Missions: A Noble Calling

Posted on July 22, 2014


The Apostle Paul, first century A.D., was the first Christian missionary. And he set a very, very high bar for the rest of us engaged in one form or another of missionary work these past two thousand years or so.

I would venture to say, in fact, that none of us have achieved a scintilla of what Paul did on his now legendary three missionary journeys. Actually, I’m pretty sure he made a fourth, to Spain, but that is only mentioned in Scripture, not described.

Long ago when I first read about U. S. diplomats abroad in The Ugly American, published in 1958, I, like so many Americans, was astounded at the arrogance and ignorance of Americans portrayed abroad, especially diplomats, but extending to others, like missionaries. I didn’t hold them in very high regard.

I was both naïve and ignorant, and accepted the vignettes and anecdotes about these Americans. Over the years I have learned to be a bit more discriminating. In the main, missionaries since the time of Paul have been genuine outriders of the message of Christian salvation, love and redemption. They were not simply forerunners of imperialism, although Mahatma Gandhi’s run in with Christians speaks to the former. A student of the Bible and of Christianity, Gandhi is famously to have said, perhaps apocryphally, “I would have been a Christian until I met one,” while living in South Africa

Christianity, unlike Judaism or Hinduism for example, is a proselytizing faith. In Matthew 28: 19-20, Jesus lays down the basic principle underlying missions: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others aren’t driven by their own internal principles to convert others. Christians are. And, so too are Muslims. This is not too surprising since their origins are linked in the Bible.

Other celebrated missionaries, like St. Francis of Assisi, followed in Paul’s footsteps. Francis lived in the 12th century when he traveled around the Mediterranean world testifying to his Lord Jesus Christ. Even the Sultan of Egypt listened to this very holy man.

National origins are linked to some of the great missionaries. St. Patrick of Ireland is almost synonymous with the Irish, but Patrick was not Irish but a Briton. He was captured by Irish raiders and enslaved in Ireland for a number of years before escaping. But he vowed to return to preach the Gospel to the savage and barbaric Irish and so save their souls. He was as good as his word and did so, and became one of the most beloved saints of all times, but especially of course, among the Irish.

By the end of the medieval ages, most of Europe at one time under the old Roman empire had been converted to Christianity through missionaries, and areas outside of those boundaries—like Ireland and some of the Germanic and Scandinavian areas—were being evangelized.

But there were reverses as well. In the seventh century Islam arose in Arabia. The prophet Muhammad preached that the Jews and Christians had it wrong, and God’s message to him—the Quran (or the old spelling, Koran)–was given to him by the angel Gabriel. Islam spread rapidly across the Middle East, and then along the North African coast, and leaped across the Straits of Gibraltar. The Moors, as these North African Muslims were called, captured most of Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) for Islam before being stopped at the Battle of Tours, in southern France, by the Christians. About 1000 A.D. the Reconquest of Iberia for Christendom started in some remote mountain kingdoms in the north of Spain that had not fallen to the Moors. It proceeded until 1492 when the last Moorish kingdom—Granada—fell to the besieging armies of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand.

When the New World was discovered, the Spanish took the lead in proselytizing among the native Americans, and sent scores and then hundreds of Christian friars—Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians—across the seas to evangelize the Americas. That was the last great wave of missionary work until the nineteenth century when Protestant Christian missionaries in the main accompanied the armies of England, France, and other Europeans as they divided up Africa and Asia into empires.

The legacy of the missionaries in our part of the world goes from St. Augustine to San Diego (both named after saints), and all across the southern tier of states that at one time were either claimed or occupied by Spain. Texas’s great independence icon, the Alamo, was itself a Spanish mission.

The mission is a long and beloved work of the Christian church. Next week we will see into one modern mission, from Alabama to Honduras in Central America.

This column published as Missions Have Long History with Church in my column The Port Rail in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday July 27, 2014.