Missions History in the Early 20th Century

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. Advance through Storm: AD 1914 and After, with Concluding Generalizations. Vol. 7 of A History of the Expansion of Christianity. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945.

Kenneth Scott Latourette, as an evangelically-minded ecumenical, affectionately called “Uncle Ken” by students at Yale, was the missions historian par excellence of the twentieth century. Though only serving one year as traveling secretary for the Student Volunteer Movement and two years as a missionary-educator in China, through Yale University, his subsequent ministry as a professor and prolific writer rounded out a life-long commitment to Christian missions. Having never married, he devoted his time to writing (80 publications in addition to numerous articles), teaching, mentoring students (he lived in campus housing and walked everywhere), and to faithful service the local Baptist church teaching Sunday School. He also served denominationally in the American Baptist Convention. He died in a car accident at the age of 84 in 1968.[1]

Regarding his writing style and subject matter, he wrote the following:

My writing was an outgrowth of the global outreach of the Christian faith. If, as we Christians believe, the Gospel is for all men, historians with a Christian commitment must view their fields from that perspective. Even if they deal with a subject limited in time or geography, they must recognize its setting is in the entire range of mankind’s record. That is a basic conviction which underlay all my authorship.[2]

This quote reveals Latourette’s deep evangelical piety and his scholarly acumen, both of which are represented in the seventh volume of his Expansion.

The final volume of this series was published amid great global turmoil. While Allied victory in the Second World War may have been predicted late in 1944, most likely during the time of most of the writing, the outlook may have not been so certain. As such, it is surprising the amount of confidence in the expansion of Christianity in the era that began in 1914 that he will show. Even so, to be so focused on the historical context at the time of the publishing of the book will miss the amount of intense study and observation Latourette had made of Christianity globally. He was able to look through the storm, as it were. Having so peered through, what were his observations and prognostications for the Christian expanse?

The time period that Latourette covers was full of global turmoil. The West was unraveling from within and bringing the world into the middle of its conflicts. Between 1914 and 1944 were two world wars and a global depression. The sentiments towards Christianity were radically changing within “Christian” countries. Non-Occidental countries were demanding their independence from both colonial domination and from Christianity. On the surface, it did not look possible that Christianity could expand in such an environment; however, Latourette argues that though

[t]here were what appeared to be startling losses. Yet in the main in 1944 Christianity found itself in a stronger position than in 1914. Indeed, if one views, as one must, the world-wide story as a whole, it becomes clear that the thirty years which followed 1914 constituted one of the greatest eras in the history of Christianity (3).

How does he get to this conclusion?

In volume seven, Latourette provides the reader with eighteen informative chapters. In chapters 1–3, he gives a brief overview of the answer to question “By what processes did it [Christianity] spread?” (483; also 416). He returns to these points again at the end, also mentioning them intermittently throughout the book. As such, these specific chapters will not be discussed since their material is repeated, for the most part, throughout. Then, in chapters 4–14, Latourette, in the style he has exhibited through the previous six volumes, traces the expansion and/or recession of Christianity through the major geographic sectors of the globe. In these chapters, he usually answers the other six questions he proposed in volume one and repeats in the summary and conclusions of this volume. In the summary of this era (so far), chapter 15, he returns to these questions and to his introductory remarks that this period is marked by phenomenal advance through a very dark storm. In the final three chapters, chapter 16–18, Latourette summarizes and concludes the seven volumes as a whole. I will briefly summarize the chapters chronicling the regional advance, only giving important highlights, since, as the reader of this volume discovers, the story is very similar throughout at this point in time, then, I will discuss Latourette’s summaries and conclusions.

The missionary situation in the world could easily be summarized as follows: because of the wars and the global depression, the overall number of missionaries serving in their fields decreased significantly, especially German missionaries beginning with the First World War, and increasingly all missionaries serving in Asia from 1937 onward; however, the number of Christians in these areas, for the most part, increased as the local churches were forced to stand on their feet and do the work previously under the watchful care of the missionaries. The situations in India and China, among others, largely fit this description. The places where Christianity and its influence were waning included war-torn Europe and communist infested Russia, and for the most part, the Japanese Empire. There were also areas of the world that did not experience much change from the previous era since they were outside of the fray of the world wars: British, Danish, and Dutch Territories in the Americas, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Others did not experience much change in spite of the world wars, such as in North Africa and the Near East. Given this brief summary of a large portion of this volume, key points stood out about Latourette’s description of the state of Christianity in Europe, America, and Africa.

