The Gospels record the command of Jesus Christ that his disciples go forth and teach all nations (Matt. 28:19); Christian missions are the response to this command. The history of missions is, to a large extent, the history of Christianity, because missionary efforts are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and have continued to the present.

Saint Paul was the first great missionary to the Gentiles, and as a result of his efforts the church spread until, by the end of the 1st century, it had reached most of the great Mediterranean cities. By the beginning of the 4th century, Christianity had become a dominant force in Greek culture and in 313 it became an official religion of the Roman Empire. By the end of the 4th century it had extended as far as India in the east and Ireland in the west. The following centuries saw the expansion of the church into northern Europe, and the evangelization of Germany and Scandinavia continued through the early medieval period. Saint Boniface, the apostle of Germany, Saint Patrick, Ireland's apostle, and Saint Augustine of Canterbury were notable missionaries of that era.

The great voyages of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries and the expansion of European trade and colonization marked the beginning of a new surge of missionary activity. Among the religious orders, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Carmelites, and the Jesuits all undertook missions — some to combat heresy, others to establish Christianity in new lands. Jesuit missionaries sent to India and the Far East included Saint Francis Xavier, Matteo Ricci, and Roberto de Nobili. The Recollects (French Franciscans) were the first missionaries to Canada; they were followed by the Jesuits, whose explorations of Canada and the Upper Mississippi are recorded in the Jesuit Relations. The Franciscans and Jesuits, both of whom accompanied the Spanish conquerors in Central and South America, were the most important orders in Mexico and in the Spanish territories that later became part of the United States — Florida, California, and the Southwest. Roman Catholic missions were, and are, overseen by the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (founded 1622), known as the Propaganda, which was set up to settle disputes between rival missionary orders.

Although Protestant missionaries such as John Eliot and Roger Williams ministered to the Indians in New England in the 17th century, Protestant churches lagged behind the Roman Catholics in missionary initiative. Protestant missions began in India with the arrival (1706) in Tranquebar of two German missionaries under patronage of the king of Denmark.

The great era of expansion, however, took place in the 19th century when missionary societies were established in both Europe and the United States and when European colonialism was at its peak. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics sent missionaries to almost every country on earth, and medical missionaries began to provide medical and educational assistance in conjunction with spiritual help.

The result of these efforts is a worldwide Christian church in which evangelization is increasingly assumed by native Christians in their own regions. Many foreign missionaries are still in the field, but for the most part they work in partnership with and under the direction of the native churches. The rapid and radical changes in political, social, and cultural life since World War II have forced missionaries to reassess their work and methods, particularly with regard to such countries as China, from which they were expelled, and those in which political upheaval has threatened their work, as in Africa and Latin America.

by Rev. Charles W. Ranson

Bibliography: Bickel, P., Joy to the World: An Introduction to Christian Missions (1990); Dempster, Murray, et al., eds., Called and Empowered: Global Mission in Pentecostal Perspective (1991); Hutchison, William, Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions (1987); Kane, J. H., Christian Missions in Perspective (1989); Latourette, K. S., A History of the Expansion of Christianity, 7 vols. (1937-45; repr. 1971); Neill, S. C., History of Christian Missions (1964; repr. 1987); Newbiggin, Lesslie, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed. (1995); Verstraelen, F. J., Missiology: An Ecumenical Introduction (1995); Yates, T., Christian Mission in the Twentieth Century (1994).