This series offers brief, accessible and lively accounts of key topics within theology and religion. Each volume presents both academic and general readers with a selected history of topics which have had a profound effect on religious and cultural life. The word ‘history’ is, therefore, understood in its broadest cultural and social sense. The volumes are based on serious scholarship but they are written engagingly and in terms readily understood by general readers.

Heaven Alister E. McGrath
Heresy G. R. Evans
Islam Tamara Sonn
Death Douglas J. Davies
Saints Lawrence S. Cunningham
Christianity Carter Lindberg
Dante Peter S. Hawkins
Spirituality Philip Sheldrake
Cults and New Religions Douglas E. Cowan and David G. Bromley
Love Carter Lindberg
Christian Mission Dana L. Robert
Judaism Steven Leonard Jacobs
Ethics Michael Banner
Reformation Kenneth Appold
Monasticism Dennis D. Martin
Apocalypse Martha Himmelfarb
Shinto John Breen and Mark Teeuwen
Sufism Shahzad Green


For Marthinus Louis Daneel

List of Illustrations




There is an old joke about a man who wrote a very long letter to his son, ending with the postscript, “I’m sorry I wrote such a long letter. I didn’t have enough time to write you a short one.” After twenty-five years of teaching mission history and finding it endlessly fascinating, I have taken an eternity to write a “brief” history of my major field of research. Part of the struggle lies in deciding what must be included, and what can be left out.

But another challenge is that the historiography of Christian mission has been changing rapidly. Before the mid twentieth century, a narrative of European expansion dominated the field. By the mid 1960s, the subject of Christian mission – if noticed at all – was treated as a form of western hegemonic discourse wedded to economic and cultural imperialism, or European colonialism. Studies by nonwestern historians often focused on the limitations and advantages of mission in relation to nation-building or the creation of communal identities. By the late twentieth century, mission historians emphasized the complexity of intercultural and interreligious encounters, including the need to put indigenous leaders at the center of the picture. Women’s studies have entered the field, with gender finally recognized as an important dynamic in the mission process. Postcolonial perspectives vary widely, but in general both the missionary and the convert are treated as agents of hybridity, as cultural brokers in the border-crossing production of worldviews. For theologians, the study of mission history has continued to emphasize missions’ role in the transmission and creation of theologies. For ordinary believers, the missionary remains an exemplar of piety and embodiment of Christian identity.

I am indebted to many scholars who have shaped the above-mentioned perspectives. I find much merit in multiple approaches, and a discerning reader will find traces of them in my text. But in this study, which is meant to introduce missions as the object of historical rather than theological analysis, I argue that mission history can be explained as a series of boundary crossings, driven by a universalist logic. Thus the meaning of Christian mission is integral to Christianity as a world religion that exists across time, space, and cultures. Teachers and colleagues whose insights over the years have substantially helped me to reach these conclusions include Charles Forman, George Lindbeck, Andrew Walls, Lamin Sanneh, Gerald Anderson, and Robert Hefner. I thank them all, though of course I take full blame for weaknesses in my arguments.

For financial support in the writing of this book I wish to thank the ATS Lilly Faculty Sabbatical Grant program, which helped me with a semester’s leave in 2006. My friends Kip Knight and Peggy Day, and the DeFreitas Family Foundation, have also provided research funds without which I could not have written this book. Thanks go to Dean Ray Hart of the Boston University School of Theology for his unflinching support in the midst of many changes.

For help with the manuscript I thank Doug Tzan, who as a diligent research assistant kept me from making mistakes. Doug also formatted the bibliography. I am grateful to Todd Johnson for providing me with three original maps. David Hempton and Angelyn Dries were valuable sounding boards for some of my early ideas about this project. Martha Smalley of Yale Divinity School invited me to present some of the research in the George Edward and Olivia Hotchkiss Day Associate Lecture. I wish to thank Ellie Beatty, Ann Braude, Shawn Daggett, Samuel Massie, Charles Robert, and Diana Wylie for reading all or part of the manuscript and providing valuable critiques. Thanks especially go to editor Rebecca Harkin, who asked me to write this book and provided encouragement and feedback along the way.

I dedicate this book to my husband Inus, who is a constant source of inspiration and encouragement.

