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Alex's Blog - August 6, 2009 - Recapturing the Vision of Our Missionary Forefathers
By Alex Dodson
In 1719, Isaac Watts wrote in his famous hymn, "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun doth his successive journeys run; His kingdom stretch from shore to shore, Till moons shall wax and wane no more." He was expressing an optimism that would later be shared by more and more evangelicals and by the early pioneer missionaries. This optimistic view held sway among Evangelicals well into the nineteenth century. This was so obvious that Iain Murray wrote in his book The Puritan Hope - "The remarkable unanimity of prophetic views to be found among the multiplied ranks of evangelicals after the 1740's throughout the English-speaking nations is itself indicative of the formative influence of the Puritan school. Everywhere the belief held sway that through the work of the Holy Spirit in fulfilment of scripture promises, Christ would yet possess the earth." (p. 150-151)
Samuel Mills and other students from Williams College where the famous Haystack Prayer Meeting took place (See my blog for July 27, 2009.) went on to Andover Seminary taking their vision for missions with them. James A. DeJong writes in his book As the Waters Cover the Sea - "Only when the spirit and scope of this ideal are grasped can the deep commitment of the young Andover students who pledged themselves to foreign missions be understood and appreciated. These young men were totally dedicated to the realization of God's glorious kingdom in all nations. The spontaneous support which they won from church leaders, parents, and friends indicates that their ideal had become an unquestioned element of missionary theology for American evangelicals." (p. 216) The spreading of the gospel to all the nations and the increase of the Kingdom of God over all the earth was the vision of these early mission minded Christians.
Jonathan Edwards, one of the leaders of the First Great Awakening in America, actually became a missionary to the Indians himself before he became President of Princeton. He was very mission minded and had a tremendous vision for the worldwide proclamation of the gospel. In 1739, he wrote - "And however small the propagation of the gospel among the heathen here in America has been hitherto, yet I think we may well look upon the discovery of so great a part of the world as America, and bringing the gospel into it, as one thing by which divine Providence is preparing the way for the future glorious times of the church when Satan's kingdom shall be overthrown, not only throughout the Roman empire, but throughout the whole habitable globe, on every side, and on all its continents." (p. 284 History of Redemption) Edwards looked not for just a meager witness of the gospel to the nations of the world but for a worldwide revival that would bring all the nations to Christ and spread God's Kingdom all over the world.
William Carey, who is called the father of modern missions, went to India in 1793 where he spent the rest of his life. Before that, he had preached a sermon that had launched the modern missionary movement. Peter Hammond in his book The Greatest Century of Missions writes - "One of the most influential sermons in world history was preached on May 31, 1792 by William Carey in Northhampton, England. Carey's sermon literally sparked the greatest century of Christian advance. It marked the entry of the English-speaking world into missions...." (p. 14) During his first five and half years in India, Carey saw not a single Indian convert. Yet, his vision for India did not waver. He wrote, "When I left England, my hope of India's conversion was very strong; but amongst so many obstacles, it would die, unless upheld by God. Well, I have God, and His Word is true. Though the superstitions of the heathen were a thousand times stronger than they are, and the example of the Europeans a thousand times worse; though I were deserted by all and persecuted by all, yet my faith, fixed on that sure Word, would rise above all obstructions and overcome every trial. God's cause will triumph." (p. 140 The Puritan Hope) Later after the first conversion in 1800, Carey and his coworkers wrote, "He was only one, but a continent was coming behind him. The divine grace which changed one Indian's heart, could obviously change a hundred thousand." (p. 140-141 Puritan Hope) Carey's vision was for all of India to come to Christ. Should that not be our vision today as well?
