Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity

Agents of Expansion : Converts, Merchants, Migrants, Soldiers  and Missionaries

Global mission arose out of a complex of events and relationships in which events and their effects can be evaluated. It is not just a good thing with some bad effects, or a bad thing with some good effects. To note the role of merchants, migrants, soldiers and missionaries puts the role of the missionaries in the wider economic and political contexts of which they were inevitably part even if they did not wish to be. There is a mixed legacy here which continues to associate mission with colonialism and which needs to be accounted for.

However, this is still far from the whole story, the reception of faith was seldom passive. Often "agency" lay with converts themselves - the people and cultures who took up and shared Christian faith who were in control of their own future and not just victims of imperialism.

If there was nevertheless frequently enough an imbalance and an abuse of power which compromised mission, Christianity proved itself quite capable of undermining the very imperial power which had a hand in its transmission.

In the Reformed tradition Presbyterian governance facilitated a transfer of responsibility from mission to church and valued skills of political significance. The range of people and their roles, and the complex of social, economic, political, trade and communication issues involved in the process of transferring the faith across cultures should never be underestimated.

Reformed Churches and Mission Overseas

Like other parts of the Christian Church, Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have spread throughout the world and today the World Alliance of Reformed Churches list of members is evidence of some of the surprising places where the culture and faith of these traditions has taken hold and been made people's own far from its European origins.

Although Reformed involvement in intentional mission to countries and cultures outside its European and then North American heartlands was slow before the early 19th century (see Mission), Calvinism was nothing if not international and there were some important early examples of overseas mission, as well as of churches established through trade and migration.

New Zealand Presbyterianism came about through migration (unlike Anglican, Methodist and Catholics it had no missionary presence before European settlement), yet mission overseas was reaffirmed as part of its identity. An outcome of global mission has been diversity as well as the experience of an international faith capable of renewing itself across cultural boundaries. Today the experience of a multicultural church at home is an important contribution to the skills needed for cross-cultural mission elsewhere.

The representational (almost but not quite democratic) polity of Presbyterianism has meant that minorities over-ridden by majority voices are not easily catered for, and divisions within Scottish and Korean Presbyterianism particularly have been serious. Yet differences whose more obvious sources are culture and geography can force the realization that somehow the tradition needs to provide positively for some elements of diversity at least. Theologically perhaps more than missiologically or pragmatically, Reformed Christians have not found it easy to accept the idea that the truth of God can have more than one legitimate expression even in the same family of churches. Holding together diversity will be a larger theme under Diversity and Renewal.

Scotland and the Global Spread of Christianity

Scotland's contribution to world mission has always been closely tied to mission at home,  its own experience of evangelization, the Celtic and Calvinist ingredients in its Christian identity, and its relationship to diaspora Scots in many parts of the world. A common feature is belief in education as a means of salvation open to all. Scots involvement in mission, like that of the Irish, owes something to a spiritual tradition of peregrination, and to lack of economic opportunity at home. Scotland today retains an important role as a world centre for Christian studies, including the history and theology of mission and neo-Barthian theology.

The early evangelization of Scotland is associated with Ninian around 500 and Columba who arrived in Iona in 563. Celtic Christianity survived Viking raids around 800, but gave way to English and Roman practices under Queen Margaret (1046-1093). Monasticism and diocesan organization were extended by her son David I (reigned 1124-1153).

The Reformation brought Scotland politically closer to England and theologically closer to Calvin's Geneva. Like other Reformed churches it was preoccupied by its own needs, and opportunity for mission outside its own bounds was not practicable. By the 16th century responsibility for mission had shifted from monasteries and orders to Catholic Kings and Queens. Protestants had no orders, closed monasteries, and had no rulers anxious to extend their territory or the church. The Westminster Confession of 1646 and its associated catechisms allowed for world mission though they did not encourage it. Following awareness of Indians in North America, and a doomed attempted colonization in Darien in Central America in 1698, more began to think about these implications.

In 1723 Robert Millar of Paisley (1672-1752) called for mission to pagans. By the 1740s the Scottish SPCK (SSPCK) was supporting missions to North American Indians as well as the Highlands. Lowland perceptions of the religious needs and political threat of Highland Scots paralleled its understanding of American Indians, and educational missions were considered appropriate for both. Moderate and Evangelical Scottish ministers debated missiological issues in SSPCK annual sermons, evidence that a Calvinist theological framework was not a barrier to cross-cultural evangelism, even one then conceived in rationalist more than pietist terms. In this respect the Scots were different from the Danish-Halle Mission, a Protestant mission to India following Portuguese and Spanish models of Catholic missions, but without the element of conquest; and from the Moravians in the West Indies and Greenland. Nevertheless it was Scotland's own experience of pietism as well as rapid changes in the opportunities for contact with non-Christians less threatening than Muslims, which helped generate the extraordinary explosion of mission involvement in the 19th century.

