Missions in Asia: 1500 and After — a summary

Moffett, Samuel Hugh. A History of Christianity in Asia: Volume II 1500–1900. American Society of Missiology Series 36. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2005.

Samuel Hugh Moffett was born in Pyongyang, Korea (current capital of North Korea) to one of the pioneer protestant missionaries to the Korean people, Samuel A. Moffett. He completed his PhD from Yale University in 1945 on the relations of the Presbyterian mission board with its work in China; Kenneth Scott Latourette was his PhD mentor. Two years later, he and his wife were appointed by the Presbyterian board as missionaries to China. There, he served as a faculty member of two institutions until forced out of the country in 1951 by the communists. His first wife died in 1955, after which he returned to the land of his birth—Korea. He remarried in 1956. For 26 years in Korea, he served as Dean of the graduate school and co-president of Korean Presbyterian Seminary, until 1981. After returning to America, Moffett served as Henry Luce Professor of Ecumenics and Mission at Princeton Theological Seminary for five years, retiring in 1986. Since retiring, he published his two volumes on the History of Christianity in Asia. He published this second volume in 2005, thirteen years after the publishing of the first, at the age of 89. This year, 2010, marks Moffett’s ninety-fourth birthday.[1]

Moffett divides his two volumes at the year 1500. This year serves as a good breaking point for two reasons: first, by 1500, the Nestorian church, though still surviving, was no longer spreading through Asia—it was just surviving; second, Moffett points out that prior to 1500, the way through Asia was by land, after 1500, the main routes were by sea. Thus, just after 1500, the Portuguese, and later in the Philippines the Spanish, were marauding the seas for both the crown and the cross. Moffett, then, divides the book as follows. In part one, he chronicles the arrival of the Portuguese and Spanish Missions up to 1800. In part two, Moffett reports the arrival of the Dutch and British East India Companies from 1600 to 1800. He divides part three into two sections; the first section deals with 1800 to 1860, roughly the time period marking the first Protestant missionary advances in competition with the Catholics until just before the period of great growth reported in the second section covering up to 1900. Throughout the work, Moffett provides a timeline of key dates for each region. In the final chapter for each region, Moffett compares the progress of Christianity up to 1900 with numbers from 2000. These resources are very helpful as well as the maps in the front matter and the index at the end.

In the first part of this book, Moffett traces the expansion of Christianity primarily through the Catholic missions up to 1800. The year 1800 is an appropriate stopping point because this marked, by far, the nadir of Catholic missions in Asia as well as the arrival, in force, of the Protestants. Throughout this section, Moffett takes an interesting approach. Though broadly regionally focused, the close reader can discern a distinct biographical pattern. Chapter one begins in India, and includes, among other things, the arrival of the Jesuits, particularly Francis Xavier. The significance of this starting point, besides chronology, is that Moffett, throughout the entire work, emphasizes individuals and societies that labored for the indigenization of the church in form, but, mostly in its leadership. Moffett follows Xavier from India, to Indonesia, to Japan, to China. Each area, except his brief stay in Indonesia and his untimely death as he was just in sight of China, marks significant events in the life of Catholic, and, particularly, Jesuit missions. Before following this “Pauline journey” he has traced for us, after discussing the impact of Xavier and de Nobili in India, Moffett introduces the reader to Alexander de Rhodes (1591–1660) in Vietnam. Rhodes stands out because he strove to develop a self-supporting national clergy that would endure persecution and exile.

Returning to Xavier, while he was in Malacca, in the East Indies, a converted Japanese fugitive, Anjiro, was searching for Xavier so that he would help him take the gospel to Japan. Thus, the mission to Japan was born which began with a native speaker! On Japan, Moffett records that the three “pillars” of the Jesuit mission there were “adaptation, fidelity and discipline” (70). Through these principles he understood the necessity of clear orthodoxy as well as “that effective accommodation to a culture requires accurate knowledge of the culture” (70). Still, Xavier faced an issue that would lead to extreme controversy in China—the translation of the name of God. In Japan, it was unintentionally mistranslated, yet the Jesuits had time to correct this issue. One gets the picture that Moffett included this information, first, because he had record of it happening, but also because it served as a contrast to the rites controversy in China. This later controversy, during the 17th century, ultimately led to the dissolution of the Jesuit order and, consequentially, for all practical purposes, the immediate cessation of Catholic missions. The great success in Japan of Xavier, and later, of the Jesuit missiologist Valignano, stands as a backdrop of the events to happen in the next 50 years in China. In other words, the Jesuits were not being careless in their choice for the name of God.

