Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times recently said something nice about evangelicals: "A broad new trend … is beginning to reshape American foreign policy. America's evangelicals have become the newest internationalists."

He noted facts that are clichés in our world: that the 15 biggest Christian charities collect more than $3 billion a year; that we were behind both the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000; that we are "saving lives in some of the most forgotten parts of the world."

This is old news. As Robert Seiple, president of the Institute of Global Engagement, put it, "Christians began to understand globalization when a Nazareth carpenter said, 'Go ye into all the world.' That was the start of globalization, and there has been no letup in the last 2,000 years." Indeed. But unless we read aright the history of missions—Christian internationalism—we run the danger of lulling ourselves into a self-congratulatory stupor.

The Reformers spent little of their intellectual capital thinking about taking the gospel into all the world. That idea did not blossom in Protestantism until the nontheologian William Carey, a self-educated shoemaker, stepped ashore in Calcutta in 1796. But not without a fight—and from fellow Baptists, no less. When Carey first agitated for the idea at a pastors' meeting, one exasperated member burst out, "Young man, sit down, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he'll do it without consulting you or me."

Not quite. It is very much the likes of you and me whom God enlists, as Carey well knew.

So did the first American evangelical internationalist, Samuel Mills Jr. (1783-1818). When Mills was an undergraduate at ...

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