Regarding Europe, Latourette claims that

Probably not even the invasions of the fifth century and the capture of Rome by the Goths had so reshaped the face of as much of Europe as had the events of the thirty years subsequent to 1914 (67).

Still, in Germany, at the epicenter of the global conflicts, Latourette argues that

Numerically the churches in Germany were weaker than in 1914. As an active force in German life, aware of the anti-Christian trend of life about them in open opposition to it, they were undoubtedly more potent than in that year. In 1944 church attendance was increasing. Thousands, becoming aware of the emptiness of the Nazi ideology were turning wistfully to Christianity. Effective church membership was probably stronger in 1944 than before the Nazi storm (112).

The changes in Germany are representative of the world, thus forming the crux of Latourette’s argument—in many cases the numbers of the church decreased, but the church was spiritually stronger! For Europe as a whole, an many areas utterly decimated by war, Christianity showed its vigor in the compassionate response through relief work on the continent. He also argues that the vitality of the church was demonstrated through its stark contrast to the crumbling world around it. While he shows the devastating effects of the death of Christendom upon Europe, in that many left the church, he will argue later that the end of Christendom was a positive event. The hard and heavy environment of early twentieth century Europe weeded out the “tares” (119) and drove others to find refuge in the Church (120). Therefore, he concludes that Christianity was “more of a force” in Europe in 1944 than in 1914 (121).

In America, Latourette tentatively holds that the effect of Christianity there was “mounting” (144). To support this, he cites the increase in church membership, in spite of secularizing forces, and the apparent conversion of the country, though the percentage of church membership was lower among churches in formerly frontier areas. Religious educational institutions increased, especially among Roman Catholics. Also, the Christian forces were working harder to improve general social conditions. Still, Christianity was being affected negatively by the drop in the level of immigrants compared to the nineteenth century. On the other hand, though resisted by fundamentalists, there was a growing movement towards unity and cooperation among Christian institutions. Overall, though, “[Christianity] helped to mould its surroundings probably fully as much as it was moulded by them” (154). Latourette was not sure if there was expansion or recession in America, though probably elements of both were present.

Sub-Saharan Africa was being revolutionized during this period. “Christians had multiplied more than five-fold in the three decades after 1914” (249). Latourette shows that many of these came to the faith from mass movements, where there was little time for instruction. Even so, many Africans, found in Protestantism “fresh spiritual life” (250). Also, languages were being reduced to writing and the Bible translated into African languages. Missionaries also took up the cause of the black African against the white colonists.

While the forms of Christianity in Africa largely reflected the Christian elements of the culture of the colonizing power, numbers of missionaries were, more deliberately than formerly, attempting to adapt their procedures to African traditions. There was a rapidly mounting experimentation in preserving as much of the older African life as possible, in utilizing  institutions and conceptions, and in making the transition from paganism to Christianity as little disruptive as possible in traditional African life. This was because of the repugnance which was quickened after 1914 among more sensitive souls in Europe and America against imposing their culture upon other races, because of the growing application of the findings of anthropology to mission methods, and from the mounting desire to see Christianity clothe itself, so far as was consistent with its revolutionary nature, in the culture patterns of the peoples among whom it was being planted. African cultures were being so rapidly broke by the impact of the white man apart from the missionaries, that the latter could probably only ease the pain and salvage from the wreck a little of what was good. Many were, however, making the effort. They were endeavoring to prevent African society from becoming too atomized and to preserve something of group life (251). Thus, indigenization in Africa was well under way, leading to the rise of many independent African churches and “spontaneous movements” (253).

In chapter 15, Latourette summarized the state of the new era as follows:

For the first time in its history Christianity was becoming really world-wide and not a colonial or imperial extension, ecclesiastically speaking, of an Occidental faith. Indeed, in this it was unique. No other religion had ever achieved such world-embracing dimensions. We may go further and say that no other set of ideas, not even the widely propagated Communism of the period, had ever been so extensively represented by organized groups or so rooted among so many different peoples (411).

He further expressed his optimism about the burgeoning ecumenical movement worldwide (412) and signaled the death of Christendom (413).

