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For centuries, believers committed to a particular religion have endeavored to convert those with differing beliefs, and thus have affected great change throughout the world. The three main “missionizing” religions in history have been Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.
Missionaries are men and women who propagate a particular religious belief, attempt to convert those holding a different belief, and found new communities of people to practice their belief. For at least 2,500 years, missionaries have been some of the most important agents of change in world history. In innumerable ways, missionaries have significantly shaped, and continue to shape, the world we live in today.
The definition of missionaries given above presupposes several conditions. First, the missionary’s religion is not associated with a particular village or region. That is, the religion must be transportable and not bounded geographically. It cannot be associated solely with, for example, an oracle residing in a sacred grove near an African village. Second, there is some higher authority that sends the missionary out “on mission.” Christian missionaries, for example, might receive their authority from a particular missionary society, but ultimately they believe their authority comes from God. Third, missionaries intentionally set out to try to convert others to their faith. Fourth, the missionary must believe that his or her religious belief is universally “true” and that all other beliefs are in error. This revelation needs to be shared with all nonbelievers so that they may be “liberated” from evil and falsehood. Finally, the missionary feels uniquely “called” to mission, believing that he or she has received a special commission or mandate to bring the religious vision and its benefits to the nonbeliever.
It is also important to distinguish between “home” and “foreign” missions, although the distinctions are becoming increasingly blurred. Examples of home missionary work would include youth programs, shelters and food kitchens, door-to-door evangelizing, distribution of religious literature, public witness, and protests or pressure directed toward religious and political leaders to come more in line with specific doctrinal beliefs, such as antiabortion. Obviously, many such activities are also carried out by missionaries in “foreign” missions, which carry the religion beyond its land of origin. But foreign lands that were considered “pagan” a century ago, such as parts of Africa, are now sending Christian missionaries to the United States and Europe to convert Europeans or bring apostates back to their faith. Major world missionizing religions for at least the last two or three centuries have focused their activities not only on nonbelievers who practice local religions, such as among the Native Americans in the United States, but also on each other, such as Christians and Muslims trying to convert each other’s members. The Christian evangelical movement has targeted Central and South America for much of its missionary efforts, not toward non-Christians, but to convert the majority Roman Catholic Christian populations to Protestant versions of Christianity. While recognizing these increasingly fuzzy distinctions between home and abroad and “us” and “them,” this essay will focus primarily on missionaries working in “foreign” missions for the major world missionizing religions.
Through the notion of universality, missionaries consider their religious beliefs to be transcultural and transcendent. The supreme power or truth that these beliefs possess overrides the nonbeliever’s personal bonds with his or her immediate family, clan, ethnic identity, political organization, and local religious belief. Missionaries themselves, however, are seldom able to fully separate themselves from their own social and cultural heritage and traditions. There are some core beliefs that are essential to the faith, and therefore required of all believers in all cultures. There are other religious practices that are unique to a missionary’s own national or regional (as Scotland, the Middle East) culture and heritage, and these should be modified and adapted as the religion spreads to new areas. Missionaries often link their own social, cultural, economic, and political customs, however, with the universal, core religious beliefs. Frequently these then become one and the same. Islam around the world has a distinctly Arabic nature, due in no small part to the requirement that the Qur’an be read in Arabic. Buddhism reveals its roots in Indian philosophy and culture wherever it is practiced. Chinese Confucian and Daoist concepts are closely woven into the fabric of Son and Zen Buddhism in Korea and Japan. Western Enlightenment ideas about human rights, rational thought, and the scientific method accompany many Christian missionaries. While the central religious message is universal, cultural expressions such as wearing a certain style of clothing, having only one spouse, doing “manly” work, or eating in a certain manner are often required for one to be considered a good convert to the new faith. Because of this, missionaries, such as those Christian missionaries that accompanied European imperial expansion over the last five hundred years, are sometimes viewed as cultural imperialists.
