Issues Facing Agencies: Background (1)

A very quick trip through Protestant missionary history showing how the various forms of mission agencies came into being.

There are times when it is almost impossible to come up with a snappy, attractive blog title and this is one of them. This post is the first in a series looking at the issues which mission agencies (especially those in the UK) face today. However, before we get to the exciting stuff, we need to do a bit of background work, so today we will be looking at where mission agencies actually came from. We are going to do a bit of history.

Please bear in mind that this is a blog post, it is not an essay or an academic paper. I don’t have the space to get into all of the issues and I will make some generalisations. If you are really interested in reading more, I’ll list a few good sources at the end of this post.

Many English speaking authors trace the origins of the Protestant mission movement to the publication of William Carey’s snappily titled An Enquiry Into The Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens in 1792 (the full title goes on for a few more lines). However, one of the things that Carey sets out to do in his remarkable book is to assess the state of mission work at the time he was writing. It is clear that Carey sees himself not as the originator of a movement, but as someone following in the footsteps of others.

The others in this case are mostly German and Danish missionaries, in particular the Moravians who were the first, large scale protestant missionary church. The Moravians church sent out many missionaries directly from the church without the intervention of a specialist mission agency. The Moravian church was the agency.

What Carey did, that the Moravians had not done was to suggest the formation of a society dedicated to supporting and enabling mission work. Inspired by the voyages of Captain Cook and taking a lead from the commercial societies where where springing up at the time, Carey suggested the formation of an organisation, governed by a board which could facilitate mission. Within a very short time, this led to the founding of the Baptist Missionary Society, with other agencies following on. Most of the societies founded in the aftermath of Carey’s initiative were denominational in basis. The missionaries they sent out ordained ministers as clergy and had they maintained close links to their founding denomination.

The next significant step in the story of mission agencies was the founding of the China Inland Mission (now OMF International) by James Hudson-Taylor in 1865. The China Inland Mission (CIM) was different to the existing mission agencies in a number of significant ways;

  • they were non-denominational, with no formal ties to any particular church.
  • they accepted lay-people as missionaries at a time when most other societies only accepted ordained clergy.
  • they saw women as missionaries in their own right, not simply as wives or carers.
  • they did not pay salaries to their missionaries, but expected them to look to God in faith for the provision of funds.

The founding of the CIM was swiftly followed by numerous other “faith missions” and, today, most mission agencies fit broadly into this classification.

Though there have been some tweaks to the way in which missions function, the patterns set by Carey and Hudson-Taylor are those used by missions today. Agencies are for the most part, autonomous organisations governed by a board, who support mission work in one way or another. Some agencies have close ties to churches and denominations and many of these such, as the Baptist Missionary Society, trace their origins to the post-Carey era. However, the vast majority of agencies have no formal links to churches and denominations apart from those which already exist through their mission partners and staff.

However, the last couple of decades has seen the rediscovery of the Moravian pattern of mission. Many new church streams, such as NFI, have reverted to sending out missionaries directly without the intermediary of a mission agency. This new/rediscovered pattern for mission support has different strengths and weaknesses to the traditional agency pattern.

Very briefly put, this is how we got to where we are today. I’ve deliberately avoided questions of mission strategy, where the societies sent there people and what they did; we’ll come back to that later.

It is also important to note in passing that Protestant mission history represents a small (though significant) slice of the 2,000 year life of the Church. There are other patterns of mission which fall outside of this rubric but which may be worth exploring.

If you are interested in reading more about mission history, these are some resources that I’ve found very helpful in my studies over the past few months.

  • Bebbington, D.W., 2005. The Dominance of Evangelicalism, Leicester: Inter Varsity Press.
  • Cox, J., 2009. The British Missionary Enterprise since 1700, London: Routledge.
  • Fiedler, K., 1994. The Story of Faith Missions, Oxford: Regnum.
  • Stanley, B. ed., 2001. Christian Missions and the Englightenment, Cambridge: Eerdmans.
  • Stanley, B., 2013. The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism, Nottingham: Inter Varsity Press.


This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.

4 replies on “Issues Facing Agencies: Background (1)”

I suspect this is of no relevance to the points you will be making in your subsequent posts (which I look forward to greatly), but I would suggest that the implication that the Baptist Missionary Society (founded 1792) was the first functioning mission agency skirts over much mission agency activity throughout the eighteenth century. SPCK (founded 1698) and USPG (founded 1701) sent missionaries overseas (to India in SPCK’s case and North America in USPG’s) from the early 1700s onwards. In SPCK’s case this is well documented in the chapter ‘Anglicans and others’ within Stephen Neil’s A History of Christianity in India: 1707-1858. I think William Carey has been the subject of much attention because he was the first British missionary to India – those sent by SPCK in the eighteenth century tended to be European Lutherans; for example in 1732 SPCK took sent the Dane Benjamin Schultze as a missionary to India, with a salary of £60 a year.

Thanks for this, Sam. Marking the start point of a movement is always difficult and I struggled with this issue as I was writing. Actually, the first British missionary society goes back beyond both the SPCK and the USPG to the Cromwellian Commonwealth when Parliament established a (short lived) society to work in North America. However, at the time all of these organisations (see Cox in the references that I gave) were focussed on providing pastoral support for the British colonial presence around the world. The Moravians and, later, Carey were interested in reaching the indigenous people rather than the expat Brits.

The other issue with Carey is that codified a particular structure. Both USPG and SPCK had more or less fallen into the mould that Carey was to describe much later, but they didn’t describe things as well a Carey did.

Carey’s genius was not so much to come up with new ideas, but to provide structure and a rationale for the best of what had gone before him.

‘Most of the societies founded in the aftermath of Carey’s initiative were denominational in basis. The missionaries they sent out ordained ministers as clergy and had they maintained close links to their founding denomination’. In similar vein perhaps to Sam’s comment CMS first missionaries were not ordained Anglicans and indeed we’ve always been primarily a lay movement. We’ve also from the word got tended to act independently of the structures of the C of E.

Thanks for your comment, Philip. I realise that there are exceptions to the generalisations that I’ve made (indeed, I pointed out that this would be the case and I very carefully placed the word “most” in the passage you cited).

If anyone really wants to know more about the history of the various agencies, I’d encourage them to look at their web pages (which is why I linked to those I mentioned) or to look at one of the books that I mentioned at the foot of the piece.

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