After treating the subject of the expansion of Christianity through the numerous regions of the globe, Latourette made many interesting summary statements of the entire volume. First, he compared Christianity to “an incoming tide” (418). Christianity expanded thus through many periods of both advance and recession, varying in differing parts of the globe at differing times. But, he claimed,

In each major advance it becomes more widely potent in human life than in the one before it, and each recession is marked by less dwindling of the impact of Christianity than the one which immediately preceded it (418).

Thus, Christianity overcame the ebbs and flows of history till “it penetrated to practically every corner of the inhabited globe and became a moulding force in every great cultural area of mankind” (421). The great question, for which he provided an excellent answer, was “Why?”. The answer was Jesus—“The reasons for the success of Christianity in the face of the vigorous competition of its many rivals were to be found primarily in the founder” (423). Regarding the environment, he wrote:

Yet Christianity was much more than a mosaic of contributions from its environment. The whole was moulded and given its outstanding features by its own peculiar genius, a genius which was from the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of its founder (425).

Christianity did not swallow the globe, then, because of Greco-Roman heritage, but because of the influence of the living Lord in the lives of countless individuals. Furthermore, Latourette reminds us that the Moslems also partook of this heritage. In other words, the reason why the effects of Christianity have waxed while the positive effects of the Moslem world has waned is due to this: “The most obvious difference in the ingredients of the two was that one had Christianity and the other Islam” (432). With these statements, Latourette foreshadowed his second to last chapter on the comparison of the expansion of Christianity with other religions.

Central to his argument is that lasting influence of the Great Century was the worldwide expansion of Christianity in the twentieth century. Even through colonialism, Christianity demonstrated an “inner vitality” reinforced by “revivals and fresh movements” (447). The revival movements “propagated [Protestantism] on new frontiers” (448). In these last two centuries, then, there was the increased emphasis on “conversion of the individual” and “moral reform” in “the entire life of man” (448–9), a decisive move away from mass conversion. Thus, voluntary mission societies formed so that:

As never before in its history, unless possibly in the first three centuries, the expansion of Christianity was not left to small professional monastic groups through the initiative of princes, but was by the support of large elements in the rank and file of its lay adherents. This was especially the case among Protestants, but only to a slightly less degree it was characteristic of Roman Catholic missions, and it was seen, although faintly, in the Russian Orthodox Church. Never since its earliest age had the spread of the faith been so much the recognized responsibility of the entire body of Christians, and even in the first centuries no such elaborate organizations had been developed for that purpose (450).

Latourette’s final summary of the condition of Christian expansion in 1944 was as follows:

However, in the portion of the period embraced in the three decades between A.D. 1914 and A.D. 1944 what was seen was not recession but a continuation of advance. The advance was of a somewhat different kind than that of the nineteenth century…The advance was seen in three main ways. In the first place, Christianity and its influence were more nearly evenly distributed across the face of the earth in A.D. 1944 than in A.D. 1914…In the second place, Christianity was more deeply rooted among non-Occidental peoples in A.D. 1944 than it had been in A.D. 1914…In the third place. Christians were being knit more consciously into a worldwide fellowship than had been the case since the first three centuries when the Catholic Church was coming into being (463–4).

Christianity, even through the storm of global depression and world war, encompassed more of the globe and empowered more peoples in the gospel than ever before; certainly Latourette had room for optimism.

Latourette further expressed his optimism as he contrasted the expansion of Christianity with the other “universal” religions—Islam, Confucianism, and Buddhism. He gives sufficient reasons to exclude from this list Animism and Polytheism, Shinto, Sikhim, Jainism, Manichaeism, Taoism, Judaism, and Hinduism.

His arguments against Islam where that (1) Islam could not stop the growth of Christianity which (2) “eventually covered far more territory than did Islam” (469). (3) Islam was for the most part culturally Arabic, due to the nature of the Qur’an, whereas the translatability of the Bible was far superior. (4) While not denying that Islam has effected Christianity, he claimed that Christianity’s effect on Islam was far greater than the reverse. (5) Islamic cultures stagnate while Christianity continues to engender cultural and scientific discovery. (6) Christian philanthropy is much more extensive than in Islam. (7) The nature of Quranic revelation tended to maintain the absolute separation of God and man, whereas bridges the gap between God and man through the incarnation and the gift of the Holy Spirit. (8) Islamic views of God’s providence are extremely fatalistic, whereas Christianity emphasized the freedom of the redeemed will.