Dana L. Robert
Somerville, Massachusetts


Today roughly one-third of the people on earth are Christians. Not only is Christianity the largest religion in the world but it embraces a huge variety of forms, ranging from Catholics in Brazil, to Apostles in Zimbabwe, to Copts in Egypt, to Pentecostals in Ghana, to Lutherans in Germany, to House Church believers in China. The geographic range, cultural diversity, and organizational variety of Christianity surpass those of the other great world religions.

How did Christianity get to be so diverse and widespread? The movement of Christianity from one culture to another can be explained by the concept “mission.” The word “mission” comes from the biblical Greek words for “sending.” Christianity, like Islam, is a “sending” religion. Within its philosophical structure is the idea of universality – that the message it proclaims about Jesus Christ should be shared with all peoples. Its sacred text, the Bible, contains missionary documents that command Jesus’ followers to “go into all the world.” Within its 2,000-year history are myriad examples of Christians deliberately being sent or else informally crossing geographic or cultural barriers, and founding new groups of believers wherever they go. New groups in turn launch missions of their own. The history of Christian mission – and of churches’ particular missions – provides a useful framework for grasping the meaning of Christianity as a multicultural, global presence in the world today.

The stereotyped popular view of missions is at odds with their rich variety and fascinating realities. The word “mission” is often quickly reduced to western colonialism, rather than analyzed as a complex, multi-cultural historical process stretching across two millennia. The term “missionary” is caricatured as representing a white Anglo-Saxon man in a pith helmet, preaching to unwilling “natives” in a steamy jungle. Yet over the 2,000 years of Christianity, the “missionary” is likely to have been a Korean couple working among university students in China, or an Indian medical doctor tending to refugees, or a Tongan family living peaceably in a Fijian village, or a Nestorian trader making his living along the Silk Road.

This book is a brief thematic history of an endlessly complex and detailed process in the history of Christianity. It does not and cannot seek to be exhaustive. It begins with a chronological overview of how Christianity spread around the world. This way of narrating the history of Christianity differs from traditional approaches by focusing on shifts in methods of communication and changes in sociopolitical contexts that opened the way for the transmission of Christian faith across cultural boundaries. The details of the beliefs and practices of Christians in each culture, and the history of the various churches, are largely omitted. In this chronological overview, Christianity becomes interesting as a catalyst for new identity-formation rather than as a fixed institution. The second part of the book examines selected major themes in mission history, namely the complex relationship between missions and western colonialism; the role of women in mission; and the role of the missionary in conversion and in the creation of communal identities. The two halves of the book represent different approaches to the same subject, and thus overlap slightly.

The words “mission” and “missions” will be used somewhat interchangeably, though with an emphasis on “mission” as the overview term, as in “the mission of the church”; and an emphasis on “missions” to refer to specific manifestations of mission, as in “Anglican missions,” or “faith missions.” The discerning reader will also notice that a disproportionate number of examples in the book are drawn from Africa. Since the book is a selective rather than exhaustive treatment of the subject, I have naturally leaned more heavily upon my own areas of expertise.

A few caveats are in order. Although this book is not a history of theology, for Christians the practices of mission are driven by theological beliefs. Thus even if the subject of mission is historicized as a set of human actions within history, or as the movement of religious ideas from one culture to another, theology cannot be avoided entirely. Indeed, one of the goals of this book is to explain why Christians have continued to engage in missionary activity over the centuries. What will not happen in this book is an analysis of debates among mission theologians. The purpose of Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion is to understand how cross-cultural mission is a central historical process in the formation of Christianity as a world religion.

It should be noted that the book’s analytical framework is situated largely within the western traditions of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The chief reason for this is the need to focus on the last few hundred years of mission history, during which missionaries were largely westerners functioning in the contexts of western colonialism. Nevertheless, the assumption that Christianity is a multi-cultural religion guides the text from beginning to end. In global terms, mission is not primarily a rationale for western expansion, but the multi-directional movement of Christians who have crossed boundaries to share their faith.

Because this book is intended to be a brief history, footnotes have been kept to a minimum and are used primarily to document direct quotations or major sources. For details of sources on particular persons or ideas mentioned in each chapter, see the Bibliography.

Part I

The Making of a World Religion: Christian Mission through the Ages