One reason for this charge of cultural imperialism is that Christian missionaries, unlike the missionaries of any other religion, have more often been involved in activities that have gone far beyond simply teaching the gospel under a tree or building a church. Jesuits served as advisers to the Chinese emperor and Japanese shogun in the 1500s and 1600s. Franciscan, Dominican, and other Catholic missionaries owned slaves in the Americas, and both Protestant and Catholic missionary societies owned vast plantations and lands abroad. Besides their ministry, and sometimes instead of their ministry, Christian missionaries were involved in myriad secular activities, including establishing schools and colleges, setting up hospitals and clinics, serving as doctors, nurses, translators, interpreters, government agents, merchants, and military advisers. This involvement in local economies, governments, and cultures had an immense impact on societies and peoples around the world. To cite just one example, many newly independent countries in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly in Africa, were led by men who had obtained their primary and often higher education in Christian missionary schools, which led them to be very “Westernized” in their thinking and attitudes.
Implicit in the charge of cultural imperialism is the idea that the missionary has employed some type of force, coercion, or deception on the convert to convince him to abandon traditional ways and accept new ones. It is true that at some time in its past, every missionizing religion has been advanced through force—Islam by conquest, Buddhism by zealous feudal warlords, Christianity through the Inquisition. Still, it is also true that each of these religions recognizes that forced conversion is a counterfeit conversion, and that converts must come to their new faith with a free and open heart. The Qur’an, for example, declares, “There is no compulsion (force) in religion” (2:256).
Conversion is a major topic of study in its own right and is too complex to discuss in any detail here. But, depending on the culture in which one lives, conversion to a new religion may require the abandonment of all or large parts of one’s birth culture. In many societies religion and culture and daily life are all so closely linked together that it is impossible to change one without changing all. The missionary, who believes absolutely in the correctness of his or her vision and the benefits, such as eternal salvation, to be gained from it, will argue that each individual should be free to hear the compelling and, it is hoped, convincing message. The problem arises when the missionary has the might of imperial military and economic forces behind him or her and can call on those forces whenever necessary. When European nations and the United States, for example, forced Japan to sign “Open Door” treaties in the mid-1800s, there was generally a clause in each treaty that allowed Christian missionaries to travel anywhere in this country and proselytize freely with no restrictions. Because of the perceived threat that missionaries pose to their traditional cultures and religion, many countries with a single state-supported religion have forbidden missionaries representing other beliefs to proselytize within their borders. Many of the predominantly Roman Catholic countries in South and Central America, for example, place restrictions on Protestant evangelical missionary activities, and Russia has placed similar restrictions on Protestants, whom they view as threatening the Russian Orthodox Church. In many Islamic countries all non-Islamic missionary activity is strictly forbidden, and conversion from Islam to another religion is punishable by death.
On the other hand, converts have often taken advantage of the missionary’s connections to a wider world. For example, as more scholarly studies appear detailing Christian missionary activity during the age of European imperialism, it is clear that many nonbelievers converted less for spiritual reasons than for economic, political, or social ones. Missionaries provided chiefs with firearms, children with education, women with health care and freedom from patriarchal domination, poorer citizens with a perceived enhanced status through the opportunity to wear Western clothing, speak a Western language, and become a clerk or some other functionary in a colonial government. These self-serving motives for conversion meant that missionary successes were often quite tenuous, and there are numerous accounts of backsliders and even whole villages or chiefdoms reverting to traditional beliefs as the material or political advantages of becoming Christian changed. Missionary critics argue that even in those examples where local elites invited foreign missionaries to come and freely spread their message, there were always underlying economic or political motives that dictated this action rather than a deep spiritual commitment to the missionary’s religion. It must also be said, however, that many missionaries of all faiths have been remarkable, altruistic people who truly cared for the people among whom they worked. Some fought against the harsh treatment or injustice inflicted upon local people by outside forces, such as colonial settlers, or even local governments. The priests and nuns who have been killed by dictatorships in Central America during the past thirty years represent but a few examples of this compassion and sacrifice.
No matter how or where they arrive, missionaries always meet some resistance and their chances for success often depend on whom they are able to reach most effectively. In many cases they begin with the people at the margins—women, children, people with physical or mental handicaps, outcasts, the poor and illiterate, widows. In these instances missionaries are tolerated at best, and sometimes martyred by the elites who feel their positions threatened. When missionaries directly challenge the power elites they may be viewed as political troublemakers and their converts as traitors. Rulers in these situations may take exceptionally harsh measures against both the missionaries and converts, such as the massacre of Christians at the beginning of the Edo period (1600/03–1868) in Japan. Only in those cases where a majority of the elites and common people accept the new religion are missionaries able to initiate revolutionary change in a society. Generally, it has also been the case that missionaries are more effective among peoples who do not practice other world religions. Christian missionaries, for example, have had relatively little success in converting Muslims or Hindus.
Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are the three principal missionary religions in world history. In the twentieth century it was also possible to speak of missionaries for the secular belief of communism. (Although communism and the missionaries who spread it meet many of the criteria listed above, this article will discuss only religious missionaries.) But other religions have had less impact or less sustained missionary activity than these three principal religions.
Although Judaism is one of the oldest continuous world religions, it has discouraged missionary work and even conversion for many centuries. Prior to the Jewish revolts against the Romans in 66–70 and 132–135 CE, there was extensive Jewish missionary activity among certain sects of Judaism to fulfill the prophecy in Habakkuk 2:14, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” Following the second revolt, however, as many Jews entered the Diaspora, the focus shifted to maintaining a holy community awaiting the messiah. Jewish missionary activity ceased and potential converts were even discouraged through an emphasis on strict observance of Torah (Jewish law), and by requiring male circumcision.
Some ancient religions, such as Zoroastrianism or the Egyptian cult of Isis and Osiris, claimed universal messages but were closely tied to specific sociopolitical contexts. They spread most commonly through migration, trade, war, and the conversion of neighboring peoples without the direction of any central mission authority. Many syncretic religions, such as Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church (the Moonies), the Sikhs, and the Baha’i faith have universal messages, do actively promote missionary activity, and seek converts, as do many of the myriad independent, indigenous churches in Africa, such as the Kimbanguist Church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
One of the oldest and most populous religions in the world, Hinduism, with over 800 million practitioners, almost defies description because of its complexity. Because Hinduism had no founder, possesses no single creed, and looks to no single source of authority, it does not possess some of the key characteristics of a missionary religion. In the past, Hinduism essentially spread by the gradual adoption of Vedic sacred texts and practices across India and had no missionary tradition. Beginning in the nineteenth century, however, and continuing today, some “evangelical” Hindu sects, often organized around a particular guru, have actively sought converts through missionary activities. The most well-known of these are the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation movement and the Ramakrishna Mission, or Hare Krishnas.
“Go forth O Monks, for the good of many, for the happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the good and happiness of both gods and men. Let no two of you go in the same direction. Teach the Dhamma . . . Explain both in letter and in spirit the holy life, completely fulfilled and perfectly pure” (Vinaya, Mahavagga: I.II.I).
Buddhism was the first world missionary religion, crossing boundaries of race, ethnicity, language, culture, and politics. Having given his Great Commission, the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama; c. 566–c. 486 BCE), living in northern India, sent his disciples in all directions to share his teachings, the dharma. There was to be no centrally organized missionary movement, but simply individual monks and teachers going their separate ways to propagate the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha showed the way by refusing to enter into Nirvana after becoming enlightened, but living on into his eighties to teach what he had discovered through meditation and contemplation.
While Buddhist missionaries may belong to different sects, they all share a central core of beliefs, particularly the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. They do not teach that the Buddha is a deity, nor recognize any supreme god or creator. They consider the Buddha’s message universal, one truth having relevance for one mankind. As there is no concept of sin in the dharma, Buddhist missionaries do not offer salvation, but rather the overcoming of, and freedom from, ignorance. They also believe that no outside spiritual force or deity, including the Buddha, can confer enlightenment. After hearing the dharma teachings, each individual must experience and realize the truth for oneself. Buddhist missionaries are unique in not competing against missionaries from other religions. They are never to use coercion or violence to gain converts, never to try to convert someone who is content in his or her own faith, never to speak disparagingly of other faiths. Intolerance, dogmatism, and religious fanaticism are decidedly non-Buddhist-like behaviors.