For Latourette, Confucianism represented a powerful force against Christianity. While with Islam he listed several ways in which Christianity has demonstrated its superiority to Islam, despite the paucity of evangelistic results in Muslim lands, no such list is given for Confucianism. Further surprising is that he classified this as a universal religion (is it really?). Obviously, Latourette respected Confucianism a great deal. Even so, this Chinese philosophy served as a major barrier to Christian advance for almost two millennia. He argues that Confucianism was so resistant to Christianity for one very important reason—“They [Confucianists] regarded their culture as the norm for all civilized human beings” (473). As such, it took the decay of Chinese culture as a whole to weaken the pervasive influence of Confucianism in China. Until then, Christianity always seemed “foreign” to them. Buddhism, truly a missionary religion, received a similar discussion as Confucianism, but the conclusion was the same—Christianity made significant inroads into Buddhist areas when the supporting cultural system showed signs of decay.

In this chapter, Latourette concludes that the expansion of Christianity stands out for the following two reasons. First, Christianity was effective for any and every race, culture, class, tribe, or nation, so much so that “it had survived the death of cultures with which it had been intimately associated” (480). Second, because of the inherent vitality of Christianity and its corresponding valuing of every human being, “It had been the largest single factor in combating, on a world-wide scale, such ancient foes of man as war, disease, famine, and the exploitation of one race by another” (481). Still, he argues that every Christianity was not equally as successful. Ultimately, the successful Christianities where those committed to the uniqueness and centrality of Jesus (482).

In the final chapter, trying to answer questions regarding the future of Christian expansion, Latourette repeated the importance of the focus on the person of Jesus—those who minimized Jesus did not survive. While many came to Christianity from mixed motives, the vigor and vitality of the faith were demonstrated in the “minority who had committed themselves fully to Christ” (485). These were found in the many Catholic and Orthodox monasteries and missionary orders as well among individual dedicated Protestants. On the edges of every expansion, argued Latourette, one would find these committed individuals (486).

Even so, Latourette reminded the reader that “Christianity did not always expand” (486). War, secularism, social pressure, inner decay, inconsistency between the faith and life of Christians, prolonged opposition by a strong rival religion, and any of these factors combined with persecution (but not persecution alone) were some factors Latourette mentioned. Renewal movements, though, were always possible and often surprisingly so.

In concluding, Latourette echoes (again!) the positive effects of Christianity on the environment. He was arguing that the future is uncertain, in many ways. It has the great potential to expand, and the great potential to recede, though Latourette is confident that the pattern of ebbing and flowing, like an incoming tide will continue. He concludes the book making a passionate gospel appeal to consider the expansion of Christianity as reason for becoming a Christian, since the central figure of it all is the risen Lord—Jesus.

Even with the knowledge of the “expansion” of Christianity since World War II, one find’s Latourette’s analysis of this period accurate. It is actually amazing the amount of insight Latourette had from his vantage point, writing during World War II. However, after the dusts of war began to settle, one found that global Christianity was growing, as was the ecumenical movement. Vatican II later revolutionized the Catholic (and non-Catholic) world, both positively in the focus on localized clergy and theology, as well as negatively with the presence of some pluralistic and universalizing theology. For Evangelicals, beginning with Billy Graham in the 50’s, the Jesus Movement in the 70’s as well as other college revivals throughout the period, Western revivals would keep the missions focus growing. “Younger churches” were beginning to send missionaries, most notably Korea. The shift in Christianity has gone so far that several authors have identified that the largest percentage of Christians in the world live outside of the West, and these “Southern” Christians are correcting their wayward Western brothers (see Jenkins, Sanneh, etc.).

Certainly in the time since 1944 there were recessions as well. The anti-colonialism after WWII negatively impacted missions. Wars continued in Korea, Vietnam, Africa, etc. Morality in the West continued to decline, but the losses have not been more than the gain. Rightly, Latourette identified a trajectory in 1944 that is still unfolding. The era has not ended, though major events, such as the fall of the Soviet Union, have not marked new missiological eras as much as accelerated the previous movement.


[1] The above was compiled from the following two sources: Gerald H. Anderson, “Latourette, Kenneth Scott,” pages 384–5 in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); William Richey Hogg, “Kenneth Scott Latourette 1884–1968: Interpreter of the Expansion of Christianity,” pages 416–427 in Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement. ed. Gerald H. Anderson et al. American Society of Missiology Series 19 (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994).

[2] Kenneth Scott Latourette, Beyond the Ranges: An Autobiography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 109.

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