David Livingstone, pioneer missionary to Africa, was found dead on his knees on May 4, 1873 in an area of Africa where darkness and ignorance of God prevailed. He died, no doubt, praying for Africa, the continent he gave his life to. He had written in former years, "Missionaries do not live before their time. Their great idea of converting the world to Christ is no chimera: it is Divine. Christianity will triumph. It is equal to all it has to perform." (p. 183 PH) He had great vision for Africa and not only for that one continent but for all of the world. He wrote, "The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord - that is enough. We can afford to work in faith, for Omnipotence is pledged to fulfil the promise...." (p. 182 PH)
At a recent conference I attended, one of the speakers was talking about the restoration of the church in a world filled with darkness. The impression was given that the world is lost. All we can hope for is a further restoration of the church to get ready for the Lord's coming. We seemed to have thrown in the towel to Satan as far as the world is concerned. The battle has been lost. The world remains in darkness. All we can do is get ready for the Lord to come back and take us out of this dark world. I am not sure this is the attitude the Lord wants us to have. It seems to me that the battle is yet to be won. This is no time to throw in the towel and give up. Where is our vision? What happened to the vision of our forefathers in the faith? Were they all wrong? Is there no future for Christianity in this age?
In 1740, Jonathan Edwards wrote to George Whitefield concerning the beginning of a great revival that was underway in America and was rising in England as well. He wrote to his friend, "It has been with refreshment of soul that I have heard of one raised up in the Church of England to revive the mysterious, spiritual, despised and exploded doctrines of the Gospel, and full of a spirit of zeal for the promotion of real, vital piety, whose labours have been attended with such success. Blessed be God that hath done it! who is with you, and helps you, and makes the weapons of your warfare mighty. We see that God is faithful and never will forget the promises that he has made to his church, and that he will not suffer the smoking flax to be quenched, even when the floods seem to be overwhelming it, but will revive the flame again, even in the darkest times. I hope this is the dawning of a day of God's mighty power and glorious grace to the world of mankind...and may God send forth more labourers into his harvest of a like spirit, until the kingdom of Satan shall shake and his proud Empire fall throughout the earth and the kingdom of Christ, that glorious kingdom of light, holiness, peace and love, shall be established from one end of the earth unto the other!" (p. 157 Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography by Iain H. Murray)
Some say that the world is doomed and that the time is very short. Some are awaiting to be rescued from this dark world to leave it all behind. Maybe the Lord's Second Coming is very near as many are saying it is. On the other hand, maybe it is not. We do not know for sure either way. Yet, is our work done? Has the Lord lifted His command to make disciples of all nations? In 1856, William Arthur in his book The Tongue of Fire wrote these words which could very well be applicable to us today - "Should we be wrong in our views; should it be contrary to the design of the Lord to convert all our race by the preaching of his word and the outpouring of his Spirit; should it be his purpose to leave the earth much as it is until he concludes its mournful story in thunderclaps of judgment; should that consummation be nigh, and the last trumpet be already beginning to fill with the breath of the archangel, yet surely, if we, under the illusion of our belief, are found panting, praying, laboring, if by any means we might save some, that blast might cause us a pang for the multitudes whom it found unwarned; but no pang because we have been busy in warning, exhorting, entreating; no pang because we had done so in faith that our Lord willed all men to come to the knowledge of the truth." (p. 247)
Let us not forget the vision of our missionary forefathers. They were fools enough to believe the Bible when it says in Isaiah 11:9 - "...for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." They believed this and they worked toward that end. Should we do no less?
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version unless indicated otherwise.
Arthur, William. The Tongue of Fire. The Methodist Book Concern, New York, 1856.
DeJong, James A. As the Water Cover the Sea. Audubon Press, Laurel, MS, 2006.
Edwards, Jonathan. The History of Redemption. The National Foundation for Christian Education, Marshallton, Delaware, 1773.
Hammond, Peter. The Greatest Century of Missions. Christian Liberty Books, Howard Place, South Africa, 2002.
Murray, Iain H. Jonathan Edwards - A New Biography. The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1987.
Murray, Iain H. The Puritan Hope. The Banner of Truth Trust, London, 1971.