Following the Buddha’s death, individual monks from the monastic community, the Sangha, traveled with their alms bowls and taught the dharma along caravan routes, such as the Silk Roads, thereby linking Buddhism’s spread to the development of long-distance trade. Around 262 BCE the Mauryan ruler, Asoka, adopted Buddhist principles for his vast empire. Besides commissioning the first written dharma texts, he also sent out Buddhist missionaries (monks) across India and beyond. Indian Buddhist monks brought the dharma to China in 67 CE at the emperor’s invitation. By the 500s Buddhism had spread to Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, southern China, Indonesia, and Cambodia. Ch’an Buddhism began in China around 520, and spread from there to Korea. By the 1200s, Japanese Buddhists had developed their own version of Ch’an Buddhism known as Zen. Tibet received its first Indian Buddhist missionary, the Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava), in 817. Ironically, when northern India came under the political control of Turkish Muslims between the ninth and twelfth centuries, many Buddhist monks were killed and their universities/monasteries destroyed. By the 1500s, Buddhism had nearly died out in the Buddha’s homeland.
After several centuries of relative stagnation, Buddhism began in the 1800s to spread to Europe and the Americas. Since World War II Buddhism has gained a wide following in the West. In the 1950s and 1960s dozens of Europeans and Americans traveled to Asia where they spent years studying throughout the Asian Buddhist world. Many of them have now returned and together with thousands of recently arrived Asian immigrants have established monasteries and Buddhist societies throughout Europe and the Americas. Asian Buddhist monks now regularly visit the West to teach the dharma. Some scholars now speak of American Buddhism, which is characterized by a unique blending of many different Buddhist practices.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20).
Matthew writes that after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared among his disciples and gave them his Great Commission. Like the Buddha, Jesus had already set a missionary example as he gathered followers, promising to make them “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Following Jesus’ death, his Jewish Christian followers, based in Jerusalem, spread his message to others in the surrounding Jewish community. Whether they were one of Jesus’ original followers or new converts to his teachings, however, they remained Jews and were expected to keep the Hebrew law. It was Paul of Tarsus, recognized as the prototype and greatest of all Christian missionaries, who began to tell Jesus’ story to the Gentiles (non-Jews), and he and others carried the gospel, or good news, across Anatolia (modern Turkey) and Greece to Rome. It was Paul who separated Christianity from the Hebrew law and its Jewish context, thereby giving it a universal appeal to people of all nations.
Although there have been nearly an infinite number of schisms among Christian believers since Jesus preached his gospel, there are still some core beliefs that a majority of Christian missionaries share. Some of these beliefs Christians adopted from Judaism, such as a belief in one God, in a messiah, or Christ, and in an afterlife. The central Christian belief is that through faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection, individuals are spiritually and physically saved from death, their sins are redeemed, and they will return to God in heaven. All Christian missionaries will also teach that God is a Trinity, a single supreme being in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that Jesus is both fully human and fully God, two natures in one.
The missionaries who followed Paul carried the gospel across the Roman Empire. A critical turning point in Christian history came when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire in 312 CE. Over the next seven hundred years, missionaries evangelized large parts of Europe, Ireland, Anatolia (including the important city of Constantinople [now Istanbul]), and North Africa. Much of this missionary work was undertaken by monastic monks, such as the Nestorians and Cistercians.
The second millennium began with the Great Schism of 1054, which divided Christianity between the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe and the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe and Russia. Both branches now sent out missionaries. The European Reformation that began in the 1520s gave rise to numerous Protestant sects but conflicts with the Roman Catholic Church and constant fissures and schisms prevented them from sending out missionaries in any significant number. Meanwhile the Catholic Church dominated the missionary field, sending Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, and others to the Americas, India, and Asia. Since Protestants entered the mission field in the late 1700s, Christian missionaries have encircled the globe, often accompanying Europe’s imperial expansion.
While this discussion has focused on organized forms of Christian foreign missionary activity, it is also true that every Christian is expected to make public witness of his or her faith; in effect, to be a missionary. There are several statements attributed to Jesus in the New Testament that Christians believe call on them to personally spread the gospel. One such statement is found in Mark: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (16:15). Thus, while Christian churches send missionaries abroad, members of their congregations serve the “home” mission.
“Invite (all) to the way of Your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. For Your Lord knows the best, who have strayed away from His path” (Qur’an 16:125).
Islam is always described as a missionary religion, it has a universal message, and it has been one of the fastest-growing religions in world history. It now numbers well over a billion members worldwide. There has never been, however, a sustained and organized missionary effort in Islam to spread the message said to have been given by God to Muhammad (c. 570–632) and recorded in the Qur’an.
