Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

‘Mission 180’ celebrates milestone in Presbyterian mission abroad

Always-reforming approach to mission practice continues in time of great need

by Michael Parker | Special to Presbyterian News Service

EGYPT — In this year in which we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we also mark 180 years of Presbyterian mission abroad. During these years, much of the nature of mission and of how Presbyterians think about mission has changed or, at the very least, been supplemented or clarified by new ideas. Some changes have been so great and startling that we might even imagine a 180-degree turn in missiology.

It is curious that the Protestant reformers of the 16th century, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, did not emphasize mission. Despite having a missional Bible and a missional God, they did not develop a missional theology. To be fair, they were deeply engaged in other matters: translating the Bible into vernacular languages, reforming Christian doctrine and reforming church practices. In effect, they had a mission in Europe.

It was during the Great Awakening of the 18th century, led by George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, that Protestant leaders in America first began to dream of world evangelization. In the 1740s, David Brainerd became the first American Presbyterian missionary. He labored for five years among the Native Americans of New York before succumbing to tuberculosis. Edwards edited and published Brainerd’s journal, which inspired generations of missionaries. One of those inspired was William Carey, a British Baptist who in 1793 successfully urged the establishment of the first Protestant mission society.

Mission societies became the Protestant equivalent of the mission orders of the Catholic Church, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits. Scores of new societies were established in Europe and America during the early decades of the 19th century. The first mission society in the U.S. was the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, an interdenominational organization that was largely the creation of the Congregationalists. Under the American Board, Presbyterian missionaries were sent to India, Siam and Africa.

The first Presbyterian seminary in Egypt opened on a sailboat, the Ibis, because missionaries were not allowed to establish teaching institutions on Egyptian soil. In the morning students studied Scripture, and in the afternoon they demonstrated their learning through service. The boat made stops along the Nile River to distribute Bibles, songbooks and teaching materials. (Photo courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society)

Many Presbyterians, however, were not comfortable with this arrangement. They believed that mission should be at the heart of the church’s activities, not something outsourced to parachurch organizations. For Presbyterians, the issue was caught up in the New School/Old School controversy of the 1830s. Consequently, when the church split in 1837, the Old School faction established the Board of Foreign Missions, with headquarters in New York. This is the origin of the current Presbyterian World Mission, a ministry of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Over the years World Mission has operated under different names, and at various times it served as the mission organization of the Northern, Southern and United (middle states) branches of the Presbyterian Church. Today it serves the nationwide Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Much of the impetus for mission in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the desire to fulfill the Great Commission that Jesus issued before his ascension: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). This approach achieved its clearest expression in 1886 with the famous watchword of the Student Volunteer Movement: “The evangelization of the world in this generation.” Yet missionaries in these years were rarely simply evangelists. They were generally engaged in holistic mission, building schools and hospitals, translating the Bible and seeking social reforms.

Women played a key role from the beginning of Presbyterian mission. It was women who formed the mission support organizations that raised the funds and provided much of the publicity that made foreign missions possible. Women were also missionaries. By 1830 women already constituted half of the missionaries sent by Protestant mission societies in the U.S., and by 1900 this had shot up to two-thirds of all U.S. missionaries. Presbyterian women also established or supported a number of specific mission programs, including the Mission Yearbook for Prayer and Study, the Presbyterian Hunger Program and the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program.

New Presbyterian churches, like this one in Assiut, Egypt, are under construction on plots of land provided by the Egyptian government. This is a turnabout in mission. Since 1863, the Presbyterian Church in Egypt has grown to include nearly 400 churches, including 100 new church plants or “fellowship groups” in eight presbyteries in the Synod of the Nile. (Photo courtesy of the Synod of the Nile)

Early missionaries are often mistakenly accused of being agents of Western colonialism whose efforts undermined local cultures. Yet it was often missionaries, such as William Sheppard in the Congo, who were the sharpest critics of colonial practices. Also, missionaries’ attempts to promote education — especially literacy — often resulted in helping to revive indigenous languages as mediums of literature, as the translation of the Bible did for Arabic in the Middle East and for Hindi in India.

Early missionaries are also often harshly criticized for the paternalistic attitude they sometimes assumed toward non-Westerners. Yet, in fairness, it should be pointed out that missionaries had in mind from the beginning that they were attempting to establish indigenous churches. The 1889 edition of the Northern branch of the Presbyterian Church’s mission manual made this clear. The Board of Foreign Missions, it declared, sought “the speedy establishment” of independent indigenous churches. The independent-minded Presbyterian churches in Japan and Brazil became the trendsetters in this movement. At a Board of Foreign Missions conference held at Princeton in 1920, conferees agreed that following evangelism, the aim of missions should be to establish “self-propagating, self-supporting and self-governing” indigenous churches.

With the rise of nationalism following World War II, the global mission endeavor had to make its peace with a postcolonial world. Until this time, many countries with Presbyterian churches had both mission and church organizations, with most of the real power held by the former. The Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches came to the realization at about the same time (1958 and 1962, respectively) that this had to change. Over the next decade or more, mission organizations abroad were dissolved and their financial and physical assets, historically controlled by missionaries, were transferred to local churches.

Beginning in the 1960s, mission was reconceived as “partnership” between equals in which there was mutuality, each providing something to the relationship. Missionaries were then called “fraternal workers.” Today, following this tradition, they are called mission co-workers. In this context, evangelism continued to be important, but it was usually the indigenous church that was expected to take the lead. Also, social justice gained increased prominence. It had always been part of the mission agenda, but now it was seen as an essential aspect of the church’s witness to God’s kingdom in the world.

Perhaps the biggest change was the realization that traditional mission fields no longer existed. As Western Christians came to see the need for social justice in their own nations, they concluded that the whole world was now the mission field.


Michael Parker. (Photo provided)

The Rev. Dr. Michael Parker, mission co-worker in Egypt, serves as the director of graduate studies at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo.
Read letters from PC(USA) mission co-workers at

This article is from the Summer 2017 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.