Returning to Japan, it is important to note Valignano’s reforms of missionary methodology. He advocated the adoption of Japanese custom; he insisted that European missionaries learn Japanese, and that the Japanese learn Latin, but “most important of all, the mission unanimously agreed to work for the training of a Japanese priesthood as ‘the sole, genuine remedy’ to ensure that the future church in Japan would be a Japanese Church” (78). When Valignano returned to India as the head of the Jesuit mission in the Far East, he emphasized the principle of “cultural accommodation” (107). Therefore, in light of the other events in Japan at the time, it is reasonable to believe that the Christianity of the Japanese was genuine. When the intense persecution came, when it was either recant or die a painful, tortuous death, many chose martyrdom. Moffett records that many who recanted would feel remorse and return to their persecutors to embrace martyrdom.

The brief history of the Christianity in Japan was the zenith of Jesuit missions. After the rites controversy, the monastic orders were split, the Jesuits were disbanded; by 1800, there were only 300 remaining Catholic missionaries in Asia.

Another factor in the breakdown of Catholic missions at this time was the arrival of the Dutch in 1601, and the British in 1608. The Dutch easily deposed the Portuguese of their colonies in the East Indies. However, the Dutch did not bring with them missionaries. Only a rare few were allowed to come by the Dutch East India Company. It would be 100 years before Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau arrived via the Danish mission. Like William Carey, and the Serampore trio, much later, even Ziegenbalg and Plutschau had to avoid the British East India Company. It is evident that while the Catholic powers brought both the cross and the crown, initially, the Protestant powers only brought the coffer.

Eventually, though, when the early Protestant missionaries came, they brought with them a zeal for conversion, for the translation of the scriptures and for empowering native clergy. This focus would lead to the explosion of local clergy in protestant India in the nineteenth century. However, for the most part, the first 50 years of the nineteenth century were marked by intense competition between the waning influence of Catholicism and the growing influence of the Protestants. It would be the latter half of the nineteenth century that experienced the greatest amount of growth, particularly in India, China, and especially, in Korea.

Regarding India, Moffett shows that the individuals behind the phenomenal growth in the nineteenth century were Indians—Vedamanikam and Yerraguntla Periah. These both led rapid movements among the outcastes. Yet these natives represented other Indian nationals that reached the dalits and the tribals during this time period.

In China, Hudson Taylor, and the CIM, represented the accommodation of Chinese practices for the sake of the gospel. In China towards the end of the nineteenth century, there also was a revival of Catholic missions. China was finally wide open to the West and the missionaries flowed in rapidly.

Finally, he treats Korea. It must be noted thought, that in each chapter, Moffett emphasizing certain facts, while not ignoring others. Such emphasizes included missionaries who treated natives as equals, missionaries who labored to translate the Bible, missionaries who adopted principles of accommodation, and the involvement of women in mission. Other details fit in, and he does not try to force the data into his categories, but unlike Latourette who was looking for a general expansion of the influence of Christianity, Moffett had more specific criteria. Moreover, Moffett has a particular affinity for Korea. Certainly, he is not forcing his criteria on Korea, but the growth of Christianity in Korea best exemplified his favorite themes. As one reads the last part of the book, in each chapter there appears some sort of reference pointing to Korea, John Nevius in particular. He is mentioned on 468, 474–5, 536–7, 604 (not counting references to the Nevius Plan). It is evident that Moffett is upholding Protestant Korea as a model. The Nevius Method, as implemented in Korea, led to the exemplary success of Christianity in Korea.

