspired by a passage from the book of Isaiah in the Bible, Carey moved his family to India and began preaching to Hindus in 1793. After much adversity, he finally began to convert Indians to Christianity over 20 years later. Carey and his team translated the Bible in 7 languages, advancing the scope of the Christian religion.

Missionaries were easily subjected to disease and illness in the new, foreign lands. The life expectancy of a missionary was around 8 years. In jungle areas, malaria was a common killer. Many couples worked as missionaries together; however, this greatly decreased their chance of having children because the harsh lifestyle made women prone to miscarriages. In addition, many native people were not always positively accepting of missionaries .

The first team of American missionaries that traveled overseas was Adoniram and Ann Judson. They moved to Burma to convert the Buddhists of the Karen tribe. Although both ultimately died doing their work, the mission converted much of the Karen tribe, which remains one of the only fonts of Christianity in Burma today. American missionaries overseas were rare. Due to Western Expansion, missionaries tended to stay in the U.S., traveling to the South and the Western territories converting Native Americans, slaves, and freedmen.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther, first African bishop. Image By Page, Jesse c. 1892, New York, Chicago, Toronto: Fleming H. Revell (via Wikimedia Commons).

Religious groups from more developed European countries would send missionaries to convert and colonize what they deemed to be uncivilized peoples in Asia, South America and Africa. Christianity has already come to Northern Africa in the earliest centuries of the millennium as Romans conquered Egypt and Ethiopia. In the 1800s, Catholics renewed its mission in Africa by traveling to Senegal and Gabon in the West. However, Catholics were not the primary missionaries in Africa in the 19th century.

Many Protestant and Anglican parishioners also began missions in various areas of the continent. Protestant missions offered access to education which appealed to the many of the African converts.  David Livingstone was a prominent missionary in the middle of the 19th century. He advocated colonization as a way to combat the slavery. While his work made no dent in the slave trade, it did open doors for more countries to use missionary work as a way toward colonization.

While white missionaries were most prominent in Africa, there were an amount of black missionaries as well coming out of the colonies of Liberia and Sierre Leone. Both colonies had been set up by freed slaves after slavery was outlawed in Britain in 1834 and later in 1861 by Abraham Lincoln in the United States. In 1864, the Anglican church named Samuel Ajayi Crowther the first African Bishop in “Western Equatorial Africa”. He has been taken as a slave in 1822, however his boat has been intercepted and taken to Freetown where he was ministered to by the Christian Missionary Society. He was sent to London for further education and became a prominent missionary in Nigeria. He published many books in the Yoruba and Nabe languages further extending the ability of the missionaries in Africa.