In 1742 the Cambuslang Revival inspired a concert of prayer for mission which crossed and recrossed the Atlantic to form the backdrop to the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society. This inspired the formation of the London Missionary Society in which large numbers of Scots were involved. The beginnings of the British Empire created a situation in which Christian mission to people of other faiths became feasible. Mission overseas was now debated by theology students and by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1796. India provided a focus in that mission in East India Company territory remained illegal before 1813. The growth of Scottish local societies and extensive publicity networks brought greater awareness of the issues, frequently debated in terms of the relative priority of Christianization and civilization. After 1824 the General Assembly moved to start its own mission, doing so in educational terms consistent with the SSPCK experience and able to embrace the polarities of the current debate. The success of church based mission saw a weakening of the mission societies. It also carried awareness that the evangelization of India was an Indian responsibility, and that education as mission held a long view of the dynamics involved. Livingstone's example as explorer missionary calling for "Christianity, commerce and civilization" in Africa was heeded by his countrymen and women.

Alexander Duff as the first missionary of the Church of Scotland believed that the Christianised Enlightenment world view would demolish Hinduism and leave Christianity as the only credible alternative. It worked well enough to capture the imagination of a generation, but Hinduism proved resilient, those who preferred vernacular education to English were saying important things about the Gospel, and other models of the relationship of Western education and Christian religion to other faiths were needed.

By the 1840s overseas mission had become an accepted, though not central, part of Scottish Christian identity. It had the strength of an articulate philosophy of mission debated through the annual sermons for the SSPCK, the arguments over missionaries in India and the moves to establish a Church of Scotland mission. Although the Church of Scotland rejected calls to be involved in 1796, by 1825 it had set up a committee to do so. The basis was educational for strategic as well as philosophical and political reasons. The evangelisation of India had to be accomplished by Indians not by Europeans. Education was a means of changing world views, combining the polarities of evangelisation and civilization of earlier missiological debate.

The experience of cultural diversity within Scotland has affected mission but has not always created the benefits which might have been expected. Highlanders have prided themselves on their spirituality and care for theological definition, but like others their contribution to mission has sometimes been too bound to their own cultural concerns to be portable in missionary terms. Economically they have also been more limited yet their contribution to world mission by migration has been significant.

An emphasis on education can be as much an exercise in cultural imperialism as in holistic mission, and Presbyterianism has been better at resisting the dominance of kings and bishops than at being tolerant of cultural minorities. Nevertheless a number of Scots missionaries had significant roles in articulating theologies of mission which took other religions seriously. Their proclivity for founding universities and belief in the formative value of philosophy was often combined with an equal appreciation of artisan skills and the importance of medicine for mission.

In Bombay John Wilson engaged in polite debate with Hindus. James Legge became one of the most important Sinologists of the 19th century, and his appreciation of Chinese religion and culture is better understood now than at that time. J N Farquahar sought to do justice to the good that he found in Indian religion and talked in terms of fulfilment - "Christ the Crown of Hinduism". Although the Edinburgh World Mission Conference of 1910 drew on American and European leadership generally, it had a distinctly Scottish character. The organisation of the commissions, possibly one of the most prepared for conferences in Christian history, stimulated and reflected Scottish sensitivity to the way in which the world was changing. James Hastings' monumental and still current Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics needs to be seen as a missiological statement from that era. Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary of extraordinary statesmanship who has provided enduring analyses of the Gospel and Culture issues which arise in any missionary encounter. Andrew Walls' many-sided contributions to mission include that of pioneer herald of the geographical and cultural realignment of world Christianity, and mentor of missiologists around the globe.

Theological scholarship in Scotland remains a strength, even if suspicion of creativity runs deep. Others take theological formulation for granted in their focus on mission. The social implications of Christian faith are generally accepted. Scotland's primal spirituality is seldom far beneath the surface.

Since 2000 the spiritual challenges of devolution of political power back to Scotland include the need for the people of Scotland to heal old enmities, internal and external, and to take responsibility for their own future.

(based on John Roxborogh "Scotland" and "Scottish Mission Boards and Societies", in Scott Moreau, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, Baker, 2000, 859-861.)

BBC June - July 2003, The Missionaries

BBC Scotland in Europe

Tom Brooking and Jennie Coleman, eds., The Heather and the Fern, Scottish Migration and the New Zealand Settlement, University of Otago Press,  2003.

William Carey, Enquiry into the obligations of Christians to use means for the conversion of the heathens, 1792.

Gordon Donaldson, The Faith of the Scots, 1990

European Voyages of Exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries.

History of International Migration

Missionary eTexts Archive (David Brainerd)

J. H. Morrison, The Scottish Churches' Work Abroad, 1927.

Paul Pierson, "The Reformation and Mission" in Scott Moreau, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, Baker, 2000, 813f.

Presbyterian Church of New Zealand Missions (Archives)

Summaries of the minutes of the Consistory of the Dutch Reformed Church in Colombo held at the Wovendaal Church, Colombo, volume 4A/1 (1735-1744)

John Roxborogh Scotland and Missions before 1813.doc (or pdf ) Thomas Chalmers Enthusiast for Mission, Rutherford House, 1999.

Charles Van Engen, "Reformed Missions" in Scott Moreau, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, Baker, 2000, 814f.

A. F. Walls, "Missions", in Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, 1993, 567-594.

"World Alliance of Reformed Churches". Author: Páraic RÉAMONN

Yale-Edinburgh Group on the History of the Missionary Movement and Non-Western Christianity