The Man Behind the Missions
Have you ever supported a missionary working with Wycliffe Bible Translators or Africa Inland Mission? Attended InterVarsity's Urbana Student Mission Convention? Do you believe that evangelicals should strive to reach unreached peoples with the gospel?
If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, you are a theological descendent of a man of whom you have probably never heard: Arthur Tappan Pierson.
As strange as it seems today, there once was a time when many American evangelicals did not care much about foreign missions. There was a time when non-denominational mission groups like Wycliffe and Africa Inland Mission did not exist. There was a time—not all that long ago—when "the evangelization of the world in this generation" was not a goal shared by most Christians. A.T. Pierson changed how evangelicals thought about foreign missions. As Dana Robert writes in Occupy Until I Come: A.T. Pierson and the Evangelization of the World (selected as one of 15 outstanding books in mission studies in 2003 by the International Bulletin of Missionary Research), it was through Pierson's prodding that "the meaning of evangelicalism became attached to support for foreign missions." If you are an evangelical and don't know A.T. Pierson, you should. Robert's biography is a good place to begin your introduction.
Pierson lived from 1837 until 1911. He began his ministry as a Presbyterian pastor interested in both piety and climbing the ladder of denominational success. His plan, however, changed. Pierson grew increasingly convinced of the importance of foreign missions and dedicated much of his life to raising support for world evangelization. He became the editor of the most important missions periodical of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Missionary Review of the World. Pierson worked with the YMCA and the Student Volunteer Movement to rally college students to the cause of foreign missions (a tradition continued today by InterVarsity's Urbana Conference). He was credited (incorrectly, he believed) with coining the missionary slogan "The Evangelization of the World in This Generation." And he became an ardent supporter of what was then the revolutionary idea of faith missions. Faith missionaries were not financially supported by denominations but trusted God to provide the necessary resources. Pierson did not found Wycliffe Bible Translators, SIM International, and Missionary Aviation Fellowship (although he did help found the Africa Inland Mission) but his support for the idea of faith missions made these organizations possible.
Robert focuses (rightly) on Pierson's work on behalf of the missionary movement. Yet along the way, she also (rightly) tells the story of late 19th- and early 20th-century evangelicalism. The popularization of missions in the last part of the 19th century was connected to other changes in the evangelical world. Premillennial dispensationalism, the conservative reaction to Biblical criticism, the emergence of Pentecostalism, and the growing division between "liberals" and "conservatives" all played a role in the rise of the evangelical missionary movement.
Robert does a commendable job of explaining Pierson's involvement in this larger evangelical story. Through Pierson, we meet many notable figures: A.B. Simpson (founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance), A. J. Gordon (founder of Gordon College in Wenham, MA), Charles Spurgeon, C. I. Scofield (for whose Scofield Reference Bible Pierson served as an advisor) and Dwight L. Moody. For anyone who wonders how modern evangelicalism and fundamentalism took shape at the beginning of the 20th-century—and how missions became a central feature of both movements—this account of Pierson's life provides an accessible and interesting introduction.
This book is part of the Eerdmans Library of Religious Biography—biographies written by respected scholars for both general readers and other scholars. Readers of this biography will find much detail, good analysis—but no footnotes. Like all books in this series, Occupy Until I Come has a "Note on Sources" rather than citations. The absence of footnotes means that readers must trust the author to make good use of sources. Such trust is justified in Robert's case. She is Truman Collins Professor of World Mission at Boston University and has written extensively on evangelical missions. In this book she proves herself a good storyteller as well.
Only one word of caution: If you are looking for a personal history of Pierson, this is not the book for you. Pierson's family life appears when it touches upon his public life. While this can, at times, make Pierson appear a little one-sided, it does make for a more manageable story. And given the role Pierson played in the creation of both the modern missions movement and modern evangelicalism, it is a story worth knowing.
Sarah Johnson is a Ph.D. student in American religious history at Duke University specializing in the history of missions.
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