A Fresh Call for U.S. Missionaries
Ida Scudder was the granddaughter of the first medical missionary sent by the American church. John Scudder, her grandfather, went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1819, and later to India, as a missionary doctor. Ida was born in 1870 and, after finishing school in the United States, returned to India to be with her ailing mother. But Ida's mind was made up: She would never be a missionary. She planned to go to Wellesley College, then marry and settle down in the States.
One night, three men in succession knocked on the door of her parents' home in South India. Each came with this request: "My young wife is dying in childbirth. Can you please come and save her?"
To each, Ida gave the same reply: "I know nothing about doctoring. My father is the doctor. I'll be glad to go with him to see your wife."
All three men—a Brahmin, another high-caste Hindu, and a Muslim—gave the same reply: "In my religion, no man outside the family is allowed into the women's quarters."
Ida couldn't sleep that night. Morning brought news that all three women had died in the night. Ida was never the same again. She graduated from Cornell Medical School in the first class open to women. Returning to India, she started a clinic for women, then a nursing school, then, finally, a medical school. Today Christian Medical College in Vellore remains one of the finest medical schools in India, having produced thousands of nurses and doctors to minister to millions in South Asia.
Stories like this are repeated many times, demonstrating the wonderful work of God among the hundreds of thousands of missionaries sent from American shores over the past 200 years. Many missionaries are remembered with deep affection in the countries they served, for the way they sacrificially brought the gospel. They went as evangelists and pastors, teachers and professors, doctors and nurses, agriculturalists and engineers. Many died in strange lands but have not been forgotten by those whose lives were changed forever by the message of Christ. There is little doubt that in sheer numbers and overall impact, the American church was the dominant force in foreign missions in the 20th century.
Despite such a legacy, many today are questioning the place and vitality of the American missions enterprise.
For example, we hear the call in ecumenical discussions for a moratorium on missions, first made in the late 1960s and '70s. It is built on the presupposition that Western missions is a form of imperialism and prevents indigenous churches from maturing. One African pastor, John Gatu, asserted that "the churches of the third world must be allowed to find their own identity, and the continuation of the present missionary movement is a hindrance to this selfhood of the church." Filipino bishop emeritus Emerito P. Nacpil argued that "the most missionary service a missionary under the present system can do today in Asia is to go home."
Although these views do not represent those of many Western churches or majority-world ones, they nevertheless reverberate in the background of many missions discussions today, especially in mainline Christian circles.
Concern about imperialism is grounded in part on what I call the "Western guilt complex." The mistakes—the Crusades, the European wars of religion, and colonial expansion, plus slavery and related issues—have created tremendous angst in the minds of many Americans. When the mistakes of Western missions are thrown into the mix, the guilt complex becomes a potent brew, contributing to the partial loss of nerve in Western missions.