In the Qur’an there are many suras, or chapters, that can be interpreted as referring to missionary work. Like the earlier examples of the Buddha and Jesus, Muhammad was the first missionary for Islam. His missionary role is described clearly in the Qur’an: “O you prophet, we have sent you as a witness and a herald of good tidings, and a warner, and someone who invites people unto God by His permission, and as an illuminating lamp” (33:45). But the Qur’an also relates that Muhammad is only the messenger, whose duty is simply to convey the message, not to convert his audience to Islam: “It is not required of you (O Muhammad), to set them on the right path but it is God who guides whom He wills” (2:272). Muhammad is to convey God’s message “with wisdom and beautiful preaching,” and by arguing “in ways that are best and most gracious.” Through these and other verses Muslims believe that they too are obligated to share Allah’s message with unbelievers. In Islam, this missionary work is know as dawah, and every believer is considered a missionary, whether through example or by proselytizing.
Although, as with Christianity and Buddhism, there are different branches of Islam, every Muslim would agree on certain fundamental beliefs. First among these would be the simple statement of faith: “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.” To convert to Islam, one need only recite this statement in front of witnesses. Actually, it is believed that every person is born pure and a Muslim, but some become corrupted and therefore each new Muslim is considered a “revert,” having gone back to their original faith, rather than a convert. Muhammad is believed to be the last and greatest prophet of God, but not divine in any way. There will be a final judgment day and life after death in heaven or hell. A devout Muslim must also perform the Five Pillars, or duties, which include expressing the statement of faith, giving alms, praying five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime.
Muhammad is said to have received his first revelations from God in 610 CE, and they continued until his death twenty-two years later. Muhammad’s wife, Khadijah, was his first convert. By the time of his death Muhammad had acquired several hundred thousand followers and spread Islam across much of the Arabian Peninsula. Within a hundred years Islam was practiced across North Africa as far west as Morocco, north into southern Europe, and east to India.
While it is often argued that Islam spread by the sword (i.e., force), scholars have generally discounted this view. Rather, as Muslim armies conquered they also destroyed opposition. Islam has no clergy per se, only local prayer leaders, scholars, and holy men. Therefore Islam spread behind military conquest and through trade, following the caravan routes across North Africa and Asia, with merchants, travelers, holy men, and bureaucrats as well as soldiers carrying God’s message. As they settled in new areas they established Islamic institutions, married locally, and over the decades converts appeared. Only in the past century, as Muslims have come under increasing pressure from Christian missionaries to convert, have Islamic associations, organizations, and missionary societies been formed to counter Christian efforts.
Outlook in the Twenty-First Century
Missionaries are not easily defined, as the discussion above and the examples from the three major religions illustrate. In reality, every member of every religion is a witness and example for his or her faith. Religions frequently acquire new members in ways that meet few of the conditions set out at the beginning of this essay. Islam has become the second largest religion in the world without, until very recently, any formal missionary effort. Buddhism is spread by simple monks who depend on the charity of lay believers to survive. Many religions carry out very active and passionate missionary work but their converts are few because their message does not seem to have universal appeal.
From the beginning, Christianity has combined both personal witness and intentional mission organization to spread the gospel. Over the past five hundred years Christian missionary efforts have been aided by Western colonialism and domination of technology. In 2004 there were more missionaries than ever before in world history. Christians alone have over 400,000 missionaries spreading the gospel and spend an estimated $11 billion on foreign missions. At the end of 2009 the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) alone had over 50,000 missionaries serving in some 160 countries. Evangelical Christians have made it their goal to convert the entire world population to Christianity and provide “a church for every people.”
And yet it appears that Islam is the fastest-growing religion today, having increased from around 400 million in 1960 to over 1.5 billion in 2009. A significant reason for this growth is the high birthrate in Asia and Southwest Asia. But Islam is also growing in the former Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States through both conversion and immigration. Buddhism is also gaining many adherents in Europe and the United States. India is experiencing a Hindu revival and many Native Americans, Africans, and other groups are recovering their traditional religions.
As the global village becomes more of a reality, the difference between home and foreign mission will lose all meaning. As transportation and communication become more accessible to the world’s peoples, individuals will be able to choose their religious faith more easily than at any time in human history. A simple search on the World Wide Web reveals that in many ways, the Internet is becoming the missionary of the future. In the end, however, it will still be the single believer who brings others to his or her faith, as did the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad.
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