200 Years of American Missions: Names and Numbers

April 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

On February 6, 1812, Gordon Hall, Adoniram Judson, Samuel Newell, Samuel Nott, and Luther Rice became the first North Americans commissioned as missionaries, set apart by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions at the Tabernacle Church in Salem, Massachusetts. A few days later,  Judson—along with his wife, Nancy—and Newell—with his wife, Harriett—set sail for India, arriving there in June. Samuel and Roxanna Nott, Hall, and Rice joined them there two months later.

On the occasion of this 200-year anniversary Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, announced that since that time, by 2010, the number of Christian missionaries sent from the US had grown to 127,000, or 32% of the 400,000 missionaries worldwide. The US is top on the list, while in 2010 Brazil sent the second-most number of missionaries at 34,000.

So if the US sends the most missionaries, who receives the most? Well, that would the US as well, with 32,400 missionaries arriving from other countries (again, using 2010 numbers). Turns out that many of the Brazilian missionaries are sent to work among Brazilian communities in states in the Northeast.

There’s also another person who is sometimes mentioned along with Adoniram Judson and his group when the first missionaries are listed, not because he went out with them, but because he went out before them. He was George Liele, an African-American former slave in Savannah, Georgia. He gained his freedom before the Civil War, and then he and his family escaped re-enslavement by sailing to Jamaica with a British colonel (sometime around 1782 to 1784). In Jamaica, Liele planted a Baptist church, reporting in 1791, “I have baptized 400 in Jamaica. . . . We have nigh three hundred and fifty members; a few white people among them.”

So who was the first American missionary? That depends on our definitions. The first American “citizens” “commissioned” and “sent,” those would be the ones from Salem. The first ones born in America to travel to another country and make disciples, that would be Liele and his family. My guess is that there would not have been a lot of jealous arguing about “firsts” coming from either group. And who knows? Maybe someone had already gone out earlier, someone now unnamed, someone unremembered, someone who simply went, without fanfare, spreading the hope of the gospel.

(Daniel Lovering, “In 200-Year Tradition, Most Christian Missionaries Are American,” Reuters, February 20, 2012; “People and Events: George Liele,” PBS; Billy Hall, “George Liele: Should Be a National Hero,” Jamaica Gleaner, April 8, 2003)

[photo: “Vintage Globes,” by The Shopping Sherpa, used under a Creative Commons license]

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