Naïve, pious, overly zealous barriers of Western civilization who disrupted the happy lives of peaceful primitive peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific islands: this has long been the stereotype of missionaries. And it is unjust. To be sure, some missionaries were imperious, self-centered, and unresponsive to the concerns of those among whom they ministered, and few could completely throw off the fetters of the Western culture in which they were nurtured. But this does not discredit the whole enterprise.
Many of these heroes of the faith stood for social justice, fought against inhuman practices in traditional societies, and resisted the worst features of advancing European imperialism. A careful survey of their efforts on behalf of suffering people would undoubtedly challenge us to reexamine our own level of commitment and effectiveness. I want to offer some illustrations of this and to suggest possibilities for fruitful research in the area of missions and social concern. The after-effects of the fundamentalist vs. modernist and personal evangelism vs. social gospel controversies have clouded evangelicals’ understanding of their heritage. The rediscovery of the vital roles played by the Methodists in both Britain and America, the Pietists in Germany, and the English evangelicals in confronting and curing societal ills in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has strengthened the self-confidence of modern-day evangelicals. Other examples of faith in action would be likely to continue this healthful process.
In a three-volume study made at the turn of the century, Christian Missions and Social Progress (1897–1906), James S. Dennis declared that Christianity was a “supreme force in the social regeneration ...1
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