This cursory summary of Moffett’s work would be incomplete without an evaluation of his conclusions. In the epilogue, Moffett provides a retrospect and prospect of the history of Christianity in Asia. Retrospectively, he makes five “debatable generalizations” about the spread of Christianity in the 19th century:

  1. “The first generalization is that if the measure of growth is the number of Christian adherents, the nineteenth century was a great success” (635). He holds this tentatively given the vast number of people in Asia that had not been reached by 1900; however, he compares the Christian presence to salt, which gives flavor to the earth.
  2. “The second generalization is that the nineteenth century was a Protestant century” (636). He notes how the protestant numbers grew from practically nothing to just below the level of Catholics. Catholicism, though, showed a great recovery, going from 5 to 25 million in its mission fields (644).
  3. “The third generalization about the nineteenth century is that it was a century of evangelism” (637). Protestant zeal flowed out the awakenings with a genuine concern that individuals have “ personal knowledge of and commitment to Jesus as Lord” (637).
  4. “My fourth generalization is to venture the proposition that the nineteenth century was ‘a century of women in mission’” (640). In addition to emphasizing those that sought to develop an indigenous clergy, Moffett also identified the growth of the missionary movement among women.  Though many women lived harder lives and died quickly on the field, their presence, such as in the lives of women like Lottie Moon, were increasing indispensible for missions.
  5. “A fifth generalization about the nineteenth-century Protestant mission is that its characteristic mission structure was the ‘voluntary society’” (642). This was an interesting conclusion not significantly supported throughout the book, though definitely true.

In prospect, Moffett has one basic conclusion: “The nineteenth century was the beginning of the rise of Asian churches for Asia’s millions” (645). At this point, he concludes his book by returning to the Nevius Method and Korea. For Moffett, the method of securing a native clergy from the beginning of missionary work via strict self-supporting principles is the way forward. Also, for him, the expansion has to be biblical: “In church history the good news, ‘the gospel,’ spreads out from the center. But that center is never geographic. It is personal; it is Jesus Christ as known through the Scriptures” (649). From this vantage point, he concludes with the following story:

Christian Karens in the hills a hundred miles northeast of Rangoon were starving. A plague of rats had destroyed their harvest. Missionaries found their little church congregation reduced to eating the rats that had destroyed their rice crop. Formerly they had tried to poison the rats. Now the missionaries could do little to help but pray for them. They were about to leave when a Karen deacon brought them a gift, ten rupees (five dollars). He said, “This is from our church for [our] Ka-Khyen mission,” a frontier mission to a tribe farther north. “No,” said their foreign friends, “you must use this for yourselves. You are starving.” The deacon shook his head. “Yes, but we can live on rats. The Ka-Khyen cannot live without the gospel.” (649).

Moffett’s work stands out for focusing on an area of the world that has been largely ignored from a Western perspective. Even when it is covered, rarely is such detail given to the rise of native clergy. Moffett showed that from the beginning of the 1500’s, missionaries, though little at first, aimed at raising an indigenous church. This increased in intervals up to the beginning of the twentieth century and beyond. Nothing Moffett presents corrects Latourette’s presentation of the Great Century, though the focus on certain aspects is certainly a welcome supplement. Also, Moffett does not seek to define expansion in the same terms as Latourette. It is the impact on native peoples that defines expansion for Moffett.

Also, in some ways, Moffett’s style is an improvement on Latourette’s Expansion, and probably Neill’s History as well. Moffett is certainly detailed, but he is not exhaustive like Latourette, nor as cramped as Neill. Moffett combines an eye for detail with a selective biographical approach. With Moffett, the reader finds a more personal narrative rather than the overhead view of Latourette. Certainly, Latourette’s detailed work is valuable, but the difference in Moffett is welcome.

Reviewers fault Moffett for ignoring the value of interreligious dialogue for Asia and also for not including enough truly Asian characters. To the first charge, one must respond that this is not the point of his book. He argues that the missionaries were the salt that seasoned the soil after the recession of the colonial tidal wave. He is sympathetic to and largely agrees with the Christian mission. He also agrees with the Jesuits, like Xavier who included fidelity to orthodoxy as part of their missionary strategy. Looking for something else in this work would make it another book altogether. To the second charge, this may in fact be a weakness of Moffett’s book, though it is more likely that, in this time period (especially in light of the turmoil about to ensue in the twentieth century), such sources do not exist to give more of the native story. Still, one finds a sympathetic author towards local narratives. He goes to great lengths to show the ability intellectually, spiritually, and organizationally for natives to propagate the faith, even without the presence of western missionaries! So, the point is taken, but there is a great deal of that in the work. Also, to ignore the Western characters in the story would be to distort the history. The history of Christian missions in any area is never monocultural.


[1] The above was compiled from the following source: Alan Neely, “Moffett, Samuel Hugh” page 465 in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

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